Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reflection on Matthew 11:2-11

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” John asks as he paces around his prison cell. Prison cells are terrible places if you want your sanity to remain intact. They are small, and cramped, and they cause you to think way too much. John, the great preacher of repentance in the wilderness, the prophet who would get in the faces of religious leaders and fearlessly point out the faults of secular rulers, the man described by Jesus as the greatest of all people born of women, is trapped, heart pacing, breath fast, wondering if a cramped space is his reward for his hard work for God? “Are you the one?” “Was it worth it?” “Where’s my reward?” “What did I ever do to you God, but serve you?” “Why won’t you recue me?” “Are you really the one, or should we wait for another?”

Every young Jewish boy had been taught about the Messiah. In fact, every young boy was celebrated because he had the potential to be the coming Messiah. John, was no different, except that he knew he was not the Messiah. He knew that he was not the one who would lead the Jewish people to freedom. He knew that he was not the one who would break the chains holding down the people of God. He knew that he was not the one who would come riding in the Jerusalem on a mighty horse to overthrow the Romans and rule with a just arm. He knew that he was not the one who would do any of this, but he thought that he had found the one that would. Now, he is not so sure. He, the greatest person ever born, is full of doubt.  John is not even being freed by the Messiah from a little prison cell; how is Jesus going to do something larger like freeing a people from an entire oppressive government? “Are you really the one?”

Today, a home owner looks up from the foreclosure notice after years of hard work on their home, and asks, “What did I ever do to deserve this? Jesus, are you the one, or should I search for another?” A woman is thrown out on the street by her former boyfriend after years of tender love and dedication, looks up to God and asks, “What did I ever do to deserve this? Jesus, are you the one or should I search for another?” A grandparent, after losing a grandchild in an accident and then soon after, a child to depression, looks up to God and asks, “What did I ever do to deserve this? Jesus, are you the one or should I search for another?”

About every three years or so I get a letter or an email from a former youth group member who is off at college. They all go something like this: “When I was in confirmation and youth group, I thought that I could see and understand God so well. Now I am not quite so sure. I don’t think I know who God is anymore. I am sorry if I disappoint you, but I am not so sure that I believe in God at all.”

I would like to say for the record that I am not ever disappointed when I get these letters or disappointed in the college student who send them. There is a time in everyone’s life when we discover that God is not who we expected God to be. Even the greatest person born of woman, John the Baptist, had these same questions.

Jesus answers John’s doubts by telling John’s disciples to "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." In other words, I am not who you expected me to be. You are right, your Messiah does not exist, but that does not mean the Messiah has not come. God is God, and will be who God wants to be, and God will appear where God chooses to appear. Blessed are the people who realize that.

In the Jewish tradition, God has a name, in fact God has many names, but you cannot say one of the most Holy of them all: YHWH. Spelled out, God’s name has only consonant letters, there are no vowels. As a child you may or may not have discovered that it is nearly impossible to say a word without using vowels. Try saying “sanctuary” without using any vowels, or try “Towanda." It is nearly impossible to say a word without somehow adding some sort of vowel sound. There is a point to this game; if God’s name only has consonant letters, then you cannot possibly say it. And, if you cannot say God’s name, then you cannot own God or say that God is this or God does that. And, if you cannot own God, then God is allowed to be God. And, if God is allowed to be God, then the only way to find out who God is and what God does is to be open to seeing God when God chooses to reveal those things to you.

“Are you the one?” John asks Jesus. The answer is “Yes, but I am not who you expect me to be.”

The Buddhist tradition holds an interesting concept, it goes something like this: if when following the Buddha’s ways toward enlightenment you see the Buddha; kill him. In other words, do not let your own concept of the Buddha get in the way of your journey. And, Jesus invites John to do a similar thing. If when following the Messiah you see him or think you know who he is and what he is about; kill the Messiah in your head. That Messiah is not real. Instead, follow the true Messiah, the true servant of God, and expect nothing in particular. Simply, be open to what the true Messiah has to offer.

I know that the remaining questions are huge questions. So, what is the true Messiah like? What is Jesus about? What is God like? I will not answer any of your questions today. Doing so may simply create another false God for you to carry around and be disappointed in. All I will say is: God is God. Follow where God takes you, and when you walk around in the world, expect to see God at work. Expect to see God at the accountant’s office, because God is there. Expect to see God on the street with the suffering, because God is there. Keep your eyes open, and follow where God leads. It may not be to where you expect, but it will be to a place of grace and salvation.

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.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Reflection on Romans 15:4-13

I love the season of Advent. I love the anticipation of it as we wait for Christmas. I love the calm tone of worship during Advent. Most of all, I like Advent’s color: blue. I love blue. As a child, it was the first crayon scribbled down to a tiny stub. I also used the color maroon a lot, but only because it went so well with blue. You see, blue is not only a color with a hue of amazing depth and beauty, but it is also the bridge between the deadly nature of black and the brilliant assurance of white. Deep in the hue of blue you can literally see blackness giving way to light. Of course, in the color blue, the light has not yet shown itself; but blue offers the hope that it will be coming soon. Like no other, blue is the color of hope. Advent is the season of hope, and blue is its color.

Blue is the color you search for in the darkness of the night when backpacking miles from anywhere in the wilderness. Have you even done that? It is a fearful experience. In the dark you hear all kinds of sounds. Squirrels scampering in leaves are easily hungry bears and a cricket flinging itself against the tent is easily a mountain lion carefully cutting its way toward its meal. In the fear of the darkness, you wait until you see the dark blue sky. It is not quite the assuring light of day, but it is the hope that the daylight will soon come.

In the same way, Mary stood at the tomb of Jesus, before the break of dawn, weeping because her Lord was gone. She was in the darkness…there was no hope. If only she would have looked up to the sky, she would have seen that it was not black, it was dark blue. The sun was about to rise on a new day, and the Son was rising to new life. The night was not black; it was blue and filled with great hope.

And though our lives may appear black, in truth they are not. Advent reminds us that they are blue, filled with hope; filled with the knowledge that God’s light will shine in our lives again.

You might remember that last week the scriptures led me to reflect on Jesus’ return and about Jesus’ judgment when he gets here. I reminded you that Jesus instructed us, his disciples, to do hard things such as loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and loving our enemies. I went even further than that and told you that when Jesus comes back he actually expects to see you doing these things.

I know that many of you felt these words as words of judgment. The words felt black and created fear. But, if that was the only thing you felt as you finished that reflection, then you missed an important piece. It is a piece that I am going to offer you now: Jesus actually expects us to do these things because through you, God is able to transform the world of the neighbor for whom you cared, and the enemy whom you loved. Through you, God is able to transform those people's lives from a world of blackness into a world of hope; a world of blue.

Last year, while helping the high school theatre students with their scenery, I accidentally overheard a conversation in a dark corner of the stage. Alright, so I was eavesdropping, sue me! But I could not help it because one of the teens was sobbing. Apparently, her parents had a huge, violent fight, one of many, and it looked like the family was over…for good. “I don’t know how I’m going to go on, my world is gone” she sobbed.

The other girl sat and listened. Finally, she said carefully and delicately, “I just want to tell you that I am still here and have an OK life. You see, my parents got a divorce, and it was bad for a long time, but, things are better now...they aren't great, but they are better.”

And then, she said something that I would not have ever expected to hear from a teen’s mouth in today’s culture: “God made sure that things worked out somehow. I know God will do the same for you.” With those words and with an embrace of tears, the fearful teen’s black world turned blue. At that moment she was given hope that the light was somehow going to come. The light was not there yet, but she had hope.

Why does Jesus expect to see us taking seriously his call in the scriptures to love the neighbor and pray for our enemies? Because, it is only when we are together, joined with one another, that he has the power to turn the blackness of the world into blue; death into hope; darkness into hope for the light.

Consider any normal church. As Christians, we gather weekly to read the Holy Scriptures. This is not done just because it is something that we were told to do. It is because, when we read them to each other, we can see the color blue. The apostle Paul says that, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Paul further prays that the God of steadfastness and encouragement may “grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Ask any depressed person if they can make it through the tough times alone. Most will emphatically tell you “No.” The search for hope is not a journey that you can take alone. You will get lost in the darkness and fall into a pit. It is a journey that Jesus sends us on together.

Paul continues, “Therefore, welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” This welcome is not a quick greeting at the door just to say hello. This welcome is literally, “taking a person in” or “holding them close.” It is the type of welcome the one teen offered to the other. It is the type of welcome that pulls another person, a former enemy even, into your life so that their blackness may be turned to blue. It is the type of welcome that eventually leads you to sing together the praises of the name of the Lord who brings light to a dark world.

I pray that you can see the implications here? Whenever you see darkness and wrong and sin in the world, the solution is not to declare people evil and simply push them away. Every day I read in editorials and blogs words of hatred against individuals and even entire groups of people.  These editorials and blogs paint God’s good creation as being black and evil and wrong. But, we know such words are not the truth. We know that darkness is not permanent. We know that black is not the true color of the world. We know that the true color of the world is blue. It hopes for the light that has not yet come, yearns for the light that is just out of reach, and desires the assurance that blackness will give way to the light of God.

The world desires to have what you have: hope. And, we have it in abundance. We have so much hope that it spills over the lips of our souls. Do not be mistaken, this spilling is not loss of hope, it is sharing hope. Who in your life needs to have some hope spilled on them? Take a moment and actually answer that question, letting God in on the name. Who in your life lives in darkness because no one has told them to look up into the sky and see that it is not black, it is blue? As Paul declares, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

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.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reflection on Matthew 24:36-44

I have a question for you (a quiz of sorts): beyond cooking your holiday meal, what is the second best use of your kitchen oven?

It is storage for your dirty dishes when unexpected company arrives, of course.

This was the remedy that my parents came up with one day when they saw the headlights of my grandma unexpectedly turning into the driveway. If grandma came in the door and saw the stack of dirty dishes, she would never let them forget it. They family was extremely busy, but that would not be a good excuse. They panicked, looking around the kitchen for a solution when my dad saw it; like in the movies, a beam of light fell on the oven and angels started to sing. It was a big space, it could hide many things, it was quick; it was perfect. By the time she drove up our drive, walked to the door, and entered into the house, all of the dishes had been transferred to their new, temporary home, and the counter even smelled of fresh cleaner. That night we had spaghetti, all of which could be made on the stovetop, nothing for the oven to heat. Then an oversight was brought to our attention; we had no garlic bread to go with the spaghetti.

“Well, I can just make you up some quick, just let me fire up the stove.” “No grandma!” we answered in fearful tandem. “Just sit here and relax for once, you deserve it grandma.”

We made it safely through the evening, and the experience changed our family’s ways. Though busy, we made it a priority to have the house clean; dishes done, floors vacuumed, and papers put away. Our house was always prepared for the unexpected arrival of grandma…for a couple of weeks at least. But, when she did not pop in unexpectedly for weeks in a row, we let our guard down and the oven trick had to be done again and again to cover up for the truth.

The truth was that we just were not who we wanted to show ourselves to be. The truth was that her unexpected visits created an interruption in our lives, but not a disruption. An interruption causes a temporary change in life for temporary circumstances. A disruption causes a complete change in life. An interruption is a mask that you put on to make other people think you are someone you are not. The oven trick is a mask that made it look as if we were as clean and organized as she was. But, you do not need a mask if in life a disruption has occurred. A disruption actually changes you for good. The truth is, in the end, her unexpected visits only caused an interruption, not a disruption. We lived a lie rather than changing our ways.

I wonder if our lives of faith are often the same way, masks of goodness, kindness, and justice, shaped by periodic interruptions, but ultimately unchanged at heart.

To those of us who have either put on Holy masks or simply just do not care to even do that, Jesus has a warning. He will be coming back to judge the world.

God is a God of love, mercy, and justice. But, because God is a God of love, mercy, and justice he actually expects his people to be those things also. The love your enemy stuff...God actually expects you to love your enemy. Jesus actually expects to see you actively loving your enemy when he returns. No, masks allowed. That stuff about pulling the log out of your own eye first before you point out the speck in another person’s eye. Jesus actually wants you to change yourself before you start bickering away and saying anything about others. God actually expects you to be merciful as God is merciful to you. No, masks allowed. The stuff about giving up your possessions, he was not just talking to fill up the dead space in the air. God actually wants you to give up your stuff and care more about people than things. What do your receipts say about who you are? No masks allowed.

If we trust in a God who actually loves the entire world, shows mercy on others (including those who sin terribly), and delivers justice to those put down by the powerful, than we better not be shocked when Jesus comes back and actually expects to see those ideals lived out by us, his followers.

Jesus will come at an unexpected time. Not even Jesus knows when the Father will send him. And, just in the days of Noah, when those who reveled in the pleasures of the world were swept away by the waters of the flood, do not be surprised when the thief breaks in and takes away those who do not live the life of love, mercy, and justice that God desires us to live. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” “Keep awake!”

Luther tells us to “fear, love, and trust God.” I think this is what Luther is talking about when he speaks of fear of God. God does not play games with love. It is not for show. Love is radical. It is hard. It puts others first constantly. It does not allow you to judge without looking at yourself first. God does not play games with love. God is serious. And, it can strike a chord of fear.

I apologize if this reflection strikes fear rather than warming the heart. I am tempted to say that there is nothing to worry about if you are truly someone who is prepared. You will welcome the arrival of Jesus as your king and have nothing to fear regarding his rule and judgment. It will be a day of gladness for you.

However, I know the reality. Jesus’ return at an unexpected hour is unsettling for almost all people, “for no one knows the day or the hour.” His unexpected arrival exposes our true selves, and rips off the masks that we wear. I am not going to sugar coat things for you or myself this morning, though I am tempted to do so. I would love to tell you to go on your way and just be kind everywhere you go, God loves you. But, to do so would be a disfavor to you and a delusion for myself. God is a God of sacrificial love on the cross. Jesus does expect to see that same love in his kingdom. Perhaps, the words of God this morning will serve as a disruption to life rather than an interruption. Perhaps, the words of God this morning will, as The Reverend David Lose says, allow us to prepare for Christ, rather than preparing for Christmas. Perhaps, when Jesus comes again, he will find many whom he can proudly stand beside, those who truly strive to bring about peace on the earth. Consider yourselves disrupted.

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.