Tuesday, November 29, 2016
The gospel reading this morning is an apocalyptic text from Matthew in which Jesus warns that no one knows when the Son of Man will appear. The text begins, “about that day or hour no one knows,” and it concludes, “therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
It’s important to note that most translations render the phrase “Son of Man” in capital letters as a title, but, as Walter Wink notes, the phrase comes from an idiomatic expression in Hebrew, used notably, by the author of the book of Ezekiel, and it means, simply, “human being.”
Advent is a season of waiting and preparing. What are we waiting for? The coming of the human being – the authentic, fully realized human one.
In describing the vision that inaugurates his prophetic text, Ezekiel says that God appeared to the human being in the likeness of a human. I won’t drag us through the Hebrew other than to note it is richly idiomatic. Rather, I’ll simply repeat the questions Walter Wink raises about the passage:
“What does it mean to say that God is revealed as human? Why does God turn a humanlike face to Ezekiel?”
For followers of Jesus, these are the questions the incarnation compels us to confront. The season of Advent presses them upon us with particular urgency. After all, what are we waiting for? What are we expecting? When we sing, “come, thou long-expected Jesus,” what are we inviting in to our lives?
Following Wink, we might begin to answer his questions by saying, “Perhaps God turns a humanlike face toward us because becoming human is the task that God has set for human beings.” Wink goes on to say of our human condition, “We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can dream of what a more humane existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrive at true humanness.”
In the season of Advent, with its mixed invocations of joy, hope, peace, and love, we know full well that our joy knows sorrow, our peace is never free from conflict, our hope is full of longing and doubt, and our love bears many wounds.
But this invitation to welcome the human one, to listen for his call, to follow his way into the fullness of being human still resounds in our Advent waiting. We hear it in the promise that someday we will learn to beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks.
These words are thousands of years old. It seems like we might have figured it out by now. But we’re still waiting.
How shall we wait? What is the tenor of our waiting? What is the shape of the meanwhile?
Paul captured it well in the conclusion of his letter to the Romans. Salvation is nearer to us than we imagine, he suggests. So wait for it as if you were living it already.
If we imagine our salvation – that is to say, our wholeness, our fully realized joyous, hope-filled, loving, just and peaceful humanness – as an elevated state, then Paul is saying, “wait up.” Wait up! Wait as if this has already been accomplished, and you have already been lifted up with Christ, because you have been, because we have been.
What does that look like? Love. Love.
Love is love is love is love is love is love is love.
The night is far gone, the day is near. Wait up. Wait up, for Christ is coming. Amen.
Of Sheep and Shepherds
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20
November 20, 2016
The kids down at Camp Hanover are awfully fond of a song that I find just awful. Goes kinda like this, “I just wanna be a sheep, bah, bah, bah, bah / / pray the Lord my soul to keep, yeah, yeah …” It goes through a set of counter narratives – hypocrites, Sadducees, Pharisees – and concludes that we don’t want to be like them. Instead, we just want to be the sheep.
The problem – well, beyond the utterly inane music – the problem is, I don’t want to be a sheep. Sheep are stupid. Seriously, they appear to me to be among the dumbest of God’s creatures. I do not want to be like that.
In fact, if we take remotely seriously the notion that we are somehow created in the image of God, I’ll go so far as to say that if we want to be like sheep we dishonor the intelligent, loving, and wildly creative God who made us. No, sir, I do not want to be a sheep. Blah, blah, blah, blah.
On the other hand, perhaps there is a secret life of sheep of which I am ignorant. Our kids were little during a golden age for children’s film, and we all grew inordinately fond of the movie Babe. It’s the tale of a pig who thinks he’s a sheepdog, the sheep who come to accept him as such, and the shepherd who is willing to consider seriously something that only he notices.
Even when everyone else thinks he’s crazy and hallucinating, the good shepherd acts on what he has taken note of and enters Babe, the pig, in a sheepdog contest. It’s a kids’ movie, so, naturally, Babe wins. But he does so only when the sheep come to his rescue.
Beneath their docile and, well, stupid appearance, the sheep turn out to be both wise and wily. If I have to be a sheep, let me be one like that, and let me come under the care of a shepherd who does not destroy and scatter, who does not drive away the flock nor neglect it, but, rather, one who looks for the best in everyone under his care, and creatively draws it forth from them.
We need such a shepherd these days. More than that, we need to become such for each other these days.
The election, and, especially, the long and hideous campaign that preceded it, have loosed a great deal of ugliness and ignorance in our society. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and xenophobia have found vile expression. The nation is riven into factions that speak at and across each other rather than with one another. And there are a whole host of folks who are acting dumber than sheep out there these days.
The prejudices are, of course, nothing new under the sun. But the rancor tearing the fabric of our society has taken on a tenor that feels different.
If we say that we are followers of Jesus – the Good Shepherd, the one whose sheep know him, recognize his voice, and follow him – we have some particular responsibilities these days.
The text from Jeremiah this morning, along with the rest of that prophetic word, serves to remind us of a few of them. Jeremiah insists that God demands justice and righteousness of those in powerful positions. Jeremiah sees the hand of God scattering the sheep because the shepherd has not attended to justice. Jeremiah understands that the collapse of the social order results from injustice, and that those in power have a particular responsibility to act with righteousness for the sake of justice on behalf of the marginalized, the widows and orphans, the powerless and the outcast.
Our responsibility, then, is to remain vigilant, to call out injustice whenever we see it, and to resist it with all of our wisdom and wile.
We sheep of the Presbyterian flock have an additional responsibility in the present moment. The president-elect has called himself one of us. While there is considerable doubt about his membership in any congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I’m willing to take him at his word on this, because, if he is a member of our church, he is bound to us in a relationship of mutual responsibility and accountability.
We Presbyterians are heirs to the tradition of John Calvin, and it is tempting to say something about the doctrine of total depravity being proved by our politics, or to quote Calvin, who wrote in the Institutes of the Christian Religion that “those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by [God] to punish the people for their iniquity.”
In other words, perhaps the sheep, themselves, deserve the shepherd they got because they failed to attend to justice; that is to say, we failed.
Indeed, it’s not difficult at all to create a litany of such failures over recent years: we have, collectively, failed to attend to the fact that our economy serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor; we have, collectively, failed to attend to the fact that families are being torn apart by our immigration policies and enforcement procedures; we have, collectively, failed to attend to the fact that we are carrying out endless war in the midst of mindless entertainments. We could go on and on, but I’ll cut to the chase and say, simply, that we have, collectively, failed to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
Maybe we really are just sheep in need of a good shepherd.
So, where’s the good news in all of this?
Well, it is the final Sunday on the liturgical calendar, the Sunday traditionally designated as Christ the King Sunday. That’s why we began with Crown Him With Many Crowns this morning. We recall, today, the reign of Christ, the good shepherd, and proclaim the very good news that, in Jesus, we see that God does reign in sovereign love. In the midst of all the ugliness around us, sovereign love is surely good news.
The other news these days is, to be sure, challenging and frightening. Lots of folks across the country, including more than a few in this room, are quite fearful – both of what has happened and of what may.
One of my favorite verses in all of scripture says simple, “perfect love casts out all fear.” God reigns in perfect love.
Because God acts in the world through the power of love, this sovereign love invites us to respond to the world in kind – that is to say, with love. Love is fundamental relational, and thus, when Jesus says, “follow me,” he is inviting us to participate in the reign of love; he is inviting us into relationship. When all else fails, resort to love.
Good news has power. It is, as Paul wrote to the Colossians, “glorious power” for it is the power to lift us up, to draw us together, and to sustain us.
As we are lifted up we are empowered to lift others, so just in the past week eight of us went to West Virginia to help folks whose homes were devastated by floods last summer. Another dozen of us went down to AFAC yesterday to support the annual turkey distribution to our neighbors in need.
As we are drawn together we are empowered to draw others together as well. We do this, in part, through creating safe and beautiful spaces. We fill them with song, trusting that Dostoevsky was on to something important when he wrote, “beauty will save the world.” So we do things such as invite the GenOUT Chorus to share their songs with us today and join our voices with an interfaith choir next Sunday in a concert for hope on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We do things such as explore what it would entail to become a “sanctuary congregation.” We do things such as enact our prayers with light and color. Beauty draws us together and it honors the author of creation’s vast beauty.
As we are sustained, we are empowered to sustain others. We do this in part by resisting all that stands against the values of the gospel: hospitality, welcome to strangers, compassion, peace, justice, and love.
Together, as the church, we hold on to one another in a circle of love as a shepherd holds together the flock. I may not want to be a sheep, but I do want to stand within the circle of love.
They say that the shepherd knows his sheep and they know him.
I don’t know much of anything about flocks of sheep, but I do know my tribe. It’s a tribe known by love. In my tribe, these things are true:
Friday, November 18, 2016
The texts of the two previous sermons were accidentally posted on David's personal blog. You can find them at http://faithfulagitation.blogspot.com/.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
The Near End
Joel 2:23-32; Luke 18:9-14
October 23, 2016
When I was a teenager there was a man in Chattanooga who used to walk back and forth on Market St. down town carrying a sign that proclaimed “the end is near.” Seems that so many towns had people like that with signs like that that it became a meme before memes became, well, memes.
I was only a teenager at the time, so I didn’t have a great deal of experience to judge whether or not the end felt particularly near in the mid 1970s. I suppose some combination of Vietnam, Watergate, and disco may have made it feel more apocalyptic, but I wonder how often, over the countless years of human history, it has felt like “the end was near.”
Some people seem to think that our present times feel like end time. Knowing that, I tried to do a bit of research to find some history of end-times prophecies, but I got stuck quickly upon discovering that, according to Armageddon News – which is apparently a thing – the end will be October 31 of this year. I reckon there’s no real need to worry that there are only 62 more days until Christmas. Never mind that, according to those same folks, the world was supposed to have come to its end back in July, and, before that, some time last year, and before that some other time and date.
Of course, the end has always been near in the human imagination. The text from Joel this morning is a fine reminder: “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
Not a single word about this fall’s presidential campaign.
That human beings have always harbored apocalyptic visions about the near end of everything is not news, and, in and of itself, it’s barely even interesting. No, the run-of-the-mill end-time prophets of doom can be occasionally entertaining, but their predictions don’t much concern me.
Their motivations, on the other hand, can be fascinating. For example, the predictions at Armageddon News are clearly designed to be click bait for the advertising embedded in their YouTube content. Apparently there’s money to be made in end-times predictions.
That makes a bit of sense if you think about it. After all, most of us wish we knew more about the future than we do, and fixing an end point to it all limits the amount of time about which we know so much less than we wish we could. If it’s all coming to an end on Halloween I don’t even need to worry about trick-or-treat candy … unless the end is coming after 9:00 p.m. or so. Dang, I’m going to have to go back and check on that!
Or not. Seriously. There’s a ton of bad biblical interpretation out there, and probably none more unfaithful and, well, just plain wrong than that which has been wasted on end-times prophecies. Sure, scripture is filled with apocalyptic warnings about the wrath of God or the final salvation of the faithful, but the same scripture also always assures us that we cannot know the time.
As I said, there’s a ton of bad interpretation out there. Most of it has one thing in common: it is used to maintain an unjust status quo. It’s pretty easy to see this when it comes to the use of scripture to, for example, uphold patriarchy or slavery or heterosexism. But the same patterns hold true in end-times prophecy.
Indeed, the pattern of using poorly interpreted texts to maintain the status quo around particular issues of injustice often intersects with end-times prophecy. We’ve all heard about preachers who tell their followers that women in places of power or gays getting married are sure signs of that God is fixin’ to destroy the earth. To be fair, I guess they’d call such things “causes” rather than “signs” of the end times.
But such preaching is pretty much exactly what Jesus is calling out in this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
Luke tells us straight off why Jesus told this story: there were some people who trusted that they, themselves, were righteous, and they regarded others with contempt. There were, apparently, some folks who believed so strongly in their own righteousness that they could never possibly be wrong. There were some folks who believed themselves to be so much on the straight-and-narrow that they could never be crooked. There were some folks who believed themselves to be so pure that they could never possibly be … oh, it’s so tempting to say “nasty” here, but let’s just go with “unclean.”
Moreover, these same folks were in positions of power and influence. They were leaders in their communities, and, in particular, in their religious institutions.
Now, despite the obvious allusions I’m making, let me rush to assure you that, when it comes to self-righteous self-deception, this really is one of those cases where both sides do it. Indeed, all sides do it.
We do not want to see ourselves as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, but that leaves us with only one option: the unclean, sinful, deeply compromised, deceitful, duplicitous, collaborating tax collector.
Hm … self-righteous prick or deeply broken human being? Isn’t there a third choice?
Truth is, no. There’s not. This is the muck in which we are mired. This is the human condition that Paul understood so well when he observed, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
However, Jesus’ parable does over an invitation to a way through. It’s not a way out. There is no way out of the human condition. But there are various paths.
Jesus names the path he offers as a way of justification, and it begins with acts of repentance.
The Greek word translated as repentance in the New Testament is metanoia. It’s a fascinating little word that means, literally, to turn, as one might do on a path in order to see other possibilities, as well as to see the road already travelled. In other words, repentance involves understanding honestly where one has been and seeking out a path forward that may well include, or even require, a change in direction.
Self-righteousness, on the other hand, is self-delusional because it does not bother to look around. In its certainty, self-righteousness blinds one not only to one’s own brokenness, but also to other ways of living in the world. Moreover, it blinds one to others and to the gifts they might bring to one’s life if one could only see them.
Blind to others is not quite right, though. It would be more accurate to say that, in self-righteousness, we are blind not only to an accurate view of ourselves, but also to an accurate view of others. We can see them, but mostly what we can see of others is how wrong they are.
It’s easy to grasp this pattern in a hyper-partisan political season, and a story I saw on Facebook last week illustrates it so well. While this example will be recognizably partisan, it doesn’t take much imagination to flip the script in terms of liberal and conservative characters.
Heath Rada, who is the immediate-past moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shared this story of standing in line to vote last week:
Well, I just voted. What has always been a wonderful and rather exciting outing was not this time. Here's why. A conversation in the long line with the three people standing behind us -
Them - Hillary is so crooked. She is really the devil. And Democrats are all cheaters.
Me - (having been listening to this type of banter from them for 10 minutes already, with references to the faith included) I wish you wouldn't say that about Democrats. Neither all Democrats nor Republicans are all cheaters and that just isn't accurate.
Them - Oh yes they are. And Hillary is evil.
Me - Well, I think there are issues and concerns in many camps around this election, and we really need to look at facts.
Them - The facts are in the Bible, and Hillary is not born again, so she is not a Christian.
Me - Silence for a bit
Them -( to each other but obviously so I could hear them) - I went to a Presbyterian Church recently and they were friendly but the sermon was milk toast. They didn't preach the Bible. In fact, I understand all Presbyterian sermons are canned and read.
Me - (couldn't be quiet any longer - despite my wife's pleading) No, you are wrong. I’m a Presbyterian, and our preacher's sermons are not canned. But you know what, this conversation isn't healthy. Let's agree that we are all God's children, and try to look for ways to show our love and care for one another.
Them - No that is absolutely untrue. Hillary and you are NOT God's children.
Me - Then who created us?
Them - God is your creator but until you are born again you are not claimed by him as his children.
Me - I'm sorry you feel that way. I beleive that God loves each person in this world, and claims them as his own. I am going to love you even if we disagree.
Them Are you a politician?
Them Well you sure talk like one and look like one.
In the lengthy comment thread, Heath’s godson shared this:
Isn't it interesting how mystery and certainty play out in our faith stories. When we are completely certain we know who God is, we don't have to keep reaching and changing. The world makes more sense because we can organize and categorize people and action. With mystery, we approach the stranger with hope and humility, we mold and remold ourselves as we stretch towards new understandings and ways of being. I desperately hold on to the mystery of God, because in mystery I find my only path of spirituality and humanity.
There is so much that we do not know, that we cannot know. Creation is unimaginably vast, and the depths of the human heart are unfathomable. How can we possibly, credibly claim to know the fullness of the Creator of all of that? How can we possibly claim to know if – much less when – that profoundly mysterious God will call an end to it all?
What we can know is this: Jesus points a way through the living of these days. It is a way of honesty – with ourselves, with one another, with our God. It is, thus, a way that requires honesty about our own limits, our own faults, our own failures.
But it is also a way that teaches us, over and over and over again, that those limits are not the final limit. What feels like the end – apocalyptic nightmares and all – is not the end. God is not finished with us yet.
We may feel often timid, fearful, and utterly alone. That’s paranoia, and paranoia is part of the human condition. But the way through paranoia is not self-righteousness – that denial of mystery which is, ultimately, a denial of self and of the God of all righteousness. No, the way through paranoia is metanoia – that ongoing and transformative journey of repentance that leads us, ultimately, into koinonia – another rich New Testament word that means community.
That is our purpose. That is our goal. That is the chief end of humankind: to live together in harmonious community in the joy of the One who calls us together. The end is near. If we want it. Amen.