Monday, October 17, 2011

Judgment Day

You always have enough time…until you don’t.

Much of today’s gospel lesson focus on “that day” when judgment comes. Jesus says, “…it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon that for you.” And again he makes the same comparison with Sodom. In other words, when that great and terrible day comes, you’ll be in trouble. But there are always some bracketed words that go along with that statement. And they represent a huge “if.”

On that day of judgment, it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for you…IF you don’t repent. Projected statements of judgment almost always have a conditional quality. It’s the great Jonah and Nineveh story. Trouble is coming…IF you don’t repent. And the attempt to bring the reality of that future destruction into the present in order to facilitate the repentance is well attested. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent now before it’s too late.”

But just how far away is too late?

God has been sending his messengers to earth to call us back to him over and over and over for thousands of years. When will it be too late? God seems to always been in the business of welcoming back the lost and accepting the repentance of the wayward. How much time is really left?

I’m not sure God’s judgment is a temporal reality. Although I’m not denying the belief in a one-time great judgment, I am speculating that our primary experience of judgment isn’t reserved for some far away future moment. Instead, I think God’s judgment pervades all time. When is it too late to repent? Almost never. But why would you wait?

God wants us to be in his flock. He is eager to welcome us back. He’s not hiding in the bushes hoping time will run out so he can jump out and send us to hell. God wouldn’t bother sending one prophet after another with the same message (usually futile) if he wasn’t wanting us to repent. The real threat of judgment is living even one more day unaware of God’s mercy. The real consequence of God’s wrath is being out of step with God’s will for even one more hour.

Yes, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Yes, the day of judgment is coming. But that day is today. It is now. And it will be again tomorrow. Putting off your repentance is cutting yourself off from God’s grace, and that might as well be a life spent in hell.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Philip Says Yes

I think something happens when we say to God, “Ok, here I am. What do you want me to do?” I don’t know whether Philip the evangelist ever actually said that, but his life seemed to suggest it. As the story in Acts goes, Philip was one of the seven chosen to help take care of the Christian community because the apostles were too busy preaching the word. Philip basically was chosen to wait on tables and take care of widows so that more important people could do their jobs. But that didn’t stop Philip. It was a launching pad.

Only two of those deacons (“servants”) are mentioned again in the bible. One is Stephen, who was the church’s first martyr. The other is Philip, who seems to be doing anything and everything but distributing bread to widows. Moved by the Spirit, he heads out of town and meets a large caravan. Again led by the Spirit, he goes up to the vehicle containing an Ethiopian eunuch, a member of the household of the Candace, the queen of Ethiopia, and begins to tell him about Jesus. Before long, the eunuch asks to be baptized, so Philip dunks him in a nearby stream before being taken up, again by the Spirit, and transported somewhere else.

I wonder whether Philip had any idea what his appointment/ordination would lead to. He was supposed to help out in the kitchen, and he became a great evangelist. What might that suggest for us?

In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit.” Philip wasn’t there, but he got the message. When his time came, he simply said, “Ok, God. I’m here. What do I do?” And God made amazing things happen through him. We don’t need to know exactly what God will do through us. We don’t need to know how things will unfold. All we need to do is make ourselves available and great things happen.

But making one’s self available is more than just uttering the phrase, “Ok, what next?” Our entire lives must testify to that truth. We must live lightly, as Jesus commanded his disciples. We must be willing to go—into strange places and odd circumstances. We must let go of our attachment to the life we know and love and let God lead us elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that the vocation that awaits us is harsh or trying, though it could be. But it does mean that God might call us to something we can’t even imagine.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bring on the Flutes

Matthew takes a shortcut in this morning’s Gospel reading (Matt. 9:18-26). It’s the sandwiched stories of the ruler’s sick daughter and the hemorrhaging woman. While on the way to heal the little girl, a woman touches his garment and is healed, but, by the time he makes it to the ruler’s house, the girl has died, yet Jesus miraculously brings her back to life. Beautiful compound story. But Matthew gives us the abbreviated version.

When Mark tells this same set of stories, he gives us long details about the exchanges. In his account, Jesus calls out after the woman touches his clothes, “Who touched me?” That heightens the drama. It allows the reader to stop and realize just how verboten the physical contact had been. Matthew compresses all of those details into a shorter version that seems focused on only the miracles themselves.

But then there’s one detail that he adds, which isn’t present in Mark’s version. He writes, “And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players, and the crowd making a tumult, he said…” It’s those darned flute players that caught my eye this morning. Mark has the crowd weeping and wailing. Matthew has them playing flutes. I don’t know a lot about ancient burial customs, but I’m guessing that has to do with a funeral of sorts. As far as I can tell, those flutes represent not a spontaneous expression of grief, but a calculated, planned, secondary response. It’s as if Matthew wants us to imagine that Jesus gets to the house so late that the funeral players had even arrived before him.

Although that detail does heighten the significance of the girl’s being raised from the dead, I think it points to another distinction. Matthew is contrasting for us the difference between the people’s expectations and what is possible through God. In the eyes of the crowd, the girl’s death was a moment for sorrow and grief. It was a moment to carry on with the expected mechanisms of bidding a final farewell to a loved-one. Flutes were played because flutes were always played. In a contemporary retelling of this story, one might say that Jesus came upon a crowd who had gathered at the funeral home just as they began reciting the 23rd Psalm. Everything was proceeding as normal—as it was expected.

But then Jesus came. “The girl is only sleeping,” he told them. To a panicked mother who had just watched her daughter die, those words might have been received as false hope. “Maybe she isn’t really dead,” a mother would wonder immediately afterward. “Oh, she is only sleeping. Hooray!” she might have replied. But, by the time the flutes begin to play, there isn’t any room left for false hope. Only real hope could help this situation. And, of course, that’s what Jesus offered.

In what ways are we plowing ahead as if everything is proceeding as normal? And in what circumstances is God reaching out to shake us from our expectations and bring the miraculous into our life?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wait Just a Minute...

In today’s reading from the Old Testament (2 Kings 22:1-13), we read that during the reign of King Josiah—a godly man who “walked in the ways of David his father and did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left”—the book of the law was found as the temple was being renovated. To me, that sounds like a pretty exciting discovery—ancient archeology at its best. To the king, however, the discovery wasn’t something to celebrate.

As the lessons describes, “When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes.” I wonder whether that was the reaction that those who had found the book anticipated. This “book of the law” was likely a text which looked a lot like Deuteronomy. In it, there are many commandments and descriptions of the ways that God relates to his people. This rediscovery was a chance to look back into the past and read what had been going on centuries before.

I can imagine that hearing those words for the first time in a long time would be a little startling, but was it necessary for the king to tear his clothes? One of the beauties of Deuteronomy is the simplicity with which it describes how God and Israel are supposed to get along. Basically, if God’s people remember to do everything they are supposed to do, God will bless them. If not, God will curse them. That might sound a little harsh, but I think it’s more nuanced than that.

Part of what it meant to be a child of God was to remember that fact. Parents and grandparents were to teach the younger generations about the distinctive features of Israelite culture. “What makes us special, Father?” a child might ask. Deuteronomy is a lot of what might form an answer to that important question. And as long as God’s people were able to remember and recall and maintain those cultural roots, Israel lived on as God’s chosen people. That’s what it meant to be blessed by God. If they forgot who they were and whence they came, the curse of not belonging to God awaited them.

I don’t know whether the book of the law was actually found during a temple renovation. Maybe. Or maybe Josiah and the other leaders of the day suddenly realized that they had forgotten what it meant to be God’s people. And the only way to get back into God’s graces was to start over. Tear your clothes. Appoint a fast. Get back to the basics. Remember who you are. I think there’s a message there for the modern Christian.