Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reflection on Luke 21:5-19

Did you hear? I know this may shock you, but experts in “end of the world-ish” sorts of things have announced that December 21, 2012 will not be the end of the world after-all. I was tipped off by a congregation member, thank you. Apparently, end-of-the-world Mayan experts have all failed us. They forgot to tell us that there are other Mayan stone tablets that have dates predicted far beyond December 21, 2012. This was no surprise to a Mayan elder who is sick and tired of crystal toting new agers seeking him out and asking him about how they should prepare for the end of the world. I love this quote from the captivating October 11, 2009 Telegraph, UK article that broke the story:

But most archaeologists, astronomers and Mayans say the only thing likely to hit Earth is a meteor shower…of New Age philosophy, pop astronomy, internet doomsday rumors and TV specials such as one on the History Channel which mixes "predictions" from Nostradamus and the Mayans and asks: "Is 2012 the year the cosmic clock finally winds down to zero days, zero hope?"

I imagine that your face exudes shock at this startling revelation. The fact that I even wrote the previous sentence was a prediction of my own that you have seen the end of the world come and go too many times to even care. How many of you built shelters to protect you from the destruction wrought by the millennium? That is what I thought; none of you. Every ten years…every decade or so…you see these end-time predictions come about. Most of you have lived through at least four predicted ends to the world.

I mention all of this for a reason. Since you already understand that most predictions of the end of the world are not worth the paper they are written on, and therefore, will in no way affect you, it will not be a stretch for you to learn that the words from Luke for today are not about you either. Jesus says:

When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately…Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. "But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.

These words appear to be end of the world language, and many people have used the recent perceived increase in hurricanes and surge in tornadoes as proof that Jesus was talking about us right here, and right now, and that the end of the world must be near, so go build yourself a shelter and hole yourself up for good. However, there is one important thing you must understand. Jesus was not talking about us.

Jesus was talking to his disciples. And, some time after his death, the temple in Jerusalem did fall. That was the Jews’ 911. It was big, and terrible, and horrible. The Romans slaughtered a bunch of people. And, there were earthquakes, and famines in their time, as there have always been earthquakes and famines. And, unfortunately, the early Christians were arrested, and persecuted, and brought to trial before kings and governors. All of these things did happen to the early Christians. Jesus was not talking about us.

I fear that people are so preoccupied with our own future and our own tragic demise that we miss the whole point of this biblical story in the first place. So, let us invite people to put away their mirrors for a second…to put away those things that cause them to stare at themselves and only themselves…and discover what Jesus does have to say.

The point is this, even though the early Christians went through these horrible persecutions for their faith, we are still gathering in the name of Jesus Christ today. Those persecuted Christians still told the story of Jesus. Were there people out there telling others that the end of the world was coming? Of course, and it did not matter. Jesus told them to share the good news anyway. And, they did. And, because they did, we know Jesus. Was the temple in ruins? Were there wars and earthquakes; and did they appear to be occurring more regularly? It did not matter. Jesus told them that the end will not follow immediately. More than that, Jesus told them that hard times are an opportunity to find God, they are not the time to give up. And, the disciples listened. And, because they did, we know Jesus.

All of us have come to the faith because someone in our past did not decide to throw in the towel and hide in their Armageddon shelter. You are here because someone in your past has endured through the hard times and found something so vital about God and so important about Jesus that they just had to share it with you. You and your faith are the beneficiaries of persecutions and death. You and your faith are the beneficiaries of other’s struggles. You are the dividend for other people’s endurance. And, you are invited to be a part of the same story.

So, I was wrong a little bit. The story is about you. It is not about your tragic demise in an end of the world cataclysm. But, it is about your struggles. It is about your search to find God and trust Jesus in your struggles. And, it is about God giving you the opportunity to share the joys and wonders of faith carved into you through endurance.

Who are your beneficiaries? How will you make sure that God’s story does not end with you? What is your story going to be? What are you going to share? What will you testify?

“Do not worry,” Jesus says, “about what you will testify.” Simply trust him. Keep an eye out for God’s actions in the world and in people’s lives, and wait for Jesus to give you the words. “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance,” Jesus says, “for I will give you words and wisdom…”

I am reminded of an eight year old girl. Her grandmother was in the kitchen, crying uncontrollably because she had just lost her husband. Seeing her eight year old granddaughter in the doorway, she tried to straighten up and be strong. Her eight year old granddaughter stepped up next to her, took her hand, laid her head on her shoulder and asked, “Are crying about missing Grandpa?” The grandmother said “Yes, honey, I am.” With tears in her eyes, the granddaughter said, “I miss him too. I think that I will miss him until God lets us see him again.”

The grandmother shared with me that those words were more valuable than those of her pastor, friends, and children all put together. In one simple statement, the granddaughter gave her permission to cry, and to trust God all at the same time. With wisdom beyond her years, the little girl was the embodiment of the words, “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and wisdom…” You do not have to worry. Trust Jesus and, future generations will have faith because of you also.

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 8, 2010

Reflection on Luke 6:20-31

It was one of the strangest funerals I have ever done. I was called out by a family member to do a funeral on the property of their loved one’s hunting cabin. That aspect was not so strange, this is Pennsylvania after-all. It was the funeral itself that was strange. As I arrived, I walked toward a great tent, put up in a yard next to a stream and small cabin. Hiding away from the rain sat and stood family members who were talking, laughing, and jabbing one another, regarding me with sideways glances and slightly worn and stained, beer themed T-shirts. A stereo blared 80s hair music and an old outhouse stood next to the tent; its front wall and toilet removed; the whole covered by a sheet of plywood and a microphone replacing the wall.

A very nicely dressed woman in heels, sinking in the mud, greeted me with kind words, a nice smile, and the man’s baptism date…obviously somewhat out of place considering the surroundings. She pointed out her children who sat at the edge of the tent in their nice shoes, ties, and fine black jackets. They were dressed for a funeral…they obviously were not dressed for this funeral, but they were dressed for a funeral.

A man with a beer in his hand yelled, “Sis, let’s get this thing over with,” and with that I was handed the microphone and directed to stand on the only non-muddy surface around; that is right, in the outhouse. The toilet paper roll still clung to the wall, missing its estranged toilet friend. Settling into the dry, but cramped space, I mentioned into the microphone something about gathering together now to remember the life and death of the individual, and declaring as we always do, “the Lord be with you.” That gathering statement usually prompts a smile and response of “and also with you,” but this time around, it prompted a brief exodus of about half the congregation to the cooler in the back of the tent to grab a beer. I could see that they were settling in for the long haul. Pops and fizzes accented the words of the Prayer for the Day and people raised their beers high during the Prayers of the Church. A roasting hog stared at the congregation from behind me, representing either the saints who had gone before us and the sacrifice of Christ, or more likely representing the meal that was being held up by the pastor standing in the outhouse. At one point, a friend of the dead man wanted to share his remembrance, so he joined me, in the outhouse, pressed against me in one of the more awkward five minutes of my life.

After the service, the man walked up to me, looked me up and down in my cleric and nice dress and said, “You know, he would have never have wanted this,” pointing to me in particular. I said in return, “I’m pretty sure you are right, he probably would have never wanted this.”

However, I am not so sure that God did not want it this way. I looked over the crowd as we ate and this is what I saw: rich and poor, finely dressed and not, kind and gruff, young and old, outright sinners and refined righteous, all eating and talking together, drawn together under one tent as a community of the saints. It was a perfect image of the community of saints. The pretentions of moral perfection were not in attendance that day. Instead, it was a gathering of sinners. It was a gathering of those God cares about. It was a gathering of those who are blessed by God.

Yes, the poor were there, feasting in their torn beer stained T-shirts; blessed are the poor. Yes, the hungry were there as the two nicely dressed children were finally allowed nourishment, not being allowed to partake in the feast of drink during the service; blessed are the hungry. Yes, those who weep were there, an unshaven grown man cowering in a corner of the hunting cabin, being consoled by another man; blessed are those who weep. Yes, those who are hated, excluded, and reviled on account of the Son of Man were there; the sinners, the out-of-town righteous, and the out of place pastor. We were all there gathered together to remember the resurrection of the Lord; and to have a beer.

Do not get me wrong, I love regular funerals. Pulpits are nice, pulpits are very, very nice to stand in and preach in, but there was something very real about that funeral. That funeral conveyed a truth about God that you just cannot capture in the majesty of a church building. The saints of God are not exclusive to the cleaned up and righteous of the world. The admission price to sainthood is not moral perfection, or even the striving to get there. The admission price to sainthood is simply this: being loved by God. Are you poor, then you are a saint…blessed are you. Are you hungry, welcome…blessed are you. Do you weep? Are you excluded? Are you made fun of? Are you disliked? Well, rejoice and be glad because none of that matters; you are loved by God…blessed are you. You are a saint.

So, I ask, how do you respond to a yard full of mourners with beers in their hands? You respond the same way that you would respond to any other saint of God, with love. "Do to others and you would have them do to you," right? Saints of God, it is not in righteousness that we have been found. Saints of God, in grace we have been found.

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.

Reflection on Romans 3:19-28

“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Three images, three paintings flash through my head when I hear those words.

The first is a painting on the side of a huge brick wall. The painting was never completed, you cannot go and see it. However, I can use the strokes of words to splash the color and spirit of the painting in your minds. On this huge brick wall, a mountain is painted. It is a tall mountain, but not an imposing one. You would have to scramble up its slopes, you would have to work and put forth effort to reach the top, but you would not need to climb it with ropes. All around the base of this mountain are several patches of the world’s trees: a patch of umbrella shaped baobabs from Africa, a patch of scrubby looking ginkgo trees from Asia, the prominent Oaks of the Midwestern plains, the tall and strong long pole pines of the mountains…you get the idea. The trees would represent the world around the base of the mountain. And, from under the trees emerge the world’s people in all of their colorful differences, from all different parts of the world; climbing and struggling on their way to the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain is the cross with the glowing resurrected Christ standing with arms open wide in front of the cross, waiting for the worlds people to arrive and become one in him. Rays of light stream down to all the ends of the earth, inviting people to their journey towards the light.

This painting was to be my first commission. I was asked to consider painting the bare wall of the uncompleted portion of Wartburg Theological Seminary, and this image is what I came up with. As I mentioned before, it was never painted. The idea was all mine. I loved the inclusivity of the image. I loved the rays of light from Christ spreading to all the world. I liked the idea that all the world could be united in Christ. I love sideways strokes of the baobab tree and could not wait to paint some. Yet, it was never painted. There was something not quite right with the image.

Over the years I have pondered this painting’s non-existence. It could have been my testament to the world for centuries. Perhaps, I would even get money for the painting. But, it never happened. Seeking God’s truth in the text for today, I have finally come to peace with the painting’s non-existence. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” I have finally discovered why this painting was never completed: in the image, people had to struggle to get up the mountain to Jesus. People had to go up. People had to work to find God. But, Romans says something quite different: God comes down. We are made right by Christ. We trust in Christ who came down to us so that we would not have to work our way up to him.

I wonder how you paint Jesus coming down the mountain to the whole world?

The second image is a striking one of a fear stricken man, huddled in the corner of a small stone cell. His hands cling to the rough hewn stone wall, but the cold wall offers no solace. The man looks over his shoulder and stares up in fear, apparently staring up at God, fearful of what God may bring when God chooses to come down. The man is Luther and the image is one laced with guilt over past wrongs; the sense of being trapped in sin; a man who had tried and failed, tried and failed, tried and failed to make things right; and an inability to find love from above…fearful of the Lord.

I wonder about this image. I wonder how many people find themselves in that little cell, fearful of the Lord? I hear people joke off-handedly, “God is going to get you for that,” but I wonder how many people actually huddle in the corner of their bedroom cell with no hope? I wonder how many people do not come to church in fear that God would have harsh words for them when they walk in?

I also wonder what the image looked like when Luther discovered for himself these words, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” What does freedom from sin look like? What does freedom from trying to be perfect in God’s eyes look like? What colors and strokes of the brush would you use to create the image of trusting in a loving God, who makes things right again?

The third painting is of Jesus walking in the sand. In his arms, he carries a man who loosely and somewhat unconsciously clings to Jesus. And, over the top of the painting is that famous poem by Mary Stevenson:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.

This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord,
"You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during
the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one
set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most,
you have not been there for me?"

The Lord replied,
"The times when you have
seen only one set of footprints,
is when I carried you."

What does it look like when Jesus chooses to come down to you? What does it look like when a person trusts in the one who makes things right again? What would your painting look like if you were asked to paint the following words: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”?

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.