Monday, November 28, 2016

Jesus Is Coming...Look Busy!!

"Jesus said to the disciples, '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.'"
--Matthew 24: 36-44

Any of y'all been to the Triple Rock Baptist Church in Calumet City, Illinois?  There's a preacher there, The Rev. Cleophus James, who, in his sermons often reminds his flock "don't be lost when ya time comes, for the day of The Lord is coming as a thief in the night."  Wake up, be alert, he reminds them, and then the choir and congregation break out into songs of alleluia and amen and dancing up and down the aisles.

A typical Sunday morning at the Triple Rock Baptist Church

Of course none of you have been to the Triple Rock because it doesn't exist. It's the church Jake and Elwood attend at the beginning of the Blues Bros., my favorite movie, and The Rev. Cleophus James is the charismatic alter ego of the godfather of soul, James Brown. But the message Rev. Cleophus imparts to his congregation is the same message Jesus imparts to his followers in Matthew's gospel:  the day of The Lord is coming, and we are meant to be prepared.  Don't be lost when your time comes!

Just as Rev. Cleophus in the early minutes of The Blues Bros. reminds his flock 'don't be lost when your time comes', Jesus reminds his followers, and reminds us, to be ready, watchful, alert. And that, brothers and sisters, is what Advent is about.

As we begin another liturgical year, moving into what we call Year A, leaving Luke's gospel and beginning Matthew's gospel, we don't hear a story from the days before Christmas, but we hear a story from Holy Week (of all times)!  We find Jesus preaching today to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, imparting some words of wisdom regarding that day that has so many names: the Day of The Lord, the Day of Resurrection, the eschaton, the Coming of the Son of Man, or the Second Coming.  Those around him want to know when, how, and where this day would happen.  More than anything else, folks in Jesus' time wanted to know about the Day of the Lord. They press Jesus, but Jesus tells them not to be looking so far ahead and worrying about such a day, because it is in God's time, in God's hands, not their own.  So don't be anxious.  Don't be worrying about the hows, whens, and whys of such a day. Jesus finishes with the familiar parable about the owner of the house, who, had he known the thief were coming, would have stayed awake. So we must be prepared, but we must not be anxious.

In our own time it seems pretty difficult to prepare without being anxious.  Plenty of churches preach about the Day of the Lord, how we are to get ready because it's coming any day now.  They spend so much time trying to predict that day, and then it comes and goes with little fanfare; after all, how many Second Comings have we survived over the past couple decades?!  Sure, those folks are trying to prepare, but they cause a lot of anxiety.  Or look at Black Friday. How many of us flocked to the stores in preparation of Christmas, to get a jump start on the shopping and get it done early?  We did it to prepare, but oh what anxiety that caused! You need only search YouTube for Black Friday videos to see the anxiety manifested on that day by that preparedness. It's enough to make you lose faith in humanity! That is totally the opposite of being prepared without being anxious.

How can we, then, be prepared without being anxious?  When something is so important--especially as important as Jesus coming into the world--how can we not fret and worry?   Well, I dont know the secret to such a paradox, but perhaps Paul in his letter to the Romans has a foothold on it.  He tells the congregation in Rome that, "It is the moment for you to wake from sleep." (Romans 13: 11).  Advent is about being awake, being watchful for God's movement in our own lives and responding to that movement. Paul goes on to urge the congregation in Rome to "put on The Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 13: 14).  In the early church this was a metaphor for baptism, so for those of us who are the Body of Christ, we can be awake and prepared and free from anxiety when we live into those vows we made at baptism:  to renounce Satan, to turn to and follow Jesus, to continue in the apostles teachings, to repent and return whenever we fall into sin, to proclaim the Good News in word and action, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being.  When we put on the Lord Jesus, when we remember those promises we made and we live into them, we can, indeed, be prepared without being anxious.  We can be more awake than we have ever been!

We are called during this holy season to an intentional period of watchfulness, not only for the celebration of Jesus' birth, but also of the Day of the Lord, of Jesus 'coming again to judge the living and the dead, which we proclaim in our Nicene Creed. But our watching is not that of terror-stricken fear and anxiety, but rather of eager expectation, hope, and joy.  It isn't the same expectation that led to people to predict when the Second Coming was happening, nor is it the same expectation that caused folks to run each other over on Black Friday. It is a quiet, mindful expectation. We are, after all, living in the Second Advent, looking with eager expectation, hope, and joy, to Jesus' return. In the gospel Jesus urges the people to remember the days of Noah.  Noah, after all, prepared for the rains, not when the clouds were overhead, but during warm, sunny weather, and so we too are to prepare ourselves for Christ's arrival each day, not just for the next four weeks.  Every hour of every day we are meant to open ourselves up to God's movement in our lives and to respond to it.

Curtis Mayfriend wrote, and the Impressions sang, "people get ready, there's a train a'comin'; you don't need no ticket, you just get on board."  They were singing about Jesus!  The train has come once and will come again, and that train's name is Jesus! We don't need no ticket.  We don't need no worry or anxiety; heaven knows we have enough worries day in and day out.  Instead we need only live each day, each minute, as though he were coming and we were about to meet him.

People Get Ready!

Have you ever seen those signs that read, “Jesus is coming, look busy!”?  Well, it's true!  Only our busy-ness is not the same as the busy-ness of the world.  Our busy-ness is not about going through the motions, or setting out the best silverware for when he arrives, or worrying about what we'll wear when he shows up, or any of the other concerns this world tries to tell us are important.  Our busy-ness is about preparing our hearts and minds and lives for Christ to enter in, that we may be made more Christ-like and we may transform the world right alongside him!  He's done it before, and he'll do it again.  That’s the great mystery of our faith:  Jesus was, Jesus is, and Jesus will be. When we truly believe that and live into those vows we made when we put on the Lord Jesus, the anxiety, the fear, the worries about what is to come fade away.  Then we are able to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open, we find ourselves more awake and prepared than we could ever hope to be otherwise, and we find ourselves meeting Jesus again and again and again.  So as we start our Advent journey and begin that walk to Bethlehem, let us be watchful for God's movement in our lives, let us be prepared without being anxious, and let us make a place for the Christ child to be born once again.

Monday, November 21, 2016

This Is Our King

One of my favorite philosophers is Homer…Simpson. He is so wise, this eternally middle-aged man from Springfield.  One of my favorite of Homer moments occurs as he inexplicably finds himself floating down a river in a cherry picker while his daughter Lisa looks on helplessly from the shore.  Homer clasps his hands in his hour of need, and looks up to the heavens and says:

Homer was praying for a superhero to save him, and I understand why.  Superheroes rescue us from the muck that we get ourselves into.  I’m a pretty big comic book nerd, as you all well know—although I personally would have called on Batman. Still, I get the appeal of the hero or heroine who swoops in at the last possible minute, finding us in the worst set of circumstances, as everything around us is falling apart. Superheroes are powerful beings, who use their power (for the most part) to save us.  They are saviors.  This is who Homer cried out for: a literal savior, who would use his power to fix Homer's problem. 

Earlier this week we celebrated Christ the King Sunday, a day in which we reflect on the power of Jesus Christ. This day was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a reminder of that Jesus is the King of the Universe, greater than any other ruler.  It is a day to consider Jesus’ dominion and power over all humanity.  Yet when we think about power, I wonder what the first image is that comes into our minds. If you weren't sitting in a church, or if you weren't reading this on a priest's blog, what would you think of if you heard the word 'power' being uttered?  Would you think of a conquering warrior like Alexander the Great?  Or a strong ruler like Catherine the Great, seated on a lush and lavish throne?  

             Alexander the Great                                                                           Catherine the Great

Or would you, perhaps like Homer, think of a superhero; maybe Power Man, also known as Luke Cage?  

Luke Cage, aka Power Man

Christ the King Sunday gives us a chance to really think about power and to see what real power looks like, and it doesn't look like a conquering warrior, an empress, or a superhero. Each year, a different Gospel writer paints a picture of Jesus’ power on Christ the King Sunday.  In Year A, we hear from Matthew, who gives us Jesus’ words that “whenever you do something to the least of these, you do it to me.”  Last year, in Year B, we heard the story of Jesus meeting Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John, mirroring images of two kingdoms—the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God.  Here in Year C, the evangelist Luke gives us an image of the power of Jesus by showing the king on his throne: he shows Jesus on the cross.  (Luke 23: 33-35)  

In the moments before his death we see Jesus hanging there, and to add insult to injury we see the religious authorities spit upon him, while he is surrounded not by loyal subjects but by two criminals.  The message that Luke is sending is clear: if you want to see what real power looks like, it looks like this.  It looks like a poor man hanging on a tree between two dregs of society, wearing a crown of thorns.  This right here, brothers and sisters, is our king.

Our King on his throne. 

This doesn't make any sense!  It flies in the face of everything we are taught about power and kingship.  Yet, here it is!  Here is our king!  I have had many conversations with folks who tell me that they indeed believe Jesus is their Lord and King, and yet when we talk about prayer, their prayers sound more like Homer's prayers to Superman.  They clasp their hands and pray with all their might for Jesus to swoop in and fix their problems. And when he doesn't, they get mad.  Why didn't he do it?  Isn't that what someone with power is supposed to do?  Isn't that what a king is supposed to do?  Isn't he supposed to save his people?!

Absolutely!  And that is what our king does. Jesus does save us!  Each and every one of us!  But it’s not the kind of saving that Homer was asking for. Jesus does not save us from the disappointments of our lives.  He saves us from the fear that comes with living by the standards of this world.  He saves us from the tyranny of accumulating more and more, and lording it over those who have nothing. He saves us from the oppression of being judged by others because we don't look or sound or act in a certain way.  He saves us from the false narrative of us vs. them.  He saves us from these things because these are the thoughts and feelings and the ways of being that we have given power to. They have no real power on their own, but we have given power to them.  We have empowered the agents of fear that hold sway over us, and we have done this for a very, very long time. Go back to the Exodus story.  Way back then, God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and showed them a way of being that was different from the top-down power model of pharaoh's Egypt. Jesus does the same thing. He showed the people in his own day that the power models of Rome and of the world were not God's; that occupation, military might, and the emperor had nothing on self-sacrifice, love, and the cross.  He did it then, and he is still doing it now!  We are no longer subject to the power structures that have held us captive for millennia.  By reigning from the cross, and hurling all common sense out the window, Jesus has saved us, and has thus redefined kingship and power for all time. 

If we want to know what power looks like, we need not look to a celebrity or a politician or an athlete or even a superhero.  We only need to look to the cross.  This is what power looks like. Self sacrifice. Love personified. Here is our king.  Here is the one who stooped down to take the servant’s part.  Here is the one who said to the Samaritans, to the adulterous woman, to Zaccheaus the tax collector, and to Jairus the Roman official, "You are loved by God, so come and feast with me, and be a part of my kingdom!"  Here is the one who shows us what God looks like, and in doing so he shows us how to be fully human.  For he is Emmanuel, God-With-Us, and in him we not only see the power and majesty of God but we see ourselves.  In Jesus, we see that we too have the potential to redefine power in our own day.  We are reminded that he does not call us servants, but friends.  And if we are his friends, then we are his partners in his kingship, the truest kingship.  

When we gaze upon the cross and see the Lord of Life hanging from the tree, we are saved and are given the grace to exercise his brand of power in the world.  We can be self-sacrificing, we can be love personified. We can give away our possessions as he told us to, because we can have treasure in heaven.  We can throw down our swords and beat them into plowshares, because he said if we love by the sword we'll die by it.  We can follow his command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves because he said that on these two commands hang all the Law and the prophets.  With him as our king we can live our lives in such a way that we actually believe that familiar prayer of dear Francis of Assisi:  it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  These are contradictions in terms, but so is a king reigning from a tree. Sure, they're contradictions as far as the world is concerned, but not Jesus.  And not us!  

Our king is not some Divine You Up There, uber distant and far away.  Nor is our king a superhero whom we call on only in our hour of need.  Our king is one of us, yet so much more. He walked as we walk, loved as we loved, and bled as we bleed. He is the one who has taken power and turned it on its head, who died the death of a criminal so that we may see what a real king looks like! And we are partners and friends with him in his ongoing salvifc work of making his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. . Our king reigns from the unlikeliest of thrones.  As you go about your week, go to the unlikeliest of places, and you will find him reigning there.  He is on the street corner.  He is in the prison.  He is in the homeless shelter.  He is on the line at the soup kitchen.  He is still reigning from the cross, still turning the world upside down, still redefining what power and kingship look like. May we be so bold as to join him in that work!  For he is the King of Glory, and the King of Peace, and we WILL love him!!

Monday, November 14, 2016

We Stand

*This blog post is taken from my Sunday sermon following the presidential election of 2016*

"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.'"
--Luke 21: 5-19

Where do I begin?  Its been a hard week.  Going back to all of the emotions that we experienced last weekend, and then we had to deal with THAT election.  Now most of you will say that politics have no place in the pulpit, and to a large extent I agree with that.  I have never and will never tell someone who they should vote for during a sermon.  The pulpit is not a place to campaign for a candidate or a party.  It is the place from which the Gospel is preached. However, and there are times when politics and the Gospel collide with each other; after all, Jesus may not have been a politician, but he was deeply concerned with the political climate of his own day; its what got him killed. And we find ourselves right now in a place where the Gospel and politics are colliding.

Since late Tuesday evening, I have talked and prayed with many people who are scared, living in fear of what's to come.  And any time Gods children cry out from fear, any time justice is denied, and any time bullyish tactics are used to intimidate or incite violence, Jesus weeps.  He is the one who told us we didnt have to be afraid, after all, and hes the one who told us those who lived by the sword would die by the sword. So, my brothers and sisters, when the Gospel has collided with politics, we do not help ourselves or those who are suffering if we ignore that fact.  While I normally preach from the floor, today, as hard as it is, I stand in this pulpit, the symbol of the authority you have given to me to preach the Gospel, and preach it I will, because thats what you called me here to do. You did not call me here to make everyone happy or comfortable all the time. You called me to preach the Gospel, which is certainly not always happy or comfortable. 

Last week we all renewed our baptismal covenant at the Feast of All Saints.  We renewed our promises to God to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to respect the dignity of every human being.  This past week has been filled with so many moments where Gods children have cried out because their dignity has been denied.  Ive heard from folks who have been intimidated and unjustly labeled as racists, misogynists, and xenophobes because of who they voted for.  Ive heard from folks who have walked down the street and been pushed into the gutter and yelled at because they are gay.  Ive heard from folks who are afraid their friends and family will be deported, or their Muslim neighbor will have to register or wear a badge.  Ive heard from folks who are scared that they will no longer be able to afford health insurance for themselves and their families.  Ive heard from folks who are frightened that the Ku Klux Klan will be marching in early December here in North Carolina, so those folks have organized a counter march, which I will be taking part in.  One person even said to me, while looking at the social and political landscape, that she was beginning to wonder if God really exists. Every single one of these folks deserves to know that God loves them, and they deserve to have their fears held, because thats what Jesus does. 

Fear is incredibly powerful.  We have lived in fear over the past two years.  Like a fire that we could sometimes keep under control, it was constantly stoked by cable news and posts made on social media, and now it has gotten out of control.  It has consumed us.  That fear leads us to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to suffering. The earliest followers of Jesus knew what this was like.  They experienced fear in ways that we havent, being kicked out of their houses of worship, dragged before authority figures, beaten, and killed.  To be a follower of Jesus was to live in fear.  We can see it in our gospel this morningand once again I am indebted to those folks who put together our Revised Common Lectionary because we could not have had a more fitting Gospel reading for this Sunday than the one we get today.  Luke wrote his gospel near the turn of the first century. The Temple had been destroyed, and the gap between Jews and Christians was beginning to widen.  The fires of fear were being stokedand theyll begin to get out of control once Johns Gospel is written.  

So today we find a group of Jesus disciples admiring the grandeur of the Jerusalem Temple, and Jesus warns them that one day it will fall.  We can hear the fear in their voices when they ask when will this happen, what will be the sign, what are we going to do? The Temple will fall, Jesus says, and so will everything else.  Individuals will rise, he says, and they will try to sway you to put your trust in them.  Nations will rise against one another.  And you, followers of mine, you will be persecuted, abused, slandered, and even put to death.  Families will be split up, and you will feel like the whole world is against you, like everything you know and love and hold dear is falling apart. But when all around you is going mad, when you feel the hate surround you and begin to engulf you, do not be afraid, Jesus says, for I will give you the words to say.  You will stand in the midst of the fear and the hate, and you will endure.  And by your endurance, you will gain your souls. 

How could they possibly endure?  How could they not let the fear and the hate take hold of them?  It's because those early followers of Jesus to whom Luke was writing knew something that we sometimes forget:  that all their hope, all their trust, and all their faith was in Jesus.  It wasnt in any human authority figure, not in the emperor, not in the chief priest, not in the government, no, it was in Jesus Christ.  For the last two years our fears have grown and grown because were told to put our hope, our trust, and our faith in candidates, in political parties, in platforms.  Theyll save us, were told.  No they wont!  Only one can do that.  And thats Jesus. Those of you who remember doing Morning Prayer every week may remember that final line of Suffrage B.  "In you Lord, is our hope."  Do you remember the congregational response?  "And we shall never hope in vain." 

We shall never hope in vain because he is our hope.  He is our king, our God.  He sat on the throne when we went to the polls on Tuesday.  He sits there today.  And he will sit there tomorrow.  And no amount of fear will ever change that!  He is the one who endured the shame and humiliation, who was beaten, who was executed as a political traitor, who literally went to hell, and who was raised.  He showed the world then, and he shows the world now, that death, fear, and hatred cannot stop God; that God can and will resurrect life out of the worst set of circumstances.  We have that hope because we have Jesus as our Lord, our King, and our God.

So we stand.  We endure.  And we put our hope and our trust in Jesus, just as Lukes audience did.  It isnt easy.  It can be downright scary, and it can be uncomfortable, but nobody ever said being a Christian was easy or comfortable.  Still, we stand.  We stand, grounded in caritas.  Some of you saw the picture I posted earlier this week of the floor tiles the chapel at General Seminary, which has the seven virtues written on them in Latin.  The virtue caritas means charity, and every time we preached from the floor we stood on that tile.  Mother Mitties DeChamplain, my preaching professor, always told us, Stay grounded in caritas!  She didnt just mean dont move from that spot while you preach, but she meant that we should live every single day grounded in charity, grounded in love and light, not fear and shadow.  The world may go crazy and feel like its tearing itself apart, but we Christians have a hope that is not of this world, a hope whose name is Jesus. And so we stand, grounded in caritas, and we continue to work for justice and freedom for all Gods children, and we continue to respect the dignity of every human being.  We do so, even when the fear starts to consume us, but we dont stop, because Jesus doesnt stop!!  

There is an old Chinese proverb that says, May you live in interesting time.  Is that proverb a blessing or a curse?  We get to decide.  What we do every single day of our lives--and particularly from this moment forward--will decide that.  If we place our hope on the crucified and risen One, who sits on a throne of love and tells us not to fear, but to love others and walk humbly with our God, than these times will, indeed be a blessing.  But its not always easy, and its not always comfortable.  People need to know that they are loved.  They need it everyday, but they especially need it right now.  Thats something we can all do.  Just tell someone that they are loved, that you love them, that youll stand with them when the fear takes hold, that you will make no peace with oppression because your baptism will not allow it!  We may not be able to change the past, but we can change the future, one day at a time, one opportunity at a time. Desmond Tutu said that we cannot change the world on our own, we can only do our small piece of good in our small corner of the world.  Thats what being grounded in caritas looks like.

Brothers and sisters, know that I am with you.  And I love you, each and every one of you. I will listen to you.  I will hold your hand if you are afraid.  I will buy you your favorite cup of coffee if you're angry, or I will sit on the benches in the columbarium with you and Jesus and just be still.  I will hold whatever concerns you have, even if your concern is that you didnt like this sermonor any sermon I preach, for that matter. I am here.  So is Jesus. Anxiety is high, and fear is running amuck, but Jesus still reigns.  In him have I placed my hope, and my prayer for each of you is that you have done the same.  For when we know deep down that it is Jesus alone who saves us, we can stand in the middle of the fear, in the middle of the chaos, and we can endure and reach our arms out to the extreme left and extreme right and we grab on to our brothers and sisters and hold them.  May you hold each other today, as you are all held in the arms of the Good Shepherd. Remember that it is he who sits on the throne, it is he in whom we put our trust and faith, and it is he who is our hope now and forever.  For that let all Gods people say, Amen.