Friday, December 23, 2016

A Sign is Not the Thing to which it Points

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 1st Chapter

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. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

When I leave my house and start driving toward the church, somewhere in the middle of my drive a pass a sign that points toward Augusta.  Now, if I were to pull my car over at that sign, stand in the middle of the road and declare to the world, “I am now in Augusta!” what would you think?  You’d probably think first, “You better get out of the road before you get hit by a car” and then you’d think, “Dude, that’s a SIGN that points TO Augusta.  That’s not Augusta.”  And then you’d think, “How much eggnog has this guy been drinking this morning anyway?”  A sign that points to Augusta, isn’t Augusta.  It’s a sign.  It might be an awesome sign.  It might be an accurate sign and it might even be a beautiful sign.  But it’s still only a sign.  It’s not Augusta.  

Today we read, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  The Word this passage is talking about is Jesus.  John does not mean for us to mistake the Bible for the Word of God.  The Word is Jesus.  The Bible is not worthy of our worship and praise.  It’s Jesus that’s worthy of our worship and praise.  John is not calling us to follow the Bible.  John is calling us to follow Jesus, the walking, breathing, healing, feeding, dying and rising Son of God who has been around from before time began and is the source of all light and life.  

When people talk about following the Bible, or believing in the Bible or treating the Bible as something that should be worshiped and praised, they’re talking about following a sign, believing in a sign, and worshiping a sign… and NOT following, believing or worshiping the ONE to whom that sign points.  

Martin Luther put it this way, “The Scriptures are the manger in which the Word of God is found.”  The Wise Men we will celebrate coming twelve days from today on Epiphany didn’t take Jesus out of the manger, give him to Mary and then proceed to present gold, frankincense and myrrh to the manger!  They came to see and worship and honor and follow the Word made flesh, the ONE lying IN the manger.  Jesus, the Messiah... the Christ.  

You and I are called to nothing less than to follow the ONE found lying in a manger.  That’s why we don’t pull over our lives and just stop at a sign that points to Jesus.  That’s why we don’t stop today’s activities with prayers for the hungry alone.  We don’t stop at the sign.  We keep walking the road Jesus walks… today that means after we pray for the hungry with our eyes closed and hands folded, we then prepare a meal and fill the hungry with good things, both with a meal for the belly but also with the dignity due Children of God.  

The last bit of today’s reading from John says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  A better translation of that is that, “the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us.”  The Word of God… Jesus… isn’t a destination.  It’s not a book or a building either.  The Word of God is always on the move, pitching the Divine tent among God’s most vulnerable people who are here today and over on Summer Street tomorrow and at Bread of Life on Monday and in countless places around the world every day.

May we never find ourselves hung up, transfixed by a sign or stuck in one spot.  May we always stay on the move, following the One to which the signs point and live our lives like he lived… On the move, constantly seeking out and finding the ones most in need and pitching our tent with theirs.  In doing that, we will most certainly see God’s glory, full of grace and truth.  Amen.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Noise, noise, noise, NOISE!

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.

In my family I’m known at this time of year as Scroogy McGrinchypants.  You may call me either Pastor Scroogy or Father McGrinchypants!  Another priest recently asked why I didn’t get excited for Christmas?  Ironically, I think it’s one of the things that drove the original Grinch over the edge as well.  It’s the noise… the noise, noise, noise, NOISE!  Now, the original Grinch’s reaction was admittedly, pretty harsh… stealing all their wandanglers and who-whoolers and not leaving even one can of Who Hash, but I think, in his own, twisted, green and grinchy way, the Grinch can teach us something important about Christmas that is often lost.  

Take a look again at the original Christmas story we just read from Luke’s Gospel.  The first part has Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  It’s not a parade with giant inflatables, marching bands and singing sensations sponsored by Macy’s.  It’s Joseph, Mary, their unborn child and I’ll even throw in a donkey if you want.  But that's it!  The point is, it’s quiet.  No lights, bands or music and their journey happens at the exact opposite of a manic pace, and yet, God is present.  God is with them in the quiet, as they walk, every step of the way.  

Then the time comes and Mary delivers her baby in a barn.  No bright lights, doctors or nurses.  No Facebook announcements or fireworks.  I’m guessing there was some noise when Mary gave birth and I’m sure Joseph got blamed, because whatever guy is in the room always gets blamed whether they had anything to do with it or not!  But largely it was quiet, small and intimate…and yet, God was with them… right there in the quiet, through every breath and push, every step of the way.  

The Shepherds hear of the birth of Jesus, out in the quiet of the pastures of the countryside.  At first it’s only a single angel giving them the news in the quiet of the night.  It’s dark and quiet and intimate and personal and yet, God was present with them through it all.  They go and visit the Holy Family in the quiet of the noiseless night, free from the sounds of motors and traffic and the rest of the world’s noise and they tell them what they have seen and heard, not with a crazy display of manic excess and wildness, but in wonder and mystery and awe and yet, God is present in that as well.  

Now, I’ll give you that sandwiched in between all that calm, quiet, small and intimate, there was a moment where the multitude of the Heavenly Host sang “Glory to God in the Highest” and that was clearly a “pull out all the stops” moment with lights, music, the Heavenly Host band and all the rest.  But when you look at the whole story.  The Heavenly Host are the exception, not the rule.  They are one course in a many course meal, one chapter in a story that is mostly small, quiet and intimate.   

So much of Christmas in our world has become all Heavenly Host all the time…  everything turned up to eleven, with all the stops pulled out and every light blazing away continually since Halloween!  That becomes the only way God comes to us and turned up to eleven is the only way to be in the Christmas spirit.  It’s true, God is present in the lights and the sounds and in the breaking into the world with the Heavenly Host in tow.  But I think the Grinch unintentionally helped the Who’s recapture a larger truth… that when Christmas is ONLY lights, parades, and life lived at a frenetic pace we miss something important about the way God comes to us.  

God does come with the heavens breaking open and with the singing of a heavenly host… but God also comes quietly in Joseph’s dreams and along a slow and winding road as that little family travels from one little town to the next.  God comes in a field in the quiet countryside and in the birth of a child in a hotel barn and to all of us, even now, in the quiet words “the Body of Christ, given for you” at the Eucharist.  

God does come to us with trumpet sounds and choirs of Heavenly Host, but God also comes to us in a still small voice bringing an inextinguishable light into the quiet, dark places of our regular, everyday lives as well.  It’s a part of how God comes to us that I think is worth remembering.  We do give a nod to that truth now and again and tonight we’ll do that as we extinguish the lights and sing Silent Night by candle light.  But even here we’ll quickly turn the lights back on and belt out Joy to the World!  

The message of Christmas is that God is with us.  God is with us in the times of our lives that are wild, bright, frantic and filled with noise, noise, noise, NOISE!  But the message of Christmas is that God is ALSO with us in the quiet, the dark, the still and the small as well.  God is with us… holding us in an infinite love that will never be broken, in the noise and in the quiet... In every moment of our lives.  So in amongst the noise, noise, noise, NOISE of this Christmas, take a moment today and maybe even take a moment every day of this coming year to simply be still and know that God is with you, loving you beyond measure… always.  Amen.  

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Where Do You Look for Hope?

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 1st Chapter

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. 

Interesting story, isn’t it?  Joe found himself in a hopeless situation.  He loved Mary, but she was pregnant and he wasn’t the father.  How could he stay with Mary and be faithful to her when the law told him the faithful thing was to send her away?  How would he handle his community’s scorn?  How would he fix this situation?  He was good at fixing things… being creative… working things out… he had hoped he could find a way to work this out as well.  But no matter what he did… no matter how deeply he reached into himself for the answer…this one he couldn’t fix.  It was a completely hopeless situation and you know what?  As long as his hope rested in HIS own ability to fix this unfixable thing, it WAS hopeless.  

I don’t want to be too hard on Joe though.  It’s a trap many of us fall into.  I have reason to hope that my driveway will get plowed.  But it doesn’t take too long to start thinking that my hope isn’t because God places generous people in my life, but because I have a phone and I can call Elmer.  I have hope, because I can use a phone!  I have reason to hope that my Christmas sermons will get written.  But it doesn’t take too long to start thinking THAT hope isn’t because the Holy Spirit is generous with inspiration but because I’m creative and good at writing.  I hope because I've written sermons before!  Over time, we fool ourselves into believing that the reason we should hope that things will get done, problems will get fixed and solutions will be found, is because WE are good at getting things done, getting things fixed and finding solutions.  

But what happens when things grow beyond the level of snow and sermons?  What happens when the images of the horrors of Allepo fill my screen?  What happens when I look at our deeply divided country… when I hear all the hate and racism… when I see people I love leaving our church… when there is no choice other than to watch the bells come down and the ascension window being wrapped up and driven away?  I’ve foolishly taught myself to place my reason for hope in my own abilities, so I wrack my brain, dig deeper and try to figure these things out and I toss and turn in the middle of the night and I look even deeper for hope in my smarts, creativity and my ability to fix it.  After all, that’s where I’ve found a reason to hope before… inside myself.  So why are these things hopeless?  These are bigger than snow or sermons.  They’re HUGE in fact.  No matter how deep I go into myself, they are beyond my ability to fix… They’re hopeless! And in hopelessness I end up immobilized, paralyzed and completely undone.  

And the truth that Joseph confronted and the truth that the world confronts us with now, is that as long as we keep looking within ourselves for the answer… as long as our source of hope for a resolution rests in our ability to come up with a solution, we will all eventually encounter something too big for the likes of me and you and we'll all end up in hopelessness… immobilized, paralyzed and completely undone.  

That’s where Joseph was when he went to bed that night.  He had tried and failed to find an answer within himself and went to sleep in hopelessness.   But that’s not the end of this story, is it?  An angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream.  I imagine the scene like this... Joseph in his dream is looking deeply into a mirror… looking, searching, longing to see a reason to hope, the source of hope, in that reflection.  Now imagine the angel taking Joseph gently by the head and physically turning him... redirecting his gaze from the mirror where he could see no hope and toward the unlimited source of hope.  Imagine the REAL source of hope now coming into focus right in front of his eyes.  Ironically, it had been there the whole time, right there, bulging out from Mary’s maternity clothes… the Christ child… Immanuel… God with us.  

The soon to be born Christ child is the unlimited source of hope that neither Joe, nor you, nor me will EVER find in a mirror.  It had been there… RIGHT THERE, ALL ALONG, through all of Joseph's squirming and scheming, planning and plotting as he spiraled further toward hopelessness… right there all along, bulging out from Mary’s maternity cloths was the One with the power.  Power to handle the little things... the things we convince ourselves we've handled all on our own.  But also with the power to transform even the impossible things like the horrors of Allepo, turning spears to plowshares and unite the impossibly divided getting lions to lay down with lambs.  RIGHT THERE! All this time!  Immanuel.  God with us.  There IS a reason to hope, even in the midst of the most horrible and impossible and the source of the hope was in Mary's womb.  

When Joseph stopped trying to do God’s work, when he stopped looking for his source of hope in a mirror, when he stopped trying to fit the plans of God into a box of his own design… when Joseph stopped trying to BE God, he was suddenly free to hear God calling him to simply be the person God created him to be and play his part in God’s work of making all things new… he was free then, to give his love to Mary, to care for her and to care for the child to whom she would soon give birth.  

Like Joseph, we get trapped, looking into a mirror... searching there for solutions to problems big and small… looking there for a reason to hope.  But as long as we’re looking to ourselves for solutions and looking to our own abilities and resources as our source and reason for hopefulness we’ll always come up empty.  

May the angel of the Lord come to us all this Advent.  May that angel take us gently by the head and redirect our gaze from the mirror, which is so tempting but can never show us the source of the hope we need, and may the angel of the Lord redirect our gaze onto the One who is the unlimited source of all hope and life, the One found in the womb of a woman named Mary, cared for by a man named Joseph, the One who is Immanuel… God with us.  Amen. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

We're All Just Part of the Brood

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 3rd Chapter

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

You brood of vipers!  It feels good to say that, or at least think it really loudly, doesn’t it?  It feels good to size that other joker up and see their snake-like, slithering, poison-filled, sneakiness and at least sneer knowingly.  And these days there’s an extra large brood of snake-like, slithering sneakiness out there to call out for sure, right?!  You brood of vipers!  Yup, it feels good!  And from up here, high above the lawn, it’s easy to see all those snakes in the grass, filled with poison, slithering through life.  And from up here it’s easy to point at them and scream, “You brood of vipers!” so the whole world knows who they are!  

It’s great to do that… to point out the snakes of the world… It’s great to do that… right up to the very moment, out of the corner of your eye, you just happen to catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and maybe for the first time ever, begin to wonder… “Could it be that this whole time, I’ve been the pot calling the kettle black... or the rattlesnake calling the copperhead a viper?” 

There are basically two human reactions to trying to come to terms with the idea that you are in fact, part of that brood of vipers.  The first reaction is how the Sadducees and the Pharisees reacted, which can be summed up with the intricate, deep and theologically complex phrase of, “NUH UH!”  Nuh uh, I am NOT a snake in the grass!  Nuh uh, my family has been church members for generations!  I can’t be part of the brood!  Nuh uh, I follow every bit of doctrine and know Scripture backwards and forwards!  I can’t be part of the brood!  That’s one possible reaction.

The other reaction to seeing your snake-like reflection in the mirror is to do like the people from Jerusalem and Judea all did and promise, promise, PROMISE to stop acting like snakes.  To stop slithering.  To stop flicking out your tongue and to certainly, absolutely, positively stop opening your mouth and letting venom spew out!  

Of those two options, John the Baptist was a much bigger fan of folks promising and trying… really and truly trying… to NOT act like a brood of vipers when they went back to their lives in Jerusalem and Judea.  But as big a fan of repentance as John the Baptist was, he still KNEW, that even doing that… even trying really, really, REALLY hard to not act so snake like, it was nothing more than a temporary fix.  

John knew that you and I are like a mixed orchard of good and bad trees... that we're not like individual trees.  There aren’t some of us who are completely fruitless and others who deliver a bumper crop each and every season.  John knew that you and I are each more like our own little orchards.  Each one of us have trees in our orchard that make only rotten apples but we also all have other trees that rain down good fruit all the time.  John knew that about people and so he asked them to pay attention… to get to know themselves more deeply... to feed the parts that bore good fruits and not stir up the parts of themselves that spewed venom.  But John ALSO knew that doing that… giving more of our time and energy to the good parts of ourselves… even doing that very, very well couldn’t change our nature.  Only the One who was coming with an ax could change the mix of trees in our individual orchards.  

John KNEW, that you and I… we’re all Saints and Sinners… all of us with both types of trees in our orchards… all of us with our saintliness and our sin, impossibly wrapped up around one another like the chaff is impossibly wrapped around the grain.  On our own, John knew that we could try… and we really and truly ought to try… but on our own we would never be able to change the makeup of our human nature… we would never be able to clear the dead wood from the orchards of our lives… we would never be able to separate the wheat of our saintliness from the chaff of our sin.  We could try… and John was adamant that we DO try… but alone we would always be part of that brood of vipers.  

John the Baptist KNEW that eventually, even with the most sincere and heart rending repentance… eventually our snake-like qualities would get out.  John the Baptist KNEW that you and I simply WANTING to not be part of that brood of vipers wasn’t enough to change us at our core.  To be changed at our core required more than just our own will-power.  To be changed in our nature we needed One more powerful than even John the Baptist... and John the Baptist was powerful, being fueled on a diet of bugs and honey after all.  But even THAT wasn't powerful enough.  To change THAT deeply we needed One who’s sandals John was not worthy to even carry.  To be transformed from a brood of vipers into the Children of God we were created to be, we needed the One who would Baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire!  

The Good News that John was proclaiming was THAT One was coming!  The Good News for you and I, is THAT One has COME!  His name is Jesus and with power beyond you and me and with even more power than the bug-fueled John the Baptist, God in Christ has washed the dead wood out of the orchards of our lives in the waters of Baptism.  Through Jesus's death and resurrection, God in Christ has separated the wheat from the chaff of our lives and feeds us now with the bread of life right there at that Table.  And each and every single day, God in Christ continually transforms us from a brood of vipers into Children of God!  Thanks be to God!  

May we, as transformed orchards, winnowed grain, and children of God, take the fruits that we've been given and share them generously with the world.  Amen.  

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Keep Awake!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 24th Chapter
“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.

This summer, before I went on vacation, I went to see Kristen.  Kristen is a friend and a spiritual director, for lack of a better and less trendy, official title.  My goal in that visit was to find a way to hand off my worries to God… personal worries, church worries, worries about the country and worries about the world.  I wanted to hand them all off to God for the next three weeks.  Normally, you see, I do all that worrying FOR God, but for those three weeks of vacation, I thought that if I asked nicely, God might do that worrying for me and let me have a break.  

Now, the technical, churchy, religious word for me believing that I need to take on all of the world’s, the church’s and life’s worries is… well, SIN… it’s not trusting God to be God.  The secular, worldly word for me trying to take on all of the world’s, the church’s and life’s worries is… REALLY DUMB and I know that’s two words but it’s SO “dumb” it earns a free bonus adjective.  So, letting go of that worry wasn’t just a way to return to faithfulness… it was also just, plain smart.  

So, with Kristin’s guidance, prayer, some meditation and reflection I asked God to forgive my lack of trust and help me to genuinely let go of those worries… but just for the next three weeks.  Now, I’m not one who normally hears God out loud with my ears, but in that moment, I think I pretty clearly heard God laughing at me.  Not in a mean way, but in a way that basically said, Erik, I love you, and because I love you, I sure wish you wouldn’t keep trying to make your life harder than it has to be.  God was telling me, “I’d be glad to take on the world’s worries for the next three weeks, and just as a reminder, I handle the whole world just fine whether you’re worrying about it or not.”    

I knew it was true.  I know it IS true now.  But like St. Paul, I seem to do the things I know I shouldn’t do, like worry about things I can’t control, and don’t do the stuff I should do, like trust that God can fully handle being God without my help.  Continually, though it seems that I fall short of that glory.

It appears, however, that I’m not alone in this problem.  A lot earlier on in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells us we really shouldn’t worry any more than the wildflowers in the fields worry.  Then here in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us that NO ONE, not even Jesus, can know about Jesus’ return.  Jesus reminds his disciples and you and me that when it comes to the universe and all of creation, God really is in control… and that God, believe it or not, can AND DOES take care of ALL things and because of that, we really don’t have to worry.  

We really don’t need to worry.  God really does, like the old Sunday School song says, have the whole world in His hands.  So, being paralyzed by worry, certainly isn’t a faithful way to live.  BUT, there’s alway a “but” isn’t there… but the other extreme of checking out from the needs of those around us and sticking our fingers in our ears and shouting lalalalalalala while our neighbors are in pain isn’t faithful either.  There is, however, a faithful, middle way here between pointless worry and irresponsible escape and that is the goal of Advent.  It’s a time to focus and practice living in a way that holds the pains of the world around us in one hand, but balances that by holding the infinite power of God’s promise to make all things new, firmly in the other.  

THAT’S what it means to KEEP AWAKE.  Being AWAKE, is that middle path between being crushed into inaction by the weight of the world’s troubles and pretending the world is trouble free.  Being AWAKE is BOTH being honestly aware of the world around you… aware that there are things like injustice, systematic racism, misogyny, and hate AND ALSO not allowing that reality to crush you to a point where you can no longer allow Christ’s light to shine through you and make a difference in the world.  

Advent is a time in the church year set aside to focus on and practice that balance.  On this early end of Advent we hear stories that make us AWAKE again to the realities that life is unpredictable, often unfair and much too often, painful as well.  On this end of Advent we are made AWAKE to the realities that you can be at work one day with your friend and in the blink of an eye that friend has died and your everyday reality has been instantly changed forever.  But then, on the other end of Advent, we hear stories that remind us that God's Light shines in the darkness and there is NO sort of darkness that can overcome it!  On the other end of Advent we have the truth of Immanuel… God with us… and the unfolding story of a God whose love for us can’t be stopped by anything or anyone… not even death.  

So, for this Advent, let’s help one another practice being AWAKE… constantly aware of BOTH the pains of the world, but ALSO aware and buoyed up by the power of God in Christ, continually at work bringing peace, light and life into the world.  Advent reminds us that you and I… we are called deeply into BOTH.  Each week we receive the Light of the World in, with and under the bread and wine and each week we are called to bring the light we have received out into the world and let it shine through the cracks of our imperfect lives, into the lives of those who cross our paths.  When we allow ourselves to be crushed by the weight of the world’s troubles, we close in on ourselves and the light we carry has trouble shining out BUT ALSO if we try to escape the world’s troubles and literally or figuratively pull the covers over our heads and hide away, it’s equally difficult for the light we’ve received to shine into the world.  

So spend this Advent practicing being AWAKE.  AWAKE to the needs around you AND AWAKE to God in Christ, present and at work in the world.  AWAKE, we can faithfully make a difference in the world around us where we can AND at the same time be at peace that God is truly in control and in God’s time and in God’s ways, God will complete God’s work of making all things new.  Amen. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Jesus, Re-Member Me

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke the 23rd Chapter

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.”

The thief on the cross (who wasn't a thief) said to Jesus “remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  The other man didn’t ask Jesus to remember him.  He asked Jesus to get him down… return him to a time when he wasn’t dying on a cross… back to a time when things hadn’t gone wrong.  Back to a time when he thought life had been better.  But going back to some nostalgic past, no matter how beautiful and wonderful it might have been isn’t the way to Paradise.

The thief on the cross (who wasn’t a thief) he, on the other hand, wanted Jesus to “Remember” him.  But he didn’t need Jesus to just think of him fondly in the sweet by and by.  He needed Jesus to RE-Member him… to put his life back together.  Now, I know he hadn’t been physically dismembered, but he was being cut off in almost every other way.  He was being 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.  

So, that thief on the cross (who wasn’t a thief) he needed the pieces of his horribly Dis-membered life to be PUT BACK TOGETHER, to be made whole again and he believed Jesus had the power to do that and 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 while he sat on his throne in glory.  Jesus meant that THROUGH death was the Paradise of being RE-membered.  The Paradise of being made whole again in every way he could imagine and in ways he could never imagine as well.

The other man couldn’t believe Paradise lay ahead.  He bargained to recapture the past, to go back and string together a few more days.  The thief on the cross (who wasn’t a thief), by the gift of the Holy Spirit, believed that the only place he would find wholeness and life lay ahead, THROUGH the uncertainty of the future, THROUGH the uncertainty of death and into Paradise. 

You and I will never be broken on a cross like those two men, but life breaks us into pieces just the same… life dis-members us in one way or another all the time.  We are 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 too have been DIS-membered in our lives, we too need more than just Jesus’s kind thoughts... All of us, in one way or another, need RE-membering!  

All of us who have been broken in one way or another… and that’s all of us… NEED to be made whole again.  The Good News of today is that we have been promised exactly that!  The hard part is believing that it is THROUGH that pain… THROUGH that death… THROUGH that dismemberment… that the infinite and unconditional love of God in Christ will RE-member us.  It WILL be different… it will never be like it was, but we will be RE-membered and that, we are promised, is Paradise!

The promise of being put back together after life has torn us apart… that’s grace.  But there’s more to this than a powerful promise given to us as individuals.  Together WE are the Body of Christ, not only a gathering of broken individuals but also, TOGETHER, we are the Body of Christ called to be RE-member-ers of the broken as well.  Together we are called to bring healing to the dis-membered gathered here today… together we are called to RE-member a world that seems increasingly torn apart… We are not only recipients of the promise that we will be RE-Membered but we are also called to be RE-member-ers too.  

As disciples of Jesus, who is the original “RE-Member-er,” we are 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 and see those around us who have been dis-membered… to care for those who are hurting.  We are certainly called 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 faithful presence, never doubting the power of being here.  To live out those prayers with generous giving, to help provide this place for the broken to gather.  To live out those prayers, sharing the skills we have been given and RE-Membering the broken; helping one another gather up the pieces of fractured lives when they have been torn apart and helping to put those lives back together... to help to make them whole.

The thief on the cross (who wasn’t a thief) asked Jesus to RE-member him.  The people around you here in this sanctuary, when they experience the hurts, losses and pains that are a part of life… they need YOU… each of you to RE-member them.  Our community too, when it’s broken and hurt, it looks to us as The Body of Christ and needs us as a congregation to work to RE-member them as well.  With our prayers we remember.  With our hearts and hands we remember.  With our generous giving that provides this place to gather and worship and care for each other and our community… we remember.  

Jesus, RE-Member me when you come into your Kingdom… Jesus, RE-Member us when you come into your Kingdom… Jesus, RE-Member our city, our country and our world when you come into your Kingdom and Jesus, feed us now at your Table and through your broken body, made whole in the resurrection, give us your light and strength and wisdom to be RE-Member-ers in your name and guide us to show the world a glimpse of Paradise.  Amen.  

Friday, November 11, 2016

Waiting the Jesus Way

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 21st Chapter

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

(2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 is also referenced below as well)

What’s going to happen now?  What do we do now?  No matter how you voted, what’s next is unknown.  So, what do we do now?  Today’s lessons have the key.  Today, following the election, just like every other day following every other situation and event that has ever happened or ever will happen… we are called to wait.  

When we hear people shout “The end is near!” we are called to wait.  When folks talk about and threaten and sow fear about wars and insurrections, we’re called to wait.  When earthquakes happen and people go hungry and when all the signs, whether they are real and accurate signs or false and fear filled signs… when those signs point to destruction and terrible times ahead.  We are called to wait.  

Now, the danger in hearing that we are called every day to wait, even while the world around might be falling apart or being torn apart, is that we will make a mistake in HOW we are called to wait.  Making that mistake is what some of the people in the second lesson were doing, but Paul put them straight. 

The Apostle Paul believed that Jesus would return… which we still believe… but Paul believed it would happen, before dinner-ish.  Every day he woke up, he HONESTLY expected Jesus to be standing there with a cup of coffee and a smile for him!  Paul passed that, “gonna happen literally any minute”, expectation on to the people in Thesolonika and some of the people took that so much to heart that they stopped EVERYTHING they were doing… they stopped working, stopped caring for their families, stopped caring for their neighbors… they stopped LIVING… and all they did was lay on the church lawn, look up to the sky and wait for Jesus.  They thought that was faithful waiting.  After all, they would see Jesus first and not be caught off guard.  

That lesson isn’t a justification for not feeding the hungry.  It’s an instruction on how we are to wait.  You see, you don’t get called before governors or kings, heck, you don’t even get called before mayors and city councils for just lying on the front lawn of the church, looking up at the sky and dreaming about Jesus returning.  You get called before governors and kings, mayors and city councils because of what you’ve been actively doing in Jesus’ name… because you’ve been waiting for Jesus by ACTIVELY and insistently living the Jesus Way out in the world!  It’s the ACTIVE loving of God, by insisting on the dignity of the least, lost and last in our community that gets you in trouble.  It’s ACTIVELY loving of our neighbors, feeding the hungry and giving the cold a warm place to stay that gives the world fits.  

Waiting as Jesus and Paul have called us to wait means living as Jesus lived, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, housing the homeless, caring for the widow and orphan and it is doing that work with endurance… doing what we can… not more than we can… but what we can, and doing it today and tomorrow and the next day and the next… making what often feels like only a tiny, and often almost imperceivable difference, but making that difference with endurance over a lifetime.  It means working on poverty, homelessness, hunger and all the rest like the Colorado River works at creating the Grand Canyon.  Jesus reminds us that living the Jesus way requires endurance.  The Jesus way is not a sprint.  It’s a series of marathons, run by a multitude of runners each handing the baton on to the next.  

None of us know what’s going to happen next.  Not really.  Not in our country, our world or our church.  No one can know that for sure.  But I DO KNOW how we are called to wait for God to complete the work begun in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.  I DO KNOW how we are called to wait for God to finish making all things new.  We are called to wait the Jesus Way… actively doing what we can to share God’s love with the people around us.  We are called to wait the Jesus Way… seeing Christ in our neighbors when others see “foreigners” or “enemies” or “thugs” and “terrorists”.  We are called to wait the Jesus way, remembering that sprinting a marathon or trying to dig the Grand Canyon in a day or single handedly attempting to save the planet, or even just Augusta, or even just our church, is not a recipe for faithfulness.  

We are called to wait the Jesus way, taking on a few things that make a difference, doing them well, and setting a manageable pace so that we can run those races with endurance for as long as it takes.  It means handing off the baton to the next runner before we fall on the track in exhaustion.  Because the race we are running… may take as long as it took for the Colorado River to make the Grand Canyon… and remember, the Colorado river isn’t done making that canyon yet either!  

Regardless of who occupies the positions of power in Washington, in Augusta or even here in this church, each of us is called, and each of us has all that we need to wait the Jesus Way.  We have God and we have each other.  So, find the tiny ways you can make a difference.  Try not to become paralyzed by the enormity of what needs to be done.  Look for little glimpses of joy each day, not for the day that the whole world suddenly becomes joyful.  Give a smile as you give with generosity what you have to give and then, when you've given all you have to give, remember you still have your smile.  

So what are we going to do now?  The same thing God has asked us to do every day throughout all of history.  We’re going to wait.  Wait by putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, making whatever difference we can make by loving God and loving our neighbor every step of the way.  What are we going to do now?  We’re going to wait, but let’s remember that we have been called to wait the Jesus Way.  Amen.  

Friday, November 4, 2016

Blessed are the Losers

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 6th Chapter

Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Everything we hear these days is about winners and losers.  From the world series, to the pipeline battle to this never-ending election, it’s all about winners and losers and EVERYONE wants to be a winner, often at any cost.  But this winner/loser obsession isn’t just something we hear on TV.  Even in Chipotle the other day, there was a sign on the Sprite valve on the fountain machine telling everyone that today Sprite was not a winner!  

The thing is, for most of the world not being a winner is a terrible thing.  The only thing worse than not being a winner is being a loser!  But here in Luke’s Gospel the “normal” world is turned upside down in a terribly inescapable way as Jesus declares… Blessed are you who are poor.  Not, blessed are you who are poor in SPIRIT, like in Matthew’s Gospel.  This is just straight up POOR, which is clearly not a winning position.  But Jesus isn’t done.  He goes on to tell the world… Blessed are you who are hungry.  Not, blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness like in Matthew’s Gospel.  Clearly here in Luke’s Gospel, this isn’t some sort of spiritual poverty Jesus is talking about.  This is not-enough-money-to-pay-the-rent, poverty.  This isn’t a spiritual hunger Jesus is calling blessed.  This is a growling-stomach-that-doesn’t-know-where-to-find-a-meal kind of hunger that Jesus is calling blessed. 

But how can this be!?  Twenty nine hours a day for every single day for over a year now, on TV and online and on the radio and on signs we have heard relentlessly until our ears are ready to bleed, how important, essential, critical for the survival of the whole universe it is to be a winner and avoid by any and every means necessary, being a loser!  And then today, into ALL of that hoopla, drama and shouting about winning, Jesus calmly and quietly this morning proclaims, “Blessed are the losers” and as if THAT wasn’t already too much to process he adds, as a footnote, “Woe to the winners.”  

We like Matthew’s version of these beatitudes because we can spiritualize the losing and THAT lets us more easily fool ourselves into believing WE can make ourselves winners.  In Matthew, we’re not poor, we’re just poor in spirit and so, if we do just a little more prayer we’ll be back to spiritual winning before we know it!  In Matthew we’re not physically hungry, we’re not lined up at the food bank, we’re just hungry for righteousness and so with just a bit more effort, we’ll make ourselves righteous in no time at all!  

Luke’s version doesn’t allow for us to fool ourselves like that.  Luke’s version INSISTS that it is precisely those who KNOW… who KNOW at their core, through pain, shame, hard knocks and devastating loss that they CAN’T do EVEN the most basic things on their own, who are blessed in God’s Kingdom!  Luke’s version demands that we listen to Jesus and really, really hear that it is the broken, the hungry, the poor, the weeping, the losers who have come to understand… who are blessed to understand… that there is NOTHING we can accomplish on our own, apart from God.  They KNOW, “I can not by my own reason or strength believe” or for that matter even eat or find shelter or do ANYTHING on their own.  They KNOW that it’s ONLY through a gift from God that they have life, find a bed and have a meal to eat.  They KNOW we are ALL losers without God’s infinite and unconditional love and grace.  

Being poor, being hungry, being broken, being a loser are all held up by our world as the most horrible things you could ever be these days, but Jesus knew that being broken, even though it was painful and terrible was ALSO the window through which we might better see God at work in our lives.  Neither Jesus, nor anyone else would WISH poverty, hunger, grief or brokenness on another person, but Jesus knew that WHEN those things came into our lives… and because we're human, they do in one way or another… we would be blessed with an opportunity to see God’s love at work in our lives in ways that the rich, the full and the winners never would.  

In Japan, there is an art form called Kintsugi.  In this art form, ceramic bowls that have become broken are repaired in a unique way.  The artist doesn’t attempt to hide the cracks, but instead draws the eye to them by repairing them with gold.  The repaired bowls are then even more valuable than when they were unbroken.  Both the expense of the gold, but also the new beauty of the bowl, contribute to the bowl’s greater value.  

Jesus says, “Blessed are the cracked bowls in our community.”  “Blessed are those who are broken.”  “Blessed are the losers.”  For through their poverty, hunger, cracks and brokenness they have been blessed with the opportunity to glimpse God’s grace in ways that the rich, the full, and those who insist they are flawless will never know.  And blessed are we, when we stop trying to look away or worse yet, throw away those who are cracked and broken in our community.  Because it is THROUGH their cracks and brokenness AND our own cracks and brokenness, that we will see that God's precious love and compassion has made us more valuable than we could have ever been if we had just been left to ourselves to suffer through this life as flawless, perfect, well fed and wealthy winners.  Amen.