Sunday, December 1, 2019

Hope (Sermon for 1st Sunday in Advent)

Scripture:  Isaiah 2:1-5,                   Psalm 122
        Romans 13:11-14,         Matthew 24:36-44

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, that season of waiting for the coming of the Christ child.  It is also the first Sunday in a new church year – and this year, the Gospel readings will be coming mostly but not exclusively from Matthew’s gospel.    It is a reminder that as Christians, we are out of sync with the culture around us.   For most around us, Advent doesn’t exist, as merchants have been running Christmas ads for weeks.  We can hardly blame them, as it’s hard to use a church season based on waiting to motivate people to buy right now.  And at the same time, we’re celebrating the start of a new church year, while the  calendar won’t start the year 2020 for several more weeks.  So Kairos time – God’s time, the time of God’s favor – is out of sync with chronos time, the time of clocks and calendars.   In the same way, as Christians, we are effectively dual citizens, citizens of God’s kingdom, or as Paul wrote to the Philippians, citizens of heaven, even as we are citizens of the United States.  Or, as Jesus taught, we are to be in the world but not of the world.  And during this season of Advent, this season of waiting, we light candles signifying hope, peace, joy, and love.
In describing hope, our Scriptures this morning are a mixed bag.  Our reading from Isaiah gives us a beautiful vision – the word of the Lord going forth from Mt Zion, swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.   It was written in the years leading up to the exile in Babylon, in a time when the leadership of Israel and Judah were deeply unfaithful to God, when corruption and violence ran riot.   Before and after today’s reading, Isaiah strongly condemned the leadership for their rebellion against God’s ways.  But Isaiah also gave the vision of today’s reading, as a kind of alternative future – here’s where you could be, if you’ll only turn back to God.  For us, it seems like some faint radio broadcast spoken in a foreign language, coming from an alternative universe - and It would have been every bit as disconnected from the experience of Isaiah’s original audience.  But Isaiah knew that it wasn’t enough just to condemn the failings of his people.  He needed to give them a vision, to give them a reason to change their ways. Isaiah needed to give his people hope.
Our two New Testament readings don’t seem hopeful at all.  Our Gospel reading is part of a longer section of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching – and indeed on the first Sunday in Advent, the Gospel reading is always from Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  Apocalypse is a word that means unveiling, in the sense of looking beyond the surface of what is immediately in front of us to reveal or pull back the curtain on what God is doing behind the scenes.  The  context is that in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus went into the Temple and preached a long diatribe against what he called the hypocrisy of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, who, according to Jesus, majored in the minors by punctiliously observing the details of the kosher laws and the system of Temple sacrifices while neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  When Jesus left the Temple, his disciples started admiring the beautiful buildings around them – perhaps like tourists from the hinterlands traveling to Washington DC and taking selfies by the White House.  And Jesus told them that everything they saw around them, all the lovely buildings, would be torn down, not one stone left on another – as happened in AD 70, when Roman invaded Jerusalem to destroy the Temple.   So the disciples see what is on the surface, beautiful buildings that will seemingly be there forever.  Jesus reveals what is going on behind the scenes – the impending destruction of those same buildings and the corrupt system they represented.  But Jesus went on from there to speak of his return at an unexpected hour, at the end of days.  He told them to keep alert, and not to get caught up in the revels of their neighbors. 
Where’s the hope in any of this?  Well, it depends on your perspective.  While the Temple and the surrounding buildings were indeed beautiful, they were built on a foundation of oppression and injustice, as is seen in the story of the widow dropping her penny that represented everything she had to live on into the Temple coffers.  If you’re invested in the status quo, if you like the beautiful buildings, Jesus’ words come as a threat – and indeed those in the Temple leadership, whose lives and livelihood depended on the beautiful buildings and the oppression they represented, indeed heard Jesus’ words as a threat and had him arrested and killed.  But if you want justice to roll like a river and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream, and if you see the beautiful buildings and all they stand for as an obstacle to justice and righteousness, Jesus’ words are hopeful indeed.   To use a small but telling – and maybe funny - story as an analogy, during the runup to the 2016 presidential election, every now and then I saw a car in front of me with a bumper sticker indicating that the driver’s favored candidate was a giant meteor, presumably to hit Washington DC and wipe out everything in sight.  Presumably the driver saw no hope in either major party candidate, and just wanted a meteor to flatten everything in the capital, perhaps so something better could rise in its place.  So the hope in Jesus’ words is a hope for the future born out of despair for the present.
Throughout church history, many have seen Jesus’ words and gotten caught up in speculation about the timing of Jesus’ return, whether this or that event or news story signals the end of day.  But our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome gives us a more faithful way to respond to the hope represented by Jesus’ coming – and that is to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, or as he says, to put on the Lord Jesus and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.  That is to say, to live as if the old, corrupt system had already been torn down and to live into the hopeful future represented by Jesus’ words.  Jesus and Paul are telling us that we cannot live in God’s hopeful future if we’re still dragging around with us the baggage of the hopeless present.  We need to live as if that future has already arrived.
And indeed, it has….in part.  That’s the meaning of Jesus’ parables comparing the kingdom of heaven to seeds.  As Christians, we live in an in-between time.  We stand in what Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap between the “already” of God’s work in our midst and the “not yet” of what remains to be done. And here’s how Parker Palmer describes that “tragic gap”:
“On one side of that gap are the harsh and discouraging realities around us. On the other side is the better world we know to be possible — not merely because we wish it were so, but because we have seen it with our own eyes. We’re surrounded by greed, but we’ve seen great acts of generosity. We’re surrounded by violence, but we’ve seen people make peace.
The tragic gap will never close once and for all, a fact that can lead us into despair and resignation. But if we recall the ample evidence that “the better angels of our nature” are still with us, we are more likely to keep working at making the world a better place.”[1]
The days are short:  I take the train to my day job, it’s dark when I stand on the platform waiting for the train into Philly, and it’s dark again when I wait on the platform for the train home.  But we also live in dark days in terms of the news of the day.  But, as the old saying goes, instead of cursing the darkness, we can light a candle.  And so I’ll close with some words from African American preacher and theologian Howard Thurman:
I will light candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Held Together

Scriptures:      Jeremiah 23:1-6,                      Psalm 46
                        Colossians 1:11-20                  Luke 23:33-43

Today is Christ the King Sunday, also known in inclusive language as Reign of Christ Sunday.  Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday began as a feast within the Roman Catholic Church.  It is a relatively recent addition to the liturgical calendar, having been declared by Pope Pius XI in 1925.  Now, the Roman Catholic church observes many feasts that Protestant churches cheerfully ignore, but Anglican, Lutheran, and many mainline Protestant churches, including our own denomination, adopted it as well.  Protestant churches may have adopted this feast as a way of protesting – because that’s what we Protestants do, we protest, it’s how we roll – as a way of protesting against totalitarian political ideologies such as fascism, as practiced in Italy, German and Spain, and Communism, as practiced in the Soviet Union and the satellite countries it dominated.   Leaders who ruled under these totalitarian political ideologies demanded allegiance at a much deeper level than voting and paying taxes – they attempted to dominate and control virtually every action and even every thought of their citizens, demanding a level of devotion of which only God is worthy.  And so, in proclaiming Christ as King, Catholic and Protestant churches declared, at the same time, that Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin weren’t.  This was a return to the insights of the early Christians, for whom saying, “Jesus is Lord” also meant that Caesar was not.
On Reign of Christ Sunday, the Gospel depicts Jesus as a king who doesn’t act much like our idea of an earthly king, using his kingly power in unkingly ways.  Next year, on Reign of Christ Sunday, we’ll be reading from the account in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus as ruler presiding over the nations, and dividing the people as a shepherd would divide sheep from goats, telling some that whatsoever they had done for the least of Jesus’ sisters and brothers – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming strangers, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison – they did for Jesus, and telling others that whenever they withheld all these things from Jesus’ sisters and brothers, they withheld them from Jesus.  Two years from now, we’ll read from John’s account of Christ before Pilate.  And today, of course,  we read about the crucified Jesus telling the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  To the religious leadership and Roman guards who looked on, Jesus’ words must have seemed laughable, one dying criminal talking nonsense to another.  But seen through the eyes of faith, it is Jesus, not the religious leadership, not the Roman guards, who is in charge, and who can fulfill what he promised.  And this is the paradox of faith. On one hand, Christ on the cross had power that no earthly king on even the most magnificent throne could claim, power over time and eternity.  On the other hand, Christ seems to be a ruler who in his earthly ministry had little time for thrones, but whose power showed up among the last, the least, and the lost.  The message on the back of the bulletin cover describes this eloquently, and I’m half-tempted to tell you to just read the back of the bulletin cover and send you home early.  I’ll resist that temptation – but I do invite you; more than that, I implore you, to read the back of the bulletin cover when you get home, and read it again throughout the coming week, to be alert for the unlikely places in which Christ may be enthroned in our midst.
Our reading from Colossians invites us to consider even more deeply the paradox of Christ’s power manifesting itself through powerlessness.  Paul speaks in lofty terms about what Christ does – rescues us from the power of darkness, transfers us into his kingdom where there is redemption and forgiveness.  Paul speaks in lofty terms about who Christ is:  “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”…  and by now this very heady language is either making our heads explode or putting us to sleep, because it’s so abstract…reading all this makes me feel a bit like I’m in a hot air balloon floating up and up and up……but then Paul goes on:  “by making peace through the blood of his cross.”   And those last words, “the blood of his cross” brings all that lofty language right back down to earth, right back down to our level.  Christ does all these incredible things almost too big for us to get our arms around – holding all things together, reconciling to himself all things – and he does it, not by demanding and decreeing and declaring, but by suffering and dying. 
Theologians speak of the historical Jesus and the cosmic Christ.  We meet the historical Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  We know the story of Jesus of Nazareth – born of a virgin, born in a stable, refugee with his family for a time in Egypt, grew up, worked with Joseph as a carpenter, baptized by John the Baptist, tempted by Satan, began his ministry of teaching and healing and casting out demons, arrested, unjustly condemned to death, crucified, buried, rose again, ascended into heaven.  But John’s gospel and some of Paul’s writings – such as Colossians -  connect the historical, earthly Jesus to a mystical, cosmic dimension….similar to when we say that Jesus is both human and divine.  Remember that Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but a title, meaning “anointed one”.  Colossians says that all things in heaven and earth have been created through Christ and for Christ. (Colossians 1:16)  This may remind us of what we read in the beginning of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3)  Ephesians speaks of God having chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), with a “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:10)  And we see, perhaps, a glimpse of this cosmic dimension, along with Peter, James, and John, in the gospel accounts of the transfiguration, in which the three disciples on the mountaintop saw their teacher in a new way, radiant, and in conversation with Moses and Elijah in a dimension in which past, present, and future were all one.
So what’s the point?  We need to connect both to the historical Jesus and to the cosmic Christ, the cross and the crown, Jesus as human and divine, to begin to sense what God is like.  Take away the divine, and you have Jesus as a human teacher who taught about love both in his words and his actions, who lived and died many a long year ago.  Take away the human, and you have God as an impersonal force, like the wind and the waves, terrifying power without love.  Jesus is the entry point – the door, the gate – to understanding God and the universe as being directed by and toward love.
So what’s the point?    Colossians and John’s Gospel say that all things in heaven and earth were created in Christ, and Ephesians speaks of an endpoint at which all things in heaven and earth are gathered back together in Christ.   All things.  All things matter to God.  All things count for something in God’s sight.  In Christ we are connected to all things, past, present, and future. 
This is not the message we get from our society.  We are taught to look out for number one, to look out for ourselves, and perhaps our families.  We’re taught that the goal of life is to accumulate more for ourselves – “he who dies with the most toys, wins” – regardless of what that means for those around us.  We’re taught to see some groups – those we connect to – as good, and those who are different as bad….and we may even come to the place where we think our world would be better if we could just get rid of some of the so-called bad people in it, as the Crusades tried to get rid of Muslims, and the Inquisition tried to get rid of non-Catholics, and Hitler tried to get ride of Jews and gypsies and gays and all sorts of people he deemed not fit to live.   And we’re not taught to see the creation as having any value at all in its own right, but only to see it as raw material for our getting and spending, as the canvass on which we paint our lives.  And then when we die, we’re taught only to care about our own salvation, or perhaps also that of our family, as we hope to see our departed loved ones again. 
Franciscan writer Fr Richard Rohr – and I’d invite you to look him up - calls this normal mode of operation “dualistic thinking”, as we divide the world into categories of us vs not us – black vs white, saint vs sinner, heaven vs hell, the world of boundaries and borders.  And we need all this as we begin our spiritual development.  But we need to let it all go if we are to mature into the fullness of God’s will for us – this is what is meant when we speak of “laying down our lives so we can find our true lives in Christ” and “dying to self, so that we can rise with Christ”.   And this “letting go” inevitably comes with pain, with sacrifice and suffering.  Christ holds all things together, and so we are connected not only to the persons and things that comfort us but to the persons and things that threaten us……until we come to the place where we no longer experience them as a threat. 
We live in a war-torn world, in a deeply divided country, in a violent city in which we can’t get through a week without blood on the sidewalk.   It may be a real stretch to know to the marrow of our bones that God loves us, deeply, passionately……and to know to the marrow of our bones that God loves the person we can’t stand, the one that makes my stomach heave every time I hear his or her voice, every bit as deeply and passionately, and loves the creation – the trees, a salamander, the deer that crossed the road in front of us, the tomato plant in our back yard,  deeply and passionately.  Love really does make the world go ‘round, make the universe go ‘round – not just the sappy infatuation of a silly love song, but God’s passionate care for all things, that passionately connects us to all things.  
Paul told the Colossians that Jesus reconciled to himself all things in heaven and earth through the blood of his cross – and he invited them into this work of reconciliation, as he encouraged them, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”   While the world worships power that acts through force and coercion, the power of God that holds the universe together acts through patience, and endurance, and suffering, and sacrifice….like that of Jesus on the cross, as he invited the criminal next to him into Paradise.   May we walk together in the way of Jesus, walking the way of the cross, laying down our small, selfish lives, so that we can participate in the true life of Christ.  Amen.