Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reflection of Mark 13:24-37

I hate to disrupt your life as you read this. Continue only if you dare. You see, I know that you have been busy with the excitement of buying Christmas presents and celebrating Thanksgiving with laughter and turkey. I know that excitement about the hunt is everywhere as the last days count down before buck and doe seasons. I just hate to ruin it in any way; but I will.

I have to because we are blindsided this week by apocalyptic words from the gospel of Mark:

the sun will be darkened,and the moon will not give its light,and the stars will be falling from heaven,and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven."

Nothing like end time visions to put a damper on growing Christmas cheer.

“Honey, you’ve got to go to church with me to help you get into the Christmas spirit!” a wife says.

“Oh the destruction of the world as we know it, thanks for bringing me honey, that was really helpful,” the husband responds.

To those who have no pain in their lives, hearing the words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” probably is a holiday disruption. But to those who will not get to celebrate in 25 days with the one they want to the most, it is nice to know that grief will not get the last word. God’s word is the last word.

To those who look at themselves and see health and look at their family and see vibrancy, hearing the words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” is probably a garble of background noise. But, to those who are swinging and punching a terrible illness head on and who feel they are loosing the fight; they are words that illness will not have the last word. God’s word is the last word.

To those who know their lives are perfectly put together and their clothes match with no wrinkles or stray hairs, the words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” do not even register. But, they strike fear in the hearts of those of us who have hurt other around us and have violated God’s law of love of the neighbor. The heart wrenching fear over our terrible failures drives us to run in shame; to run into the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross, whose last words are words of forgiveness, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jobs can be eliminated, family members can hate you, world economies can crash, terrorists can murder hundreds, nuclear weapons can devour whole people, the environment can fail and break under the stress of mismanagement, the sun can go dark, and the moon and stars can fail to give light, heaven and earth can fail to exist…all of these things can happen, but they cannot destroy God’s word, the final word, the word of Christ that says, “I love you, you are not forgotten, you are forgiven, you are my people and I am your God, nothing can separate you from my love.”

Listen. These words of hope reverberate throughout all of creation, and if we are carefully listening, we can hear it. If we listen carefully tomorrow while waiting for the prize buck to pass, we will hear God’s eternal word of love. If we listen carefully under the mumble of mall crowds, we will hear it whispered through the halls to all people. If we keep awake, we will hear the truth of God’s love all around us.

I think I know what causes the big problems of the world. I am fairly certain. They are caused by sleepiness. Truckers will certainly agree with that statement, but I mean more than just trying to keep your eyes open after fourteen hours of straight driving. Sleepiness causes us to miss opportunities for God’s love and care. I was just on facebook with a friend who just saw the most horrific thing that he will probably ever see in his life. He had just filled his plate with steak and salad at a Golden Coral Buffet, and was walking to his table to enjoy this feast when just twenty feet in front of him a car smashed through the wall of the eating establishment, hit a family who were sitting at the table right next to the wall, and had it’s windshield smashed by falling bricks which threatened the confused elderly driver inside.

The amazing thing was, this was not the most horrific thing he had ever seen in his life. The most horrific thing was what he saw when he looked back at the people in the restaurant. They just continued to walk up to the buffet, load their plates, and eat. The guy is prone to great depression, and he could not help but feel hopeless to see all of these people around him upright and walking, but completely asleep. They were asleep to people who needed them. They were asleep to compassion and love. They were asleep to God. And then the most horrifying thing of all, he looked at himself, just sitting there, judging others, and he saw that he too was asleep. Who was going to help the injured? Where they all asleep?

It is because of our sleepiness that we in the church celebrate the season of Advent before we even think of celebrating the joys of Christmas. During Advent, we put off the holiday cheer for a few weeks to allow God to shape us into people who are awake. While the rest of the world walks around asleep in dreams of presents and holiday carols and buffet tables, Christ is shaking us awake to a life of compassion and love, the life of being awake, the life that knows that everything in the world is simply here for a short time, then it is gone; but God’s word of love will last forever.

Christ, please wake us up. Let us be an Advent people who do not forget to search out your love. Let us be an Advent people who do not forget to show your love to all the world. Amen.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 25:1-13

Wow, what a great day to read this reflection! This is the day when I get to pick out who of you out there are the foolish bridesmaids and who are the wise. You heard Jesus say at the end of the parable to "keep awake, for you neither know the day nor the hour of our Lord’s return." In other words, if you have a propensity to let your mind wander to sleep while reading my reflections, I guess you are not getting into the kingdom. Jesus just will not let you in. On the other hand, all of you who are currently or have been boy scouts will certainly make it into the kingdom; living by the motto “be prepared.” You would have made sure that your lamps were full of oil, you wise bridesmaids you. Plus, I like boy scouts, they go camping and carry cool Swiss Army Knives, so you are definitely in.

And, so it goes on, after hearing about these wise and foolish bridesmaids we pick and choose those who are wise and will be entering into the kingdom and those who are foolish and will not. “Melvin, yes you are in. Viola, no you dumb twit.” I suppose that this is natural. We all do it. But, if we were honest with ourselves, we would sense deep down that it is not right. There is only one judge in the parable, the groom; presumably Jesus. None of the bridesmaids did any judging. They could not. They all fell asleep on the job, waiting for the groom to arrive. They all fell short of the mark.

Disturbingly, the problem was not even that the foolish bridesmaids did not recognize the groom. All of us faithful people assume that we who know Jesus are the "in" crowd and those out there are the "out" crowd. The foolish bridesmaids knew the groom, shouting “Lord, Lord.” It was the groom who did not recognize them.

It is only the groom who recognizes and decides whether or not to let the bridesmaids in. Only the groom does the judging. Only the groom knows what is in the heart. Only the groom decides if you have enough oil in your lamps to light the evening wedding. We cannot do any judging this morning.

So I have to tell you that we really cannot pick out our favorite hated person and send them to hell based on this text, though many preachers and parishioners in the past have. We really do not know the heart of God. We really are not rummaging around in the mind of God, seeing the wisdom that only God sees. Some believe that they are, claiming things such as, “God is on our side.” They never expect God to respond, “I never knew you,” though God might.

So, what do we do with this parable if not symbolically slaughter people with it? What are we to think of the parable where the bridesmaids all bring enough oil for the evening wedding, but only some brought extra, on the chance that the groom might be late? What do we make of the love the bridesmaids have for one another. After-all the wise ones do send off the foolish to quickly get more oil and replenish their supply. And what do we make of the groom who judges so harshly? I don’t know.

There is one thing that I do know. Waiting for God can be very frustrating. God, when will you come and heal my cancer? God, when will you come and heal this divided, declining, and frustrating church? God, when will you come and stop the war? God, when will you come and make sure the hungry get food? God, when will you come and set my son free from jail? God, when will you come and put together our broken marriage? God, when will you set my children on the right path? God, when are you coming…when are you going to set things right…when will your light shine on the darkness of the world?

Waiting can be very frustrating. It can burn up all the oil in our lamps. It can cause us to care only for ourselves, or only for our small group of friends, or only for our small church and no one else. It is hard to keep the light of Christ shining in the darkness, as a beacon of hope to all around, when we allow our oil to burn up.

There are signs that one’s lamp has run dry of oil. No one intends this to be so. It just happens, because waiting for God to come and act is frustrating. But, there are signs.

If you no longer care about the poor, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If you can no longer be peaceful, but seek revenge or intend to hurt, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If you do not know how to put up with people’s mistakes and can no longer forgive, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If you no longer care that people are treated fairly, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If you cannot mourn those who have been lost, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If the only answer to your problems is division rather than finding a way to unite, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

I know that it is hard to wait. I know that our souls run dry. But, I urge you to not simply fall asleep in a dark corner with dry oil lamps; allowing the light of Christ to be extinguished. It does not have to be this way. Christ has some fresh, new oil for your lamps, and it sounds something like this:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
“Blessed are the meek (those who do not seek greatness), for they will inherit the earth."
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of all that is right and good, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Do not allow your souls to run dry of oil. Do not allow yourselves to fall asleep in a dark corner of despair. Rather, take your rest in the Lord. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Allow Christ to keep your lamp filled with new oil. Let that oil burn brightly until Christ comes and makes all things right again.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Reflection of Matthew 5:1-12

The search for the kingdom of heaven is not difficult. It is surprisingly easy to find and there is not an application process which you must complete and pass in order to be accepted.

This is quite unlike finding a good golf course with well priced green’s fees. I love the laidback nature of golf. I love the peaceful walks on the well manicured lawns. It makes me pretend that I have found the kingdom of heaven.

In the continuing drama of Jira’s search for a place to golf, it has been hard to find this well manicured the kingdom of heaven. The Towanda course is great, but the green’s fees are too much and there is no way I could afford a membership. I searched some more and found a beautiful course in Dallas. It looked peaceful. It looked challenging. It looked like a golfer’s heaven. It looked like I may need to prove through a pay stub that I have a six digit income in order to join. I do not. My green kingdom seemed allusive.

“You can’t afford it. You aren’t of the correct social standing. You aren’t rich enough. You aren’t wearing a collared shirt. I don’t care if it is a nice sweater.”

You do realize that many people see churches in the same way?

“You aren’t rich enough. You aren’t of the right social standing. You don’t have the right clothes. You aren’t one of us.”

Oh, most people do not directly say it, but they know when these words are being spoken through sideways glances and whispers. Being rejected once again in life, many searching people look elsewhere for the kingdom of heaven. It obviously does not reside in the church, they conclude.

Not long ago, my son Aaron bought me a Father’s Day ticket into paradise. With the promise of a $20 Wednesday and unlimited play, we wandered our way up to Waverly. No sooner had we walked up to the club house and the chef greeted us with a smile and a golf cart ready to go. The chef greeted us!

“Play any hole you like for as long as you like,” he said.

The bartender gave us another additional $10 off just for the heck of it and wished us a good game. As we headed out onto the beautifully peaceful fairways, I couldn’t help but think that we were blessed. “Blessed are the golf starving pastors, for they will find a nice, green fairway.”
You did not have to be rich to play on Wednesday night. You did not have to have a high social standing to be greeted and served a cart by the chef. All you needed was a desire to play golf.

Neither do you need to fill out an application and be approved by your good standing to find the kingdom of heaven. The qualifications are easy and the burden is light.

-Is your spirit broken? Do you desire healing? The kingdom is yours.
-Is your heart stabbing with pain from loss? The green, peaceful kingdom is yours.
-Do you find that you are meek? You wish to neither control other people’s lives nor have a drama filled existence yourself? Then there is a spot for you.
-Do you hunger and thirst that things be made right and good? Welcome.
-Have you been accused of having a soft heart because you know you need forgiveness yourself? Have a seat, rest those weary legs, you are forgiven.
-Is your heart open to see God, not as you want God to look like, but as God truly is. Then open your eyes, and God will be right there.
-Are you searching for peace? Do you see peace as the answer to the problems of the world? Welcome to the family of God.
-Do people dismiss you because you don’t want to follow the ways of the world, but the ways of God? You have already stepped into the kingdom of heaven.

“Rejoice and be glad,” for you have found that which you desire. Your desire for more in life has landed you squarely in the green grass of the kingdom. No application filled with references and accomplishments required.

If that is all the kingdom of heaven is, how in the world does the kingdom of heaven start to look like a golf course that requires a six digit income? Why do people find churches to be anything but a place where the head chef pulls up a golf cart and prepares you for a great game?
I think it is because we forget. We simply forget; that is all. We forget that what brought us into the kingdom was not our high standards or good life or great moral fabric. What brought us in was our need for God to rescue us…the need for something better; nothing more. We forget so easily.

We forget that being brought into the kingdom is like the teenager who sits alone on the side of the dance floor who receives an unexpected hand stretched out for a dance. We forget that walking into the kingdom is like a coworker of someone who died, it was a person whom they loved, but they are not close enough to get a seat of honor, who in their loneliness has someone tap them on the shoulder and say, “I see you are going to miss him…I will too.” We forget that joining the kingdom of heaven is like the member of a dysfunctional family, who striving and failing to make things right, who gets an invitation from the neighbor to spend some time next door where they can ba a part of a loving family. We forget.

Living in the kingdom is not complicated.
-Kingdom people remain poor is spirit: trusting in God’s ability to make things right.
-Kingdom people do not forget to mourn life: trusting in God’s comfort.
-Kingdom people do not seek greatness: trusting that God’s greatness is enough.
-Kingdom people desire the world to be made right: watching God make it happen.
-Kingdom people grant mercy to other because they see they need it themselves.
-Kingdom people desire to see God, and they do.
-Kingdom people are peaceful, because God’s family is peaceful.
-Kingdom people find life in God, because that is the only place where it is found.

Blessed are you, for the kingdom of God is yours.