Sunday, November 29, 2009

Now or Later

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

I can remember just one year when I went poking around for hidden Christmas presents. Did anyone else do this as a kid? I guess I don’t have to limit it to just children. Maybe some of us are present peekers even now! I, however, did it just once. Well, there was the year that my sister and I agreed to exchange one present secret before Christmas morning, but we only went looking for our presents once. I must have been in about 6th grade, definitely old enough to know better, but my sister was in 9th, so certainly she had even more responsibility than I did!

Anyway, one evening while our parents were out for the night we went snooping in the closet to see what might be hiding. I don’t remember even looking for something in particular that I really really wanted. I just remember wanting to look, to peek, to know right then when surprises were lurking, what presents were coming in the next few weeks. I wanted the excitement, the joy, the happiness right NOW and I didn’t want to wait any longer.

What do you want for Christmas? It’s a question we’re going to ask ourselves each week this year during Advent? What do we want for Christmas? As a child that year that I snooped I had wanted the stuffed bear that I found. It wasn’t a present at the top of my list, but it was a giveaway bear I had seen at the store – one of those promotions, if you spend a certain amount of money, they throw the teddy bear in for a few extra bucks. Those are the only presents my sister and I found, 2 of those bears. We had seen them at the store, these totally Florida bears in cute flowered swimsuits in the middle of December. We wanted them, but they weren’t on our “lists” or anything.

They were, basically, meant to be an impulse buy. A gimmick to get you into the store and a way for the store to get a few extra bucks. I’m sure plenty of bears were bought my frustrated and tired moms and dads who just wanted to make their kids happy during a long and tiring shopping trip. Instant gratification. That’s what the gift of the bear really was. That’s what my sister and I went looking for when we went snooping. That’s what we wanted for Christmas more than anything. Happiness. NOW.

I imagine that Jeremiah’s audience wanted a little instant gratification themselves. We heard last week from the book and prophecy of Daniel, who ministered during the exile in Babylon. Jeremiah’s ministry started a bit before that, right when God’s people were on the edge of exile, when Judah, the southern portion of the united kingdom we usually think of as Israel, was becoming more and more corrupt in the eyes of God, and Babylon was threatening to invade and destroy Jerusalem, the nation, God’s people. Jeremiah delivered messages of warning to God’s people and especially the leaders. Change now while you can. Turn away from idols. Turn away from the useless little “g” gods to which you have been looking.

He delivered indictments against the leaders of Israel for taking the people of God down wrong paths – paths of idolatry, paths of unrighteousness. Not surprisingly, his message even landed him in jail. Babylon was knocking on Judah’s door, but the people were too focused on the wrong things and quick fixes to work with God to prevent their own demise. Freedom of speech and huge cultural changes weren’t high on the king’s list of worries as Babylon was threatening the land. Repentance and reform probably didn’t seem fast enough. King Zedekiah wanted solutions and wanted them now. Happiness. NOW. But with their attention on false idols, as they ignored God’s call and even God’s lament for them to come back into right relationship with their Creator, they couldn’t resist falling to the powerful empire.

As we have talked about, the time of the exile was one of tremendous distress. The Babylonians went about exile in a unique way. The Assyrians before them had come into Israel, the northern portion of the kingdom, and completely removed the inhabitants. All of them, swept a way and scattered around that empire in exile. They were lost forever as a united community and completely swallowed by the empire and those that came after it.

The Babylonian exile was different. First the leaders were taken away, just the political and social leaders of Judah, the king at the time, his court, and others respected in the community. Jeremiah was in ministry, was prophesying the whole time, warning the people of the coming empire, pointing to the loss of their leaders and a sign of their need for a change, lamenting as their world was crumbling around them, trying DESPERATELY to get the new king to lead them in a new direction.

But it was without success. The new king wasn’t any better than the last, and with the people turning from God and ignoring the prophet once in their midst, now in jail for his messages, the Babylonians returned to finish what they started. A second wave of the exile took place. Again, leaders in the government and community were ripped from the land leaving a desperate and hopeless people behind. Jeremiah was actually given a choice by the invaders – did he want to stay or go? It seems he kept in contact with those whom he had tried to warn, those far off in Babylon, but ultimately when given the choice, he decided to remain in Judah and speak God’s word to the helpless, the hopeless, the defeated remnant left behind.

Their world had been shattered. The temple, as I mentioned last week had been destroyed. The leaders who had provided them, they thought, with all they needed were gone. Their direction, their guides, their perceived wisdom, their way forward, was all ripped from their land, and they were left behind with no security for the future, no infrastructure, no help, no hope, and without the Temple to hold Yahweh in their midst, it even seemed they had no god.

For many times seem pretty desperate even now. In this country anyway, we have no obvious empire breathing down our necks, but our threats seem pretty daunting anyway. Health care costs and debates seem to stifle quality services. An economy beyond struggling, jobless people, and growing level of poverty add anxiety to the national atmosphere. The completely polarized political system leaves many of us feeling like there’s no one leading anymore, just two sides with locked horns fighting each other, but not for anything. Meanwhile the poor keep suffering, the middle class keeps dwindling, and the rich seem to be moving in completely different realms.

All of us are grabbing at straws looking for quick fixes, instant gratification, happiness NOW through advice for shopping or saving, relaxing or working harder, taking time for me or pitching in to help others. The answers are all about easy things to make now feel better. There seems to be little focus on the long haul and lasting changes for the future.

An old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon might speak to the situation today. This particular installment originally ran in 1990, almost exactly 19 years ago from this date. Pictured are the young boy Calvin, actually named for our theological parent John Calvin, and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. In the first frame Calvin speaks to Hobbes and says, “Live for the moment is my motto. You never know how long you got.”
In the second frame he explains, “You could step into the road tomorrow and WHAM, you get hit by a cement truck! Then you’d be sorry you put off your pleasures. That’s what I say – live for the moment.” And then he asks Hobbes, “What your motto?” Hobbes answers, “My motto is – Look down the road.” (In Bill Watterson, Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons [Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews and McMeel Publishers, 1992], p. 66.)

Jeremiah’s prophecy is about looking down the road. Instant gratification is lasting. Searching for happiness NOW is no way to live life for the long-haul. Instead Jeremiah points to what is coming down the road towards us, the promises God has made to Judah, the promises God makes to us when it was said, “The days are coming, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he will execute righteousness in the land.”

What do we want for Christmas? Like Calvin, many of us want this moment to be the best moment of our lives. We want happiness NOW and maybe that doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Maybe like the people of Judah we’re feeling devastated, torn apart, stomped all over, and defeated. Maybe it feels like the world we know has been pulled out from under us and we’re ready to cling to any half-good idea, any fleeting wish for enjoyment, any momentary delight that will calm the anxiety even just for a second. Maybe it feels like it’s our turn to “live for the moment.” What do we want for Christmas? We want happiness and comfort and stability, and we want it now.

But what do we get for Christmas? Well, that’s a little bit of a different story. A lot bit, really. God usually isn’t about quick fixes, things like instant gratification. God is all about looking down the road. God isn’t known for handing out happiness NOW, but instead delivers promises for later. “The days are coming,” says the Lord. Promises will be fulfilled, promises we can trust because come from the one who is most trustworthy. Promises that can be counted on even if their fulfillment doesn’t seem obvious now, because they come from God whose promises are always fulfilled. They come from God who makes and keeps covenants even with the must untrustworthy of all – us. What we get for Christmas is a look down the road, or even better we get a look in both directions, and that means we get hope.

Looking back we can see the promises that have been made through the ages, the promises that have been fulfilled – the promises to Sarah and Abraham, the promises to Noah and his family, the promises Moses and the Israelites, the promises to the people in exile and the remnant that remained. I will not leave you. I will not forget you. Looking back we can see the promise for a Redeemer to come from David, a Redeemer who came not with happiness NOW but a Redeemer who came with the hope of a new baby, a Redeemer who came to bring hope, the trust in promises yet to be fulfilled.

That’s what we get for Christmas. We get hope. We get the reminder that God keeps promises. God is with us. God is for us. No matter how desperate the situation, no matter how gloomy the look, no matter how TERRIFYING our reality may seem – God is coming to redeem it. The image of that coming doesn’t seem so comforting in Luke’s gospel, signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, distress and confusion by the roaring of the seas, the shaking of the heavens. But the signs of God’s coming are part of the promise. When things are at their worst, when the world is THIS close to caving in, God is THIS close to redemption. When the promises seem least likely to be fulfilled, that’s when we can have the most hope, that’s when we can trust in the birth of our salvation, that’s when we can believe that God’s hope is not lost.

Jeremiah chose to remain with those who were left behind in the exile. He chose to stay and be a witness to God’s hope for the future, to testify to the truth that God fulfills promises even when the future looks bleak, maybe even ESPECIALLY when the future looks bleak. The days are surely coming, says the Lord. The days are surely coming when God’s promises will be fulfilled as they have in the past, and for that day we have great hope. Trust in the Lord, our righteousness, who is coming down the road not with happiness NOW but with the promise of justice later. Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Thanks and credit to The Rev. Richard Fairchild for pointing me to the Calvin and Hobbes illustration.

photo credit: FJTUrban (sommelier d mojitos) via photopin cc

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday Five: What's New?

It's been way too long since I have posted a non-sermon post. Way too long. It's been a crazy couple of months, but hopefully things are slowing down a little. I hope to have time to breath and blog again, maybe even more than before. But for now I'm easy my way back in with a light Friday Five. Here's what we've got:

"Please share with us five things you like *especially* when they are new."

1. Books - to a fault. I'm weird about borrowing library books. I just can't do it.
2. Black roller ball pens.
3. Journals - They just seem full of promise!
4. Christmas CDs
5. Socks

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bread for the Journey

Exodus 12:1-11
Luke 22:1, 14-28

The dispute over who is the greatest among the disciples is recorded in some way in several gospel accounts. In fact the Mark version of the argument was the central text in our worship even just about a month ago. I have to admit, for this reason, I felt a temptation to deviate from the worship and devotional materials provided by the Finance and Stewardship committee for this stewardship season. It was feeling a little redundant at first. But, obviously, I didn’t. Yes, we have heard the same basic outline – the disciples argue about which among them is the greatest, but we also have differences to the story, differences that bring us a different word from God.

In Mark, we heard about them arguing on the road immediately after hearing Jesus’ second prediction of his suffering and death – the argument pointing out their total cluelessness over what Jesus thinks it means to be great. In Matthew the argument comes after a teaching about taxes and the question of honoring the rules of the status quo. The argument we heard today, though, takes up an entirely different meaning because of where and when it happens.

It doesn’t happen on the road. It doesn’t happen in front of the crowds. It doesn’t happen while Jesus is out and about in the countryside ministering to the crowds and introducing his disciples to a new way of life. It isn’t during a test posed by his challengers. It happens here. It happens at the table, a very specific table, the Passover table, the last table Jesus will share with his disciples on this side of eternal life, and that setting makes all the difference.

The Passover celebration brings with it a deep and abiding connection with history, the saints of the faith, those remembered as the greatest of the faith tradition, like Moses or Elijah, who figure prominently in the Passover liturgy and traditions.

Take Moses. He was raised a foreigner in the palace. He never fully fit in. We see him struggling as a young adult with who he really was, where he really belonged. Then he is called to lead, but he has a speech difficulty. It doesn’t seem like a great match, really. Identity crisis, self-esteem problems, problems with public speaking. And this is the guy we remember for his obvious greatness? I’m sure it didn’t seem so great in the moment. Even the Israelites he helped liberate complained against and about him. Why didn’t you leave us in Egypt to die, they cried while wandering around in the desert for 40 years? That doesn’t sound so great.

Then what about Elijah and the other prophets? Sure their words to the people of Israel and Judah are inspiring and admirable after the fact, but hardly anyone would consider them great in their own time. Preaching to the people, hounding them even, calling them to repentance and a new way of living before God, rarely won them friends and great influence. It hardly seemed to work at the time. Despite their efforts, God’s people still ended up in exile in Assyria and Babylon. Their homeland and their temple destroyed more than once by occupations from all sides. Elijah and the other prophets – they had their moments, but in terms of overall effectiveness in their jobs in their generations – not too many would be considered great.

Yet the greatness of these saints isn’t doubted today. They, their words, and their work are honored in memory, lifted up in ritual, studied for emulation and spiritual growth. We know they are great and don’t doubt that or dispute it, but what made it true?

I’d say it was their faithful service. Their faithful and humble service to God and others. Their response to God’s call to put the needs of the community above their own reputation, their own comfort, their own popularity and credibility, even their own desires, in order to follow God’s call and be sent to serve the people. Moses had a pretty cushy life in the palace. He had power over others. He lived in luxury with servants serving him. He was pretty disconnected from his oppressed ethnic and religious community, and could have continued living that way if he could have just pushed down his worries about the way the people were being treated. He could have continued to live in a position of authority over the slaves. But he didn’t.

Yes, he was the leader of the Israelites, but his leadership was in obedience to God, for the good of the people. He served them by working for their good, risking his power and his position to free them from Pharaoh, going on their behalf into the dangerous and overwhelming presence of God, enduring the discipline of God for their transgressions. Moses was great not because he wanted to be or tried to be or even ASKED to be. Moses was great because he humbly served God and his community.

And what now of the circumstances of this dispute among the disciples in Luke? What significance do they lend to its meaning for us today? It was the observance of the Passover. It was the time when the Jewish people of God remembered and celebrated the miracle of their exodus from slavery in Egypt, the leadership and faithfulness of Moses, Elijah, and the other saints who preceded them. It was the time of year when they honored and worshiped God for sending them a leader, a servant of God’s will and a servant of God’s people, who led them into the Promised Land, a time of year maybe, when they who lived under the rule of the Romans again longed for a sign of their chosenness, their greatness before God and the world.

It was also, we are told, when the hour had come. Satan had come to Judas Iscariot. He had conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple about how to betray Jesus. He was now on the lookout for his perfect opportunity when no crowd would be present. Having entered Jerusalem a few days earlier to shouts of, “Blessed is the king!” Jesus and the disciples were huddled away in a borrowed room in a town that was turning hostile. Daily, he was preaching to crowds peppered with spies who were out to catch him, to challenge his word and question his authority.

But even in the face of this hostility he continued his ministry, he continued to serve God. Cleansing it first of all injustice and greed, Jesus preached in the temple to everyone who would listen. He faced challenge upon challenge from this opponents, standing up for the message God sent him to deliver. He wept and prayed over the city of Jerusalem.

He didn’t hide away to protect himself. He didn’t stay out of the limelight to put his safety first. He didn’t relish in the crowd’s shouts from Palm Sunday, “Glory in highest heaven” excusing himself from the dangerous and foreboding work still to be done. He didn’t leave the people who had not yet heard, not yet believed his divine message out in the dark. He served them. He served them with love and served them with urgency. He served them as God had sent him to do. He served them, setting aside his safety. Setting aside his concern for his future, he served them. And likewise he served the disciples at the Passover table.

Likewise he serves US at this table. He serves us. Jesus is the host of the celebration we share today. He has provided the gifts, the bread we will break together, the cup we will pour for all. He provides the seed and the wind and the rain that causes it to grow. He gives the life and energy and means to those who harvest and ship, who pound and mill, who bake and press, who sell and buy, who prepare and serve these elements to us this day. He is the host, and the source, and the grace-filled Spirit we receive in this sacrament, but he is also the servant, the one whose body was broken that we might have life, the one who meets all our needs, satisfies our deepest hungers, and the one whose blood was poured out to quench our most desperate thirst. He is the example for us to follow. He is God calling us join his ministry.

The Israelites in Egypt ate the Passover with their traveling pants on, their shoes on their feet, their walking sticks ready to go. They ate their meal in a hurry, knowing that it wasn’t an end to their story itself, but it was just the beginning of their journey. This is how we should eat at the Lord’s Table. This is how we should worship in God’s presence. Our traveling clothes should be on. Our shoes should be on our feet. Our walking sticks should be in our hands, because this table, this grace, this love and forgiveness of God that we receive together in the sacrament is not an end in itself. It is just the beginning.

It is our bread for the journey. It is the sustenance we need for our lives of service to God and others. It is just the beginning, the example even, of our life in Christ. As he has freely given himself to us, so we are called to greatness, not through some special status at his right hand or as a guest of honor at the banquet. We are called to greatness by freely serving others as he serves the world, selflessly, indiscriminately, and among the least of these, the outcast, the shunned, the discarded of society. We are called to greatness not that will be recognized in this time, in this age, but greatness that will be recognized by God when someday we will join the great cloud of witnesses who are blessed to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”