The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's about time

Advent 1A
Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come. Amen.

Advent is finally here. And there’s really only one thing to say: it’s about time.

If you’ve been inside a retail store in the past few weeks you’d probably think it was already Christmas. It seems to come earlier and earlier each year. The consumerism in our culture - and in all of us who are a part of that culture, really - demands that we fast-forward past the waiting and into the celebrating. We’ve lost our patience.

And the church says, “It’s about time.”

You hear the message every year - it’s not Christmas yet, we need to take some time for Advent.

We mark that in our liturgies: we try to build in a sense of anticipation through the music we sing and with periods of silence; we don’t decorate for Christmas yet; we don’t say Merry Christmas to each other yet. By the end of Advent, we start to look a little strange: the rest of the world has been celebrating Christmas for about a month, and we, in the church - the people for whom it should be most significant - have barely acknowledged it at all.

It’s about time.

We’re not good at waiting. We live in what I’ve often called a microwave culture. We don’t simmer; we zap. And there’s a degree to which that expression doesn’t even really capture it: perhaps we’ve even moved beyond the microwave culture to the point where even that seems too slow. Sometimes, when I’m reheating leftovers, I catch myself standing in front of the microwave wondering why the seconds tick by so slowly. I’m ready!

But here’s the thing: most times, once the microwave finally finishes its work, I look around and realize that I’ve forgotten to set the table. I was impatient, to be sure, but I wasn’t ready.

We often mistake the two - impatience and being ready. Being ready is about being prepared - about having taken the time and the steps necessary to accomplish a moment to its fullest potential. Impatience, on the other hand, is only about itself: a quest for gratification at the expense of potentially deeper satisfaction.

The readings for this morning begin to point our attention in a new direction - to the idea that God’s very self will be among us in a new way. It takes some time to wrap our minds around that. We can’t just thrust ourselves into this new way of seeing the world. If we do, we might not even see it. If we’re guided by impatience, all we will be able to see will be the seconds ticking by, and not the work left undone when the alarm sounds. Then, when it sounds, we’ll be left scrambling.

Paul, in his customarily eager approach to time, tells us, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Paul always believed that the return of Christ was just around the corner. He was eager, but not impatient. He used his eagerness to fuel his efforts at readiness, but didn’t allow it to devolve into impatience.

Jesus also seems to be saying the same kind of thing: “About that day and hour, no one knows… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

But what does any of this have to do with any of us?

Even if you’re of the school of thought that says that a literal and majestic second coming of Christ to triumph over the powers of the world is just over the horizon, we have to admit that it’s been over the horizon for some two-thousand years. At some point, don’t we have to just hang it up and live our lives outside of the anxiety and anticipation? Can’t we just say, “I’m ready!” already and stop watching the clock? If we’re not careful it could drive us mad!

I’ve always believed that we have a way of finding what we’re looking for. If we’re looking for anxiety, we almost always find it. If we’re looking for fear, we almost always find that.

But on the other hand, if we’re looking for love, chances are that’s what we’ll experience. If we’re looking for hope, it will be around every corner.

What might happen if we found ourselves looking for Christ?

The church doesn’t just delay the celebration of Christmas until Christmas Day because we’re old fashioned. We don’t do it because we’re curmudgeonly determined to stand against the ways of the rest of the world.

We wait because we believe we’ll find ourselves in the midst of our looking for Christ.

Advent is more countercultural than it ever has been, but it’s also more important. As we, in our culture, become more and more impatient, we feel the ache of anticipation in waiting more and more acutely. That ache gives rise to impatience, and often at the expense of readiness.

We could jump right in to Christmas, but would we really be ready? If we didn’t practice looking for Christ, what would we find at Christmas?

You know what time it is. It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. It’s time to get ready.

Advent is here, and it’s all about time. It’s about taking time to get ready. It’s about pressing back against our impatience and looking for Christ. Who knows what we’ll find…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Be glad and rejoice forever; by your endurance you will gain your souls

Pentecost 25; Proper 28C
Luke 21:5-19
Isaiah 65:17-25

In the name of God: One, Holy, and Living. Amen.

It’s tempting on a day like today to turn away from the Gospel and focus instead on the Old Testament lesson. It’s like we have two diametrically opposing worldviews presented to us in the course of a single worship service.

Shall we focus on Isaiah, with its wolves and lambs eating together as friends, and long lifetimes, and prosperous living? Or shall we instead focus on Jesus, with his promises of wars and insurrections, and betrayals, and death?

The story Isaiah tells of what to expect in the future is certainly more pleasant to consider: new heavens and a new earth. But it would be a bit dishonest to look only there - at those comfortable words - and to ignore the difficult visions portrayed by Luke’s Jesus.

So which is it? Are we destined for comfort and peace according to the promises of God in Isaiah? Or are we destined for pain and persecution according to the promises of Christ in Luke?

We’re nearing the end of the Christian year. We’re one week away, actually. And over this past year we’ve heard a lot about the life of Christ as well as the Christian life. From the season of preparation in Advent to the celebration of Jesus’ birth; the giving of light and recognition at Epiphany; the long seasons of marveling at Jesus’ miracles and learning from his teachings; from journeying with him to the Cross in Lent to the exuberant joy and surprise of Easter and its succeeding celebrations of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In practicing the Christian year, we practice the reality of human experience. There are ups and downs and all of them add up to the fullness of God’s dream for us.

The worldview we hear from Jesus today comes near the end of his time on earth. In the pages that follow, Luke walks us through the seemingly climactic last days - “seemingly”, because we all know that the real climax comes later; after the “last days”. But in the midst of those “last days” - before any of us knew how the truth would unfold - there would be great pain and fear and uncertainty. The disciples needed to be prepared. Their faith needed girding if it were to endure the days to come.

The Jewish people to whom the prophecy of Isaiah was written needed girding in another way. They had already endured unimaginable suffering, but it was, for the moment at least, easing. They had been in exile from their oppressors back home, but the exilic period was coming to a close. The good times were coming, but they had been so separated from those good times for so long that they could hardly remember how to be people of faith in the midst of them. The promise of “new heavens and a new earth” helps call them back into focus - to gird them with renewed hope in the promise of God.

Throughout human experience and even still in our own lives, there have been radical ups and downs. There have been lows from which recovery seemed impossible and highs so high we couldn’t see the ground. And both are true. Both represent parts of the faith and neither negates the other. Nor do any of the ordinary times in between.

It reminds me of a recent season in my own life, and one of the lessons I learned there.

Near the end of my time in seminary, I found myself beginning to reflect on the experience: I remember thinking so vividly in my first year that I thought I’d found heaven on earth. I had moved halfway across the country to a place I had never been and where I knew no one. I had taken a giant leap of faith and it had seemed to be paying off more richly than I could have imagined. New worlds were opening before me. New ideas were forming within me. New relationships were blossoming. I was beginning to know myself more than I ever had before. It was as if I were standing looking over the new heaven and the new earth about which Isaiah had prophesied.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my second year. Suddenly, this “heaven on earth” seemed to be more like hell on earth. What had once felt like a leap of faith began feeling more like stumbling toward a far-off finish line. My “new world” turned out to be just New Jersey. The new relationships had blossomed into deep friendships - but they weren’t without their challenges. And knowing myself turned out to be not quite as easy as it had once seemed. There were days when it was hard to make myself get out of bed. There was an insurrection gurgling up inside me - and it seemed to be not for me, but on me.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my third year. By the end of that final year of study and formation things had balanced out. I began to see that seminary was neither “heaven on earth” nor “hell on earth”, but instead was just earth. And like all creation, I could see that it was good. But though my experience had evened out a bit, the Isaiah-ness of my first year was no less true, nor was the Jesus-ness of my second. Just like this Christian year has been, the highs and the lows were all part of the same existence - neither canceled the other. Both represent truth, and both teach us aspects of our faith.

You have, undoubtedly, seen the same truth play itself out in your own lives. The joys and pains of every human experience - whether it’s through parenting or love or whatever else - always adds up to the fullness of an experience more true than any one of its aspects. And through the joys and pains of our lives the one common thread remains - just as it has remained through all of the highs and lows of the Christian life. The truth is that whether we are on top of the world or in the pit of despair, there, too, is God. No matter our circumstances, we are invited into deeper relationship with God.

It’s not always easy. Jesus teaches that again and again. But it’s also not always hard. Christ teaches that. Every Good Friday has on its heels an Easter morning begging to burst through. It’s the end of the church year, but there’s a new one waiting in the wings. There are yet more up and downs and good times and bad, and lessons to be learned in the midst of it all. Be glad and rejoice forever - even in the midst of it all. Because by your endurance you will gain your souls. Amen.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

All Saints' Sunday and Stewardship Campaign (all at once??)

All Saints’ Sunday C
Luke 6:20-31

In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come. Amen.

Sometimes I wonder why anybody would want to be a Christian.

There’s this great misunderstanding out in the world that says that Christianity is about being nice and doing good deeds. But Jesus keeps telling us that it’s not. It’s about turning the world upside down to deepen our relationships with God and with each other - even when that’s not easy or nice - no matter how much the world disagrees.

Sometimes, in our own efforts at either growing the church or trying to make ourselves feel better about a life that can sometimes be hard, we find ourselves perpetuating the misunderstanding: If only we could be nice and do good deeds everything would be okay.

If that were the case, I suppose more people might want to be Christian; but life proves, again and again, that that is not the case. Sometimes life is hard - even for us good folks. Sometimes the powers and structures of the world push us down. Sometimes we catch ourselves participating the powers and structures of the world that push others down.

You can see why most people might want a cleverly packaged Christianity that wraps up nicely with clearly defined borders. It would be a lot easier that way. It would certainly be easier than the Jesus way.

But instead we get this: “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry… Blessed are you who weep….”

I often joke with parents at baptisms. So often they are nervous that the baby will crying during the baptism, but I tell them that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s a good sign. I tease that it shows that the child knows what they’re in for!

The gospel lesson for today is another example of how true that little joke is. Christianity would be a lot easier to swallow if Jesus had just said, “Blessed are the people who get along alright and mind their own business.”

But, no. That’s not the faith we have received through the ages and continue to receive in our own lives.

Today we have an interesting confluence of events. It’s All Saints’ Sunday - the day we set apart to remember those saints, both known and unknown, who have led the faith through history even to us. It’s also a day when we recite our baptismal covenant - reminding us of and reaffirming the promises that we make to continue to lead the faith through to others still. Finally, it’s also the first Sunday of our annual Stewardship drive.

It’s a little unusual for us to be starting the Stewardship campaign so late in the year, but with all of the other business involved in calling a new priest and celebrating our 150th anniversary, it just made sense to push things back a bit this year. But it really is something of an unexpected blessing.

For so much of this year we’ve been focused on the past. And not the past only, but the past as it points to our inheritance, the future.

We have been richly blessed. We have these beautiful old buildings where we worship and learn and share in times of fellowship and community together. And we have this community itself: each week at the passing of the peace it warms my heart to see the eagerness with which you greet one another and show signs of love. The children of our church who sit together after services, and play together, and practice the genuinely loving relationships that they have been taught are signs of God’s blessings for us. We are blessed by a wealth of talented people who come together in this community to teach us and to feed us and to lead us.

I’m sure each of you could recount the blessings that you see in this place and in your neighbors around you. We could spend the whole day thinking of how good we’ve got it here. It would be easy to sit here and to pat ourselves on the back for the good thing we’ve got going.

But our faith in Christ won’t let us. The work of the Gospel is the work of turning the world upside down. Blessings come not only where we expect them, but also where we think they’re impossible.

In the next day or two you will be receiving an invitation to respond to the riches of God’s blessings in your life by pledging your support for the church. Over the next few weeks you will be hearing from your fellow members of the parish about how and why they respond to this same call. You will have a chance to take a share in turning the world upside down with us.

There’s certainly a degree to which this is a little bit about money. Okay - maybe even a lot. But even more, I hope the stewardship season will be about responding to the inheritance we have received in Christ, and about taking a bold stand to call ourselves people of faith even in the midst of a world that begs us not to do so. Just as those saints we remember today have done for generations. I hope it will be about daring to join with Christ in turning the world upside down and about taking the leap of trusting that blessings can be found where they had seemed most unlikely or even impossible.

Together we will prayerfully enter into the next 150 years of the ministry with which we have been entrusted.

It won’t be easy. The work of the baptized people of God almost never is. But together we will do it with God’s help. Amen.