Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How We Come Home May Be As Important as That We Come Home

This week's scriptures are Jeremiah 31:7-14 and Ephesians 1:3-14, 2:4-10.

In the latest edition of the Christian Century magazine is a vigorous discussion about the right of Israel to the land in Palestine. The various writers range from those who believe that the right of Israel is based in a promise from God which over rules everything else; to some very thoughtful discussion of God's call to treat its neighbors as though they too were Israel.

This argument might be simply academic if it weren't for the fact that a great deal of American policy toward Israel has been affected by the theological stance of both Zionists and conservative Christians. And it becomes an even more important discussion in light of the current military retaliation by Israel in its attempt to destroy Hammas.

The problems of Israel and Palestine are incredibly complex. And I am not wise enough to have a solution to this centuries old problem. But I would suggest that any viewpoint about the current situation that ignores the radical disparity in military capacity between Israel and the areas being attacked (i.e. the age and quality of the weapons); as well as the practice of the Israeli army in bulldozing Palestinian homes in south Gaza and their impact on the political situation in the region is both politically and theologically naive.

The rhythm and flow of Israel movement in and out of exile is part of the scriptural basis for the discussions noted above. It is also the context for our Jeremiah passage which is a promise of homecoming and restoration. The Ephesians passages are similarly Paul's claim that the believers had been chosen by God to be raised up as an example of God's great mercy. The pattern to the discourse is similar: once we were seperated/exile; now we are brought home from the places (geographically/spiritually/emotionally) to which we have been scattered. This is God's action in the historical moment.

The danger for all of us is that we can come to view and interprete these passages as a kind of triumphalism....a sign of opposed to expressions of God's mercy that call us to a quality of life with our they Palestinians or folks who live around the corner on Cape St. Claire.

Let me push this a little further. During the holidays many of us are reminded of where we came from. We go home to see family, we recieve Christmas cards, we make phone calls. Some of those memories warm our hearts. Some of them are not pleasant at all. Some of our memories have to do with how far the pains of our past may have taken us into destructive or harmful behaviors...and how long it took us to come back to health and spirituality and relationship.

I'm going to maintain that the quality of our homecoming...whether it is Israel's desire for a homeland or your and my connection/re-connection to our family of origin....has a great deal to do with how we treat the 'neighbor' we find there.

We can come home as though it's something we're entitled to and bring all our bitterness and rage and desire for revenge with us; and we'll sour the very moments that we once prayed for. We'll bomb villages, snip at relatives, and make ourselves miserable in the way that only a good resentment can. Or, we can follow the guidance of scripture. We can see all our neighbors as like ourselves. Loved by God....searching for healing....on their journey home too.

Family systems theory talks about how intergenerationally a family can be trying to heal an old wound over and over and over again. The patterns repeat from one generation to another. Just as Israel went out into exile again and again, these families repeat the patterns of illness and addiction and pain.

Maybe the trick, internationally as well as interpersonally and intrapersonally, is to see our 'home' as gift. To respond in gratitude. To live, not out of entitlement but out of blessing. Just like the Israelites were told when they brought in their crops to "leave something for the sojourner, for you were once sojourners in Egypt"...maybe we are told 'respond with compassion to those who move you to resentment; for once you were resented, yet God came to you in compassion.'

What would this new year be like if our lives were marked by that kind of biblical obedience?

Hope to see you Sunday.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Waiting Expectantly

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 52:1-13 and Luke 2:22-40.

UCC minister Ozzie Smith, in a sermon on this Lukan passage tells the story that Harriette Tubman was know to wait in railroad stations without a schedule or knowing when the trains would be running. When asked about this, she is said to have replied that she knew the train would be coming. She trusted that the tracks had been laid and the station built for a reason.

Simeon and Anna trusted. They waited. And because they waited they saw what they had been promised.

We had a wonderful Christmas Eve service. It was a worship service about a promise. The promise that this baby was the Messiah; that his coming was going to be the thing that brought in the Kingdom of God.

Now this is an interesting promise because it's both a "here now" and an "it's coming" promise. We're promised some things in 'end times' language: God will speak the last word and that last word will be rooted in God's love for God's and me included. It's also "here and now" language. We're told that "the kingdom of God is within you" and that this kingdom is here, now among us.

Both of these promises require a particular kind of faith. It is the faith of Simeon and Anna. It is the faith of Harriette Tubman. The faith to look and see that the track has been the train that the track was built to run on will come. The promise made to Simeon and Anna will be kept; and they will see God's glory revealed.

Sometimes it's hard to have the eyes to see the track though. We have difficulty believing that this isn't some mirage...what Marx referred to as "the opiate of the people." A figment of our imagination meant to pull our attention away from the difficulties that surround us. But what we find is that when we trust, when we have faith that the train really is running, we also find that we move toward, not away, from the pain and the trouble. Not because we are some kind of spiritual masochist, but because we trust that in moving, in trust, toward the places of need and pain in the world and in our lives, we are moving toward the healing that has been promised.

The tinsel may fade. The lights may seem to have dimmed. But the promise...the promise is as fresh today as when it was made to Isaiah...was made flesh in the birth of Jesus...and breaks into our world on a daily basis.

Simeon believed. Anna believed. You and I are called to believe. Like Tubman waiting for a train we trust and live and wait for the glory of God to break through.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Subversive Scriptures and Banned Bible Verses

This week's scriptures are Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 1:46-55.

I was intrigued as I began reading and preparing for this coming Sunday's sermon to find that in the 1980's the government of Guatemala prohibited the public reading of the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary.

Listen to the word and you will not find it particularly difficult to understand why:

He has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from
their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good
and sent the rich away empty
. (Luke 1:51-53)

I found myself remembering the little cards that we would get at Vacation Bible School. They had five to ten bible verses on them and we would get a gold star next to the ones we memorized. Some of you may remember them as well. The were filled with verses like "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" and "the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" and other verses that spoke to the need for salvation and a personal relationship with Jesus. Now I believe that a deep and personal relationship with Jesus is what we are invited to; but I also believe that this relationship calls us, among other things, to acts of justice and mercy. This is part of living as God's people in imitation of our Savior.

I don't remember any verses on those cards that said, "He has brought down the powerful from their thones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty" or "I take no pleasure in your sacred cermonies...Spare me the sound of your songs, I shall not listen to the strumming of your lutes. Instead let justice roll down like water and rightousness like an everflowing stream." (Amos 5:21 and 23-24).

I deeply appreciated Jeremy and Susan's singing of Rebel Jesus on this past Sunday. They reminded us that it is too easy to let this wild, subversive, 'turn the world on it's head' Gospel be co-opted as a tool for the status quo, the oppressor, the systemic blindness to the cry of those around us who suffer.

Mary knew in the depth of her being that what was growing in her was a new world. The baby she welcomed as "the handmaiden of the Lord" would bring about a radical change in creation.

Next time you hear the Magnificat...listen to the words. Enjoy the music; it is truly beautiful. But listen to the words of this marvelous young woman who knows in every fiber of her being that something new is about to happen.

And so the questions come to us this season: Are you and I that open, that willing for God to use us? Do we see something new and radical and powerful about to happen in our world because of how we have said "yes" to God's invitation to give birth to some new part of God's work of redemption?

God broke in at Christmas in a unique and marvelous way...becoming flesh-one of us. But God also continues to break in to our world; birthing freedom, and redemption, and healing whenever and wherever we raise our voices like Mary and say, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

See you Sunday.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Living Toward the Dream and the Promise

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 61 and John 1:6-8, 19-28.

So far this Advent season, we've talked about how important it is to speak our cry out honestly about what is not right in our world and in our lives; and to be willing to live in the tensions about what we believe we know about what God is doing, and what we don't understand.

This week, scripture helps us move to the next step: that is to live toward the promise and the dream.

Now I have to be honest and say that I believe that until we've done the first two, truly doing the third with integrity is difficult-and often impossible. It is, in fact the facing of the realities of life and the mystery beyond us that opens the door for imagination and Mystery to meet in dreams of what God's promises might look like.

John when he is approached and questioned sounds a bit like Joe Biden going "I'm not the guy" when reporters were asking if he was Obama's pick for VP. But John points beyond himself to the One who was coming. John was a 'get ready' voice "crying in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord." He was picking up on the promises made in Isaiah; he stood in a long line of those who trusted in the dream and the promise.

Isaiah gives shape to the dream. He fleshes out the promise. And I think it's important for us to notice what part of Isaiah's vision that Jesus is going to pick up on when He begins His ministry. It isn't the nationalistic vision of verses 5-7 where 'aliens' and 'foreigners' work for the once disposessed Israel. It is the binding up of the brokenhearted, good news for the afflicted, freedom for the prisoner.

Jesus embodied God's love and fleshed out the promise. You and I are called to continue living into that dream. Lest we get the idea that this is an easy task, let me make it clear; living into this dream and into God's promise is hard work...and we may not see much of what we live into come to fruition in our life time.

I heard an interview with one of the Tuskegee Airmen this morning. Obama has sent special invitations to those still living to be present at his inauguration. Mr. Wheeler (the former airman) stated that he didn't believe that without the service of black soldiers, an African-American could ever have been elected president. These were men living into the dream about what could be. They were living toward the promise of America as a place for all people. Now, mind you, I don't believe that we're there yet by any stretch of the imagination (just look at Prop 8). But we're definitely further along because of the service and sacrifice of men and women like the Tuskegee Airmen.

I recently had an email conversation with a member of our congregation about our dreams regarding Broadneck's place as an inclusive and welcoming congregation. Our personal visions of how this dream may get lived out are a little different...and that's absolutely okay...but what we were both asking was, 'given what we're called to as God's people, in this particular time and place how do we live into this dream of how God's promise will be expressed here, now, at Broadneck?'

Do you remember what Jesus said at His first sermon after He read the passage from Isaiah? It's in Luke 4. He said, "today this scripture has been fullfilled in your sight." Are we also called to "fullfill this scripture" in the sight of the world around us? To live out the promise by giving flesh to the Word in our time and place as representatives of God's love in Christ? I think we are.

Advent reminds us to listen to the cries of our own lives and those of the world around us for God to act in the difficult and painful situation. It calls us to be willing to live in the tension of not always knowing. And it invites us to live toward a dream of what God's promise might look like for this moment as God's people at Broadneck Baptist.

Do we have a dream? Do we have a vision? Do we believe the Promise is part of our call as a community of faith?

Come on Sunday and let's talk about it.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Double for All Our Sins???

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8.

I have to confess that I find this week's passage disturbing.

Oh, there are a lot of really good things about it. Isaiah 40:1 is a magical passage: "Comfort my people says your God; speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her htat her warfare (or time of bondage) is ended." The gentle care of this verse invokes warm and marvelous images of soothing mothers tending the hurts of their children....but listen to the rest of the verse, "for she has recieved at the Lord's hand double measure for all her sins."


I'm not sure about you, but if someone came to me offering comfort, and said, "by the way, things were twice as bad as they should have been---and I did it," my response might be less than cordial.

Unless we want to just pick and chose what makes us feel good in scripture, we need to look at this phrase and ask ourselves "what's going on here?" "what is this all about?" Because the prophet here isn't saying, 'tell them they really got a rough deal, the Babylonians were roughter on you than I wanted them to be; and this exile thing was a bit over the top."

No, the prophet, is reporting a conversation taking place in the Heavenly Court. And God is telling the subjects of that Court to comfort God's people and tell them that their time of warfare/bondage/exile is ended...and that the Lord had given them twice the punishment they deserved!

Does this bother you? Make you a little queasy? It does me. So what do we do now?
If we take scripture seriously, how will we address this passage?

And if you really want me to throw you a curve ball, remember that last week's Isaiah passage (64:1-9) was a response to that warfare/bondage/exile ending...and the kind of ending they got not being what they expected. In other words...the great homecoming wasn't all it was cracked up to be!

You have to admire the honesty of the writer(s) of Isaiah. They didn't pull their punches; they didn't mince their words. Should we?

Advent is a time of expectation. It is also a time of examining the pain that our personal and corporate wounds and sins (things done to us as well as things we've done) have caused us, those around us, and all creation. We cannot honestly look forward in expectation of embracing the new unless we can also look solidly at the past and at our feelings about it. And, we need to acknowledge that Advent, when it comes, may not be anything like what we expect. Just as Job cried out for an answer; when God answered, it was nothing like Job expected.

So what are we going to do with this passage? Well, I'm going t make you a deal (in the back of my mind I hear some 60's comedian saying, "such a deal I have for you").
I'm going to study this passage up and down before Sunday and try to get a handle on what is happening here. So are you. You're going to read it, pray over it, goggle it, look at a commentary if you have one. And on Sunday we're going to meet and look at it together.

Sunday's sermon will be what is often referred to as a Dialogue Sermon. This means I won't do all the talking. I'll share what I've come up with and then invite you all to join me in a prayerful conversation about the passage.

I hope to see you on Sunday as we practice the Priesthood of All Believers in this particular way.