"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Gift of Salvation

       ADVENT 3B        

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

          In this third week of Advent, the week of “joy” in which we light the rose candle, our lectionary has given us an early Christmas present. Whenever I hear the beautiful words of Isaiah 61, it’s as if I have just unwrapped a gift from God. With ancient Israel, my soul rejoices in the new clothes of salvation and righteousness that God has brought to me in these prophetic words. I can picture the glory of them and feel the comfort of them on my winter-dry skin.
          Have you ever received a Christmas gift, though, that is so wonderful that it makes you feel a bit guilty to have received it? “Oh, they spent too much on me,” you fret. “I’m not worth all this.” Underneath today’s joy, there's a hint of shame, too, in me, when I read our first lesson. After all, Isaiah is announcing liberation for the oppressed and judgment on the oppressors. Is this gift really meant for the likes of me? Me, with one hand deep in the stock market grab bag and with the other hand complicit in the torture of prisoners? Me, whose white skin puts me on the wrong side of the history of oppression? Me who sleeps every night in a comfy bed while children are homeless? 
          “Hold on. Should this text make me tremble rather than rejoice?” whispers a part of my soul. “From what am I being saved?”
Barbara Brown Taylor defines salvation as “a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there …. It opens a door in what look[s] for all the world like a wall.”[1]
The wall that holds us captive can indeed be a plain wall of stone or brick. The tight places that encircle us can indeed be crafted by real-world oppressors. After all, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to a people who have spent generations in exile, to a people who were torn from their homes by war, to a people who are finally being allowed to return to their plundered land. He is offering encouragement to a discouraged and truly downtrodden people. In Isaiah’s vision, salvation is truly freedom from an oppressing enemy. Salvation is a people returning home and rebuilding what was laid waste by human oppressors. God is surely still calling for this kind of liberation today, as well, in situations all over the world, including in our own backyard.
          But there are other, more metaphorical walls that put our lives at risk. There are even metaphorical walls behind the walls of stone and steel. Chris Hoke is a prison chaplain in Washington State. [2] Like Isaiah says, his work is to bind up the brokenhearted and to bring good news to the prisoner. He doesn’t see his call as “saving sinners from hell” though. He actually finds more truth and holiness in his encounters in the prisons than he does in most church communities. His job isn’t to break the inmates out of the prison, either, or to fight the authorities for their freedom. His job is to be an agent of that “divine spaciousness” that Taylor describes.
When Hoke first started visiting prisoners, he would sit with them across the steel table that lawyers use to talk with their clients, and the prisoners would lay their heads on the table and weep. All of their pain, all of the anguish of their lives, would pour out of them, and he would listen to them and love them in spite of it all. They would hug at the end of their sessions, and groups would hold hands in prayer circles and lay hands on one another in prayer. Through touch, the walls came down, and God’s love could begin a healing process as powerful as the touch of Jesus in the gospels.
After awhile, though, the prison authorities decided to start a “no touch policy” in the prison.  There were no more hugs, no more prayer circles, no more laying on of hands. And the prisoners suffered. Hoke says that incidents of violence actually imcreased, and then more clamp-down measures were enforced. Metaphorical walls were strengthened, and the men found themselves in a double-prison.
Hoke now had to speak to prisoners through a phone, separated by a thick glass wall. If the prisoners wanted to tell their stories, they knew that all of their words were being taped and were available to prosecutors. There were no more liberating confessions. The prisoners didn’t cry anymore. Their tears and their hearts dried up. As Hoke says, “when hearts don’t have a place to break, they become harder.” The glass became a wall that had to come down before healing could occur.
One prisoner whom Hoke visited was in solitary confinement, spending his days alone in a 9 by 12 foot room. He was losing hope. So Hoke decided to find the man’s youngest daughter—a daughter whom the man had never met—and convince the mother to let the child visit her father in prison. On the day that he brought the four-year-old girl to see her long-lost dad, Hoke spent the drive to the prison teaching her to sing “You are my sunshine.” Sitting behind the glass with Hoke, the beautiful little girl beamed at her imprisoned father on the other side. She told him that she loved him, and she sang “You are my sunshine” to him. The father was able to weep again, tears falling from his face as he told his little girl that he loved her. And according to Hoke, the glass then “melted away.” The man was still incarcerated, but he was saved. Saved not from hellfire or from serving his time—but set free as only love can set us free. Through Hoke and the love of a child, God had cut a door in the wall.
Jesus, of course, adopts Isaiah’s words as the statement of his own mission. In Luke's Gospel, right after Jesus' baptism and his temptation in the wilderness, he goes into the synagogue in Nazareth and unrolls the Isaiah scroll. He reads aloud the prophet’s words of release and good news for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus announces. All are amazed, and Jesus' ministry begins.
I recently attended a service in which the preacher talked about Jesus’ saving grace for us sinners. But there was something about one of the illustrations that he used that bothered me. For a long time, I couldn’t quite figure out what wasn’t right. It was a compelling story. The preacher talked about a little toddler who was locked in a hot car while her mother was in the store. The preacher was actually there and saw the child. At first, bystanders thought that they could get the child to pull open the tab that was locking the car door, and they yelled out instructions to her. The child, of course, couldn’t comply, because she was strapped in her car seat, bound by straps of cloth. This child is like us, said the preacher, bound by lives of sin, captive and unable to free ourselves.
Finally, in the story, a big, burly onlooker grabbed a metal hammer off of a nearby truck and smashed in the glass of the car window, pulling the child to safety. That hero is like Jesus, said the preacher. Smashing sin and death and saving us in our helplessness.
In thinking about Hoke’s story, and about salvation, I finally figured out this week what was bothering me about that story. You see, Jesus isn’t some muscled superhero with a sledge hammer. God comes to save us in the tender flesh of a baby, a baby just as helpless as the one in that car seat, a baby just as helpless as you, and me, and the man in solitary confinement. Jesus doesn’t smash the glass that walls us in, sending shards a-flying. Like the prisoner’s little daughter, Jesus penetrates the glass with powerful Love. Writes Rowan Williams: Christmas shows us “that miraculous love is possible … The vilest offender … is now deserving of attention and compassion; no life can be allowed to fall out of the circle of love. Because God has overthrown the empire of numbers and calculations, mass movements and majority interests: ‘The story of a human life became the life story of God and filled the universe.’ …. This was when the new creation began.”[3]
          Even the most privileged of us here today are each held captive: Captive by the inevitablities of age or by the chains of illness. Captive by guilt or by shame. Captive by our own insidious doubts. Held behind walls that we erect and behind walls that others use to enslave us. Hear the good news of Christmas: God has come behind our walls to dwell with us, making room in the tight places and beaming love through the walls of glass, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, comforting all who mourn. Open the gift of  a love that will allow you to weep, so that you can rejoice. Don the garments that will break you open so that the Baby’s love can seep in through the cracks.  "Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves." Rejoice!
Prisoner in handcuffs behind glass : Stock Photo

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, from Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.
[2] Chris Hoke, “The Day the Jail took Touch Away,” recorded on NPR’s “Snap Judgment” and found at http://chris-hoke.com/media/.
[3] Rowan Williams, Choose Life (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 38.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Here is Your God: Living in the Middle of the Story

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

        In Advent, we are supposed to be waiting. But for what?  For the sweet baby Jesus in the manger? For the fiery Last Judgment? For Santa Claus and the presents under the tree? For the Christmases enshrined in childhood memory to come to life again? For some combination of all of these?
          I went to Michael’s hobby store right after church last Sunday to grab a new wreath for my front door. Amidst pawed-through piles of plastic greens and overflowing tangles of glittering ribbon, I heard a voice crying in the wilderness. The voice did not say, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” however. On this last day of November, it said, “I am SO SICK of Christmas.” A mom, weary to the bone, was wandering the aisles with two children who looked to be about four and seven. The seven-year-old must have been asking to buy things, because when she heard her mom’s words, she put down the trinket that she was holding, and you could see the joy flee her face. Her tiny shoulders drooped; she looked at the floor; and she grew silent with shame. “Just so sick of it ALL,” muttered the mom, utterly defeated. Trying to save the situation, the four-year-old piped up with forced cheer, “I’m so sick of Christmas, too, Mommy. Come on, let’s go home.” And the family trudged out of the store.
“Comfort, O comfort my people.”
It is surely not the secular, commercial Christmas that we are eagerly awaiting.
Later this week, I turned on the TV. Injustice poured off of the screen and into my living room, casting shadows over my little creche. I saw a young boy getting shot; a father being strangled. I saw guns and violence; fear, crime, and racism covering us in darkness on all sides. I also saw crowds marching, and I heard strong prophetic voices crying in the wilderness of injustice. However, they were not saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” They were saying, “We can’t breathe! We can’t breathe!”
“Comfort, O comfort my people.”
Something is being born this Advent, but I’m not sure that it is the sweet infant in the hay or the cozy Christmas family dinner that they are awaiting on the streets.
Is it, then, the Day of Judgment that we are waiting for? The day of God’s justice? The triumphant return of Christ, when all will be set aright? A new heaven and a new earth, where right relationship is finally at home? Isn’t that what we are all longing for?  Like Robin pointed out last week, though, we modern “progressive” Christians tend to assume that all of the excitement about Jesus’ Second Coming was over a long time ago. Indeed, already by the second century after Jesus’ birth, when 2 Peter was written, Christians were starting to wonder what was taking so long. Now it has been over 20 centuries. We wonder if we misunderstood the Lord’s promise. Today, we certainly don’t know what to do with all of this language about a fiery end to our world. We don’t like to hear the threats. We roll our eyes over the grand metaphors. We are tired of waiting. Our faith tells us that transformation has to happen, so we tell ourselves that it is up to us to bring about justice. It is up to us to be “Christ’s hands and feet in the world,” after all, and to live lives, as Peter says, “of holiness and godliness.” Aren’t we now the ones who are supposed to start digging out those highways in the desert, moving mountains to get our world right with God? And yet … How can we, lost and adrift in the commercialism of Christmas, find our way out of the desert? How can we, so oppressed by sin that we are unable even to breathe, bring about God’s Kingdom on earth?
Scholars believe that the first line of Mark’s Gospel, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God,” is really the title of the entire Gospel of Mark.[1] (Ancient scribes didn’t have room for fancy spacing and punctuation in their manuscripts.) According to Mark, the beginning of Jesus’ story is his life and death on earth, followed by the announcement of resurrection to the fearful women at the empty tomb. Everything we read about in Mark’s Gospel is just the beginning! The middle of Jesus’ story of Good News is all of our reactions to his life, after we hear the beginning. The middle of the story is how Christian lives are lived in the light of resurrection. The middle involves our attempts at righteousness, our attempts at repentance, our attempts at courage, our attempts at justice. But that’s just the middle. All stories have an end, too. The end of the story of the Good News doesn’t depend on our best attempts or worst failures. The end of the story is the new heaven and the new earth: the salvation, healing, and forgiveness that are God’s doing.
We are gathering on the Wednesday nights of Advent at St. Thomas to tell our own faith stories. We tell about our childhood and our beginnings in our families of origin. Like Mark starting with John the Baptist, we might even tell how our families’ stories before our births influenced our childhood. Then we tell the middle of our stories: we talk about the lives that we try to live and the highs and lows that unfold in our relationships with God. But we are not yet at the end of our individual stories. Our lives are not over. Even as we age and grow close to death, we know that our lives with God after death have yet to unfold. The stories that we tell on Wednesday night are of necessity unfinished stories. The story of the Good News in Jesus Christ, though, has an end. You can dress that end in the language of the Day of the Lord. You can drape it in the images of Christ’s Second Coming. You can paint it in the colors of a New Creation. But because Christ rose from the dead, it remains an ending in which goodness triumphs, an ending in which Evil does not have the last word. It is an ending that gives hope to the middle.
Hold that hope tenderly! Hear the words of comfort that God offers us as we plug away at transformation. Remember that it is God who comes down to us at Christmas. It is God who clears off the path and levels the hills, over and over and over again. This Advent, when the days of waiting seem dark and long, I long for us at St. Thomas to acknowledge, with our lives and with our voices, the comfort and hope of the story’s End.
“Comfort, O comfort my people … Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities … ‘Here is your God!’
Here is your God, flattening those shopping malls to the ground and planting a garden in the wilderness. A garden where plastic garlands become grapevines and tinsel turns into life-giving rain. A garden where everyone has enough to eat and children and adults alike mirror the joy of God in creation.
Here is your God, wiping out injustice. Burning with fire the drugs and the poverty and the hatred. Bringing down the powers the corrupt our souls and our world.  Bringing young black boys and law enforcement officers together in an embrace of trust and friendship.  Binding us together as we are in God’s sight.
Here is your God. It’s not just a dream. It is the end of the story—an end at which we can even take a peek. I’ve seen glimpses at the Eucharistic Table. I’ve seen glimpses in the garden at Eastern Area Community Ministries. I’ve even seen glimpses on the news media. Police and protesters embracing—seriously, Rev. Anne? Yes, take a look at twelve-year-old Devonte Hart, a young black man facing a line of armed officers in Oregon. He is shaking with fear and holding a sign that says, “Free Hugs,” as tears drip down his face. Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, comes over and talks with him, wrapping him in a bear hug. Somebody takes a photo.[2]
“Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities … ‘Here is your God!’”

[1] David Lose, “Active Waiting: Advent 2B” found at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/advent-2-b/
[2] http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/29/living/ferguson-protest-hug/

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Children's Message for R-Rated Scripture

 Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-12; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

PART ONE: Before the 1st reading

       Like those “parental advisories” that come on TV before a violent program, I’m going to have to say a few words before we hear our first reading for today. On this Youth Sunday weekend, we are about to share with you some R-rated images from the Hebrew prophet Zephaniah. This “word of the Lord,” is not one that I would choose to share with you today, believe me. I would certainly not choose to share it with children. It makes me uncomfortable. It messes with my theology. It will probably make you uncomfortable, too. We are all going to be digging in our pockets for some Zantac as we “inwardly digest” these words. But that is both the blessing and the curse of our Lectionary. By being given a wide variety of texts to read each week, both you and I are nudged out of our comfort zones. You are not going to be formed only by what I as your rector like to talk about. We are both going to be challenged by the heights and depths, length and breadth, of God’s Word.
          Kids, have you ever seen your parents or your teachers “lose it?” You know: you do something wrong, and they just get carried away in their fussing? Before you know it, they are telling you ridiculous things: like you will be grounded until you are 25, or you are the worst class that they have ever taught, or you will be spending the whole weekend in your room… Their faces probably get red, too, and they shout, and they are just, well, scary.
         Parents and teachers, we all know that this can happen to the best of us, right? It usually happens when we are afraid for our children, afraid that they are doing something that is truly going to harm them: Our toddler is determined to chew through every electric cord in the house, for example; or our class is goofing off so much that students are not going to learn what they need to pass the test; or our child just let a stranger into the house while we were at the grocery; or our teen is hanging out with people we know will lead him astray. "Oh no!" we panic. We are afraid for our children, and so we exaggerate in our response to their actions. We are so desperate for them to hear us, that we yell! We are so desperate for them to listen to our wisdom that reasonable language is no longer enough.
        That’s what is going on with Zephaniah. The words that we are about to hear today are not—and were never meant to be—a prediction of the future. I don’t care what the televangelists say. These are loudly emphatic words of poetry--poetry that is meant to stir the people of Israel from a course that is going to lead to their destruction as a people. Prophets are not fortune-tellers. They are preachers with one eye on society and one eye on God. Their job is to speak words that will get us to change when we are destroying ourselves, when we are ruining our relationship with God. Their job is to root out injustice and stir us out of complacency. Their job is to wake us up, whatever it takes. Apparently, milder words have not worked on the people of Israel, and so Zephaniah is pulling out all of the stops in the poetic vision that we will hear today. Just as when we overhear a parent yelling to save their wayward child, it is not pleasant to hear. But sometimes change requires a fierce response. Like Flannery O’Connor said as she wrote shocking Christian novels about cruel and violent characters, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”[1]
          As you listen to today’s first reading, hear then the desperation of a frustrated leader trying to shake us out of dangerous, life-sapping complacency. Find in Zephaniah’s words a fierceness for God’s justice, not just an angry cruelty. Don’t start worrying over signs of the End. Don’t get all distracted and indignant about a wrathful God. Instead, look inside your heart and ask yourself what it will take for you to wake up and truly love God and your neighbor again. And then, after the Gospel, we’ll talk about Jesus.

PART 2: at sermon time
(On the chancel steps, I have chocolate gold coins on top of weights covered in aluminum foil in the top of the heavy marble baptismal font, which I unscrewed from the base.)

          In Jesus’ story, talents are not things we do, like being good at math or soccer or playing the piano. Talents are a weight of measure. We might talk about an ounce of gold or a pound of iron, but in Jesus’ day they would measure precious metal in talents. A talent of gold or silver was heavy. It weighed about 50-75 pounds. Here on the chancel steps, I have a talent of gold for the kids. We don’t want to put on airs, so let’s assume that we aren’t the super-clever slaves who get either five or two talents of treasure from the master. How would we even move 200 pounds of gold out of here to trade it, anyway? Yes, God’s gifts can seem pretty oversized and unwieldy for us, can’t they? So much abundance can be overwhelming. We’re just a small parish. We like to keep things simple. So let’s say that we at St. Thomas get this one talent from God.
         So what are we going to do with our St. Thomas treasure? Jesus has entrusted it to us to keep for him, so we had better not eat any of it, even if it does involve chocolate. As a matter of fact, we’re supposed to make more treasure out of what he gives us. How are we going to do that? (Get ideas if there are any.)
          Well, why don’t we try moving it into the sacristy? We can lock it up in there with all of our other holy things, since a gift from God has got to be kept holy, right? (Invite small child to come and move it. It will be too heavy.)
         Shoot! Why are God’s gifts so heavy? If we can’t move it, maybe we need to cover it with something?  If we leave it open here, some greedy grown-up might come and slip a piece or two into her pocket on the way up to communion…. We wouldn’t want to tempt anybody like that. (Give kids a chance to try to cover it.)
          If only we could get it outside and bury it. It would be safe then …. Oh, but wait! That’s what the slave did in Jesus’ parable! And he got in big trouble. If we bury it, it will be safe, but it won’t grow, and nobody will even be able to enjoy it.
Gifts from God are strange things. Have you ever noticed how we’re not ever supposed to hoard them? It’s like the manna that God gave to the ancient Israelites when they were starving: If they tried to put the extra pieces in jars to keep until the next day, they became nasty and inedible. Even though God rained down the manna upon them like crazy, they weren’t allowed to save any for later, for “just in case.” God expected them to trust that God would always send whatever they need. God’s gifts seem to have to flow into us and back out again. You know, God gives us life, and then we are expected to live to God’s glory. God gives us love, and we are expected to love our neighbor in turn. God creates beauty in our world, and we are supposed to create beauty, too. God forgives us, and we are supposed to forgive others. God’s gifts are like light shining on us. If you bury light, or as Jesus said, cover it up with a bushel basket, then it is gone. You have to let it shine if you want it to light up the room.
         Did you notice that our treasure here is sitting in the top of our baptismal font? I bet that there is more than chocolate hidden in this heavy talent of divine gift. In baptism, we are given huge gifts like hope, joy, promise, eternal life, justice, reconciliation, grace, Jesus’ own body and blood …. Surely, we can’t bury such important gifts. Surely, they are bigger than anything we can control.
         As I was thinking about those wrathful words from Zephaniah this week, I had a terrible ear-worm playing in my head. I was cursing Rob for picking a hymn for Sunday that is such a terrible ear-worm (hum, “I want to walk as a child of the light.”) …. All of a sudden, though, I realized what I was singing:
         “I want to walk as a child of the Light, I want to follow Jesus. The Lamb is the     light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”  
          I was singing the words of our reading from Thessalonians! And then it hit me: The Light of Christ is the gift, the gift that cannot be buried in the ground, the gift of love and grace and forgiveness that lives as it is passed from heart to heart like the candle flame on Christmas Eve. No matter what mess we get ourselves into in this world, no matter how dark it looks and how tempted we are to curse and yell, the Lamb has suffered that darkness and yet has risen in Light eternal. The Light will continue to shine … Now if only we would dare to live in the freedom of knowing that Love and Light always have the last word.
         Children, at the Peace, I invite you to come forward and take generous handfuls of chocolate gold and hand them around to all of the grownups as you share with them the Peace of Christ. And keep one for yourself! Such treasure is God’s gift to us all.

[1] Found at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/80562-the-novelist-with-christian-concerns-will-find-in-modern-life