Saturday, December 28, 2013

Merry Christmas, Right?

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the Second Chapter
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children. she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Merry Christmas, right?  Does your Nativity set have figures for this part of the story?  I went though my Nativity set box again, but I just can’t find the paranoid King Herod figure and the troop of murdering thugs to put out.  My set seems to run out of figures at the part of the story with Wise Men and their camels.  But here in the Gospel for today is Herod and his murdering troops, showing up on the fifth day of Christmas to chase the Holy Family off to Egypt and slaughter innocents because he felt tricked by the Wise Men.    
I have to admit, I really struggled with this lesson.  One powerful and cruel person forcing a family to leave their home strikes very close to my experience.  In my last Lutheran congregation it was one man who decided that he was going to run the congregation.  Not the pastor and not the council and not the whole congregation either... just him.  When I told him that’s not how things worked he told me yes it was and he would starve me out.  He would make sure people stopped giving so they couldn’t keep paying me and I would have to leave and that’s just what he did.  This lesson is hard because it first reminds me of that painful experience and THEN I feel guilty for feeling that way because even though that experience was terrible, and he was terrible, nobody died.  I think, I should really just get over it... but it’s hard. 
Then I struggled with this lesson because I read somewhere as I prepared for this sermon that in those days, Bethlehem was only about one third the size of Rockport... so, about 1000 people total, so ALL the children under 2 killed would have only been about 20 which is still horrible but not the tens of thousands that is sort of tradition.  Then I remembered that 20 is also the number of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary and so 20 still seems like way, way too many.
Then I struggled with this lesson because not having a home of your own, bouncing from place to place and knowing there is an approaching yet unknown date when you will be asked to move again is something I have come to relate to very much in the last year and a half.  Then that same guilt from before happens again because we actually do have a nice place right now.  Our moves here in Maine have not happened under mortar fire like they do for real, modern refugees.  We didn’t have to leave with just the clothes on our backs.  All our things haven’t been destroyed by a bomb or missile attack; they are just in storage in Lincolnville.  We don’t live in a tent in a refugee camp in the desert of Turkey or Kenya among the more than 10 million refugees in the world.  We live on Norton Pond and the power is even on. 
I’ve struggled with this lesson because on the one hand I feel like I can relate and on the other hand I have absolutely no right to complain.  I’ve struggled with this lesson not because it shows how cruel the world was 2000 years ago, but because the world seems just as cruel today, over 2000 years later.  I’ve struggled with this lesson because even though I think our country should be better than this, there are innocents around us every day who pay the price for those who, like Herod, fear loosing their power; who think they can only be successful only if everyone else is a failure.  So, one in five children in our country don’t know where their next meal will come from and 1.6 million children experienced homelessness in our country last year and at least 194 children have been shot to death in our country since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown.  
I’ve struggled with this lesson because when I look around at our world today, I find that I am tempted to say something like, if ONLY we could have just ONE family being forced to flee in the night to safety and if ONLY 20 children died... THAT would be wonderful!  Wonderful?  Really?  No!  Not wonderful!  Still horrible!  I’ve struggled with this lesson because it makes the world back then, my personal world and the world we all live in now seem so painfully dark and it feels like God is absent.  So, Merry Christmas?  
Actually YES!  Merry Christmas!  Because mixed in with all the very real horror and pain there is light that shines into every one of those dark and painful places.  Mixed in with all the very real hurt and guilt and suffering that happens in each of our lives to one degree or another is God’s infinite, loving and transforming presence.   
In the lesson God sends an angel to advise Joseph but not JUST in Israel.  God also sends an angel to advise him in Egypt.  Like all of Scripture, the story for the characters way back then is good, but the metaphor... what this story means for us now... is so much better.  What this means is that God can, and even more importantly God DOES, go with us EVERYWHERE!  
Egypt becomes a powerful metaphor for everywhere we would rather not be:  A refugee camp, a hospital room, a prison cell, watching a loved one die, waiting for a box of food at a food bank, lying in an operating room, hiding in a locked down classroom, visiting your spouse in a nursing home, sleeping in a homeless shelter, loading the moving truck one more time, standing on the median holding a sign that says “Any help for my homeless family is appreciated.”  
Not only is God with us in whatever “Egypt” we might be facing but this story tells us that when we listen carefully we will hear that God is guiding us back to where we belong.  It is not God’s desire that anyone stay in those broken and painful places.  It is God’s desire that everyone and all of creation come home.  
It’s not news that my family’s life here in Maine has been a little more “Egypt-y” than we had hoped it would be when we moved here.  But this congregation, all of you have been God’s messenger of hope for us in the last year and a half.  You’ve helped us, hugged us, cried with us and cared for us in overwhelming and miraculous ways that have really helped restore a bit of my faith in the church.   
It is true that our world, even 2000 years later, is still a world where twisted people hurt others for profit and power every single day.  BUT, it is also true that THAT is not how God intends the world to be and over time, working through prophets and truth tellers and people willing to listen to God’s guidance and people willing to trust and hope and work in ways that give of themselves selflessly, God will bring us home from every single one of our Egypts... back to the Promised Land God created for us in the beginning.

So when you and I find ourselves chased by the madness of this world, may we listen carefully like Joseph.  When we find ourselves in any kind of “Egypt” may we trust enough to offer our bodies and minds like Mary and when we look out into the world or deeply into our souls and see only darkness, may we all come together and shine the life changing light of Christ into each others lives here in this congregation and in our community and our world.  May what the prophet spoke be fulfilled through us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it!”  Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Vinalhaven Christmas

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 2nd Chapter
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to
whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 

When I was a kid, the thing that meant that Christmas was getting really close was when we brought the box with our Nativity set down from the attic.  Our set was a poured, white, ceramic set that my mom had made in a class.  She made it while my dad was in Vietnam and I think she did it more to keep busy than anything else. 

There is a legend that the first person to introduce the Nativity set at Christmas was Saint Francis.  He created this first Nativity set to make the birth of Jesus seem more real to the people where he lived.  He wasn’t trying to convince them that Jesus had really been born.  The people believed that just fine.   Instead, what he really wanted them to understand was that the message the shepherds heard... “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  He wanted his people, in that time, to hear that as not just a message for Jewish shepherds way back when, but as a message meant for THEM... that Jesus was born for THEM.   

To help them understand that, St. Francis made the Nativity characters to look like them.  He made the place where Jesus was born look like their Italian barns and put animals in the barn that were the same as the animals they took care of every day.  It didn’t teach them the history of the birth of Jesus, but it wasn’t supposed to.  Instead it taught them that Jesus was their Messiah too... that God loved them and cared about them, right there in their everyday, hardworking, just trying to get by, complaining when it’s too dang hot, gripping when it’s too dang cold, laughing in the good times, crying in the bad times lives.  God loved them too.  Right where they lived.  Just how they were.  God loved them too.   

In my family after we got down the Nativity set from the attic we would take books from the bookcase where it went and stack them up in little piles to make little hills and then cover them with a piece of green velvet to place the figures in their proper places.  The pieces didn’t look Middle Eastern or Jewish or like they were from 2000 years ago.  They looked more like they were from Europe in the Middle Ages but we didn’t really care.  Setting up that Nativity wasn’t supposed to remind my family that Jesus had been born.  We knew that.  What we needed from that Nativity is just what it gave us each year.  We needed a reminder that things would be OK.  That in spite of dad being gone on another tour of duty, God loved us and was watching out for us all.  That in spite of horrible things like cancer, addiction, and a deadly fire that hit our family, God was with us through it all.  We weren’t the family with the most troubles, but we weren’t ever the family with the least either.  No matter what happened that year, we set up that Nativity set and were reminded, “To US IS born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  

What Saint Francis had started spread around the world.  As the faith spread to different cultures so too did the Nativity Set.  Each country dressed the characters in the clothes they wore.  When the Nativity Set got to Scandinavia, reindeer looked on at the birth and Mary was blonde with blue eyes.  When it got to Africa, the characters looked African.  There were always characters playing music because music is always played as a woman gives birth.  In one culture there is a guy bringing beer, because in that culture you always bring a gift of beer for a birth!  In Japan, Mary was Asian and wore a Kimono, in Peru there are llamas watching, in far Northern Alaska, seals and polar bears watch while Mary looks over her new baby in an igloo wearing a fur lined coat.  

No matter where the people lived.  No matter what color their skin or hair or eyes, no matter what kind of cloths they wore or the kinds of animals they saw every day, the details of their Nativity Sets would change to look like they did, BUT the message stayed the same, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL people: to YOU is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

To the shepherds 2000 years ago in Israel, that was the message of Christmas:  God loves you unconditionally and has sent YOU His Son to show YOU that love.  To the people Saint Francis preached to 1000 years ago in Italy, that was the message of Christmas:  God loves you unconditionally and has sent YOU His Son to show YOU that love.  To my family back in the late 60’s and early 70’s with a dad doing a third tour flying combat missions over Vietnam that was the message of Christmas:  God loves you unconditionally and has sent YOU His Son to show YOU that love.  

Now, I can’t carve figures for you and your community like Saint Francis did for the people he preached to 1000 years ago.  The best I could do was to write a story... see what you think:

In those days a decree went out that the Maine shrimp season would be cancelled. It hit folks real hard. Some understood. Some didn't. Understand it or not, like it or not, it hit Joe particularly hard. His wife, Mary was expecting… any minute to tell the truth… and he had really been counting on the shrimp season to see them through the winter. Of course, things like babies don't wait for good times to be born and Mary went into labor. It happened faster than either of them expected, in fact there was no making it into town so she gave birth right there in the office of the Co-op. 

It was really just a shack at the end of the pier; vertical planks of wind and salt weathered wood hung with old buoys and a large sliding door decorated with a "lobster crossing" sign. A hydraulic winch used to swing crates and traps up from below stood by unused.  Inside it was dark.  More buoys were hung in the rafters over a lobster tank alive with the constant flow of water pumped up from the sea.  In the corner of the shack there was an enclosed office with a desk, a chair and a stove made out of an old metal barrel.  On the foot worn planks that served as the floor of that office, Mary gave birth to a son.

Out on the water, lobstermen who hadn't already given up for the season were pulling traps, braving the cold in the hopes of finding just a few more to sell as the price slowly crept up while the temperature quickly raced down.  Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and the guys were terrified and yelled... (well, you can imagine what they yelled, but we won’t go there since this is church after all) Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, I have come to bring you some incredible news. To you, yes, YOU... THIS day… God has sent his Son, to try once again to get it into your heads that God loves you!  Loves you more than you could ever imagine, no matter what you've done or not done and even in spite of your very creative language skills! To prove it, you’ll find the baby down at the Co-op, over where Fred works, you know the place.” And suddenly with that one angel were a whole ton of angels all singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on Earth.”

They got on their radios and told each other that they HAD to go see and off they went.   When they got to the dock, of course, Jimmy, who's always heavy handed with the throttles, came in too fast and hit hard, but then he’s always hard on his equipment. But as they climbed up, there in the shack at the end of the pier, just like the angel had said, was Mary and Joe... and the baby. 

Outside the sliding door looking in on the scene were seagulls perched on the drums of bait. They were quiet for a change. There were a pair of seals too that had hauled themselves up on a float and were looking in and even though it seemed impossible, the lobsters in the crates inside the tank were looking on too. 

They guys told Mary what they had seen out on the water; what the angel had told them about her baby and about the heavenly host. (They left out the part with their language and being scared, but the rest they told her word for word.) Then the lobstermen all went out and got a beer...or maybe several and they told everyone what they had seen out on the water that day, but Mary back home with her baby, kept it all in her heart.

Now, I know this isn't the way it happened 2000 years ago, but that doesn't mean it isn't the truth:  God loves YOU.  Jesus was born for YOU.  You folks that come here all the time AND you that got dragged here for just today AND everyone else who isn’t here, ALL OF YOU!  God loves you, no if’s, and’s or but’s, and God has sent YOU His Son to show YOU that love.  God loves you so much... thinks of you SO MUCH, no matter who you are, where you are, what you do, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what you didn’t do... God has sent his Son to YOU to show you God’s INFINITE and UNCONDITIONAL love for YOU!  THAT is YOUR message this Christmas.  May you hear it.  May you KNOW it and hold it in your heart and may you pass it along to everyone you see and in everything you do in this season, and all throughout the year.  Amen.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Close the Frappin' Door!

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
In my house growing up we had a front door which was the one with a door bell, a back door which was a sliding glass door and the frappin’ door which went out to the garage.  I knew it was called that because my dad was always telling me to, “CLOSE THE FRAPPIN’ DOOR!”  One sure way to make my dad loose his ever lovin’ mind was to not answer that yes or no question with either a “yes” or a “no.” 

“Did you leave the door open”?  Well, of course I had left the door open BUT there was always a reason so I'd skip the answer and head straight to the explanation.  "I had to bring in a load of stuff from the garage."  Dad didn't want to hear it.  "Did you leave the door open?"  "I was just going out for a minute and I knew my arms would be full and I couldn't turn the knob."  "DID YOU LEAVE THE FRAPPIN' DOOR OPEN?"  When he called the door by it's full name I knew his head was near exploding so I would relent, "Yes," I would finally say.  "Thank you!" he replied.  These days as a parent with kids, I totally understand his frustration with both the question not being answered and the frappin' door being left open. 

Jesus obviously didn’t grow up in my house, because in today’s lesson, John the Baptist asked Jesus a “yes or no” question.  “Are you the one we have been waiting for or are we supposed to keep on waiting.”  Jesus did not give a “yes or no” answer.  Instead Jesus said, “Tell John that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.”  In my house that just would not have flown, but for whatever reason, Jesus’ strange and roundabout answer seemed to work for John.

I think the reason it worked is that John saw in Jesus’ answer the same kind of action that he had been calling people to do when he was preaching in the desert.  Out in the desert, John called people not just to THINK about their lives or even just SAY they wanted to change but to put those thoughts and words into ACTIONS.  The word “repent,” literally means to turn around and go another way.   For John, thoughts, ideas and words were fine, but ACTION was the thing that mattered.  So when Jesus responded to John’s question with the ACTIONS he had been doing, that spoke louder to John than words ever could... and you have to admit, it was an impressive list of actions.  

People were given sight.   Now keep in mind, it’s not just that people were physically healed of legal blindness but even more than that; people were healed of their inability to see God at work in their lives and in the world.  

The lame walk.  Again, people weren’t just physically healed of their inability to use their legs but more importantly, people were healed of their fear of going out into the world and doing what God was calling them to do.    

Lepers were cleaned.  Not only were people with a skin condition healed, but all people who were considered unfit, unwelcome, and unclean for any reason; race, gender, their past, their politics, who they loved, their class... ALL people who had been the outcasts, the forgotten and the lost were now welcomed, included and made to feel worthy.  

The deaf hear.  Not only were the physical connections made in people’s ears, but more importantly, people’s minds were being opened to finally hear and truly understand that God was at work, that God loved all of creation and God was making sure that all of creation would be together again.  

The dead were raised.  Not just were dead people given a new life, like the woman’s son or Lazarus.  But people who were never considered part of God’s promise before, people outside the family of Abraham, would finally be included and given the abundant life that comes from God, a life that begins now and never, ever ends! 

And finally (Jesus left most important for last, which is how they made lists like this back in Jesus’ day) the poor have Good News brought to them.  The Good News isn’t just that God sent Jesus.  It’s also God’s vision for how the world is supposed to work... it’s supposed to be a place where those who now struggle to feed their families, find a place to live and heat their homes will have what they need to live.  No one will have too much and everyone will have enough.  On top of that it also means that all of us who are poor in spirit, who’s faith is at times, not exactly overflowing with confidence and unconditional trust, will have God’s infinite and unconditional love brought right to where we live.  For me, God coming to me is really Good News, because when I’m struggling with believing and find it hard to see God at work in the world, the LAST thing I need is someone telling me to go “find Jesus”, or “get saved” or “make yourself right with God.”

That’s the Good News of this lesson, but there is some hard news here as well.  The hard news is that you and I, as followers of Jesus, are called to keep those same actions moving and happening now in our world.  Jesus healed our blindness.  We’re now being called to see the people in our community who have been forgotten.  Jesus healed our lameness.  We’re now being called not just to wait here for people to come to us, but take God’s love out to folks wherever they might be.  Jesus welcomed us no matter what baggage we were carrying.  We’re now being called to welcome others that have been left out because of their baggage.  Our deafness is healed.  Now, we’re being called to hear not just a person cry for help in an emergency, but also to hear how the world needs to change so every day isn’t an emergency.  We’ve been given new life in Christ.  We’re now being called to bring life to others not so much with words but with our actions. 

I don’t know about you, but the part about God’s love coming to me sounds really good... it is just the message of hope I need in these dark, winter days... but that next part about me turning around and bringing God’s love out to others.... well, especially in these dark, cold, winter days that seems pretty overwhelming.  I’m from a long line of stoic, Swedish, rarely smiling, easy chair sitting, bland food eating, keep to yourself kind of folk and it’s cold, dark and depressing out there these days.   Hearing that Jesus has taken away all my good excuses to stay in my easy chair and away from people I don't know... well, it’s uncomfortable to hear.  

It is uncomfortable.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s actually a bit scary to be honest, but it really is what God is calling us to do.  The only thing I can tell you that might help is that we aren’t called to do it alone.  Jesus did not ask us to take on the world’s problems individually.  Instead we are called to do it as a community... as the Body of Christ... so as our eyes are opened together and as we begin to see the forgotten around us... as we hear of our neighbor’s hurts and hopes... as we help each other to get up and bring those neighbors God’s radical and unconditional love, compassion and we together welcome all people in spite of their baggage to join us in making the world into the place of God’s vision, I have just a little more advice...lean on one another and remind one another of God's infinite, unconditional love and then, on your way out into the world, remember... Close the Frappin’ Door!  Amen.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Where's the Kaboom!

Matthew 24: 36-44
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Kate is a pastor friend of mine who lives in Maryland.  A few years ago she met a guy.  They fell in love and he asked her to marry him and she said yes!  They set the date for their wedding.  May 21, 2011.  Soon after setting the date, Kate Googled her special date and found that Harold Camping, President of Family Stations Inc. had determined that there was incontrovertible Biblical evidence that May 21, 2011 would be the end of the world!

Well, it turned out that we all enjoyed her wedding.  We did go outside at the appointed hour and, who would have thunk it!  Nothing happened!  Jesus, Paul and all the early Christians suspected that the end would be “soon” but never offered a date.  Instead they advised us to live each day ready for Christ’s return.  “Soon,” however, took longer than people thought it should, and ever since then folks have been unsuccessfully predicting the end.  Here’s just the smallest sampling of a few of the more interesting failures:
  • 90 - Saint Clement
  • 400 - St. Martin of Tours 
  • 500 - The antipope Hippolytus (round numbers are popular.)
  • 992 - Good Friday and the Annunciation fell on the same day and the Germans thought that would be the end.
  • 1000 – Lots of panic…another round number and lots of people gave their stuff to the church in preparation for the end.  By the way, the Church didn’t give it back when it turned 1001.
  • 1179 –  based on the alignment of planets
  • 1284 – Pope Innocent III predicted the end by adding 666 to the year Islam was founded.
  • 1496 – which was 1500 years after Jesus was born.
  • 1533 – which was 1500 years after Jesus’ death, Melchior Hoffman predicts the New Jerusalem to come to Strasburg Germany.
  • 1669 – the Old Believers in Russia predicted the end and 20,000 people burned themselves to death to avoid the antichrist.
  • 1794 – Charles Wesley liked this year for the end.
  • 1832 – 1890 - Joseph Smith founder of the Mormon church predicted the end before he turned 85.  He would have been 85 in 1890 if he hadn’t died in 1844, which, it seems he also didn’t see coming.  
  • March 21, 1843 – William Miller of the Millerites predicted this day.  
  • October 22, 1844 – William Miller’s second try, billed as “The Great Anticipation” is now remembered in history as “The Great Disappointment”.
  • 1850 and beyond – Ellen White founder of the Seventh Day Adventists predicted the end a lot.  
  • 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994 were all dates for the end predicted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • 1919 – Meterologist Albert Porta predicted the conjunction of 6 planets would generate a magnetic field that would explode the sun.  
  • April 22, 1959 – Florence Houteff, founder of the Branch Davidians predicted this end.  Only a few members remained when this didn’t happen.
  • 1960 – based on secrets hidden in the dimensions of the great pyramids.
  • 1981 – Predicted by  Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
  • 1982 – Predicted by Pat Robertson.  (and people still listen to him)
  • 1988 – Hal Lindsey author of the "The Late Great Planet Earth" predicted the end this year, and 2007 and now 2018.
  • 1994 – Harold Camping  (Yes, the same guy)
  • 2000 – Y2K…enough said.
  • March 24, 2002 – Paul Smirnov predicts God will destroy the world with an asteroid hitting the Oscars ceremony.  Later that year he tried October 26 and when that didn’t work Nov. 8.
  • March 21, 2008 – The Lord’s Witnesses predicted this date which was 666 Hebrew months after the founding of the U.N. the world didn’t end and the U.N. didn’t take over the world.  
  • 2009 – Jerry Falwell predicted in 1999 that the end would be in the next ten years.  

And THAT is just the highlight reel!  When I looked at all the end of the world predictions I could find, just in my lifetime there were almost 70!  In spite of the lesson we read today telling us nobody knows, not even JESUS knows, people still try to predict it and they do it because they really, really want to be in control.  They WANT to be in control but the reality is that we aren’t in any more control of our lives today than the people were in Jesus’ day. 
Back then, two people would be working in the field and one would just die, right there, for no apparent reason.  Back then a couple of people would be working at the mill and one would drop dead and the other wouldn’t.  There was no reason why it was one instead of the other and there was no way to predict that it was about to happen.  That’s how life was back in the days of Jesus and you know what… it really hasn’t changed, has it?  

When I was a volunteer fire fighter I saw people every time I was paged out that had not been able to predict the day before that they would need a firefighter or an EMT the day we pulled up in the truck.  A young, apparently healthy person suddenly had a massive heart attack.  A family returned home from eating dinner out to find their home burned to the ground.  They simply had no way to know!  Like the lesson says, “if the owner of the house would have known in what part of the night the thief was going to break in, they would have stopped it.”  If that women knew she was going to have a massive heart her husband would have driven her to the hospital before it happened.  If that family knew their house was going catch on fire that night they wouldn’t have gone out for dinner and stayed home with fire extinguishers at the ready.

No matter how badly we hate it, the fact remains that we are not in control.  We don’t know when the end will be and what Jesus is trying to tell us here in this lesson, is that we don’t really NEED to know.  The fact is, only God knows and confidentially I've got to tell you, God can and does handle it without our help.

Knowing you aren’t in control can either drive you crazy or it can set you free.  God intended our not knowing to set us free.  Because we have been freed of needing to know about that end of the world stuff, then we can take all the time we would have used worrying about that and use it doing what God has called us to be doing out in the world.  We can be ready for Jesus to return someday in the future by being ready for Jesus to return right now and that means living this life we’ve been given doing what God has called us to do.

So what is it that we have been called to do?  Well, as we start this new year with Matthew’s Gospel, we’re going to hear that Matthew tends to be pretty clear about what God is calling us to do with all that free time we now have since we gave up worrying about the end of the world.

We are to bear fruit - both telling people about how God wants our world to work and practicing the radical forgiveness, love and inclusion that Jesus taught to try and make the world work that way.

We are to worship God and live in community.  Private rooms may be good for prayer but God says we need each other and when a few of us get together, Christ is with us, and we’re all better for the company. 

We are to teach each other God’s way of living in this world, which Jesus neatly summed up as “loving God and loving neighbor.”

We are to practice good stewardship; caring for one another and the earth we have been given and get rid of the things that compete with God for our attention and allegiance.

We are called to work for justice to be done in the world.  To be merciful; lift up the lowly, care for the poor, the widows and the orphans.  Work against poverty, ostracism, hunger, disease, demons and debt; the things that prevent others from having the life God intends.  

We are called to be pure in heart; to have an integrity that can be seen by others.  To say what we mean and act on what we believe and finally to be peacemakers; working for reconciliation in our community and in our world. 

It turns out that we have quite a lot God would like us to do.  We really don’t have any extra time to worry about the end of the world in the future or rehash what’s happened in the past.  All it seems we have time for is living our lives to the fullest right now and Advent is meant to be a season to remind us of that and remind us again to let God take care of the rest.  Amen.   

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Re-membering A Wonderful World

Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
When I was in seminary, my wife Kelly was working and our daughter Hanna went to day care.  Every day her class listened to a thing she called a “big black CD” of Louis Armstrong singing “It’s a Wonderful World” before nap time.  She could sing every word and I bet she still can!  They played that song so much I joked that they were going to wear the grooves out of that “big black CD.” 

So, what is the song you loved and played so much you were in danger of wearing the grooves out of the record (or the digital equivalent)?  Now, how did it feel when you first heard a different version of that song?  

It’s hard, isn’t it?  When you’re used to hearing the needle in one particular groove, it’s hard to allow the needle to drop in another spot.  Reading scripture can be like that too.  With a familiar story like this one it’s easy to just drop the needle in the old familiar groove and let it play.  

But this week the needle wouldn’t go in that old familiar groove for me, it kept skipping to a new groove and that new groove is the word “remember.”  The thief on the cross (who wasn’t a thief since the Romans didn’t crucify thieves, they only crucified terrorists or revolutionary heros who are, after all, the same people seen from different perspectives)  That guy asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  

When I think of the word “remember” the first thing that pops into my head is that word’s opposite, which is “forget.”  But when I think about that guy dying on a cross next to Jesus, I have a hard time believing that all he wanted from him was for Jesus to think nice thoughts about him once he got settled on his throne at the right hand of God.  

I don’t think that guy wanted Jesus to simply “not forget him.”  I think he wanted.... I think what he desperately needed... was not to be remembered (as in the opposite of being forgotten) but to be RE-membered (as in the opposite of being DIS-membered).  

Now, of course the guy on the cross beside Jesus was not being physically dismembered, but he was being cut off in almost every other way you could imagine.  Cut off from his family, from his community, from his faith, from his dignity, from his self-worth, from his identity, from his hopes, from his dreams, from his future and of course from his life.  

That thief on the cross (who wasn’t a thief) didn’t need Jesus to just think of him fondly in the sweet by and by.  That thief on the cross (who wasn’t a thief) needed someone to pick up the pieces of his horribly Dis-membered life and RE-member him... He needed someone to put him back together, to make him whole again and he believed Jesus had the power to do that.  

I believe when Jesus told him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” Jesus didn’t just mean he’d have fond memories of this guy from his throne of glory.  I believe Jesus meant that he would be whole again... be fully RE-membered in a way that I don’t think any of us can fully comprehend.    

Now most of us, and I might even venture to say all of us will not have our lives ended by crucifixion, but I’m just as sure that each one of us has experienced being Dis-membered in our lives; cut off from life with a spouse, cut off from a career, cut off from children or relatives or friends or health or hopes or dreams or you name it and because we’ve been DIS-membered in our lives we too could desperately use more than to be fondly remembered from time to time... We too could use some real RE-membering!  The Good News of today is that we have been promised exactly that!  No matter how Dis-Membered we have become, the infinite and unconditional love of God in Christ will RE-member us in ways we can not fully appreciate and being RE-membered will be Paradise!

To me, that’s some amazing grace... So far, I really like this new groove on this big black CD!  But there’s more to this song, and the next verse to this song is a little more challenging.  As followers of Jesus, as followers of the one who promises to RE-member us no matter how DIS-membered we’ve become, we too are called to be RE-member-ers as well.  

As individual disciples of Jesus, the original “RE-Member-er,” each one of us is called to do more for those around us who are hurting than to simply think fondly of them from time to time.  Our call is to open our eyes no matter what might be going on in our lives and see those around us who are hurting.  We are certainly to remember them in the prayers of our hearts and minds but it can’t stop there.  We are being called to live out those prayers with our hands and the rest of our being as well... to not just remember them, but to do all we can to RE-Member them; to help them gather up the pieces of their lives when they have been torn apart and help to put them back together... to help to make them whole.

There is one more verse to this song and it speaks to us together as a congregation; a congregation in a particular community in a particular time.  It speaks to us and calls us as a church to look out at our community and not just remember it in our hearts and prayers but to see where things like hunger, homelessness, poverty, addiction and being paid less than a living wage Dis-members our community.  It calls us then to not only remember our community in our hearts and with our prayers but to also actively work to RE-member it where is has been Dis-membered.  

The thief on the cross (who wasn’t a thief) asked Jesus to RE-member him.  The people in our lives, when they experience the hurts, losses and pains that are a part of life need us as individuals to RE-member them and our community looks to us as a church and needs us as a congregation to RE-member them as well.  

May we never be satisfied with only remembering.  May thinking kindly about and holding in prayer those who have been forgotten in our lives and our community never be the end.  May we instead bravely open our eyes and see those who have been Dis-membered and then work with our hearts and prayers but also our hands and the rest of our being to RE-member them so that one day we might all experience fully the Wonderful World in which God created all of us to live.  Amen.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Ford Finger of Doom!

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

In every Indiana Jones movie, it seems like Indy has to dig, fight, scratch and wade
through some difficult, dangerous and sometimes really disgusting stuff in order to get to finally uncover the treasure.  For us today, we are going to have to do some digging, scratching and wading through some nasty, smelly and just plain rotten biblical interpretation that’s been piled on top of this lesson over the years in order to get to the real treasure that lies inside.

Just like Indiana Jones, the first step in uncovering the treasure is to have a good understanding of history.  The apostle Paul came to the city of Thessaloniki somewhere
around 50 A.D.  He settled into the life of the town and began his work starting a new church.  Once the church was up and going, Paul left to continue his mission.  One of the things Paul believed very strongly and obviously instilled in the people of Thessaloniki was that Jesus was going to return.  We believe that too, but Paul assumed it was going to happen, literally ANY day.  

Understanding this is a really important clue to finding the treasure in this lesson.  Paul fully expected when he woke up every day to see Jesus smiling down on him with a cup of coffee in his hand.  OK, I added the coffee part, but the rest of it is exactly what Paul taught and the people believed him.    

After Paul left town, the new Christians tried to be faithful.  But the reality is that they were new to the faith; there was a lot they didn’t know.  They tried their best, but without Paul around and with the extremely limited cell service in Northern Greece at the time, they couldn't quickly get ahold of him so differences of opinion among the members of the church cropped up.  One of the things that they disagreed on was how exactly they were to wait for Jesus to return. 

Without good cell service the Thessalonians were forced to send Paul a letter asking for help.  We don’t have that letter, but we do have the letter Paul sent in reply.  Going on Paul’s reply we can figure out that apparently one group thought the faithful way to wait for Jesus was to keep doing the normal things they had done before.  Of course, now as Christians, they were to do those things in ways that intentionally showed their love of God and neighbor to the world.  The other group felt that the faithful way to wait was to stop doing what they had done before in order to show how much they fully trusted in Jesus’ immanent return (which remember, according to what Paul told them, was going to happen later today or tomorrow at the latest).

Over the years, Paul's really helpful response to their honest question about the most
faithful way to wait for Jesus' return has been buried under some horribly bad, stinky biblical interpretation worse than any Indiana Jones style snake filled Egyptian tomb, spider filled cave or rat filled Italian sewer.  What they have done, especially with verse 10, is to horribly contort this passage so that they can try to convince the world that God wants us to allow or even force people who don’t or even can’t work to go hungry.    

In seemingly every Harrison Ford movie, at some point, the character's anger comes to a head and as he confronts that person he points at them with what is known as "the
Ford Finger of Doom."  If you've seen a Harrison Form film, you know that look and   THAT is the look I have for the folks who use this lesson in that horribly wrong, horribly cruel way.  Simply put, this passage does NOT, NOT, NOT say anything of the sort!  Paul did NOT tell the Thessalonians to let children, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, the unemployed or underemployed go hungry if they didn’t put in a full day’s work.  Throughout all of scripture; through the Law, the wisdom literature, the prophets, the psalms, the Gospels and the letters, both individuals and governments are called by God explicitly over and over again to feed the hungry, care for the widow and the orphan, the sick and the disabled.  To twist this passage to say otherwise is just really bad Biblical interpretation at best and deserves the Ford Finger of Doom at the very least!

The real treasure of this lesson that gets hidden by that kind of bad biblical interpretation is that Paul did actually give us clear direction in how to live our lives while we wait for God to wrap everything up.  Specifically, we are to do our normal everyday stuff, in the normal everyday places life takes us, but NOW, as followers of Jesus, we are called to do those regular things in a way that allows our love of God and and our love of neighbor to shine through our regular lives in a way that God promises will transform the ordinary into something extraordinary!  Martin Luther said, “A dairy maid can milk cows to the glory of God. If your job is shoveling manure, then do your best and shovel that manure for the glory of God.”  I’ll let you decide who today shovels the greatest tonnage of manure for a living, but if they are indeed followers of Jesus, then they too are called to do their job in a way that allows the Christian unconditional love of God and neighbor to shine through in all that they do!

Faithful waiting turns out to mean living fully in the gift that is each and every present moment we are given.  Most of us probably won't just sit down on the lawn waiting for Jesus to return, but most of us will spend some or maybe even a bunch of the precious time that is our present, overanalyzing the things in our past and worrying about things that might happen in the future.  I know I’ve done it a lot in my life.  But worrying about the past or fretting about the future isn’t what faithful waiting looks like and it isn’t at all what gives us life.  Henry Nouwen, a Catholic Priest and all around smart guy writes, 

“The real enemies of our lives are the “oughts” and the “ifs.”  They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future.  But real life takes place in the here and the now.  God is a God of the present.  God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful…. That’s why Jesus came to wipe away the burden of the past and the worries for the future.  He wants us to discover God right where we are, here and now.”

The real treasure in this lesson is the truth that God’s deepest desire is for us to really and actively live!  By living our lives, not in the unalterable past or in the unpredictable future but by loving God and loving our neighbor in every moment of the present, we will discover the abundant life God created for us all to live.  Then, in living that abundant life, which is so different than the way so much of the world lives... by putting the needs of others before our own needs, we will not only experience the joy God created for us to have in our present, but we will join with God in transforming the whole world into the place of joy, love, compassion, grace and justice God is determined creation will become.  Amen.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Why THAT Painting?

Luke 20: 27-38
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Priests, pastors, bartenders and apparently seafood shack fry cooks all seem to be blessed in at least one similar way.  We all hear wonderful stories. 

Peter has been a regular for the last two summers at The Shack and he shared the story of growing up on one half of an old Quaker farm.  Andrew and Betsy Wyeth owned the other half.

The day after Christmas in 1960, Peter was in Andy’s studio (he calls him Andy) and Andy told him to “have a good look” at the paintings in the room.  That’s when Andy sprung “The Game” on him for the first time, “Peter, the house is on fire, which one painting do you grab on the way out?”  

Peter pointed to one particular painting.  
“Good,” said Andy, “now tell me WHY you chose that one.”  Peter shared that he said something about the young bull’s coat and the wall matching, but that, apparently, was not the end of what Andy was looking for from Peter.

He says that, “Andy’s eyes narrowed down until he was squinting, almost glaring, at me... he was standing close to me and he suddenly looked very fierce to the ten-year old me.”
“Peter,” Andy said, very directly, “I mean I want you to REALLY tell me WHY you like this one.”  

It was Andrew Wyeth’s fierce, squinting challenge for Peter to leave the surface, the place most of us spend much of our lives, and dive into the infinite... into the Holy... into the eternal MORE.

It was the beginning of a journey for Peter... not a physical journey, but one that challenged him, and from what I’ve come to know of him, continues to challenge him to never stop journeying further into the ever deepening questions of life.

The question the Sadducees asked Jesus in today’s Gospel was not meant to challenge anyone to go deeper into anything... it was meant to accomplish the exact opposite... to stop Jesus from continuing to invite people to go deeper into the infinite... into the Holy... into the MORE.  For the Sadducees, there was no journey.  They were there.    

As Jesus pivoted to answer the question which the Sadducees had set as a trap, in my minds eye, I picture Jesus with Andy’s eyes, looking at Sadducees much like Peter describes Andy looking at him in his story; eyes narrowed down until he was squinting, almost glaring... standing close and suddenly looking fierce, Jesus said to the Sadducees and the other religious and political leaders of his day, “I want you to REALLY tell me WHY. Why do you insist on limits and on death when God is always and all about the infinite and LIFE!?  Why?”

The Sadducees were basically a denomination of Judaism.  A big part of their belief led them to only accept the first five books of the Scriptures; that meant no prophets, no history, no psalms, no proverbs and none of the new ideas found in those places... things like angels and the resurrection of the dead.  They were the wealthy, powerful traditionalists of their day.  They didn’t want to hear there was anything wrong with what they believed or the way they lived and saw no reason for anything to change.  

You can see why they weren’t big fans of Jesus.  Jesus not only talked about “new” religious ideas they didn’t believe in, like resurrection and angels but he also talked about other, even more pointed ideas from the wisdom literature and the prophets... he talked a lot about Biblical justice... the notion that God wants the poor lifted up, demands the hungry have enough to eat, insists the sick be cared for and the outcasts be brought back into the community.

Jesus’ insistence that God aches for all of creation not just to live, but to live abundantly and his further insistence that it is each one of us who is called to bring that abundant life to our neighbors was just way too much for the Sadducees to take.   

It was too much because Jesus wasn’t only challenging the way they looked at their religious lives, he was challenging the way they looked at the social, the political, the business parts of life... every, single, aspect of their very comfortable, very stable and very traditional everyday lives.  He was challenging them to leave the security and familiarity of the surface where they had always existed before, and go deeper, journey farther... to see the world through God’s eyes... to see God’s vision for creation and hear God’s deepest desire that God’s will be done, “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Now, there is a long and rich Christian tradition of being pretty hard on Chief Priests, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees; the religious and political leaders who opposed Jesus... much of it well deserved.  But before we come down too hard on these Sadducees, we should probably keep in mind that they were considered among the most faithful people of their day.  When the rest of the world was messing around on the Lord’s Day, THEY were the ones who were faithfully in worship.  THEY were the keepers of tradition while everyone else chased after every new fangled idea and program, THEY were, well, in a way, a lot like us.    

When Jesus turned to stare at them 2000 years ago, as I imagine, with narrowing, squinting... almost glaring eyes... he challenged the people of that time who had become the settled, established, set religious and political leaders of the world.

He challenged them to take up the journey they had set aside, the journey God created them to take and to again dive deeply into the infinite that is God’s love for all of creation.  His challenge for them was to once again embrace God’s vision of not just existing from day to day on the surface, but diving deeply into God’s love and compassion for all of creation and daring them to really and fully LIVE!

Just as Wyeth challenged Peter that day after Christmas in 1960 to go deeper with his intense question of “Why, would you take THAT painting?” Jesus challenged the world then, and challenges us today to ask the questions that will open us up to God’s Holy and Infinite MORE.

Do the questions we ask of ourselves invite us... even compel us... deeper on that journey toward the vision of the abundant life that God wants for us and all of creation?  Or do the questions we ask ourselves stop us from looking more deeply into the eternal because we have become too content floating comfortably on the surface of life?

May each of us as individuals be open to the questions that challenge us to go deeper.  May we as the people of God open ourselves together to a never ending journey of faith, helping one another to see the surprising ways God is working all around us, in us and through us each and every day.  May we all choose, both as individuals and as the people of God, to dive each and every day ever deeper into the abundant life God created for all of creation to LIVE.  Amen. 

Thanks goes to Peter Ralston, one of the people I was meant to meet on my journey through Maine.  The paintings I've included are by Andrew Wyeth.  The photographs, including Andy's portraits, are by Peter Ralston.  Peter's gallery in Rockport has both Wyeth's work and Peter's available for you to see.   Stop by in person if you're in the area. Peter's also a great storyteller. For more visit