Reflection on Advent for November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
Today we begin a new church year with a new season: Advent. Advent is the time of preparation for Christmas, involving the four Sundays before the great festival. We light the candles on a wreath. We sing Advent songs of God’s coming and our getting ready. It is a special time. We remember that Advent is its own season, that it holds a special opportunity for quiet reflection, and that we should not let Christmas anticipation overwhelm it.
But today, I would like to play the role of an Advent Grinch. I’d like to say Bah Humbug to much of what passes for Advent. With respect to this season, we as a church need to approach Advent differently, before we all wither away and no one cares about God anymore as they rush to the malls. So let me begin.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say that Advent is a season of waiting. And if you open almost any book or devotional piece on Advent it says that Advent is about waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. The obvious moral lesson of Advent is to learn to be patient.  Patience is the virtue of the season.
Well, Bah Humbug. Advent is not about waiting. It is about something deeper. It is about longing, yearning, and desire. It’s wrong to focus on building up our patience. Advent is about what we deeply and sincerely long for. What we most deeply desire. What we are excited about. What we most want for ourselves, those around us, and the world. What we hope for. Our deepest wishes and longing.  It is not a season about building up our patience. It’s a time of getting in touch with our passions, whatever those passions might be. What makes Advent work in this culture is that it gives us an opportunity to be a passionate people and to express that passion. Of course, sometimes when we long for something, we are forced to wait. Waiting is actually dependent on the existence of a longing.  But to make this a season focused on waiting for something rather than human passion is, well, sort of sad.
So what are you passionate about? What matters most to you? What do you desire? At first this may be difficult. And it may be more difficult as you think about it and realize that some of your passions may not be that domesticated. We humans are complex and long for many things. The exploration of our passions may be a bit wild. But the readings of the season talk about rough places, mountains and valleys, people in animal skins, and the longings of suffering people. This is not easy work, this getting into our longings. It is hard, and sometimes painful, and causes us to face our real selves. That’s why we make Advent into a time of patience. It’s much easier to just tell people to be patient. The problem is that doesn’t work anymore, and it’s time to get back to the longing of the human heart.
In the presence of God, our longings are what they are. Some of our dreams and hopes we feel comfortable with. Others we do not feel good about. Some unite us with others in our faith so that we become passionate about caring for others and the world around us. Some explode in our faces. Think about the deep human longings that are present in the situation in Missouri. We long for civil peace. We long for an end to racism. We long for the safety and equal protection of our communities, civil servants, and citizens. Those longings drive us into prayers for justice and peace.
Justice, peace, and compassion are perhaps the deepest religious longings the human heart knows. They propel us, not because we ought, but because we deeply want to help someone in need, someone treated unfairly. God longs for us to long for compassion, freedom, and joy. And those longings find themselves living with the other longings we all feel.
But whatever our longings, dark or noble, wise or foolish, deep or in the here and now, these longings are what make us human, and when we long for health or healing, security or affection, meaning or purpose, renewal or reconciliation, joy or vindication, we become fully human and more deeply engaged in the presence of God. We find ourselves renewed as we engage in a passionate life. And we move beyond the wooden stereotypes which have come to mark the Christian faith and this season.
The world does not need to see us as people in the waiting room of a doctor or dentist, bored stiff, wanting it all to just be over. No, the world needs to see us as passionate people: intensely engaged in what matters, even as we realize the limits of our passions. For our Christian passion is to heal the world, even though that is beyond us. Still, that passion brings a smile to our hearts whenever we witness healing, wholeness and affection in a cold and hard world. Advent is not about waiting. It is about becoming passionate again.
Second, Advent has become that time when we lament the growing secularization of culture and say that the most important thing is to get Christ back into Christmas. Well, again, as the Advent Scrooge, I say Bah Humbug. Advent is not about getting Christ back into Christmas. Christmas is its own cultural phenomenon involving complex religious and family rituals and behaviors exploited by the consumerist society in which we find ourselves.  But so what?
You know, for most of the Christian era, Christmas did not really matter. It was on the Christian calendar, but Epiphany was the big deal in the winter time. There are four stories of the life of Jesus. But two of the writers do not even include a Christmas story. The birth of Jesus isn’t in Mark or John. The great cloud of Christian witnesses would certainly think our Christmas customs strange, but they would not really waste much time talking about getting Christ back into Christmas. They might not be interested in Christmas at all.
No, what matters is not getting Christ into Christmas. What matters is getting Christ into your heart so that you can share the compassion of Christ with others. That can happen at Christmas. And sometimes a piece of the Christmas complex may trigger that compassion in someone. That happens now and then. That’s fine and good. But God is mightier than Christmas, and God can break into your heart any time God wants to, any time of the year, December 24, or August 13, November 22, September 11 or whenever.
At least once each week, and sometimes several times each week, God breaks into your world, Monday through Saturday, and invites you to step into the compassion of Christ. It can be at home, at school, at work, while shopping, or driving, or praying, or in the doctor’s office, or fixing dinner, or talking on the phone. God will subtly call you to become aware of someone or something. And sometimes God will hit you over the head, and you’ll life will change as you realize you’ve been getting it wrong. But what matters is getting God into your heart regardless of what goes on at Christmas. God’s compassion will come when it will come, and Christmas is a human construction sometimes used by God, sometimes not.  So this year, enjoy all those Christmas things. Buy or build a present or two. Bake a cookie. Stand under the mistletoe if you want. Have a good time with neighbors and family. Just be aware that God may or may not be in those things . God only wants to open your heart so that you can be an instrument of peace. And God will be God and Advent is a recognition that God enters our hearts and world whenever and however God wants.
Finally, we talk about Advent as a time for preparation. We love to prepare in Advent, and to get ready. We like to say we have so much to do. And we fill our lives and schedules with all sorts of preparations for the season. And we like to quote Bible passages about preparing the way of the Lord. Get ready. We say that over and over and over again about Advent.
Well again, as the Advent Grinch, I say Bah Humbug. Advent isn’t about preparing. First of all, it is God who is active in Advent, not us. God is the one who comes. God is the one who opens our hearts. And the spirit of God blows when and where it wills. We really do not know the day or the hour. There is really no way to plan, act and prepare for this emerging God.
When God comes, and when God changes our lives, and when we are transformed, there actually is no way to be prepared for that. Even the best laid plans are blown away by the presence of God. We can never fully prepare for the coming of the Lord. And no matter how prepared we think we are, whether we get all our chores done or not; when God actually does come and change our hearts and minds, quickening the spirit of compassion within us, it can be so overwhelming, that any preparation we thought was important is simply senseless. God does not come because we are prepared. God does not even wait until we are prepared. God just comes. God opens the door to our hearts, and compassion is born. It happens at anytime, anywhere, and it is always a bit overwhelming. To say that Advent is a time of preparation is simply wrong. It is a time to realize that when God knocks on our door, no matter who much we have it together, the spirit will tear things down to open things up. And we are never prepared for that.
This is Advent. It’s not a season, but a moment to sense and seize the presence of God. It’s not about waiting, it’s about being passionate. It’s not about getting Christ into Christmas. It’s about getting Christ into our hearts and world. It’s not about preparation. We can never know, let alone prepare for the times God opens us to new possibilities. Advent is not a season, but a moment. And we never know when the moment comes.

Reflection for November 23, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Something happened to Christ the King Sunday. This Sunday is usually that festival. Christ the King is a relatively recent liturgical festival used to put an ending on one church year before we begin a new one, next week with Advent I and the lighting of our first Advent Candle. It’s good to have an ending, even if it is sort of fabricated, and did not really exist until the 20th century.
Christ the King Sunday developed during World War II as the European Roman Catholic church and a Pope felt the need to reign-in the hyper-nationalism of Germany and Italy. The festival made a statement. It was a liturgical reminder that God, not a rising political leader, is really in charge. All of that makes Christ the King a good thing.
But something happened in the last few years to Christ the King Sunday. In our calendar it is now called The Reign of God. I can understand that. Making God into a king is probably not such a good idea these days. We distrust all religious authoritarianism, and sometimes for good reason. People want a more democratic faith rather than a regal one. We’re into discernment more than obedience. And the term Reign of God shifts the emphasis from royal prestige to the desire or will of God for the world. The Reign of God fits those words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Reign of God then is the topic of the day. And these readings point us to the will of God, the desire of God, and what God wants for the human family.
This week, as I thought of the Reign of God or what God wants for us, the readings were useful. In Ezekiel, God, like a shepherd, watches over the flock. The shepherd works to protect the weak sheep from the strong, so that all are protected and have access to at least some security and grazing. This attention to those who need assistance, this compassion, are basic in the Reign of God, the will of God.
Compassion as the desire of God is also found in the third reading from Matthew. “What you do to the least of these, you do to me,” are the words that we hear when we read this story together. In both Ezekiel and Matthew this capacity for compassion for those on the edges, those on the margins, those suffering, and those less fortunate becomes the standard by which our lives are measured. It is not about our own possessions, or our own happiness. It is how we show compassion. That is the key to everlasting joy and happiness. That is the will of God, the desire of God, the Reign of God.
And also for some reason, this week, as I thought of the Reign of God or what God wants for us, my mind began to play with a phrase I had not used or considered in a very long time, perhaps thirty years. The phrase is The Divine Imperative. The Divine Imperative is the title of a book of theology written by Emil Brunner in 1934, and translated into English in 1936. Emil Brunner taught theology in Zurich, Switzerland. The Divine Imperative was devoted to Christian ethics. Brunner wrote in a Europe that was experiencing the growth the Nazi power. The Pope met the challenge with a new catholic festival, Christ the King. That’s a good thing. But Protestants, Reformed and Lutheran, like Brunner met the challenge by considering what the Divine Imperative is, what God is calling us to do.
I realize this may be boring, and that you are probably the only Christians on this entire planet subjected to Brunner’s work this morning. But I’d like to use Brunner’s sense of God’s desire, God’s Imperative to describe the Reign of God, to flesh out what it means to be a compassionate people.
For Brunner, as hyper-nationalism grew, and the horrors of the absolute state were leading once again into war and atrocity, it was clear that humanity was flawed and capable of great evil. The world was then, and still is, not a good place for many people. The only way to move beyond the morass was to turn to God and to seek the will of God as the basis for a greater common good. Hitler may command our political allegiance through might and power. But God also commands, calls, and challenges us to do and be the good. God’s imperative is calling us to attend not to the strong, but the weak, to the least, to those scape-goated by a growing culture of hate.
Embedded in the Divine Imperative is the compassion of Christ. For Brunner, Jesus Christ, is the deep, full, rich, and true vision of God’s graceful love for all including those least fortunate.
Now Reformed Protestants in the European tradition were known for their thoroughness. So it was not enough for Brunner to say God wants us to be compassionate. That description of the Divine Imperative is too weak and too imprecise. His book calls us to think about what it means to be compassionate, just, and caring in every arena of live. I’m paraphrasing greatly here and summarizing, but I think Brunner moves this compassion thing into every aspect of human life.
In Brunner, compassion starts with the self. We need to be compassionate toward ourselves. Sometimes we beat-up on ourselves or feel badly about ourselves. If that is the case for you, it is time to feel compassion for yourself again. Yes, you may have done something wrong. Your life may not have turned out as you may have hoped. But compassion begins when we forgive ourselves and move on.
Then Brunner moves desire for compassion into our intimate relationships: marriage, households, partnerships, and families. Compassion is important at home and calls us to honor, love, respect, and care for each other in all our vulnerabilities. Now we say a lot of things about partnership and marriage these days. But for Brunner, the foundation of a good relationship is two people showing compassion, yes compassion, to each other. If you are fortunate enough to be in relationship right now, think about compassion in that relationship and how you might offer it and receive it.
Then Brunner moves to labor and economics. This is interesting. He is writing as the labor movement in Europe is growing. And he sees labor, human labor and endeavor, rather than capital as the foundation of economics and economic systems. Labor is what creates capital. He thinks capital is an important part of the mix, but he is concerned about capitalism’s tendency to lift up greed and to drive us away from compassionate care for the disadvantaged. And he thinks that compassion calls us to limit human greed and create systems that care for those in the most difficult circumstances of employment, unemployment and poverty in all its forms.
Then the thorough Brunner moves to politics. Again, he is writing at a time when the state is assuming enormous power. Here the Divine Imperative is a call to the individual to be true to the good, to live the principles of compassion as best one can in dark times. The individual in democratic states must exercise his or her will and align that will with the Divine Imperative for graceful compassion. The state is not seen as an absolute end in itself. There are to be substantial limits on patriotism in all its expressions. And the state itself is also subject to the Divine Imperative and is called to exercise compassionate wisdom. Consequently he places substantial limitations on the state’s capacity to wage war and imprison people.
Still further, in Brunner, the Divine Imperative to compassion speaks not only to economics and politics, but also to culture. Sometimes the culture in which we find ourselves and the values of society are demeaning and degrading for many people. The Divine Imperative challenges the cultural assumptions that keep us from caring for others. He wants us to ask how our attitudes and activities affect the least of these.
And Brunner is not still finished. The Divine Imperative to compassion speaks not only to self, relationships, economics, politics, and culture. It also should be the foundation of the church. We, as the church, are nothing, if we talk about the need for compassion in the lives of everyone, but do not practice it within our own walls.
As Europe was beginning to disintegrate in the 1930’s, Brunner called the compassionate people of God to live the Divine Imperative: to practice the Reign of Christ in our hearts and homes, our economics and politics, our culture and congregations. In the dark days of Europe, as war broke out, Protestants, not given to festivals, felt the thorough exercise of God’s compassion was the best possible way to overcome evil, whatever its form, wherever it lived, however it manifested itself. And that is still the case.

Reflection for November 16, 2014

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

I was talking to someone this week about his golf game. It was about how much practice it took to become good at the game and to keep that edge. Almost all sports are like that. “Use it or lose it,” is what we say. This is true for all aspects of the human body. I was talking to someone else this week about a hip replacement. The most important part of that process is the physical therapy that follows the surgery. Despite the pain, one must do the physical therapy, or else the mobility will be lost regardless of how well the surgery went.  A few weeks ago, I was at the doctor getting my annual physical. Things were fine. But he told me the most important thing was to stay active. Move. Do things. Keep going. Use it or lose it. No pain, no gain.
And this physical simple truth is basic to the third reading this morning: one more of the parables of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew.  Matthew is referring not only to physical therapy and its implications for daily life, but also to spiritual exercise or the consistent practice of one’s spiritual discipline or gifts. If we do not practice and expand the gifts of the spirit and the exercise of the spirit’s discipline, then we will lose those gifts, and our faith will wither and die.
So this story is a call to the disciples of Jesus to consistent worship and prayer, investment in the sacred path, the discipline of study and care for others. These are the gifts or talents we have been given. The reading calls us to consistent practice of our spiritual discipline and work in the world as Christians.

Now what about that second reading that continues the readings from Thessalonians? Once again we read about the coming end of the world.  These first Christians were thinking the world was coming before the end of the year. Christ’s return was soon. Repent and believe before the end.
And although they were wrong about the timing of the end, the reading does remind us that we never know when the end will come for us. We are all more fragile than we think. And those of you in church last week recall how that is. The reading reminds us that our end, our death, may be closer than we think and that we should be ready, whenever it comes.
Be ready for the inevitable ending. And in the meantime practice your prayer life and care for others, or it will fade and eventually wither and die. These are the implications of the second and third readings.

But the real work to be done this week is on that first reading. What do we do with that very strange reading from Zephaniah? We have only a couple of readings from Zephaniah in the three year lectionary cycle of readings because Zephaniah is such a downer.  To be honest, Zephaniah is not the most preachable material. With its gloom and doom and thorough pessimism, one would almost wish we never really read from this book of the Bible. Can’t we just ignore Zephaniah? Can’t we simply focus on the practical advice offered by the other two readings?
Well, we could, but that would be like cheating a little bit on one’s taxes. Instead, let’s engage Zephaniah at least somewhat this morning.
Of all the Hebrew prophets, Zephaniah is probably the least attractive to us. Most of the prophets have this gloom and doom, end of the world dimension to them. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Amos are not known for their upbeat humor and optimistic views. This is a pretty negative group. We’re headed for hell in a hand basket is the general message of much of the material generated by the prophets.
But what makes Zephaniah such a downer for us is why we are all going to hell in a hand basket.  Usually, the prophet says we need to focus on how we are mistreating the poor, and how God expects more from us in the ways of justice and equal treatment, especially caring for the most vulnerable. We all like that, and understand how injustice brings unrest and eventually tears a kingdom or country apart.
But that’s the other prophets, not Zephaniah. Zephaniah’s message is that the world will be destroyed because the people are not monotheistic enough and because the leaders dress the wrong way, following foreign fashion. The world will be destroyed because the leaders are not following the dress code.
Now what do we do with that? Honestly, the emphasis on dress codes and monotheism sounds a bit like a contemporary radical Islamic group insisting that people dress a certain way. And that Christianity with its emphasis on three Gods is not monotheistic enough. And that this failure to dress right and focus on the one God will bring the destruction of the universe.
Oh dear, what we to do? Luther says we are to put the most positive construction on all our neighbor does and says. And with that in mind, I spent most of my spiritual practice this week focused on what Zephaniah might be saying to us all as we live our lives.
Underneath this concern about monotheism in worship and the way leaders dress, is a passion for being authentic in our practice of faith and life. Authenticity means that we do not assume the fashion of others but wear clothes that reflect our own simple way of being.  We do not adopt the fashionable ways of others, but let our own ways flow to the surface from our hearts. And authentic Christians need to be reminded, especially as the holiday season approaches that there are many seductive “gods” out there calling for our worship with our time, talents, and treasures. Through all the banality of the season we are called to remember that we worship the one true voice of compassion, love, hope, and justice. This one force for compassion, love, and justice is the ultimate hope for this fragile planet.  And whenever we are seduced into other things and adorning our souls with other trappings, we lose our authenticity.
If we do not practice our authenticity we will lose it. And if the authentic compassion, love, and justice are lost, then everything else goes along with it.
Oh dear. This week we have Zephaniah. But in this ancient curmudgeon we may still hear the call to be genuine and authentic: to dress ourselves and our souls in the garments of humble affection as we practice of our faith, lest we lose it.

Reflection for November 9, 2014

Wisdom 6:12-16, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

In sports one of the most frustrating things can be a rain delay. Everyone is into the game, ready to go, or to continue the contest. And then suddenly everything stops. The horns are blown. The tarps come out. And everyone sits on the sidelines, waiting and waiting. Delays can be frustrating.
As a pastor I sometimes encounter delays in the lives of people. The housing check needed to make ends meet somehow is delayed. Or a building project faces delays as permits are granted. Or there is a delay as several people sign off on an idea before it can go forward. Or sometimes healing or recovery can be delayed. Or a complication delays physical therapy. Sometimes people are ready to move on in their work life, but there is a delay as the pieces come together for a new situation. We all encounter delays as we live our lives.
Perhaps one of the most difficult delays can come at the end of life. Over the years, I’ve witnessed the delay of death, the delay of the end. And that can be frustrating. I recall quite a few times, in a nursing home, care facility, or hospice center; when the person was ready to let go and to surrender one’s spirit back to God. Quality of life was gone. The body worn and broken. The spirit prepared now, not to struggle to live, but to embrace the eternal. Family and friends gathered. Farewells said. And now it’s time to go. But there is a delay, as the body on its own terms comes to its natural conclusion.  Sometimes it seems that modern medical practice actually makes the delay longer.
Sometimes a person will ask me, “Why doesn’t God just take me now?” The answer is simple, “It’s not yet time.” But underneath that easy answer I feel my own questioning of God’s timetable. It is very hard on all of us, including the dying one, to face the delay that comes sometimes at the end.

Those very first Greek Christians in the book of Thessalonians were wrong. Yes, wrong. From what we can gather, they apparently thought that Jesus was returning to earth to bring the final reconciliation of the world. On that much they were correct. But they had the timing wrong. They felt that Christ was going to return in glory, that the end of the world would come, before they died.  Christ was coming soon. The end was close. The earliest Christians held this vision, and they were preparing themselves.
But the world did not end. Christ did not return in a blaze of glory. There apparently was a delay: a divine delay, a pause in the accomplishment of the inevitable. And the Thessalonians began to worry.  Why was God so slow?
One of the deepest worries caused by the delay was what would happen to those who were part of their fellowship who now had died before Jesus came back. This is a natural human concern. We all are concerned about our beloved dead. But if Christ’s coming was delayed, and people died in the meantime, would their dead family and friends participate in the Parousia? Would they be raised?  What will happen to those who have died during the delay? We still have this question about our beloved dead even as the delay seems now to have gone on for 2,000 years.
Here in the earliest of Christian writings, in Thessalonians, we have that pastoral assurance that whether we live or whether we die, no matter where we are in this time of delay; we are the people of God. The very first adjustment caused by the delay of the end, was this assurance that no matter how long it takes, no matter how many have died, all will be embraced by God in the end. And if there is one thing that still rings true, no matter where we are in life, it is this assurance that nothing will separate us from the love of God. Hang in there. Hold fast to what is dear. Even in delay, God is with you.

The delay. In the third reading this morning, in the story of Jesus, the start of the wedding has been delayed. That happens now and then with weddings. Even the best planned weddings can start late. Often the guests at a wedding come at the last minute. Or they are so busy talking in the gathering space; they don’t take their seats on time.
Once, when I was in Indonesia, working on a meeting for a project in a church there, a wedding was being held just before the meeting. I was walking down a flight of back steps carrying meeting supplies, keeping out of the way of the wedding, and there on one of the steps sat a bride in a beautiful dress. I’d been a pastor for awhile by then, and said to myself, “This can’t be good.” So I sat down on the step beside her and asked how things were going. She spoke English well, but not well enough that I could be of any real help.  I listened. She had cold feet. She wondered about how things would turn out. I nodded. She said something about expectations and wondered how one knows for sure. I listened and nodded. And then, her mood shifted. She had needed a moment, a pause, a delay to face her fears in the presence of a complete outsider.
And then she was ready to go. She asked me to pray. And I asked God to give her marriage and the church of Indonesia, hope and faith, confidence and good cheer, even as we faced challenging times. And then she quickly stood, smiled in all her bridal splendor, and went back to her party.  The bridesmaids were ready. Somebody signaled, and the organ began to play. The delay was over.
It is perhaps the difficulty of travel in the ancient world that causes the delay of the wedding in the story of Jesus. But regardless of the cause of delay, the bridal party eventually forms, and we are ready to begin.
The delay will end. And we are ready to begin. That is the simple call of the final reading this morning. We don’t know when things will start up. But they will. The end, or is it the beginning, will come. It’s time to go. Be ready. Be prepared. We may assume that that the delay will go on forever: that life and everything in it is a permanent thing. It isn’t. The bridegroom will come.  And for some of us, that coming of God will be sooner than we would think or want. And we may be caught off guard.

Another word for delay is pause. And a pause is a time for a break, a rest, a time-out, a Sabbath. All of the readings, but especially the first, challenge us to use the pause when it comes. In the third reading the delay is used to take stock of the lamp oil.
In the first reading, the pause, break, rest, or time out becomes an encounter with Wisdom. Wisdom is a female figure one meets in this ancient poem. A bride, sitting on the back step of a church, calling us to sit down, to listen, to try to understand, to take the time to let things gel, to live in such a way that the time we have matters, to look our fears in the face, and to decide to go on. Wisdom calls out for us to use our pause, our Sabbath, to reflect, to amend our ways when needed, to take stock of our oil and lives, and to be ready. For the Thessalonians had the timing wrong, but not their faith. The God who loves us returns for us all.