Saturday, December 24, 2016

Embracing Tenderness

Let me take you back to August.  I am sitting in my car in the parking lot of a grocery store.  I have taken a phone call and am doing a lot of listening as a person I have never met is telling me about the life of his son who I don’t know, but will officiate at his burial in a few days.  It is hot outside, a typical boiling summer day in Hampton Roads.  I am grateful for my car’s air-conditioned as the call continues for well past twenty-five minutes. 

Across from me a family has left the store and is now getting into their car, an SUV.  I observe two brothers, one about 8, the other 3.  The younger brother is at the age where he wants to do things for himself.  On this hot afternoon, he wants to open the car door without assistance and climb up into his seat without help.  The older brother stands immediately behind him.  He is attentive, but does not interfere.  The three-year-old opens the door and grabs hold of car’s frame to hoist himself up.  But he has not opened the door far enough and it swings back and closes on his hand – not hard, but enough to hurt.  The little boy screams out in pain and begins to cry.  A woman emerges from the other side of the SUV.  She has been loading bags of groceries into the car and I have not seen her until now.  She is too old to be the mother of the boys.  I judge her to be their grandmother.

Immediately I put myself in the grandmother’s shoes.  It is hot.  She must be tired.  My guess is she wrestles with a frustration that comes from being responsible for raising her child’s children.  What is she going to do, I wonder.  Will she explode in anger at the older boy for allowing this to happen?  Will she scold the younger boy for attempting things beyond his abilities?  Will she snatch him up, drop him down in his seat, buckle his belt, slam the door, and mutter to herself about her miserable life?  And what about the older brother?  What will he do?  If he gets in trouble will he retaliate on his little brother?  Or, will he just jump into the car and try to avoid what is about to happen?

What I have described so far unfolds in over no more than 15 seconds.  The entire episode will conclude in less than a minute, moving in a direction I do not foresee.  On this hot day, standing on the asphalt blacktop, after a stressful and expensive visit to the grocery store, as her frozen goods begin to thaw, the grandmother meets the three year old, opens her arms, lifts him up, and embraces him with a hug suggesting nothing else in the world matters more to her than this child’s comfort.  It is as if time itself is standing still.  When the boy is ready, the grandmother puts him down and he begins again the task of opening the door and getting himself into his seat.  The older brother stands by.  There is not a single trace of anger, resentment, or contempt on his face or in his body language.  He is more ready this time to stop the door if it closes, but he allows his younger brother to do things for himself.  On this second attempt all things go well.  Once the groceries are loaded, the grandmother gets behind the wheel of the car and drives away.

It is a truly unremarkable event except that it radiates with the breath-taking tenderness woven by a loving God into the fabric of all creation.  It is a moment revealing in a tiny way the magnitude and majesty of the Incarnation where God takes all of humanity into an embrace to heal us and to renew us.  It is emblematic of who we are to be for one another: caring, encouraging, compassionate, selfless, agents of healing, fostering growth. 

The French chemist Louis Pasteur once said, “When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments; tenderness for what he is, and respect for what he may become.”  You and I, together we bring these same sentiments to this holy night as we gather again in the Bethlehem stable.  We marvel that God would come into this world as One so vulnerable and pure.  We imagine what this child will grow up to do and to be, how he will become the Savior of the world and the Lord of our lives.  But before he can become the Light of the world he must know the tenderness of his parents’ love.  It is an essential ingredient of who he becomes.

Tonight we bring to this tender scene the harsh reality of our dark world.  We hold close the cries of the children of Aleppo, the suffering and loss of those run down at a Christmas market in Berlin, and the image of an ambassador assassinated at an art show meant to foster communication between two countries attempting to forge a better path with one another.  Many of us this night are apprehensive about the state our world is and are fearful of where it is heading.  If you extrapolate forward the way things are, it seems reasonable to be concerned.

Over the last few weeks, several of you have asked me where we can turn for hope.  What message of peace and reassurance does the Christian faith offer to us in these dark and uncertain times? 

I think about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.  Mary and Joseph live in an occupied land.  The far off Roman emperor has forced all people to be enrolled in a census for the purpose of even more onerous taxation.  Joseph must travel to Bethlehem in order to be counted in his hometown.  His fiancée, in the late stages of her first pregnancy, must accompany him.  There are no accommodations available once they arrive, so they shelter in an animal stall.  This is where their baby is born. 

Herod, the governor of the region, who is a paranoid megalomaniac, learns of the birth and its connection to an ancient prophecy.  Threatened, he seeks to eliminate the child by slaughtering all the children in the region.  Joseph gathers his family and flees to Egypt for safety.  Jesus begins his life as a political refugee.  

Change a detail here or there and these events read like anything you will find happening in our world today.  This is just one more child who will be raised in harsh and dangerous conditions.  But here is the amazing thing best described by the gospel writer John: this little baby is the Light of the world and “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”  It is a wonderful image.  The smallest candle or oil lamp, when placed in a dark room makes the room no longer dark.  The Light of Christ, emanating from the manger, is more powerful than all the evil and hatred and violence surrounding him.

If you were to ask me what has been the most powerful, life-changing, world-shaping event I witnessed in 2016, do you know what my answer would be?  It is not the stunning results of our presidential election.  It is not the horrible effect of senseless acts of terrorism and violence.  And it certainly is not be the comings and goings of various athletes and celebrities.  No, none of these.  Here is my answer: “I saw a grandmother hug her crying grandson in a store parking lot and the boy was comforted and renewed.”

Tonight we celebrate the promise and the hope of the power of every tender and compassionate act of love.  It is the power of God at work in this world.  Yes, human sin can and does challenge God’s love, but it cannot prevail against it. 

The philosopher William James observed “there is an organic affinity between joyousness and tenderness.”  Tonight, we are invited to enter into the joy of Christ’s birth by embracing its tenderness as a mark of who we are and how we live.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Joseph Creates a Future

A high school English teacher moves to the blackboard at the beginning of class and writes these words in chalk, “A woman without her man is nothing”.  “Today’s assignment,” the teacher announces, “is to give this statement correct punctuation.”  All the young men in the class write, “A woman, with her man, is nothing.”  The young women, on the other hand, have a different take: “A woman: without her, man is nothing!”

John Gray’s 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus has sold more than 50 million copies.  Although roundly criticized as being stereotypical in its approach to gender descriptions, the book has helped men and women understand each other better.  Gray contends men and women approach life in such different ways it is as if we are from different planets.  Each gender, he says, is acclimated to its own planet’s society and customs, which is completely foreign to the other gender.

One example of our differences is how each gender typically responds to stress.  Men, when faced with difficult problems or situations, tend to become non-communicative so they can work out how best to respond.  Gray calls this “retreating to the cave.”  Women, responding in an entirely different manner, become communicative so others can help them work through their options and opportunities.  For women, often the solution is not as important as the opportunity to express emotions and to receive empathy.  Again, Gray’s approach has been criticized for relying on stereotypes, but behind many stereotypes often there is an element of truth.

Most of what we know about the birth of Jesus is drawn from the Gospel’s of Matthew and Luke.  While we tend to fold together the elements of each version, the two gospels present two distinct and very different stories.  Luke is focused on Mary.  An angel tells her she will bear the Son of God.  She responds by singing the Magnificat.  True to Gray’s thinking about stressful situations, Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  They greet one another and there is more singing.  Luke tells us about the census and the journey to Bethlehem.  He tells us about the birth in a stable and the visiting shepherds.  It is a rich, lush story full of wonder and joy.

Matthew describes Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective.  True to Gray’s thinking, when he learns his fiancée is pregnant Joseph retreats to himself to figure out how to respond.  He could have Mary stoned to death, but decides to keep the matter quiet and between them.  He will give her a simple writ of divorce and be done with it.  An angel speaks to him in a dream and gives him a new direction.  He takes Mary as his wife.  In classic Mars style, the text simply says, “Mary bore a son, and Joseph named him Jesus.”  Lean and to the point, just the way a man would tell it.

Matthew uses one very telling word to describe Joseph.  He says Joseph is a “righteous” man.  It means he is a good person, moral, and (in the extreme) it can even indicate he is without sin.  It is not easy, I think, for a good and moral person to tolerate the failings of those closest to him.  We expect our spouse and our siblings and our children to live up to the moral and ethical code we expect of ourselves.  Joseph must have been deeply disappointed when he discovered Mary was with child.  Her version of how it happened must have seemed laughable to him. 

He has, at best, two options.  As we noted, he can make the matter public and demand she be executed by stoning.  This would be the path of righteous indignation.  Or, he can opt for the more merciful path of divorce.  It will free him of Mary and responsibility for an unborn child that is not his.  She will have to return to her family and hope her father will take her back under his care. 

Have you ever received an email with a sentence or saying automatically fixed to the end?  A colleague sent me an email this week and at the end he inserted this quote from John Schaar:

The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity.  The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.  The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.

I think Schaar is right about the present and the future and about our role and responsibility in moving forward.  And I think Joseph’s story illustrates exactly what Schaar describes.  Before he goes to sleep and encounters an angel in his dream, Joseph is very much pondering the future by weighing the merits of the different paths available to him in the present.  But after the angel speaks to him Joseph begins to consider the possibility of a future only he can create.  Remaining engaged to his pregnant fiancée is not an option given to him by his culture, but it is the decision he embraces.  He makes his way forward into the future in a new way.  The path is made one step at a time by taking one step after another.

It seems to me, for one reason or another, I have been preaching the same message in my sermon for the last several weeks.  The kingdom of heaven is not something God does for you, rather it is something God does through you.  Either you are a willing and active participant or nothing happens. 

Mary provides the ultimate illustration of this.  The kingdom of heaven literally begins insider her body and comes into this world through her womb.  Joseph, for his part, embraces the possibility God wants to do something through him.  He faces what most likely is the most critical and difficult decision of his life and decides to make a new path and create a future in partnership with God’s Spirit.

We are just two weeks away from entering the 375th year of our parish’s existence.  We will observe and celebrate this momentous occasion in different forms and fashions.  No one is forcing us to do it.  We can sit back and do little or nothing.  We choose to create our future by using the occasion to remember, to reflect, and to give thanks.  I believe God will act in and through our celebrating in ways we can scarcely imagine, but would not happen if we did nothing at all.

I always love concluding the reading of Morning Prayer by reciting these words from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus: “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”  God’s power, working through us, can do amazing things indeed, but only if we are willing to allow it to happen.  The kingdom of heaven is not something God does for you, but something God does through you.  It is something God creates in partnership with you.  Either you will create the future with God’s Spirit moving through you, or you will not.  Either the kingdom of heaven will be born through you, as it was through Mary, or the world will remain a cold and lonely and lifeless place.  Either you will work with God to protect what is good and precious and vulnerable, as God worked through Joseph, or what the world needs most will be lost.  Either your heart will be open to God and it will become a place for the kingdom of heaven to be imagined and then created, or the world will drift along visionless and dark.

“Just as the candle is host to the flame, so too may you burn with the power and the glory of God’s Spirit.”

Monday, December 12, 2016

Two Vision's of God's Kingdom

“The ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  I baptize you with water, but one is coming who 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.”

Last Sunday we heard these words from John the Baptist.  They constitute what he believes to be the job description of the Messiah.  How he longed to see the day when God’s Anointed One bursts onto the scene to blow up and burn down everything wrong with the world around him.  But well over a year has passed since John baptized Jesus.  John himself is now a political prisoner, incarcerated for publicly criticizing the king’s adulterous, incestuous marriage. 

And what of Jesus?  John lived sparsely off the land in the wilderness, eating locus and wild honey.  Jesus enjoys going to parties, especially those hosted by known ‘sinners.’  His critics say Jesus is a drunkard and a glutton.  He invites little children to sit on his lap and teaches the kingdom of God belongs to them.  Where is the ax?  Where is the winnowing fork?  Where is the fire? 

Think about the lowest, darkest moment in your life.  It might have involved a health crisis, some form of rejection, or a business failure.  Do you remember how it felt, how it colored every other aspect of your existence?  Did it rock your faith to the very core?  Did it make you question yourself, your abilities, and your judgment?  This is what John experiences as he sits in the king’s prison.  He is discouraged.  He is depressed.  He is disillusioned.  Most of all he is disappointed by what he does not see Jesus doing. 

John wonders if maybe he anointed the wrong person.  Perhaps, if he gets out of jail, he should return to the wilderness and begin the search anew.  Deploying some of his followers as a go between, John asks Jesus if he is the one sent from God or not.  Are you going to pick up the ax, take hold of the winnowing fork, and strike up the fire?

Well, this may be what John christened Jesus to do, but it is not the work Jesus himself intends to do.  He sends word back to John, “This is what I am doing: I am giving sight to the blind, helping the lame to walk, cleansing lepers, restoring hearing to the deaf, raising the dead, and bringing good news to the poor.”  Rather than taking down the corrupt and the powerful, Jesus is giving hope to the lost, the last, and the least.  It is a very different ministry from what John expected and not at all a mandate he envisioned.  It is not Jesus who must change.  John must rethink his understanding of God’s reign in this world.

Here, as I see it, is the primary difference between Jesus and John.  It revolves around this question:  Is the kingdom of God an external reality the presence of which changes you internally or is it an internal reality which, as you live it out, begins to the change the world around you?

John believes God’s kingdom first will be manifested externally.  A person will come with power from God to sweep away all wrongs and oppressions.  Our participation in this moment will be mostly passive, except we must repent.  Our work is to make ourselves worthy of the blessing the Anointed One will bring.  From John’s perspective, it is God’s job to clean up this world.  It is our job to clean up ourselves in order to merit a place in God’s new order.

Jesus takes an entirely different approach.  To him, humanity is hurting and lost.  He comes to heal and to renew us.  His power, his life, working in us restores us to our proper place and life.  We are created to be God’s stewards of this world, but have become blind and lame and deaf and distorted.  Our Advent liturgy names it as “broken, bent.”  What we long for – want we badly need – is someone who can heal us and show us what it means to be truly human.  If God could give us such a person, then our dignity would be restored and we would be empowered to begin anew the work God has given us to do.  This is Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God.

An outer kingdom changing us verses an inner kingdom energizing us us to change the world.  Which would you prefer? 

John had it both right and wrong.  He oversubscribed to the idea the Messiah would come with fire, with an ax, and with a fork to wreak havoc on the outer world.  He undersubscribed to the possibility the Messiah would baptize with the Spirit who would manifest the power of God to work in and through us. 

Here is an Advent question to ponder: which is more powerful in your life: your affect on the world around you, or the ability of the world around you to affect you?  It is another way of asking if you are hoping for a Savior to change the world to make your life better, or do you long for a Savior who will heal and restore you so that you can begin to change the world? 

What is your prayer?  Your Hope?  That you can sit back and relax while God takes responsibility for removing everything around you making your life miserable?  Or that God could give you the strength and the energy and the courage and the healing to overcome all that has defeated you and beaten you down in order to rise up again and become everything God has created you to be?

Jesus, for his part, has great respect for John’s work and passion.  But given the choices between his vision and John’s, it is easy to see why Jesus ends today’s reading by saying even the least who embrace his vision of the kingdom of God is greater than John.

Every worship service ends with a prayer of commissioning.  “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do.”  Yes, we come here and pray for God to make the world a better place.  But even more so, we pray for God to make us better people – healed and whole of life’s hurts and wounds – so that we can return to our lives and do for the world what God has done for us.  We leave here agents of God’s healing and restoration.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Repenting for the Kingdom

I have this friend – Stan – who is an unbelievable animal lover.   He has never met an abandoned pet he did not want to welcome into his home.  About a week before Thanksgiving he got word a local shelter had rescued a parrot.  Although he had never had an exotic bird before, he could not stand the thought of such a beautiful creature being left alone, so he went to the shelter, filled out the paperwork, adopted the parrot, and brought it home.  Now Stan had no idea who owned the parrot before him, but one thing became very clear very fast… the creature had learned some very bad habits.  Along with a surly attitude, it spewed profanity like a fire hose without a nozzle.  Stan tried every trick he knew to get the parrot to change, but its rude, obnoxious behavior persisted. 

After a couple of days he had enough and, in exasperation, Stan picked up the parrot and put it the freezer.  For a few minutes he could hear the muffled sounds of the parrot’s swearing and squawking, but then it got very, very quiet.  Stan opened the freezer door and the parrot emerged a changed creature.  “I want to repent and change my ways,” it said.  “From now on I will be pleasant and polite and never again will an unkind word come out of my beak.”  Stan was really impressed and could sense the bird’s repentance was genuine.  Still, he wondered what motivated the miraculous transformation.  Then the parrot spoke up, “I just have one question, if I may.  What did the turkey do to end up like that?”

John the Baptist shows up every year on the Second Sunday of Advent and tells off everyone who comes to listen to him.  He is as predictable as your physician at an annual physical lecturing you about weight and diet and cholesterol and exercise.  Once a year you need to hear it.  You need to respond to it.  You need to amend your life and move forward in a new and healthier way.  A year from now it will be helpful to hear it again and repeat the process.  And for no extra charge, the church will throw in an entire liturgical season – Lent – forty days – in case you need more help to keep focused.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  We get the connection between changing behavior and preparing for a new administration.  If a new authority is imminent you want to align yourself with what it expects of you.  You want to satisfy its requirements.  You want to conform to its customs and behaviors.  Do you remember how jellybeans became all the rage once Ronald Reagan was in office?

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Is this John’s way to tell us we don’t want to be on the naughty list when Jesus comes down the chimney?  Maybe not with these words, but I think this is how many of us hear him.

I wonder if we are missing something.  I wonder if the call to repent is something else.  What if it is not a directive to be morally worthy of the kingdom, but rather a call to give up a sense of powerlessness?  After all, John preaches to a people who are the residents of an occupied nation.  If you think of yourself as a victim then you believe you are incapable of changing the way things are.  What if repenting of this passivity opens up the possibility for the kingdom of heaven to be ushered in through us?

Perhaps repentance is tied not so much to moral behavior, but rather to letting go of the notion our lives are not important enough to matter.  We are asked to embrace the power we have to change the way things are by allowing the kingdom of heaven to be in us and to come into being through us, just as Mary accepted the possibility God’s own Son could come into the world through her willingness to offer her flesh and blood body.  We are expressing more than a nice possibility each week when we sing, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

St. Francis tells the story of God sending a servant on an errand through a very dangerous part of the world.  “The servant, having received in hand what God wanted delivered, turned to the Holy and said, ‘My Beloved Master, do you have a final instruction?’ and God replied, ‘a kind face is a precious gift.’”  If you do not understand the power just in your facial expression, then you need to repent and embrace how you have the ability to be a conduit for the kingdom of heaven to enter this realm, which is so badly in need of a new Ruler.

If you watch the news or listen to talk radio or tune in to political shows on cable TV, the grand meta-narrative you hear proclaimed is we are a divided and deeply conflicted nation.  The way they tell it we are clawing at each other’s throats and scratching out each other’s eyes.  But, from my perspective – from where I life here in Suffolk – I just don’t see it.  Yes, we have different political persuasions and yes we don’t all agree on everything, but consistently I experience the people I encounter as being warm and gracious and considerate.  No, I can’t change the world.  That meta-narrative is out there and is not going away anytime soon.  But more and more I feel it does not describe my experience of goodness and how I sense my own ability to influence and affect the world around me.

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest and writer, reflected daily on the following questions:

Did I offer peace today?  Did I bring a smile to someone’s face?  Did I say words of healing?  Did I let go of my anger and resentment?  Did I forgive?  Did I love?  These are the real questions.  I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.

If you look out at the world and don’t like what you see, you might want to ponder something Teddy Roosevelt espoused: “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.”  Each one of us has the power to usher in the kingdom of heaven and if you don’t believe this, then you need to repent.

Advent is a season of waiting.  We are waiting for something big, something grand to happen; something that will change all of creation.  But our waiting ceases not when something spectacular explodes on the scene, but when a baby is born to an unwed mother and her devoted fiancée.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Every artist was first an amateur.”  It is true of this baby as well.  Jesus – God’s Son – is born a helpless, dependent infant.  But in time he grows to embrace the reality that his life matters. 

Oprah Winfrey says, “I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.”  Now, I don’t know what she means by “the energy of the universe”, but I find her statement true to my experience of God.  The more I accept God’s purpose for my life is deeply woven into who I am, and the more I live out this purpose, the more I sense the power of God working through me and the more I know the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

The times we live in do not define us.  The Advent call to repent is a call to lay aside bitterness, hatred, apathy, any and everything that discourages you or limits you or causes self-doubt because the kingdom of heaven is at hand and you have the opportunity to let it come through you.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Snap Out of It!

“Send us your light.”

God’s people of all eras have recognized the human need for divine guidance.  We find and feel ourselves in situations beyond our understanding and control.  We ask, “what should we do?”  We people of faith recognize God has a claim on us and cares about our behavior and our choices.  We people of faith understand God values us and is invested in us.  God’s people affirm the hopeful statement in today’s reading from Isaiah:

Many people shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”.

Our vision for the human family is all people might come to know and embrace God’s dream for all of creation.  Our prayer is that God will send us God’s light.

Light is an Advent theme, enhanced by the growing darkness surrounding us as the days get shorter and shorter.  We pray for light: not sunshine, but spiritual enlightenment – inner light to make us luminous and to help us understand with greater knowledge and clarity what is happening around us, to us, and inside of us so that we can respond in a godly, faithful way.

The Advent theme of light is easy to get our head around.  Another theme, especially prominent on the first Sunday of Advent, is more elusive – the theme of time.  It always feels odd to begin a new church year by focusing on the end of time. 

Jesus’ return is a big deal to the faithful living during the years when the various New Testament gospels and letters are being written.  Many people who traveled with Jesus personally vividly remember his promise to return.  After the Ascension his followers expect it to happen at any moment, perhaps in a day or a week or in a few months.  What will happen, they wonder, if Jesus returns at night and they sleep through it?  To use a phrase from today’s jargon, will they be left behind as Jesus guides those awake into his kingdom?

Early on, no one even thinks it important to write down Jesus’ teaching or an account of his ministry.  They can not imagine a need to document his life because his return is thought to be close at hand.  But a year goes by, then two, then ten and another 10.  Some hold fast to the promise of an imminent return, but others give up hope.  The theme of time and the question “what time is it?” is woven throughout the various New Testament writings because the faithful are trying to figure it out. 

Paul weighs in through today’s reading taken from his letter to the church Rome.  He tells them to wake up because the day of salvation is near.  He uses the phrase ‘wake up’ not to mean literally stay wake, but more like how we might say, “Snap out of it.”  The “snap out” relates to their behavior.  They are to shed the darkness of drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy.  Lay aside these works of darkness, Paul instructs them, and put on the armor of light.

Our reading from Matthew adds to the discussion.  Chapter 24 begins with Jesus describing the destruction of the Temple and a terrible time of tribulation.  As I said a few weeks ago, the events which Jesus describes in around the year 30 AD are now current events as Matthew writes his gospel.  Jesus states in verse 31 when these dire events are at the darkest point, the Son of Man will return in great glory and “he will send out his angels with a great trumpet sound, and they will gather his chosen ones together from the four winds, from one extremity of the heavens to their other extremity.”  Today’s reading picks up at this point as Jesus states no one knows when this will happen, but all should be ready.

Jesus then puts forward four separate teachings and examples of why being ready is important.  First, he reflects on the days of Noah and how everyone other than Noah was carrying on as if nothing bad could ever happen.  When the flood comes and they are swept away.  Next, two men will be in a field.  One will be taken and one left.  The same happens with two women who are at a grinding meal.  It is not at all clear if it is better to be taken or to be left behind, but given the first reference to Noah, those swept away or taken away are the ones who are lost.  Finally Jesus describes a homeowner who sleeps through a break in.  Had he known when the thief was coming he would have been awake.

What does being awake look like?  Should we commit to a lifestyle of neurotic sleeplessness laced with anxiety and fear?  Or does staying awake look like something else?  Jesus himself gives us the best clue.

Immediately following the passage we read this morning, but as a part of the ongoing discussion, Jesus tells this parable:

Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time?  Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.  Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.  But if that wicked slave says to himself, “My master is delayed,” and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know.

For Jesus, being awake is equivalent to being faithful and steady.  It is an idea we have named the last two Sundays: enduring in all that is right and good and godly.  What time is it?  It is time to be who God has called us to be.  It is time to live and act in a manner in keeping with the teaching and witness of the One for whom we wait. 

In a little less than a month we will gather in this space to celebrate God’s advent – God’s coming – into this world in the person and presence of an infant, God’s only Son.  We know when it will happen.  The service times are printed in your bulletin.  What we don’t know is how God will come to us.  As with the first Christmas, God’s advent is always unexpected and always unpredictable, but always welcomed by those who perceive it.  Pray for God to send light to guide you and commit yourself to living faithfully, doing what God has entrusted to you to do.  Do this and you will be awake when Jesus returns.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Kingdom of Mercy

In the year 863, King Harold becomes enamored with Gilda, the daughter of Prince Eric of Hadaland.  He sends messengers to propose a marriage.  Gilda replies she will never marry Harold as long as he reigns over only a few provinces rather than the whole of Norway.  Rather than be discouraged, Harold regards the message as a summons to glory.  He assembles his troops, attacks all the other chiefs, captures their provinces, and executes his competitors.  In so doing, Harold wins the hand of Gilda in marriage.

Now this is what we expect from kings of old.  They are bold, entitled, ruthless, irrational, and above all victorious.  Kings get their way, take what they want, and are indifferent to the concerns and opinions others. 

Thus it is we come to this day – Christ the King Sunday.  Today’s assigned reading from the Gospel of Luke suggests the reign of Christ is not at all what we might expect it to be.  Jesus is dying on a cross while being mocked by soldiers, onlookers, and even a criminal who is being crucified with him.  This is not a scene of triumphant kingship.  It suggests not victory, but defeat and no king gains a kingdom through defeat.

Bishop Hollerith, in a sermon he preached earlier this month at the National Cathedral, observed many readings from Luke turn on reversal. The sinful tax collector is justified, not the religiously observant Pharisee.  The hungry will be feed, but woe to those who are full now for they will be empty.  The mighty and glorious Temple will be destroyed.  And today, Jesus on the cross reigns as King.  Luke is challenging our expectations.  He is telling us God works in ways we don’t always see or understand.  And he is suggesting we need to act in a different way if we want to be a part of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus speaks just twenty-four words in today’s reading as he hangs on the cross in in so doing makes just two “royal” pronouncements.  “Father, forgive them; for the do not know what they are doing.”  “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  His words speak of reversals. 

The path into Jesus’ kingdom is unlike any other. “Forgive them.”  Victory is equated not with conquest, but with remaining true to who God calls you to be, no matter what the circumstances you face.  Last week we named this as enduring.  Reigning, normally thought of as dominating others, becomes equated with mercy, which is defined as “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm”. Note that the person who has the power in the relationship is the only person who can offer mercy.  Jesus can call down an army of avenging angels, but does not.  He forgives.  He can reject the plea of the penitent criminal, but offers an embrace.  His reign is a reign a mercy.  

Vinita Hampton Wright is senior editor at Loyola Press and recently worked on Pope Francis’ book The Church of Mercy.  She writes some interesting reflections on what mercy looks like in everyday life:

Mercy relinquishes control when doing so allows another person to grow and learn.  Mercy makes it his business to help others succeed.  Mercy clears the way for others, so that they can walk on an even path, no matter how halting their steps or injured their souls.

In all these situations, mercy treats power as a sacred trust.  I can be merciful because I have some sort of power, the means to affect another’s life, if only for a moment.  I act mercifully when I use my power to do kindness in this world.

I was at a conference recently, and it was interesting to observe how the well-known, powerful people wore their power, how they responded to others’ admiration, how they spoke to those who were not so well-known or admired.  Some used their power to make room for others and invite their voices; others used their power to dominate the space and the conversation.

In my own work, I have achieved a certain level of expertise and others’ respect.  When I sit in a room with colleagues, they feel the weight of my opinions.  With a sentence or a glance, I can crush or I can encourage.  I can open up the conversation or shut it down.

Most of my sins involve failure at mercy.

Each of us has power in our lives.  It may be broad and expansive, or it may be able to affect only one or two people.  Because we have power, we have the potential to be merciful.  It is very challenging to be merciful – to make a space to learn and grow for a person you have power over – when a person who has power over you is not merciful.  It is so easy to come home after a hard day at work and take it out on the kids.  “Most of my sins involve a failure of mercy.”

In a reversal of sorts, Vinita Hampton Wright moves from reflecting on how mercy is manifested through one’s use of power to describing tale-tell signs in seemingly insignificant events:

My mercy will not show up in grand gestures, and most of the time mercy reveals itself in fleeting moments.

For example, mercy gives you his seat on the bus, acting as if he was about to get up anyway rather than making you feel that he is doing you a favor.  Mercy does not let out that sigh -- you know the one -- the wordless disapproval toward the person in the check-out line ahead of you whose card didn’t swipe, or who can’t find her coupons, or whose toddler is having a meltdown.  Mercy offers quiet sympathy and does not convey with her body language that this holdup is ruining her day.  Sometimes mercy chooses not to send back the food that isn’t just right, simply because the waitress looks overwhelmed.

Early in his ministry, Jesus sits on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee and teaches his followers about the essential nature of his vision.  Perhaps the single most important insight into the Kingship of Christ is this:

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

If you open up a space for others to learn and grow, the power and the energy and the creativity responsible for all that is seen and unseen will make a space for you to learn and grow and flourish.  If you use your power to dominate others you will find Jesus’ power will not bend to your benefit.  Jesus reigns as King whenever and wherever any one of us makes the choice to be merciful.