Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Waiting for Hope Itself

Yesterday, I spoke with two different colleagues about the things that are happening in Ferguson, MO, and the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:24-37). All three of us feel a connection there and think we might have something to say about it, but all of us are also wary about weighing in on a tragedy that is still in the process of unfolding.

One of them, Steve Pankey, wrote a beautiful, moving, and haunting piece about it in his blog yesterday. As I read his words, my own heart broke afresh. I commend his post to you, and it has helped me get my own thoughts about Ferguson.

The other of them, Jack Alvey, is working on a sermon (I think) about what our response to this event and others like it should be. His take is bold and powerful yet sensitive and not overreaching. His words have helped me gain some insights for my own sermon on Sunday, and I look forward to reading what he writes and preaches.

Today, though, I’m still in that same place where I found myself yesterday: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Jesus encourages his disciples to judge by the signs of destruction and torment that the Son of Man—the figure of God’s great and final judgment—is near. He even urges them not to lose heart since “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” But how can God’s people, who continue to experience these signs of conflict, have any hope when the setting-right of all that is wrong still seems so far away?

Steve repeatedly asked the question, “How long?” in his post yesterday. How long, indeed? That’s the question with which the faithful have wrestled for thousands and thousands of years. How do we maintain hope that things will get better when they seem stuck in a place that is so bad for so long? How do we have faith in God to deliver us from all that is evil and broken in this life when generation after generation seems plagued by the same ills?

How did God’s people remain faithful during their slavery in Egypt or their wandering through the wilderness? How long, O Lord? How did God’s people not lose heart when the temple was destroyed and they were carted off into captivity in Babylon? How long, O Lord? How did God’s people not give up when the Romans destroyed the temple a second time? Or when a new European empire subjected God’s people to torture and imprisonment and genocidal execution? How long, O Lord, indeed?

Into this cycle of apocalyptic destruction, Jesus speaks, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” That is a promise of deliverance. That is a promise of salvation. But how are we supposed to put our faith in a God whose salvation seems so far away? How can we trust what Jesus says when one generation after another faces its own moment of terror?

That is where I fall silent. I cannot tell a people who are hurting as those in Ferguson now hurt how to have hope. I cannot explain to them or to anyone else in such a position of defeat that there is a clear and easy answer. Because there isn’t. Any preacher who claims to know how God will work all of this out is lying. No one knows.

But I still have hope—even in things I cannot see or understand. Do I hope that the “rule of law” will guide us through this time of chaos and produce a result that will satisfy everyone’s hurt? No, I don’t. Do I hope that the “good of human nature” will win out and that peace and calm and understanding will spread even to those who are so bitterly wounded by these events? No, I don’t. But that’s because my hope has never been in this world. My hope is in a God who takes the very worst moments in human history and guides his people through them, leading them always into that new and abundant life that waits for us.

Jesus’ image of salvation in Mark 13 is a tricky one. It presents an end-of-the-world theology in an immediate timeframe. For that, we must admit, we are still waiting. And the waiting is the point. We keep awake because we refuse to lose hope. We look for salvation even when it seems so far away. The desperate cry of God’s people—How long, O Lord—is not a sign of hopelessness but a return to the watch for hope itself. We cannot see it yet, but we wait and watch for it. How else will we survive?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Who Likes Surprises?

Do you like surprises? I love jumping out from around a corner and scaring the bejeezus out of someone. I enjoy hiding in a dark room with a bunch of people and yelling out “Surprise!” when someone enters in order to celebrate the birthday of that unsuspecting person. I like coming home from work and discovering that one of my children has drawn me a picture and wants to present it to me as a surprise.

I don’t like it when the phone rings at three o’clock in the morning. I hate arriving at a hotel and realizing that I left my phone charger or my toothbrush at home. I’d rather that a member of our Vestry not surprise us with an important issue that has been bothering him instead of putting it on the agenda a few days in advance.

I remember that the last time I met with my bishop before I went to seminary he issued me a stern warning, “Evan, keep me informed of what is going on in your life. Bishops don’t like surprises.” I suppose that the ministry of bishops is predisposed to hearing not-so-good surprises. No one calls a bishop and says, “Guess what! We have extra money to send the diocese this year!” No one asks to meet with the bishop because she loves her job and has no complaints. It’s like that scene in the beginning of Ghostbusters when Bill Murray is conducting an experiment by asking two test subjects to guess the shapes on the backs of cards. When you’re the nerd, it doesn’t take long to learn not to like surprises. The attractive woman who can’t seem to get one wrong, however, well, that’s a different story.

As Seth Olson pointed out in his sermon last Sunday, we have heard several parables about the kingdom over the last few months—the king and the wedding banquet, the virgins and their lamps, the slaves and the talents, and most recently the sheep and the goats. Have you noticed the element of surprise in all of those stories? All the uninvited guests who fill the banquet hall are surprised to be there, but the guest who failed to wear his wedding robe is speechless when confronted by the king and is cast out into the outer darkness. All ten virgins fall asleep, but the five foolish ones are stunned to learn that they missed the bridegroom while out looking for more oil. The third slave tried to preserve his master’s money and returns it humbly when the master returns, but, instead of being rewarded, he is punished for his inactivity. The “sheep” are surprised to learn they took care of the king in his moment of need, and the “goats” are likewise surprised to discover that they missed a similar opportunity.

The kingdom of God is like a surprise party… Are you think kind of person who likes kingdom surprises?

This week, we will hear Jesus say, “Beware, keep alert…keep awake…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.” If that sounds scary, maybe it’s because we are preconditioned not to like surprises. But the reading from Isaiah presents a very different depiction of God surprising his people:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

That’s not fear and trembling—at least not the terrified variety. That’s reverence and awe. That is the poetry of a people who need God to surprise them by doing great deeds they had almost forgotten were possible.

What seems clear to me is this: God and his kingdom are coming, and they will come as a surprise. No one knows exactly when, but we are urged to stay alert lest we be unprepared. The place of the faithful, therefore, seems to be one of anticipation. Yes, the kingdom will still surprise us, but how we receive that surprise depends on us. Does the thought of God coming in power and great glory make us nervous? If so, what does that say about our faith in God’s promise to take care of his people?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Good News: The Sky Is Falling

I feel two equally strong yet directly opposed forces pulling on me this week.

First, there’s the joy that comes with knowing that Advent starts on Sunday. Advent means expectation. Advent means four weeks until Christmas. This is a season of wreaths and candles and greenery. It’s a time to celebrate St. Nicholas and the smiles on children’s faces. Yes, I know it’s a season of quiet longing and waiting, but, at the same time, we also know that in part we’re preparing for the celebration of something wonderful that comes at the end of these four weeks. How can that not be a good thing?

And then there is the lectionary from which I will be preaching on Sunday—a set of readings that suck all the joy and smile and fun out of Advent. As the preacher already knows and the parish will soon remember, Advent isn’t just about waiting for Christmas. It’s also about waiting for the end of the world. So, bring all of your joyful expectation to church on Sunday and let the preacher ruin it by proclaiming, “Keep watch—for you do not know when the master of the house will come…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly!”

Oh boy. I can see it now: a church into which people with that post-Thanksgiving satisfied glow come but from which they trudge with heavy hearts after hearing a sermon about the apocalypse. Hooray for Advent.

So what’s the preacher going to do about it? I think it’s time for biblically literate Christianity to redeem eschatology from the scary preachers who use a poorly developed “turn-or-burn” theology to ruin the world’s understanding of what the end is really like. I think it’s time for high quality, evangelical preachers to celebrate the good news that the end promises to bring.

Jesus’ mini-apocalypse in Mark 13 is scary and dramatic and confusing. But that’s how it must be. Jesus was promising a total remake of the world. Everything wrong was to be set right. All of the powers were to be turned on their heads. Those who were struggling would be lifted up. God’s reign would supplant the tyranny of the earthly authorities. In the end, when all of that work gets speeded up into one exciting moment of transformation, those kinds of changes don’t happen incrementally. They happen all at once in an event that has the potential to scare us. Of course it’s about the sun being darkened and the moon turning to blood red. How else could a first-century prophet describe the kind of event that succeeds in ripping control away from everything ungodly and evil and restoring it to God and his authority?

And how is that not good news? Don’t we believe that the world needs God to turn it on its head? Don’t we wait for that day when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness? If that’s really our hope—if we wait on the return of our savior—we look forward to that moment when the stars fall from heaven and the Son of Man returns in the clouds. We’re waiting and hoping for those cosmic signs that point to the imminent destruction and recreation of this world. That’s good news. Don’t be scared of preaching it as such. Now I just have to figure out how to convey that in a sermon that doesn’t last 45 minutes. More on this tomorrow.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Life in God's Kingdom

There isn't much text to accompany this sermon. I preached at our parish's 5pm service and did not prepare a manuscript. Instead, I benefitted from several conversations this week about the lessons (thanks especially to Harper Lewis) and also from hearing my colleague Seth Olson preach twice this morning. Here's the bottom line:

What do you think life in God's kingdom is like? Do you think people go hungry in the kingdom? Do you think people lack clean drinking water in the kingdom? Do you think people have inadequate clothing in the kingdom? Do you think the sick are neglected or the poor are ignored in the kingdom? As a two-year-old shouted out in the middle of the sermon, "NO!" Of course not.

Then why aren't you doing more about it?

We are all welcomed into God's kingdom not because of what we have done but merely because of God's gracious love. But what is our response to that radical inclusion? Are we sticking our hands in our pockets, shuffling our feet, staring at the ground, waiting for God to take care of everyone else? Or are we willing to give every ounce of our effort, every dime in our pockets, every second of our day to helping establish the kingdom here on earth?

Look around. Can you see the kingdom? We know what it's supposed to look like. But what are we going to do about it?

Here's the audio for the 4+ minute sermon.

Here's the link to the gospel lesson for today.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Life of an Evangelist

I don't usually pay attention to the headings above sections in my bible. In fact, whenever I'm copying a passage for a handout or to post on a blog, I intentionally uncheck the box that would include the headings. The biblical authors didn't even have chapter or verse numbers--much less headings--so I tend to ignore them. But this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-46) comes at an interesting point in the gospel, and it's worth noting the heading that follows.

In the online, free ESV bible (although not an officially accepted translation in the Episcopal Church thanks to some shenanigans at the last General Convention still a great resource for teachers and preachers and others who want online access to the bible) the heading that begins Matthew 26 is "The Plot to Kill Jesus." Regardless of the heading in your version, the end of Matthew 25 marks a change in the narrative. From here on out, the passion scenes unfold. Before we get to the end of chapter 26, we will have the Last Supper, the betrayal, arrest, and conviction of Jesus, and Peter's denial. That means that Matthew 25 is the last thing that Jesus has to say to his disciples before things start unraveling. And I'm fascinated that Matthew, of all the gospel writers, concludes Jesus' pre-passion ministry with these words.

What is the basis for judgment in this Sunday's gospel lesson? The sheep and the goats are separated based on how they took care of one another. In this depiction of the final judgment, Jesus declares that the ones who have ministered to those in need have done so to him and that the ones who have neglected those in need have likewise neglected him. In other words, the last teaching Jesus gives to his followers before our focus turns to the cross is on taking care of one another. It's not about repentance. It's not about belief. It's not about holding fast to his teachings. It's not about being faithful in the moment of persecution. It's about remembering to visit those who are sick and in prison, of feeding those who are hungry, and of tending to those in need.

One time a minister asked me to summarize the Christian faith in 30 seconds. Caught off-guard, I bounced around through a host of ideas that flooded into my head. Although I didn't use any intelligent-sounding words, my answer was a little bit incarnation, a little bit crucifixion, a little bit resurrection, plus some ethics and eschatology mixed in. In other words, I didn't know what to say. After letting me flounder for a little bit, he put it this way: if you came upon a car accident and the driver in one of the cars was about to die and he asked you what it means to be a Christian, what would you say? Good question. I'm still wrestling with it today.

I have a friend who has spent most of his life working as an evangelist. He has travelled around the world to tell people about Jesus Christ. God has used him to bring the good news to thousands and thousands of people. And then, one day, he was on his way back from an overseas mission, and he read Matthew 25. Everything changed. It's his story--not mine--so I cannot tell it with any authenticity, but, when listening to him tell of the encounter, I heard him say that God showed him that salvation was needed right here in his home town--that he didn't need to travel all the way across the globe to tell people about Jesus. Instead, his work as an evangelist could be as immediate as giving food to those who are hungry and a drink to those who thirst. What does it mean to bring salvation to God's people? Maybe we should take Jesus' depiction of the final judgment seriously.

What do you say to the driver in the car accident--that Jesus died for his sins and that by confessing and believing in him he can go to heaven? Perhaps. I could make a strong argument that that is the most important thing to say in that moment. But Matthew 25 invites me to approach that hypothetical encounter--and all the real-life encounters I have every day--very differently. Maybe the right thing to do is to say that God loves you and so do I, and, because of that, I want to do anything I can to make you comfortable in this moment--to hold your hand, to wipe away your tears, to caress your head, and shush you comfortably into death's sleep.

We are called to share the good news. But what does that look like in the world we live in? Where are we called to carry God's saving love? Is it far away to those who have never heard of Jesus? Or is it down the street where people are hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pairing Wine with Relationships

I have heard two competing philosophies for how to cook with wine. Some say that the wine should be “good enough to drink” if you’re going to cook with it. Others say that using even a decent wine in a dish is a waste. Which is it? Should you splash the $3 bottle into the pot roast, or should you put at least $12 of wine in there?

In today’s OT reading in the Daily Office (Malachi 1:1,6-14), we encounter some priests who faced a similar dilemma. As part of the religious life of Israel, priests would offer sacrifice in the temple every day. In the Law of Moses, God requires that animals with no spot or blemish be presented for the sacrifice, but the priests had been offering “blind animals” and “those that are lame or sick.” Finally, God had had enough of it, and he used the prophet Malachi to cry against these underhanded practices. But why was that so wrong?

God doesn’t need the sacrifices. He makes that clear in Psalm 50:12-13, declaring, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” In other words, God doesn’t actually consume the sacrifice. So why does it matter? Wouldn’t God want his people to enjoy the choice kid or calf instead of sacrificing it and burning it on the altar where no one would be able to enjoy it? Why wouldn’t God say, “Look, just show up and give me something. I’ll take whatever is left over. You can have the first portion. Just don’t forget to bring me something?”

Of course, that isn’t what God says. God demands our very best. And it’s not because God needs anything. It’s because we need to give it to him.

What happens when we get in the habit of giving to God only what is left over? What happens when we get to the end of our week and look for enough time to go to church? What happens when we wait until all the bills have been paid and try to find enough money for a tithe? What happens when we finish using our emotional energy on work and family and friends before asking whether we have enough reserves in our spiritual tank to direct some energy to our relationship with God? What happens? Our faith falls apart.

God asks for the very best because God knows that our faith suffers when we give him what is left over. Our offerings shape our relationship with God. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” What do you give to God? No, we don’t travel to the temple with an animal sacrifice in hand, but we do encounter God every day. What are we giving him? Is it the 30-second prayer in the car on the way to work? Or are we giving him our very best?

So back to the wine. Pretend you’re making dinner, and the recipe calls for red wine. You have two options—the $3 bottle and the $12 bottle. Which one do you use? Does it depend on who is coming over for dinner? If it were your boss, which bottle would you use? If it were the President of the United States, which one would you use? If it were a celebrity or a mentor or a rich philanthropist, which one? What if God himself were coming over for dinner? Would you splurge just a little bit, or would you still give him the dregs?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Son of Man and the Throne of Glory

Let me start by saying that I am a reluctant observer of the liturgical feast known as "Christ the King." Every year, on the last Sunday of the liturgical cycle, we stop to celebrate the kingship of Christ. Originally scheduled for the Sunday before All Saints' Day, this practice was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in the wake of the Great War, which had ravaged Europe and had resulted largely from competing versions of nationalism.

Now that it has been moved to its present place on the calendar, on this coming Sunday lots of churches--Protestant and Catholic--will be asking the question "Who is our real king?" as the feast implicitly asks. "Christ is our true king," the church replies. I am admittedly slow to pick up on newfangled liturgical inventions, but this one is starting to grow on me. Here's why.

In my ministry as a parish priest, one of the biggest challenges I face is getting people (including myself) to realize that God's love is a whole lot bigger than we think it is. When salvation comes, it will be far more extensive than we can imagine. When God's victory is achieved, it will be much further reaching than we expected. As this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-46) puts it, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory..." the result is a lot bigger than we thought it would be, and that has the potential to catch up with us in a big, scary way.

What does it mean for the Son of Man to come and sit on his throne? In much of scripture, the Son of Man is an image of judgment. It's is the figure used to express the eschatological fulfillment of creation. For the most part (there are exceptions in Ezekiel for example), biblical authors don't harken to the "Son of Man" unless they want to convey God bringing things to their completion. That means that the image of the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus uses in Matthew 25 reminds his hearers of what things are going to be like when God sets everything right. And what that means depends on whom you ask.

If you're part of God's faithful poor, salvation may mean new riches. If you're part of God's faithful oppressed, salvation likely has to do with being set free from oppression. If you identify with the outcast, salvation probably involves you being offered a seat at God's banquet table. Salvation, we trust, is the setting right of all that is wrong. That means the wicked are brought down from their lofty heights and the poor are raised up. For God's people, that's all-around good news...unless it isn't.

Jesus teases us with the image of the Son of Man. By using it, he gets our hopes up. All of God's faithful people look forward to the coming of the Son of Man because it means that finally everything that is wrong with life will be set right. But, just as soon as he gets our hopes up, he dashes them to pieces with a damning warning: "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." It's the surprise that gets us. We thought the coming of the Son of Man meant our redemption, but those of us who thought we were God's favorites might just discover that our hardheartedness has led to our exclusion from the kingdom. Those of us who were waiting on God's victory discover that by caring less about the misfortunes of others than about our own plight we have actually become the oppressors whom the Son of Man comes to bring down from their lofty seats. It's the old bait-and-switch, only we're the ones left holding the goat.

So where is our hope? Jesus came to show the world that God's preference is for the marginalized. Yes, that means that God cares for sinners like you and me, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that salvation is just for us. God's love is always bigger than we think it is. God's plan is never just about us. When all things are made right--when the Son of Man comes to sit on his glorious throne--everything will be turned on its head. If we are too worried about our place at the bottom of the pile now and thus miss those we're already stepping on, we might miss our chance to be a part of that reversal of fortunes. May the work that we do be about turning the world on its head--not just then but also now.