Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tear The Heavens Apart: Why We Need Advent

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 64:1-9 and Psalms 80:1-7, 17-19.

This week's passages are cries from the deepest part of the human heart. Look at what happens when we 'forget' we're reading scripture (which often makes us miss things cause we wrap our 'religious stuff' around it) and listen to the words like our next door neighbor was telling them to us:

'God has made sorrow all I have to eat and I drink the tears of this overwhelming grief. My neighbors watch me being crushed and my enemies make fun of me as much as they want to. Why doesn't God tear the heavens apart to come down. In the past, when I wasn't looking for God to do anything, God came and the mountains shuddered and it felt like the world would burst into flames. No other God has ever been seen taking up for those who waited for God, but doesn't seem that God will respond, no matter what I do. Everything I cherish is ruined. How long God before you stop beating on me?'

This is a paraphrase of the combined scriptures; but it cuts close to the truth of their meaning. Take a look at them now in your Bible, starting with the Psalm and you'll see what I mean.

This is why you and I need an Advent. We need a place where we can cry out. We need to know that God will listen. I will sometimes ask people that I counsel with, either as a pastor or a therapist (when the person is using their faith in the process of therapy) whether they have prayed about the "aweful secret" or the "horrible problem" that they've just told me about. Often the answer is a kind of suprised look and then, "well no, I haven't" though we somehow had to protect God from the bad stuff in our life; or that God is so angry at us for being or doing something that God wouldn't listen to our struggle. Consequently, we can feel alone and deserted in our trouble.

But that's not what scriptures says, and it's not the Gospel.

We NEED an Advent. We need to rediscover and reclaim a God who listens and cares and answers. We need a place and time where we can risk grabbing on to these promises about who and what God is and holding on for dear life.

This Tuesday I sat in court and watched a man I know being lead away in handcuffs. His victim was also in court; as were friends and family of both. Most of the people in this courtroom...including the man going to jail.....were people of faith! Were christians struggling with what all this means in their lives, and their futures, and their trust, and their faith in God. The pain in the court room was palpable. Think of them for a moment and re-read the paraphrase above.

Where can they go to cry out? Where do victims go to cry out the anguish of long term impact of victimization? Where do offenders go to cry out for healing as well? Where do the families of offenders cry out, to worship, to have community?

This is the issue that I'm closest to. If it doesn't speak to you, pick one that does. Where is the place you know, in your own life or close to you, where a cry needs to go up?


I hope you'll join us Sunday. Let's come together and cry out. God will listen. God will come.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Passion and Process in Marriage and God

This week's scriptures are Song of Songs 2:8-17 and Revelation 21:1-4.

We're going to have the pleasure on Sunday of being part of Barbara and Jim Jordan renewing their wedding vows as part of our worship service. I hope we'll all turn out to celebrate with them.

It also gives us the opportunity to look a the ways in which scripture has used courtship and marriage as images and metaphors for the relationship of God to God's people.

From Hosea to the Song of Songs to the book of Revelation we are presented with pictures that bring the ups and downs, the passionate longing, and the daily challenges of the marriage relationship into focus as a way of looking at God's desire for us. It's a little embarrassing to look at how often God's people are referred to as an unfaithful wife and God equated to the injured husband.

All that being said, I think there are two particular places where we can take the marriage metaphor and see something important about our relationship to God; the first is explicit in scripture and the second is implicit. And I'm going to maintain that while at it's worst, marriage can mar our understanding of God's love; at it's best, our relationship with our spouse can be a vehicle that God uses to teach us incredible things about God's self.

The first place where the marriage image has something to say to us is in the area of passion. The Song of Songs is about the longing ache of two lovers for one another. They seek each other through the streets at night. They sing songs about the beauty of the other's body. They openly proclaim their lusty desire for one another. This is how God feels about us. God desires a relationship with you and me with a longing so strong that its closest expression is in the longing of one lover for the body of another. It is this powerful longing that takes Jesus to the cross; a longing so great that God would endure death to see that longing fullfilled. But the second part of this is equally important: we were created with an equal longing for God. St. Augustine's famous "our hearts are restless til they find their rest in Thee" is a pale expression of the desire that I believe we are born with for a passionate, earthshaking relationship with our Lover/Creator/God.

The problem is that while God's passionate desire for us does not change; ours often does. The wounds and pains of this life often bend and warp our desires. Fear can make us apprehensive about believing that anyone-especially God-could possibly love us in all our naked frailty and flaws. But the longing never goes away. One of the things I devotely believe is that at the heart of every bent, warped, addictive (chose your phrase) desire is the true desire for relationship with God. This is why the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote to Bill W. (founder of A.A.) that he would not ever get sober without a "spiritual awakening." The Good News in all this is that God never stops desiring us; and we are always reaching (even in wounded ways) for God.

This brings us to the second part of the marriage image...and that is process. Those of us who have been married for a while...and I'm sure that Barbara and Jim would agree...know that being married is a process. We go through changes that we never imagined. We 'fall' in and out of love...and back in again...with our spouse over and over and over. The relationship opens us up to places in ourselves that we didn't even know were there. We wound and are wounded. We heal and are healed. And as time goes on we find that where we once needed something to do, somewhere to go, something to entertain us; now, more and more it is the sound of their voice, the awareness of their presence that gives us the greatest comfort and the deepest joy. Give us enough time together and many of us (I'm told) start to look alike.

The process of our relationship to God is a lot like this as well. It is a growing thing. We fail, we re-connect, we grow, we discover new things about ourself and about God. Til, hopefully, we find a measure of peace and comfort in the experience of God's presence, and a deep joy in the daily living in that Presence.

And maybe....just time goes on, we start to 'look' alike.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Don't Give Up Before the Miracle Happens

This week's scriptures are Matthew 25: 1-13 and 14-30.

This title: "Don't Give Up Before the Miracle Happens" may seem sort of a strange one for a blog on two of Jesus' judgement parables. It will sound even stranger if you happen to know that one of the Lectionary passages that we're not reading (though it will probably show up in the sermon) is Zephaniah 1: 7, 12-18.

Now Zephaniah is a prophet whose first words to Judah are "I shall utterly destroy everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord." Zephaniah is focused on "The Day of the Lord" which he describes as "a day of wrath, a day of anguish and torment, a day of destruction and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of cloud and dense fog..." Add this to the first parable in which the Bridegroom says to the bridesmaids who had gone to buy oil, "Truly I say to you, I do not know you" and the master who says, "as for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth".....and it's hard to imagine a miracle at all.

Many of us grew up in churches that stopped the story right there. It's a comfortable place to stop the story-as long as you see yourself as one of those bridesmaids who got in the door, or one of the servants who handled the money he was given well. It becomes a platform for all kinds of sanctimonious snobbery and religious long as I can be one of the "good guys" in the story.

The truth is, though, that none of us is one of the "good guys"...."all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." It's only when we've encountered our own "Day of the Lord" whatever way it comes to us....that we realize that. The problem is that if we, like the servant who buried his money in the ground, have a view of God that stops at the passages above from Zephaniah, then there is no hope. There's no hope because (if this is our view) we serve a God who is going to judge us harshly no matter what; who puts us in double binds that would make a therapist cringe (the lecture he gives the fearful servant about 'why didn't you at least loan my money out?' violated Jewish laws against usury-so the servant was clearly in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation); if this is what God is truly like, we might as well roll over and quit. We throw ourselves into the "outer darkness."

But this isn't the end of the story; not even in Zephaniah. On Sunday I'm going to tell you the story of Saralee Perel. She's a remarkable woman who Carole and I think is a real hero; her name is Saralee Perel, and I want to share her story with you.

But for right now, I want to tell you where I first saw the words that are the title of this blog. I was sitting in a room full of people who had encountered their "Day of the Lord." For many of the folks in that room, marriages had been lost, jobs had been sacrificed, and legal problems abounded. Many of them felt like they were at the end....that they lived, and would continue to live, in the 'outer darkness.' But in that room, right next to a poster that said "The 12 Steps" was one that read "Don't Quit Before the Miracle Happens."

I don't think we are judged for our behaviors...I believe our behaviors judge us. That judgement can make us paralyzed, fearful, despairing. Our "Day of the Lord" can rip through our lives like a tornado, taking out everything in its path....except....except.....except the promise that God's love will have the final say. Remember Zephaniah? That dark, horror prophesying word he spoke? Listen to his final words:

I shall take away your cries of woe
and you will no longer endure reproach.
When that time comes;
I shall deal with all who oppress you;
I shall rescue the lost and gather the dispersed.
I shall win fo rmy people praise and renown throught the whole world.
When that thiime comes I shalll gather you and bring yo uhome.
I shall win you renown and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes.
It is the Lord who speaks. (Zephaniah 3:18-20)

I don't know what your "Day of the Lord" looks like. It may be an illness you can't find healing for; it may be an addiction you struggle may be hitting bottom in it; it may be a tragedy in your life that feels as though you're drowning in your sorrow and pain. Jesus doesn't promise us that these things don't happen; in fact, as Zehaniah shows us scripture is graphic in its descriptions of what they are like when they come. BUT Jesus promises that the final word is different than anything we could imagine.

Jesus' judgement stories don't pull any punches. But, and this is the most important thing about them, they don't write us off either. Jesus always holds out hope, and forgiveness, and healing, and an invitation to the Great Party of God's Love.

So whatever it is in your life that these stories remind you of.....Don't Give Up Before the Miracle Happens.

I hope to see you Sunday.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Servant Leadership

This week's scriptures are Psalm 1 and Matthew 23:1-12.

This Tuesday evening I watched the person I supported defeat a person I admire for the presidency of the United States. What draws me to both of these men is the times when I hear them-at their best-speak in language which is often associated with what, years ago, was referred to as "Servant Leadership."

Robert Greenleaf wrote a book by this title some 25 or so years ago. Building on his writing Max Depree wrote Leadership is an Art (a book that made a tremendous impact on me), and other books on the meaning of leadership in this 'Servant Tradition'.

A look at Wikipedia indicates that Kautila, a famous strategic thinker from ancient India, was writing about it in the 4th century B.C. in around 6000 B.C. Lao Tzu wrote that the "greatest leader forgets himself and attends to the development of others." Larry Spears identified ten characteristics is a servant leader: "listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community." Greenleaf said that the best test of leadership was, "do those served grow as persons, do they grow while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" (italics mine)

Finally, Wikipedia quotes Mark's version of this week's Matthew passage, "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all." (Mark 10:43-44)

Aside from a very real hope that our country may be turning a bit toward the concept of Servant Leadership as a possibility; and my prayer that this will be the model that President Obama brings into office; why do I raise this subject here?

As we as a congregation move into the new church year with both our fall programs and Advent; as we look to new congregational leaders; and as we seek our next can we apply this model to our work and ministry. Can we see the "Hospitality" that we've spent the last few weeks talking about as a variety of "Servanthood"? Can we hold up as governing questions to our work as a congregation together and our individual lives as Christians seeking to live out Jesus' message in our daily encounter with others the questions: Am I listening empathically? Is this person I am encountering (be they my child, my spouse, or the cashier at the store) a little 'healthier, wiser, freer' because we've encountered one another? and are they more likely themselves to become servants because we've met/encountered?

As I look back on our scriptures for the past few weeks and see the passages from the parables that say, 'he sent his servants to tell them that the party was ready'; I ask myself, does my/our servanthood help folk get to the party of the Kingdom of God? Does it aid them to see the great invitation that they've been given? Does it demonstrate to them that the party is already going on if they'll just step in the door?

It isn't just persons in great and visible positions like John McCain and Barack Obama who are called to moments of great leadership and great servanthood. You and I are called as well.

Hope to see you Sunday.