Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Power Paradox

Isaiah 64:1-9

I know I at least momentarily disappointed a member or two of the Worship and Arts Committee when I declared at our September or October meeting that there would be no Christmas hymns or carols in worship until Christmas Eve and following. Declare is a harsh word. It’s probably how it sounded, though. I am aware that I can be a bit over-zealous in my love for and protection of the liturgical seasons of the year. It didn’t help that conversation that Advent is probably my favorite of them all. I have to remind myself sometimes that the season of Advent isn’t written into Scripture itself, even if I do think the ATTITUDE of Advent, of waiting with a sense of overwhelming desperation on the one hand and a bold and trusting hope on the other, is all OVER the Word of God.

We hear it in our Scripture lessons today. They aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, getting ready for baby Jesus passages of Scripture. In fact, the Mark passage is spoken BY Jesus, the grown man, just days before he endures the agony and humiliation of the cross. I doubt many of us will include these verses in our family Christmas cards this year.

Likewise the prophecy of Isaiah starts a bit darker than most of us would probably like to go as we have made the turn from Thanksgiving toward Christmas. This portion of Isaiah was most likely written during or immediately after the time of the Babylonian exile, about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. The people of Israel had been utterly defeated, their leaders taken away as captives to a foreign land, their cities destroyed, and their temple ransacked, degraded, and burned. And even after their oppressors were defeated and nobility were allowed to return home, they were still not an independent nation, and it was some time before the temple was rebuilt.

The people, held down by captors, defeated by neighboring nations, without a temple, without a leader, the people had nothing they could do, but wait. They waited for the restoration of their sovereign kingdom. They waited for the rebuilding of their once magnificent house of worship. They waited for the renewal of their society that had been decimated by the exile. They waited, and waited, and waited. They waited for God to act, crying out in lament,

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
So that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil –
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
O that you would tear open the heavens!!!!

O, the people of Israel waited, but they didn’t just sit back silently while they waited. They waited with emotion. They waited with urgency. They waited with ANGER! A people powerless in the face and presence of generations of oppression, Israel waited expecting the power of God to break into history as it had done so many times before.

They waited for a flood to destroy their evil enemies. They waited for tidal waves of judgment to fall on their foreign rulers. They waited for the rushing windstorm of God’s presence to bring about obedience to the law and justice. They waited for Yahweh, their God, who had shown such brute power over nature and humankind in the past, to, again, break into the world, come down out of the heavens, and shake the earth back to its right alignment – with Israel independent and prosperous, a king on the throne, and God at home in the majestic temple at the center of the city. With desperation and longing deeper than they had ever imagined they waited in faith and in anger.

Anger of that kind takes great faith. You have to truly believe that God can and will change things to get that angry with the creator of the world. I don’t know that I always have that kind of faithful anger. This week, if any week, would have been a week to muster up this kind of rage. Come down out of those heavens, God! Can’t you see what is happening in India? Come down out of those heavens, God! Neighbors are losing their homes and jobs; children are sleeping in shelters. Come down out of those heavens, God! Violence is destroying lives in Congo, Nigeria, and countless other corners of the earth. Come down out of those heavens, God! Greed is literally killing us, trampling us under each other’s feet in unbridled entitlement and desire for the first, the best, the cheapest. Come down out of those heavens, God!

Desperation, a longing for God to intervene, to dramatically change the course of action, to wield divine power in order to work a dramatic solution, that is a mark of an Advent people, an Advent world.

But it isn’t the only mark. There’s more to Advent then empty desperation. In this lament, this call for God to come to action, to make God’s name known to Yahweh’s enemies around the world, in this cry is a trust that it can and will happen. Implicit in begging God to change the world is the belief that God CAN and WILL change the world, with a mighty and powerful hand. Which is why Advent, a time of longing for God’s intervention, God’s salvation of the world at the end of its rope, is also a time of great hope. Hope that God will do what God deems necessary to redeem the state of the world.

Isaiah, along with the people of Israel, had an idea in mind. Isaiah wanted the world turned right, and he wanted it turned right now. He and all of Israel had heard of God’s power from the past. They had heard of God’s people being led by pillars of fire and cloud through the wilderness. They had heard of walls coming tumbling down. They had heard of miniscule armies defeating powerful invaders with the Spirit of God. They had heard of awesome deeds, stories of God’s power and promise. They had heard all these things, and they were ready for their turn to be on the joyful receiving end of such incredible miracles.

But the funny thing about hope is that you can’t direct the outcome.

Ultimately, Isaiah knew that, and his knowledge is wrapped up in one little word in verse 8 – “yet.” Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; you are our potter. We know what we want! We know what we think will solve this problem, what will right the wrongs in the world, what will restore the kingdom, restore peace, restore our dignity, our safety, our relationships. We know what will solve the economic crisis. We know what will end terrorism. We know what will bring jobs back, bring our kids back, bring safety back. We are sure we know what will do the trick, but we, O Lord, are simply the clay; you are our potter.

The hands of power that molded the mountains are the hands of tender care the shape each vessel. The hands of awesome deeds that held back the waters are the hands of forgiveness that wipe away blemishes and pull the pot tall and strong, defying gravity, and strengthening in the heat of the fire. We want your power, O Lord. We KNOW you have power, O God. We beg you to show us and use your power, O Yahweh. But the paradox of Advent, the paradox of God’s power is that it comes in so many different ways.

We wait in Advent for God to dramatically, violently even, tear into the world, but instead God is pushed onto the scene in an obscure animal stall. We wait in Advent for God’s mighty fists to shake the foundations of the earth, but a baby’s tiny hands shake in unknown surroundings, reaching for comfort and nourishment. We wait in Advent for God’s name to be known to the world in the awesome deeds that are performed, but his name is whispered by the baby’s father with only his mother and the animals to hear.

Advent hope is hope in the unknown. It is hope in the unknowable. It is hope that rests with God, who alone knows and chooses how to reveal divine power. It is, we will see in just a few moments, baptismal hope that trusts God enough to place the life and care of an infant into God’s hands. It is hope that realizes a baby needs more than two loving parents, countless extended family members, and friends galore to feel God’s love. It is hope that knows God’s cleansing Spirit, and careful hands will wash and cradle a new life in gentle, compassionate love.

Advent hope is an odd thing – it’s what we find somewhere between our reality today and the reality of things that have not yet come. Isaiah got that. In fact, for most biblical writers, hope is not just a passive feeling. It is a passionate action. It’s an awareness of the reality of the world that surrounds us, but a trust that God can and will address the situation. It’s an exercise in confidence of God’s future. Not confidence in our future when we boss God around, but confidence in God’s future, carried out with God’s all-knowing, all-loving power.

That’s why Advent isn’t just about preparing the manger for the tiny baby Jesus. It’s also about looking forward to that which has not yet been. It’s about looking forward to the unimaginable displays of God’s power yet to come.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Holy Ignorance

Good morning! And welcome to worship here at First Presbyterian Church! Welcome friends and visitors to worship this Christ the King Sunday! “O worship the king!” we will sing! “Alleluia” we have declared. What a glorious celebration to which we have been called! What an honor and privilege we have to gather in the name of Christ, the sovereign of all earth!

As Americans we’re not so familiar with traditional royalty, so we have to step into our imaginations and history a little to try to recall what worshiping and serving a king to his usual standards should look like. The National Geographic issue that arrived at our house this week was PERFECT for this sort of remembering. The cover story is about King Herod, the king of Judaea in power at the time of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, and tonight (hopefully after you’ve attended the Advent Celebration) you can catch a special on that same channel about him.

Herod, while well-known for his murderous plots and ruthless hunger for power, was also, it turns out, an architectural genius. His palaces (there were several) were built into the sides of mountains and atop precarious cliffs. He designed an extraordinary city and was even an architect of the sea in creating a deep ocean harbor from a piece of land jutting into the Mediterranean. His palaces by all accounts were luxurious beyond most imaginations. The author of the National Geographic article tells how Herod tried to perfect creation by raising “a low knoll into a towering memorial of snowy stonework and surrounded it with pleasure palaces, splashing pools, and terraced gardens.” The king lived high on the mountain, and high on the hog. Servants abounded and his every need and want were met.

This was a man who knew what it meant to be king, who enjoyed the finest things the world had to offer, who relished his status, and expected to be honored, revered, even worshiped!

But we know the secret, right? He may have held the earthly title of “king,” but he only wore the crown temporarily. This is Christ the King Sunday, not Herod the King Sunday! Herod’s reign is over, but Jesus’ endures forever! Jesus, our Christ, is the one who sits on the throne in the realm of God. Jesus, our Christ is the one who dwells in the midst of all of God’s riches. Jesus, our Christ, is the one who enjoys servants and palaces and throngs of worshiping masses! Jesus, our Christ, is the King! Alleluia!

Hear now the word of God about Christ our King, as it comes to us from the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-46

Hmph. Well. What happened here? What happened to Christ the King? It started out alright. The Son of Man was coming in glory. The angels accompanied him. He sat on a throne. The nations gathered before him. The makings a beautiful regal scene!!

Everything was going well in Jesus’ parable until the mighty king turned into a measly shepherd, out in the field dividing up the flock between sheep and goats. He couldn’t possibly be wearing robes of the finest cloth doing this dirty job. Then somehow the king isn’t even the shepherd anymore. It’s worse! The king is all mixed up with the hungry, the naked, the prisoners…

And wait a minute! Let’s go back there a little. What’s this about separating anyway? I don’t think I like that piece about this God-king-shepherd-savior doing any separating! That part doesn’t seem so loving. Why is he separating anyone and what’s this about some being blessed and coming with him, and others being accursed and departing. I’m pretty sure I don’t like this.

I mean, I feel bad for those goat-nations, those other folks. It must be kind of hard to hear that kind of news, that kind of judgment. It sounds like they didn’t even know what’s coming to them. When did we see you hungry, Lord? When were you thirsty or cold or lonely? We never saw that. How could we help you if you never told us you needed help? It must feel horrible to be that clueless about what’s going on!

The sheep at least, seemed to know what’s going on didn’t they? They were confident and thankful, and knew what they were doing right? Right? I mean, right here it must say they heard the Word and followed it and did everything they were told because they knew it would bring…. (looking at Scripture)

But, no. That’s not the way it is, is it?

I think in the past when I’ve heard this passage, when I’ve read it, and taught it, I’ve just thought about it as a lesson to be learned, or even a holy checklist to be completed. I am more than aware that I lean toward goat-dom and need to make an effort to do the right thing, but other than a trip to a soup kitchen every once in a while or serving a couple of hours at Grace Place a few months ago, it can be really hard to remember to do some of these things. So, thankfully, I think, Matthew has given me this check list. Feed hungry – check! Give a drink to the thirsty – check! Welcome stranger – check! Clothe the naked – oh, I guess it’s time to go through the closets again for goodwill. Visit prisoners – really? I’m a mom of young kids; that doesn’t sound safe. Maybe there are some people who are prisoners to their fears or are trapped in their bodies. I’ve made a few hospital visits lately, and somehow my offering supports a mission in a prison somewhere doesn’t it? If it doesn’t, it should. I’ll check on that. Prisoners? – check!

I know that when the checks have all been made, or at least are in the works, I’ve worked my way toward sheep-dom again. Then I can rest easy for a while.

It’s been my usual reading of the passage, but a few things I noticed this time around have challenged my thoughts:

First, it’s not individuals stand up their before the God-king-shepherd-savior. It’s nations, communities, groups who are being separated, not people one and a time. In other words, sometimes it’s not just about me ‘n’ Jesus. Actually, a LOT of the time in Scripture it’s not just about me ‘n’ Jesus. It’s about us. It’s about the church, or the community, or the country, or the whole world. Jesus came as a person, certainly, so we could relate to God personally, but he also came as a king, a ruler, so that he could relate to us collectively, so he could guide and redeem whole communities of the world.

I am NOT calling for what some people would call a Christian nation. But I do hear in this Scripture that God cares not only what we do personally, but what we are a part of collectively. We in the western world in general, the United States of America particularly, and mainstream Protestant and middle or upper class society specifically, need to hear that God cares about what happens on earth collectively.

We are blinded by a skewed view of reality that doesn’t see ourselves as connected to or responsible for the well-being of others outside of our family or immediate community. We don’t ignore others intentionally, usually, but we have been fed a message from before we can even remember that we need to look out for number one. We need to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps and others need to do the same or they aren’t doing their part. We need to push ourselves ahead to get our piece of the pie because if we don’t take it for ourselves, someone else is going to take it from us. We are fed this goat-like message, and whether we realize it or not, we have internalized it, and we ignorantly live it out in almost everything we do.

The second realization that has challenged my thoughts about this passage is that NO ONE has a clue what they’re doing. The goats can’t figure out what they’ve done wrong, but at the same time the sheep didn’t even know they were doing anything right!

As easily as the goats internalize a message and a drive toward individualism, the sheep live a lifestyle of compassion and attentiveness to all without even realizing what they are doing. They have clothed so many bodies, and filled so many bellies, that they haven’t even noticed the king’s was one of them. It could sound like they don’t pay attention, but I think it’s that they just see human beings, not people needing pity, not people whose sins or pasts or responsibility on which they dwell. Maybe they saw so many KINGS and QUEENS, so many people deserving of love and tender care and time and attention that they couldn’t pick out THE king in the crowd.

Their ignorance is just as strong as that of the goats, but it moves them in a completely different direction. They aren’t following a holy checklist, but instead have internalized a holy ignorance.

But if all of this is internalized, if it isn’t supposed to be about holy checklist toward salvation, and well, frankly it just DOESN’T come naturally, where then does that leave us? Are we left just walking away from Jesus because we have no other choice? Are we left separated from him because we just can’t measure up, and we just never will? Have we punished ourselves with our inherited ignorance?

Well, yes and no, yes in the ideal world, in the kingdom of God, in the reign of Christ, this all comes naturally to us. When we can live as God created us to live, we won’t need to plan when we will serve others, because we will serve others with our time, energy, talents, and treasure without even thinking about it. It will be natural. We will live out of holy ignorance. Our faith, our discipleship will be so internalized and a part of who we are, that it will just flow from us without us even being aware.

But, the reality is, we aren't there yet. We can thank God that in the parables we have a picture of what it is, but truly as a society, as the church, we're not there yet. So right now, it might not be so natural. It might not be so internalized. So right now, because of who we are (fallen human beings) and where we are (living in a fallen world) we do have to try. We do have to make checklists. We do have to schedule time and write down pledges and set appointments to serve God and serve others. We have to actively try to change the way we have a tendency to act - individualistic, controlled by money instead of controlling money ourselves, self-preservers instead of other-servers.

Maybe in paying attention, we will internalize it, and someday we won't have to pay as much attention. Maybe in paying attention, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting those in prison will become a part of our own holy ignorance. Maybe in paying attention we will come to lose ourselves in worshiping Christ the King in all that we say and do, and in everyone we meet. Alleluia! Sing to Jesus! Amen.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Cloud of Witnesses

With a blatant borrow/steal/slight change from rev. k.t. at RevGals Tuesday Leanings I spent much of my evening making this banner for worship tomorrow. My daughter and I laid all the belled ribbons out tonight just to see what it will look like tomorrow when it's more fully complete. Instead of a regular sermon I plan to just touch on the texts VERY briefly, then let folks write the name of a saint in their lives (I think I'll extend it to living or dead, but the original plan was people they have lost) then come forward (as they are able) to pin the ribbon to the banner in worship. Another staff member and I will be there to help pin the ribbons and if they wish they can speak the name of their saint. I'll close the remembrance time with a prayer naming those within our congregation who died this year.

I'm very excited about this and am feeling really crafty!!!