Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Of Babies, Advent, and the Kingdom of God

This week is the first Sunday of Advent. Our scriptures are Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 1:68-79.

We're really blessed in our congregation to have three (count'em 3) babies on the way. And since it is a professional and personal habit (some would say liability) to be theologically inclined, I've done a lot of theological reflection lately on pregnancy, Advent, and the Kingdom of God.

It seems to me that the Kingdom of God is a great deal like having a baby. We're promised that it's coming. We're told that there is this wonderful thing on the way. We're even told what signs to look for. Listening to expectant mothers talk about all the things going on with them as they come closer and closer to their due dates can be really interesting. They're watching the signs.

Now imagine for a moment that when the baby comes, you have some ideas about who it's going to be and what it's going to do. But it's not doing them yet. The child will have to grow into what it is meant to be. Jesus had to do that too. In fact, one of the reasons that some gospel's didn't make it into the canon for inclusion into our Bible is that they had little Jesus and infant Jesus doing things that were reduced to magic tricks as opposed to expressions of the coming of the Kingdom.

I think the Kingdom of God is a lot like that: it's coming; it's here; it's unfolding; it will have a final expression.

For us at Advent, we celebrate that it's coming...even though we also believe that it's already here. Jesus has already come. And in that coming He ushered in the Kingdom of God in the here-and-now. Before you jump on me about this go look up Luke 17:21 where Jesus says, "the Kingdom of God is among (or within) you." He also taught us to pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Advent is a time when we focus on a coming Kingdom that is also already here.

One of my favorite Fred Craddock quotes is that there are a lot of 'second coming' christians who haven't dealt with the first coming. Advent is about preparing for and dealing with the 'first coming.' Not just the baby...but the cries for justice. The inclusion of the outcast. The healing of the wounded. And our place in the Kingdom's expression today...here...where we are.

We look at Jesus; at His birth, His life, His death and resurrection....not because they take us off the hook in our responsibility for the Kingdom; but because they show us what living up to that responsibility looks like.

Advent then is both celebration and challenge. Can we prepare ourselves this Advent for both?

See you Sunday.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Of Locusts and Lilies

This week's scriptures are Joel 2:21-27 and Luke 12:22-32.

This is the last Sunday in this liturgical year-referred to as Year B. Year A focuses on Matthew, Year B on Mark, and Year C on Luke...all with some passages from John thrown in. Though there are some problems with using the lectionary, it does help us stay focused on the life of Jesus (from three different perspectives and foci). It also serves as a protection from the preacher circling round and round his or her favorite passages or issues like dishwater round a drain; hopefully challenging preacher and congregation alike to look at the passages that challenge them and not just the ones that make them feel good.

Joel, before the passage above, has described the misfortunes that Israel his brought upon itself with its disobedience. They are tremendous, damaging. But, as Joel points out they are not forever. One of the themes that runs through the prophets is made clear here: God's wrath does not last forever...there is healing available...Gods ultimate goal is restoration of Gods people.

I love the phrase "restore the years the locusts have eaten." I've never been around a swarm of locusts. What I hear and read though is that when they come, they come like a dark devouring cloud. They eat every plant in their path. There is nothing left behind. Have you ever had a time in your life like that? When all you looked out on was a barren landscape of your life? It was in a time like that that I first remember reading this phrase. And I have to tell you that one of my responses was..."yeah right" I did not believe that my life could ever be put back together. But it also gave me just a glimmer of hope....hope that God might have something left for me....that restoration and redemption might be possible. And I will also tell you that the past few years have, indeed, been ones of experiencing God restoring the years that the 'locusts' of my life had eaten.

Now I want to skip over for just a minute to Jesus' words about "lilies of the field." I've done a little research this week about the plants that Jesus was most likely referring to. I'll share some of that Sunday, but for right now I want to point out just one thing....they are perennials...they are bulbs...even if a swarm of locusts chews its way through the entire field....chomping stem and flower....there, below the surface....waiting....is the bulb that will bloom next year.

"Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin..." it isn't something that the flowers do....it is a gift. The gift of being a bulb. You and I are created in the Image of God. We carry within us that Image. We do not cause it; we cannot destroy it. Oh we can bend it like a pretzel. We can deform it til the only one who can recognize it is God's own self. But we cannot destroy what God has created in us. It waits. God will touch it. It will begin to make its way to the surface. It will flower.

I don't know what your 'locusts' were, or are. Unless you chose to tell me (and should you want to tell me, I will listen) it's none of my business. But what I do know, as sure as I know that Jesus loves you and me, is that God is waiting to restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.

It isn't like the old joke about country music (you know the one: 'what do you get when you play country music backward? You get your wife back, your truck back, your dog back'). Some things (at least for me this was true) are gone. But the vital things; the parts of me that I thought were dead, gone, and done; these are the things that God restores.

For some folks the 'locusts' weren't their fault. Others did things to them. But their lives feel just as barren. For others they can point clearly to how they fashioned from their own behavior the 'locusts' that ate their lives. In one respect, it doesn't matter. What does matter is this: God wants to restore to you the years the locusts have eaten. Think about the lilies of the field. And trust, as Jesus told us, that our Heavenly Parent cares for us so much more than even these.

See you Sunday.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Giving Out Of Our Poverty; Part 2

This week's scriptures are a partial carry-over from last week. They are 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:41-13:2.

I wanted to mine these passages a bit more together because I was struck with the layers of meaning that they can hold for us.

We talked Sunday-and in last week's blog-about the radical contrast between the scribes who manipulated themselves into positions of power and prestige and the widow silently offering her gift....giving, as Jesus described it, "out of her poverty."

Now Jesus re-emphasizes his point as He says to his disciples that the temple will soon be gone; the institution (the one He had just criticized for its corruption) would no longer be there. But the kind of commitment shown by the woman dropping her two small coins into the treasury: that would go on and on. The truth is that throughout the ages what has kept the Church (with a capitol C) going isn't the power brokers....it's those who 'out of their poverty' have given of themselves...not just financially...in fact, that's probably the least of it...but to visit the sick, touch the leper, work for justice, do acts of mercy in places of distress. The history of the Church has, at its best, also been the history of the voiceless ones who see in Jesus one who understands and is present with them.

Which brings us to our passage from 1 Kings. She is starving. It is out of her poverty...the grinding hunger that she fears will kill both her and her son...that she shares with Elijah. We also need to remember that Elijah is also starving. He is out of food. The ravens no longer come to bring him meat. His request is one 'out of poverty' to 'out of poverty.'

As I prepare this week's sermon I am still asking myself, "what would happen if I offered the pieces of my life to God that are 'poverty'...the places where I am at my least?

Maybe God doesn't need/want my 'great abilities' as much as God wants my weakness. Maybe it is out of our poverty that we are best able to relate to the world around us and to be Christ's Body. Scripture constantly reminds us that Jesus became poverty for us. What does that have to teach us about what we need to become for God?

The questions are tough and challenging to me. They call me to struggle with the very places in my life I most want to avoid. Perhaps, however, it is here that I will meet the action of God that will feed me and keep me alive.

Let's talk about it Sunday.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Giving From Abundance and Poverty

This week's scriptures are 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:38-44.

In the great list of "most misused scriptures" our passage from Mark will have to go high on the list. Think of all the stewardship sermons you've heard that hold up the widow in this story, dropping her last two coins-all that she had-into the temple offering before moving silently along her way. "Be more like her" we were told; "This is the kind of giving God really likes."

Well yes; and no.

In most of this passage Jesus is condemning the religious leaders who push and shove for social status; who put themselves in positions to control the funds of the widow (a widow could not handle her own estate in that day and time, getting ones self appointed as executor was often a lucrative affair); and who were blind to the needs around them. Then, as if to make His point even further, Jesus points out this widow, dropping in the last money she has under the blind eye of the church leaders. I've been intrigued this week as I prepare for Sunday's sermon by the words of Sarah Dylan Breuer who asked if we could find one single indication that Jesus thought it was wonderful that this woman was giving the temple her last penny and going off destitute. It's an interesting question.

The story raises the question for me of what the scribes and company (and you and I) don't see. The church leaders are there in all their glory. Their money makes a huge noise as it is dropped into the temple coffer. They give out of their plenty, expecting to gain more; more money, more prestige, more status. Nobody noticed this woman. She is truly a nobody. She will slide silently into the temple, give her last cent, and then leave. Nobody stops her to ask how she's doing. Nobody invites her to their home for dinner. Nobody even smiles at her as she passes by. They're too busy and she's too unimportant. One doesn't have to look real far to be reminded of televangelists begging for donations...or church building committees sending out letters asking for help with the new church wing. I can, unfortunately, put myself all too easily in the scribes position of blindness to the needs of folks who are giving hugely and quietly and then go on about their business without really being noticed. If we stretch this image just a little bit to include more than money (time volunteered, etc) and the poverty ignored to include more than food (ongoing grief, loneliness, etc) the level of judgement in this story rises even higher.

What will she do now? Where will this destitute, penniless widow go? Where will she sleep, eat her next meal? Perhaps she will starve. That's not an image that we like to think of...but it is one the story raises.

The widow in our passage from 1 Kings is preparing to do just that. Her plans are to make one last meal for she and her son, and then to die. This isn't poetic language. There is a famine in the land. Elijah (and this is important) is suffering from the same famine. He's hiding out in the wilderness form Ahab the king who has sworn to kill him for speaking a prophetic word. The ravens have quit feeding him and the stream he'd been drinking from has dried up. He comes to this widow in his own poverty; as one starving person to another. He asks for her help in trust that his God will care for all three of them....Elijah, the widow, and her son.

Both of these widows can be described in Marks words as "giving out of their poverty." Their gift comes out of the very place where they are most needy, most vulnerable. It is here that they become a model for our giving. Do I give to God out of the place where giving is the greatest risk? The place where I really have to wonder if opening up will be the last thing I ever do? No, I'm much more like the scribes...or worse.

What happens if I let these two scriptures both judge me and guide me? What if they call me to examine my priorities of self protectiveness and social status and to look at taking the risk of offering to God the very places where I am most hungry, poor, and wounded?

Truly risky business. Let's look at it together on Sunday.