Preparing with Hope

Keep Awake

a homily for Advent 1A
Text: Matthew 24:36-44

Waking up early

I woke up early on Thursday morning. Not to my alarm, but to my son saying “Daddy!” He was wide awake and ready to get up—a full hour ahead of my schedule. He and I walked out into the dark living room and waited for the others to wake up. I turned on two lamps and he got out the train tracks and wanted to play.

A short time later, my daughter and partner joined us. The sun was not yet up. The house still contained my slumbering parents, sister, brother-in-law, and niece and nephew.

Watching the tree-obscured sun rise out the back window, the sky lightening, changing its color scheme, my tired eyes had trouble accepting the beauty around me.

More stirred, the coffee pot went on, breakfast needed preparing, then the stuffing and the turkeys, the potatoes, the green beans and the feast’s preparation was in full swing by the morning’s close.

We love Thanksgiving about as much for the food as for the gathering, I must admit. We love the food. And I was eager to prepare it. I wanted in. When I was little, I was always helping—or at least asking to help. My Mom was the main preparer. This year was going to be different. I think it needed to be different. My Mom taught me how to stuff the bird, how to pull back the skin and cover the flesh in butter, and then coat the whole thing in butter. I made the sides, and planned most of the meal. We were eating by 3:30 and regretting how much we ate by quarter after 4.

And as is usually the case on Thanksgiving, we were half-asleep by 6. Everyone went to bed early.

What a startling contrast we awoke to this morning:

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

“Keep awake” you say? Yikes! After that tryptophan! That early rising with the kids! How are any of us able to stay awake past 8:00 Thanksgiving night, let alone stay up until morning after a day like that! You want me to do this every night?

Keep Awake all night?

Here, toward the end of the gospel we call Matthew, Jesus speaks of the end of things…and the beginning of new things…in a way that confronts us and our need to plan—to have assurance.

He sets up this view of the end, which is stunning—the separating—like wheat and chaff. A separating that leaves the useful parts and sets the rest to be burned. Or perhaps re-purposed as ethanol. A view misunderstood as a great whisking away of the “good” ones to some delightful place in the sky as a reward—the total opposite of what Jesus actually describes—and what is described in Revelation as a heavenly kingdom made present here—around us.

More confrontational than a great sort is the conviction Jesus shows in describing our need to prepare—to be vigilant—to be ready for this time to come. A vigilance that might induce horror stories of thieves breaking into our homes, or that we might be, as the text continues, disobedient slaves cut into pieces.

I for one find the idea of keeping watch, of staying ready every day for the rest of my life a depiction of its own horror—a source of daily anxiety and fear for what is to happen or what I am missing. In this, the advent of the coming of the Son of Man is itself a source of fear, rather than joy. A certain description of Hell on earth.

Another option

It is tempting to read only half of this gospel: either focusing on the scariness of this future coming that Jesus describes or on that watchfulness as a need to be always ready. But even Jesus’s image of the thief in the night belies our tendency to hear Jesus literally. His metaphor involves staying up all night—an action that isn’t a daily action, or something that can be sustainable for more than a few days, any way.

Therefore, we may be tempted to throw this all away as impossible expectation—I’m just a simple person, trying to live right; all this talk about thieves and the end goes right by me. Resist that temptation. For Jesus doesn’t expect us to ignore these words either.

Perhaps we’re left with another option.

We know that the heaven Jesus describes is a heaven come to earth and the eternal life that Jesus describes in John is a vibrant living here and now. We know that Jesus’s most common instruction is to not be afraid. And we know that Jesus is telling us to always be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man—a moment that should fill us with joy and thankfulness.

This is a gospel, not of fear and anxiety, but of hope. Hope for what is coming and what will be. Hope for how we live. Hope for the manner of life that brings with it the very reunion we most want.

Our preparations

As we enter into this new year: a year known not for its chronology from the birth of a new era, but as the circular return to the beginning: what we simply call Year A, may we come with a great sense of hope and fascination for what is to come. May we find the joy of the season sustainable and insightful. May we be so filled with the Spirit, that the celebration of Christ’s human birth, known as the incarnation is not a relief from the pressure of the season, but the kickoff of a greater celebration of joy.

For it is in Advent that we explore the end of things and its new beginning. When we prepare for an arrival among us the way a mother expects, but cannot predict, the birth of her child. It is a time of mindfulness and watchfulness, because GOD is already among us. Not because we decorate, but perhaps, in spite of it. That GOD is with us, not born for the first time on the 25th, nor for a second time, but with us in Spirit as we gather and we prepare and we celebrate, and we ring in this new year in song and cheer and hope.

For this is our work. This is what it means to be a Christian: what it means to follow Jesus. We prepare for His being with us fully. We expect Christ to be with us at any moment. We don’t get to make the arrangements for His presence—it isn’t something we get to plan for—but we prepare our hearts. And we live our heavenly conviction here.

With love and charity and hope. With the better angels of our nature. With the ambition that we might seize this opportunity as if it were our only one. And we say this is why I sing Alleluia!

The scandalous character of ministry

Scandalous WheatThe Lectionary did us no favors by jumping into Luke at chapter 7, skipping what I think are the two most important chapters in the whole gospel in 5 and 6. Smack in between the calling of disciples and the Sermon on the Plain is one of my favorite moments of Jesus’s. It is striking and captivating. And it paints everything that comes after it.

At the beginning of chapter 6, Jesus and his new rag-tag bunch of followers have started out on their mission. They are healing the sick and proclaiming a new era. They go through this wheat field and the followers pick the wheat on the way through and eat it. Not a big deal. Except that it happened to be Saturday: the Sabbath. Now they’re in trouble.

The Pharisees get on Jesus for this. They ask how he can allow the disciples to break the law. This is Jesus’s response:

“Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?”

The text then says:

Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

The story, and its companion that comes right after (Luke 6:6-11) demonstrate a big picture view of Jesus that rejects the Law to fulfill the Law. I’ve written about this a few times.

There’s something telling, however about Jesus’s reference to David beyond the easy connections we make about Jesus. I’m compelled less by that follow-up message about being “lord of the sabbath” as I am in the tale of David and his companions breaking the Law to share in the presence. For to make this about Divinity and power of Jesus is to miss the pure humanity of David, and his much greater transgression than Jesus’s. Jesus allowed a couple of dudes to break Sabbath—David himself and his buddies entered the holiest of holies.

This comparison is important because it sets the stage for what it means to do the ministry of GOD. As much as the Sermon on the Plain (6:17-49) explains a ministry of listening and service, Jesus demonstrates also a ministry of rebellion. Or perhaps more accurately, one of reconciliation. This is, in fact, what happens in the raising of the Widow’s Son at Nain, which we explored yesterday, and demonstrated in Jesus’s healing of the man with the withered hand.

These things are important because when confronted by the authorities for breaking the rules, Jesus doesn’t say

I’m bigger than the rules.

He is saying

We break the rules to follow the rules.

Perhaps more specifically, we break the rules we made to support GOD’s rules when those human rules aren’t actually supportive.

Which brings me to what is most striking about the David story: Jesus defends his followers with a story that we would read scandalously if we were paying it any attention. Imagine if people broke into our churches and ate the consecrated elements—how scandalized we would be.

How scandalized we are when we talk about communion without baptism.

How scandalized we are when the wrong people are doing things.

This is the story Jesus picked to defend his followers.

And it is a story so easy to connect with our own practices, our own laws, our own traditions and canons that we are left sitting with an uncomfortable question about our own behavior and our own practices. It is so tailor-made for conversation about Eucharist and access to it, Jesus seems to be arguing against us.

All of this is wrapped in the context of this sequence of events:

  1. Finding his followers
  2. Doing ministry with them
  3. Breaking Sabbath Law
  4. Naming the 12 apostles
  5. Preaching the Sermon on the Plain
  6. Heading out to do the ministry together

This must not be seen as a single scandalous event, but embedded in the essential character of our ministry.

Question: Does your ministry contain this element of scandal?

Uncovering Love

a Sermon for Easter 5C
Text: John 13:31-35

Love Each Other. Too Obvious?

Sometimes we have a selection from scripture that is too obvious. We understand where Jesus is going and what He’s getting at. Today is one of those days.

Jesus gives a new commandment, something he pretty much never does outside of this, and says “love one another.” Something so simple, direct, sensible.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What’s our action? Love each other. Our calling card? Love each other. How does the world recognize us? We love each other.

This is so clear, so ready for us. What makes much less sense to us is how Jesus gets to that revelation. Let’s think of Jesus as a teacher in front of the classroom, standing at the blackboard. He is explaining a theorem in calculus and we are sitting there, eyes glazed like donuts. Then he arrives at the solution and we snap out of it. The pencils leap up and we all write out the solution. “Love.” There! We found it!

This makes a certain amount of sense on its own. Most of us have gone through the lectionary and heard these things before. We have lived lives of faith. We aren’t in basic math—or at least matriculated from that years ago. Perhaps we can just get some tips for better living. That might help. Preferably something easy. We’re simple people, after all. We like that “love” stuff.

Timing the Glorification

You can see that this story is from Chapter 13 in John, which takes place on that auspicious Thursday. Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Judas leaves to betray them. Jesus gives them his only command: to love. They eat.

Throughout this gospel, Jesus makes reference to the hour of glorification (including 4:23, 7:30, 12:16, 12:23) not yet here, and now Jesus announces that this is that hour: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified”.

This is that moment. And for us to understand that command to love, we have do the work. That means dealing with this moment and glorification.

Protestants argue that Jesus’s glorification comes through the cross. Friday. In the death and the blood, Jesus becomes the vehicle by which we might all be saved. At the point of death, therefore, is the moment of victory.

Catholics argue that Jesus’s glorification comes through the resurrection. Sunday. In defeating death, Jesus destroys death. That, in rising from the dead, Jesus’s true glory is found, therefore we celebrate the arrival of victory.

Anglicans, I suppose split the difference. Saturday?

And yet Jesus announces that He has been glorified as of Thursday. How is that possible?

The Overlapping Events

I think it has to do with this moment. If I understand His work, Jesus is saying here:
1) The Son of Man has been glorified and
2) In him, GOD has been glorified.
3) If this is the case, then
4) GOD will glorify the Son of Man in himself immediately.

This moment is Jesus’s final teaching, His final moment of intimacy with His followers. A moment that begins with service, humbly cleaning his disciples’ feet in a ritual of purification. Then Jesus announces what Judas has planned and tells him to go do it. Then He commands them to love each other. Then he foretells Peter’s denial, speaks of GOD and the Holy Spirit and of many more things. He says they are not servants, but friends.

It seems that what has happened is that this last time of intimacy, of service and sharing and love is the moment of glorification. Because they are ready. It isn’t about Jesus anymore, but His followers.

This is why He tells them that they can’t follow where He is going, but that they will. I will no longer be with you, but when you get together, I will be there.

The Jesus Event will soon be done, but the event it inspires has already begun. How will we know this is the case? By followers loving each other.

Our Inheritance and Our Mission

This isn’t some spiritual guru do-gooder with a self-help message saying good things happen to people when they love. It is Jesus reminding us that we have taken over for Him. That we are doing GOD’s work here. And that we know we’re on the right track when we love each other. When we wash each others feet. When we pitch in when someone loses a job. When we are eager to help our children know what it means to be loved, rather than scolded or scorned.

Jesus tells us that this work requires that we act together. We can’t be Christians alone, but we can be the only Christian in a room.

We are the inheritors of that event. We aren’t telling people about a Palestinian Jew who died 2000 years ago, but a Lord who liberates us today—whose power flows through us when we gather in service and worship.

We are also the builders and the creators of a new event. An event for here and now. For this community and this people. We are not protecting precious artifacts, but making new, holy icons of our faith. Icons written by our love.

For when students become teachers, their teachers are glorified.

It’s All About Winning

a Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, B

Text: Mark 8:31-38

This is Winning?

“Jesus saves.” A pithy and precise statement if ever there were one. Jesus Saves. He does. But how? From what? It is a statement too simple to be accurate.

Jesus is Messiah and Liberator, Conqueror and King. But every image these words evoke is wrong. For Jesus, it is winning without a contest.

If you remember about a year ago we witnessed the public meltdown of the actor, Charlie Sheen. His falling out with the producers of Two and a Half Men didn’t just go public, they went crazy. Or should we just say that Sheen went crazy. People were so eager to put a microphone in front of his mouth to see what crazy thing he’d say next. And on cue he gave us the strangest, most Shakespearean tragic statement we’ve heard in a long time. In describing his public tantrums and divorce from the TV show and his erratic behavior, Sheen declared that he was “winning”. To even the most casual viewer, Sheen’s sense of “winning” was, at best…interesting. He didn’t look like any winners we knew. In fact, he looked more like a loser. A real, sorry loser. A depressingly talented and tortured soul who was winning nothing. Everything around him was crumbling. He was the butt of cultural jokes and was publicly humiliated.

It was so bad that even our voyeuristic culture had enough.

A Messiah or A Son of Man?

English: Charlie Sheen in March 2009.

He didn't just compare Jesus to this guy, did he?

That must be what the disciples thought of Jesus’s sense of “winning”. We’ll go to Jerusalem and this is what will happen: I’ll suffer, be humiliated, and die. Then I’ll rise again. Not a winning formula according to anyone’s vision of the world.

What happens right before this passage is the same one we’ve covered a few times already:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (vs. 27-30)

Notice that in Mark, Jesus doesn’t affirm the term Messiah but subtly replaces it with Son of Man. We get “messiah” from the Hebrew word mashiach which means “anointed one”. This was then translated into Greek as Christos from which we get Christ. But mashiach is an interesting word. In Hebrew Scripture and history, the term was applied to several people, including David and Isaiah uses it to describe King Cyrus, a foreign ruler. You can see where the confusion starts to set in because it was tied to the protection and freedom of not just the Jewish people, but the Jewish nation. So a messiah would not just be a leader, but a conqueror and ruler. Many Jews then were not on the lookout for The Messiah, but the next messiah, or anointed one who would liberate them from Roman captivity.

And yet, Jesus’s own term is quite different. Not Messiah or Son of God, as Caesar called himself, but Son of Man. Of Humanity. Human. The Human One.

Not The Mighty, but The Mortal.

Not Defeat, But Victory

The rebuke of Peter is Jesus’s vehicle to describe what winning looks like. It is living and dying. Saving one’s life is the way to sorrowful death, but accepting death is the way to a fully-engaged life.

We can get mixed up by Jesus’s funhouse mirror, where thin becomes fat and fat is made thin. His description of the overturned world is painfully challenging, because it attacks deep-seeded roots. It is little wonder the disciples didn’t get it.

But Jesus’s vision of himself is central to reading this passage. He brings everyone together (Peter, disciples, and the crowd following him) and he gives a vision of winning, of conquering and vanquishing that uses no violence, no overthrowing one oppressive regime and replacing it with another. He doesn’t rally the troops with a stirring message a la Braveheart to go get slaughtered.

He seems to say that holy winning is immeasurable, but to the disciples’ culture, it will be measured as defeat.

The Winning Message

Self-sacrifice isn’t a stirring message. This isn’t a “ra ra, go team!” cheer. It is also particularly hard for a church to gather on a Sunday morning and be told that Jesus isn’t an answer man and that the righteous path is evaluated by the world and other churches, as losing. We may even be tempted to pack it in or confuse our current path for the righteous one to declare ourselves winners. To pump ourselves up about our practices.

The focus of this gospel, however, is not on losing, but winning. As crazy as it may sound. Winning is living. Really living. Living a vibrant Spirit-filled life. Living a life outside of our culture. Living, not as a loner, but a rebel—a rebel that revels in rebellious community. A community of love and inspiration. A community of safety and encouragement. A community whose very purpose is to celebrate and live.

In this way, taking up a cross isn’t heavy or burdensome, but light and joyful. It is creating art and telling stories, capturing moments and caring for others. It is bringing a community, this community to new life. Vibrant, scandalous, winning life.