Friday, December 18, 2015

Are you ready?

Well, you’ve survived another Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday. Some of us ignore these days. Some of us embrace them. A colleague and friend recently noted a theological response his session made to these attempts to frame our experiences of consumerism and generosity. They resolved to call last Wednesday, “Give it a rest Wednesday.”

In like manner, today could be called “messenger Sunday”. Our Old Testament reading is from Malachi, whose name means, “my messenger.” Our New Testament reading from Philippians is a message of love and hope from Paul, and our Gospel reading is confirmation that John is the one preparing the way of the Lord as promised in Isaiah.

We hear this same message about this time every year, and I think that – if we aren’t careful – it can become like the Christmas music in the shopping mall. We hear it, but we don’t listen. It makes us feel good to know it’s there, but it doesn’t change anything. If anything it helps us keep things the way they are!

But the message is anything but an invitation to keep things the way they are. The words of the Prophet Malachi came at a time when the people had returned from exile, but they were still under Persian rule. The temple had been rebuilt. Reforms were being made to bring the people back to faith in God and away from other more convenient practices. The priests were not entirely helpful in this, however, and some still abused the power of their role. So, it is of no surprise that their faith as a nation was still a little shaky. If anything, they needed to know that God was still with them – working to restore them.

And so, a messenger is promised. This messenger will be a messenger of the covenant that God made with their ancestor, Abraham. But here’s the thing, this messenger brings with him the very presence of God, and who can stand before the creative force that wrought the heavens? No one can. No one can be in the presence of the purity of God unless they themselves have been made pure. And so the Lord’s coming will be like a refiner’s fire.

All that is self serving or dishonest simply gets dissolved. It has no hold on you because it no longer exists. The refiner’s fire removes everything but the pure element. Likewise, the fuller’s soap was used to separate the wool from dirt and oil so that the true white of the wool can be seen. It’s important to remember that this message of hope was given to a particular people at a particular time, and it carried with it the idea that some of those very people might be the impure things that God would separate from God’s people. It would be easy, and dangerously tempting, to use this passage as an excuse for cultural purity – and even ethnic cleansing.

But thanks be to God that we view this passage from the side of history that has happened after the resurrection of Jesus Christ – the one who came to a certain place at a certain time to fulfill the covenant of God. We are told through scripture that John prepared the people to receive Jesus during a time when the Roman Empire ruled over God’s people directly and indirectly, and Ananias and Caiaphas were the High Priests.

Time and place are certainly important, but there is another reason that Luke’s gospel drops these names. It is to say that these were the powers that tried to limit the power of God. Even Ananias and Caiaphas were the ones that handed Jesus over to Pilot. And yet the power of God was not limited by the greatest powers of the day. Because Jesus did not come to rule the world, he came to set us free.

But let’s not forget about that messenger. Just as the refiner’s fire or the fuller’s soap remove all that is impure, John’s message is to repent, and repentance is not just about saying, “Sorry”. Sincere apologies are still important, but that’s not quite the same as repentance. In Greek, the word is Metanoia, and it means something more like a transformation. True repentance requires you to see the attitudes and behaviors that separate you from God and from one another, and it requires you to let them go.

And letting go of the things that we feel like we can control can be a pretty threatening idea. I don’t mean to say that we abandon the things we care about, but repentance does require us to take a deep look inside in order to see what is of God and what is not. Repentance requires taking time and making space in your heart and your mind for God. It requires us to change our priorities because of what God is doing here and now in order to get ready for what God has promised to do in the future.

And while God has promised to save us from our sin and offered us eternal life through Christ Jesus, I can’t help but believe there is more to it than that. Our faith is not simply a ticket for a train bound for glory. If our faith is real, then it must impact our lives here and now. Our repentance must result in actions and relationships that challenge the powers that try to limit the power of God.

That might mean joining or forming groups to challenge the decisions of community leaders that harm others. It might mean going to the neighborhood meetings for Freetown just to find out what is important to the neighbors that live closest to our church. It might mean having real conversations with members of our community about racial tension, economic division, or gun violence. You know, we can throw statistics at each other all day long, but mass shootings are a problem that we need to solve.

I’m not sure that any one of us has the answer, but I think that’s why our faith calls us into community. I think that is why Paul was able to rejoice in prison and give thanks for the church in Philippi.

And Paul said three things about why he was so grateful for them. The first was that they were in it together – they were sharing in the good news of God’s grace and mercy. The second is that he had confidence that God would complete whatever good works they had started, and the third was that all of their sharing and all of their work to demonstrate God’s love was working to defend and to confirm the forgiveness and love and mercy that is God’s gift to us.

In other words, the fun thing about being the church is that you get to see grace and mercy, and forgiveness, and God’s power over sin and death in action! Even if you don’t see it, you definitely get to hear about it. And I have to tell you, those of us who were here for the CUPS Christmas Basket distribution yesterday definitely saw God’s grace in motion! Not only did I see it in the faces of the families who came to receive, but it shined brilliantly from those congregation and community members who came to serve.

There is still more work to be done, and there always will be until God brings our work to completion. But the question we are left with today is this, “Are we ready?” Are we ready for the refiner’s fire? Do we long in our hearts to be made clean? Because the Lord is coming, even as the Lord is with us here and now. The Lord is coming to pry from our hands all that we cannot let go of. Let us receive the message then, and repent of all that is self-serving – knowing full well that it might change everything about us; knowing that it might inspire us to make changes in our community; knowing that our brief transformation is but a foretaste of the Kingdom that is both present and yet to be revealed through the grace and mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

And as Paul said to the church in Philippi “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Amen.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

What are you preparing for?

The season of anticipation has begun! Of course, you know what I am talking about, right? Star Wars! Surely you are aware that this film has already raised over $30 million in ticket sales and it doesn't even show for 19 more days. Not only that, but it is expected to gross $300 million – and that’s just ticket sales!

Now, far be it from me to add to this hype from the pulpit, but I think it is interesting to note what we value, culturally, as a human community. There is something about this story of good versus evil that connects with our own struggle. There is something in this story about the use of force and power and the role of sacrifice for the greater good that connects with what we value as human beings.

That is why we – in the church – take time every year to prepare for the story of what we believe is good and true and valuable. It is an ancient story about good and evil and the value of sacrifice for the greater good. This is, of course, the Season of Advent, and the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazereth – which we commonly call Christmas. A lot of money is spent on Christmas as well. Some estimate that we spend around $465 billion. In fact there’s even a news media campaign to encourage us to create 200,000 new jobs by spending $64 each on American made products.

It is certainly good to think about the way our actions impact the lives of others, particularly in the way we spend our money. Yet we must also consider how and what we are preparing for and proclaiming, which – according to scripture – is none other than the righteousness of God. In our rush to procure a perfect Christmas experience, there is great risk in missing out on the presence of the God who is with us. In many ways we have belittled and marketed the opportunity to proclaim Christ with the expectation that Christmas is just about being nice and spreading cheer – and not particularly about righteousness. Even the debates about Christmas greetings seem to forget why we say, “Merry Christmas.”

Sometimes I wish we could instead say, “Have a meaningful Advent!” We could, but I doubt we would get more than strange looks. Even those who know what Advent is might say, “That’s something you do at church, right? Christmas is what we do at parties, and on the radio, and in the mall!”

For so many of us, Christmas has become a mixed bag between the emotional experience of the end of a year, the memories of loved ones we either cannot or will not see, and the economic crutch of buying and selling gifts to express love, fulfill obligations, and otherwise complete the experience that we call Christmas.

And in the midst of this, we who follow Jesus have stories that we value. We have stories that we tell our children. We have stories that build traditions. We have stories that comfort us, confront us, and inspire the moments of our days with hope and anticipation.

Such were the words of the Prophet Jeremiah for a people who were assailed on every front. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been conquered, and the King of Judah was desperately trying to reform the actions of a people that seemed to be turning to any God that might answer their desperate cries for help. Jeremiah’s words offered hope, even as his words acknowledged that the current king’s efforts were too little and too late. Jeremiah anticipated another chosen leader who would “execute God’s righteousness”, even though Jeremiah never saw the messiah he hoped for.

It makes me wonder what we are anticipating from God. What is on our Christmas list? What kind of messiah are we hoping for? Well, if the Prophet’s words be true, what we should expect is righteousness. In this context, righteousness has to do with governance – with the idea that all things are moving toward the completion of God’s will. Righteousness also means correctness. It means doing the right thing, even if it is against the rules.

One need only look to the women’s suffrage movement or the civil rights movement to see examples of breaking the rules for the greater good. I think it takes a longer view of history to determine whether our current debates about liberty and justice have panned out well, but you can be sure that in the end God’s will is what wins the day. In the mean time, we who follow Jesus, have to ask ourselves what is right and good. We who follow Jesus must remember that only God is righteous, and that Jesus came to demonstrate and “execute” the righteousness of God.

So then, Christian brothers and sisters, it is up to us to do the same. For we live in between the revelation of God through Jesus Christ and the expectation of his return. That is the good news of today’s apocalyptic gospel reading – we are promised that Christ will return! Scholars will debate the signs and wonders Jesus describes – and what is meant by a generation that will not die – until he does return. What matters most for you and for me is that he will return.

And in the mean time there will be those that experience tragedy that shakes the foundations of their lives, and you and I may experience them as well. And if these experiences disconnect us from one another or consume us with selfishness, then we are caught in a trap. It is only our ability to see God in one another – and through that vision act rightly – that we can make it through our trials.

Then we are able to see the value in one another, and we become so filled with joy that we can’t thank God enough for one another! That’s what Paul said to the church in Thessolonica, and it reminds me of a story a friend recently told. Max is a classmate from seminary who runs Street Life Ministries in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

He recently shared a story about meeting with a man who needed a coat. Max admitted his doubts and his expectation that the person would not meet him at the appointed time, but he went anyway. Here’s his story.

“I guess I've been doing this too long. I had this nagging feeling he wouldn't show. People have a bad habit of promising with their hope. I thought I'd drive the twenty minutes over there, and I'd wait...and wait...and he wouldn't show. But I went because of that nagging, itching hope down deep even in a tired soul.

And there he was. I think he was thinking exactly the same things I was. How many awful broken promises has this man faced in his time on the streets? In his difficult life?

When I opened up the box of brand new coats, his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. When I gave him that coat, I thought he was going to weep. ‘Oh! Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord!’ He said, ‘A couple of guys said I was a fool, that you wouldn't show up for me. I told them they were wrong. I told them you'd be here. Who's the fool now?!’

He took off his jacket liner and put the coat on. He was dancing. I told him he should put the old jacket liner under this coat. He said, ‘No, I'm going to bless somebody else with that, just like I've been blessed with this one!’ He gave me a hug, and kind of danced off.

I have been doing this a long time, and I am tired in my soul. Jaded isn't the right word. Just tired. So many losses. So many failures. I almost missed this day of visitation. But, I didn't. I saw it. I drank it in.

You and I have coats in our closets. Coats for this occasion and that occasion. But to this man, a good coat is the difference between some modicum of comfort and genuine misery. On a bitter cold night, it might be the difference between living and dying. It was clear that this man had prayed to God for a coat. Such a simple thing to you and me. But to him, it was everything. And the Lord heard his prayer. The Lord moved one man to buy these coats - something I could not have done. The Lord connected our paths on Saturday. And the Lord overcame my loss of belief in my fellow man and made me drive over there today, even though I was tired and wanted to go home. And through all of these things, the Lord answered that man's prayer. And that man knew it, and he was truly, deeply grateful. Seeing that was my blessing. And it was a holy blessing, indeed.”

There really are hundreds of stories like this going on right now. There’s the Secret Santa in Kansas city that gave money to the police and asked them to target cars with dents and damage to give out $100 bills. There’s the 12 year old boyfriend and girlfriend that set up a fund raiser to buy Christmas gifts for homeless children in their community.

And then there’s you – each of you with stories of grace and mercy to share. There’s you – some of whom have already purchased gifts from our alternative gift market - 1gifts that benefit farmers in developing nations through the Presbyterian Mission Agency and families with special needs through Evergreen Life Services. You have faithfully supported the CUPS Basket Ministry over the years, and you’ll do it again this coming Saturday!

And whether you are able to support our ministry together through prayer, financial generosity, or just the contribution of your time and effort, you are part of the story that God is telling through us! And someone will hear this story and say, “I just can’t thank God enough for you!” They may or may not come up with the other part that is in the letter to the Thessalonians – the part that says, “I can’t wait to see you so that I can restore your faith!” But maybe they don’t always have to. Maybe the verse we contribute can be enough to let God’s righteousness shine through.

As Walt Whitman said in his famous poem:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

May it be so with you, and may it be so with me – forgiven sinners that we are – as we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and as we proclaim his return. And may God grant us a meaningful Advent as we glorify God the best we can with all that we have and all that we are. To this I say Amen.