Sunday, November 29, 2009

Come in from the Cold

Sheepscott Community Church November 29, 2009

Jeremiah 33: 14-16

1 Thess. 3: 9-13

Luke 21: 25-36

Come in from the Cold

Jon and I find ourselves eating supper earlier these days––by candlelight––and going to bed earlier. It’s that time of the year, the dark time, before the solstice on the 21st of next month, when the northern hemisphere of planet earth begins to incline toward the sun. Not uncoincidentally, the church begins its liturgical year today, the first Sunday of Advent, and also inclines toward the light, the light of the world whose birth we will hail and celebrate on Christmas.

The Latin word advenire means to come to, not simply to come, which is venire, but to come to. Ad-venire, ad being the preposition “to.” During Advent we look toward Christmas when Christ will again come to us, individually and as a church. It’s not a random coming, but a particular coming to. Prepositions matter. What is coming upon the world is the light of the world, and there is comfort in hoping towards that. The challenge, however, is that here on November 29 and right through December until solstice, we are in the dark, where we prepare and hold on to that hope.

A story I like to touch upon in every Advent season is my experience of what is called absolute darkness. I was in County Clare, Ireland, in 1994, making a pilgrimage of sorts to ancestral homesteads, when I happened upon the Aelwie Cave. At that time the cave had been cleared about a half mile into the earth, and visitors were invited to descend a decidedly rickety footbridge to view, among other things, the illuminated hibernation pit of a prehistoric bear, and an abyss-like cavern within the cave that featured dripping––one drop every five seconds––stalactites and the receptive opposed stalagmites. The relative unsteadiness of the footbridge, which was a mere one-person wide, discouraged any protracted meditation on the natural wonder.

The guide had told us at the beginning of the descent that when we reached the furthest-most accessible point of the cave, she would turn off the jerry-rigged strand of single light bulbs that stretched the length of the walkway. We arrived at the end, and, true to her word, she switched off the lights. Ireland is a country of extremes, viz., just as I thought I knew what the color green was before I saw the green of Ireland, just so had I thought I knew what darkness was before I was plunged into absolute darkness, which is darkness without even a pin prick of light.

The guide had said that the human being can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds before becoming agitated and anxious. We weren’t simply preconditioned, predisposed by her words; that’s the way it really was. The movement on the bridge as seconds passed was disquieting in itself, considering the seemingly haphazard nature of the construction. Added to that the aforementioned anxiety, and you have a nervous mix of people poised to turn and return to the entrance to the cave. But we needed the light, the turning on of which was welcomed with audible sighs of relief, small talk and the shifting of purses from one shoulder to the other.

That descent into the Aelwie Cave has always been a metaphor for me for the season of Advent. We are a people in complete darkness waiting in fear of the unknown for the coming of the light, and, as we believe, that light being the Light of the World, Jesus, the Christ. No more than we can stand absolute darkness beyond 30 seconds can we stand or bear being without God for a protracted period of time, whether or not we know that as the name or label of what is missing, what is sustaining us moment by moment beyond our knowing. Our hope in these days of early sunsets, early suppers and early bedtimes is that there will be light at the end of Advent with the coming of Christ at Christmas. We let that hope build in us and give us the wherewithal to continue in the multiple responsibilities of our individual preparations, from Christmas cards, to decorations, to gift-buying. From cooking and baking, to wreath-making, to singing for our own entertainment and others.’

While all of these activities are part of the preparation for the 12-day holiday season, the most important preparation is of the individual heart. Once we get past our fear of the darkness associated with the season and the wider darkness that it connotes, which is actually what can frighten us, once we get past that we can focus on the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas as being like the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter, a time of penitential reflection. That is why the altar cloths, the paraments are changed today. They have been green since the first Sunday after Pentecost, but now that the post-Pentecost season is finished, we begin the penitential season of Advent with the change to the color purple.

This time of getting ready is a time to think about what rooms need cleaning up, cleaning out, before the coming of the Lord. Before our only grandson was born, Jon and I traveled down to North Carolina to help prepare the way for the child. Our daughter and her husband at that time didn’t have more than a few coins to rub together, and it was a necessity as well as a joy to help them prepare for the big event. That preparation involved cleaning out in order to make room for the new bassinet and other newborn paraphernalia, which, if you’ve been around babies at all, you know the sheer number of items involved can be staggering. But clean out we did, and set up we did, and the needed preparation was enough to make a way and a place for the baby.

I think the parallel, the analogy is pretty clear. If there’s any cleaning out by way of repentance, any preparation that needs to be done, do it. If there’s a hidden room under your inner staircase that hasn’t been opened in years––unforgiveness, for example––and you know that the dust and grime has built up over the years, dare to open the door with the help of the Spirit of God and apply the cleaning tools of reflection and repentance. And tears. Nothing washes clean like tears. Clean up the mess before the baby comes.

Readiness is all. I want to be ready. Don’t you? I remember a time I wasn’t ready, and it impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it and will share it now with you. This would have happened about 35 years ago, when I was a mother with young children. We were visiting with friends of ours, who also had young children, and there were others there as well, a regular evening party. I had a couple of glasses of wine, not a big deal, except that I don’t do very well with spirits, other than the Holy Spirit, so I wasn’t ready for what happened. The phone rang and it was another friend of ours who was asking for prayer for an immediate emergency situation with one of her children, as I remember it. When I went to pray, I couldn’t. I was affected by the wine and so was not able to be 100% clear, for want of a better word, with God. I felt bad that I could not come before God on behalf of that child because, as I say, I was affected.

I had no illusions about my prayer being all that important. There were others who could and did pray with a clear conscience. But it mattered tremendously to me. I knew I wasn’t prepared, ready, reminiscent of the parable of the ten wise and foolish virgins, which Jesus told regarding the end times. The ten virgins took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of the virgins were wise and took extra oil with them, and five were foolish and only took their lamps without the extra oil. The bridegroom was delayed, and long in coming, and they all fell asleep. When the cry went up that the bridegroom approached, the foolish virgins asked the wise for some of their oil because their lamps had begun to flicker. The wise virgins refused, saying that if they gave the foolish ones their oil, there would not be enough left for them, and they sent off the other five to buy oil in the marketplace.

While they were gone, the bridegroom arrived and entered the wedding banquet in the company of the five wise virgins. The door was shut behind them, and the five foolish virgins were not admitted, when they returned with their oil. The moral in Matthew 25: 13 is “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

That was the way I felt that night. I had missed the boat, had missed the opportunity to meet God on the way of prayer because I had indulged myself in a way I could not afford to, if I were going to choose what for me was a better life of increasing service. I’ve never forgotten that. I’m not indicting drinking by any stretch. I’m only saying that it isn’t good for me. We’re all made differently. I only tell you this story as a reminder to get ready and be ready, whatever that means in your life, given your peculiar and particular makeup––get ready and be ready for the coming of the Lord.

One other piece of this picture puzzle of the First Sunday of Advent I’d like to add is entitled “The Curate’s Bath.” It’s from The Diaries of Francis Kilvert (1840-1879). He didn’t live a long life––39 years––and after I’ve read this, I think you’ll be able to understand why his end might have come sooner rather than later.

“As I lay awake praying in the early morning I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost. I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands because it was a mass of ice. The morning was most brilliant. Walked to the Sunday School with Gibbins and the road sparkled with millions of rainbows, the seven colours gleaming in every glittering point of hoar frost. The Church was very cold in spite of two roaring stove fires...” Very vivid picture. I feel cold reading it.

We don’t have a wood stove in our church, but we do have someone who has set the thermostat so that on Sunday mornings it will be warm in here by the time most of us arrive. And that mystery person is Bill Robb, and that ministry is one of those helps that make a church run. What Francis Kilvert describes in his diary––the solitary icy cold bath in a winter room on a Sunday morning––is about as far from comfort as one can get. If the Finns deliberately dive into the snow or through a hole in the ice of a frozen lake to cool off after a sauna, where the temperatures can reach 150 degrees of dry heat, they are performing the other side of a cleansing ritual and also inducing health with a tried and true method tested over centuries of practice.

Actually the Finnish sauna is a good parallel to our Sunday morning worship, where the way has been prepared for us by Bill Robb at the thermostat. For the most part we are already clean when we come to church, and we come clothed, thank goodness. But as in the sauna, where whole families, or groups of men and separate groups of women gather to get clean and socialize and remind each other just by being together about who they are as a people, a tribe, a group who choose to have sauna together, just so do we come together out of the cold and into this place not just of furnace warmth, but of human warmth. If the darkness is descending early––and it is––we are in company with others and we need not be afraid. We are not alone. We are not out in the cold. We are in the embrace of other faulty human beings who, for the most part, are simply doing the best they can, like ourselves.

We can support each other prayerfully and practically, and together reach out to the wider community in the same ways, especially in this dark time as we approach Christmas. Gather around and share the heat, not simply the oil-fired hot air furnace heat of this building, but the heat of life that each of us has in us. I think of the Christ child, whether born in a cave, perhaps like the Aelwie Cave, or a stable, whatever circumstance it was, it was a humble origin. No doubt it was cold, if it was indeed night when he was born. That is the story, in any case. One legend around the birth has it that the animals, the ox and the ass, the sheep and whatever else might have been found in a place out back in the Middle Eastern town of Bethlehem of that day, the animals warmed the child with their breath.

But the child himself warmed the world. The light and heat he generated in the room of his birth, at least metaphorically, might have powered a thousand generators as we now know them. But I exaggerate. What we do know is the light that we look towards, a little over three weeks hence, brings us out of the darkness, out of the cold, whether the absolute or twilight darkness within ourselves into the full radiance of the healing light, the healing love of God. That baby is our way, our ticket, our lamp full of oil, which we can safely share with one another because the source of it for all of us is unending, is infinite. But we are not there yet. We are in the darkness of Advent now. Let us make the most of this time of preparation so that we can be ready when we hear that baby’s first cry. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Different Kind of King

Sheepscott Community Church November 22, 2009

Daniel 7: 9-14

Mark 11: 1-11

A Different Kind of King

Today is the feast of Christ the King. In order to understand the notion of king or queen, we can look to one of our earliest exposures to those royal, colorful, powerful personages in nursery rhymes, “Old King Cole was a merry old soul/And a merry old soul was he./ He called for his pipe/and he called for his bowl/ and he called for his fiddlers three.” The King calls for––he doesn’t ask–– and he gets what he calls for. There are always those around the king waiting to fulfill his wishes, and the most successful of those around the king anticipate those wishes and please the king by serving up what he wants before he has even found the words.

I think of the twelfth-century disagreement between King Henry II of England, and his once best friend Thomas a Becket. He had appointed Becket chancellor, and later named him Archbishop of Canterbury, in order to foster and further his own secular power. To Henry’s dismay, his friend took seriously the ecclesiastical appointment and resisted the king when it came to principle. Enraged by this resistance, the King said in the hearing of several of his loyal barons, the fateful words that would be a death sentence for his one-time friend. “What a set of idle cowards I keep in my kingdom who allow me to be mocked so shamefully by a lowborn clerk.” The four knights immediately discerned the King’s meaning, and without a word were off to Canterbury where they dispatched the Archbishop, Thomas a Becket, spattering his brains on the cathedral floor. Kings have power for good and ill.

A recent example of the royal charisma was Michelle Obama’s friendly gesture of putting her arm over the shoulder of Queen Elizabeth. Royal watchers gasped in horror at the presumption shown in touching the Queen’s person. Not the Queen, however, who seemed rather charmed by the First Lady and asked her to stay in touch.

To bring this message into a context closer to today’s gospel, I remind us about the very powerful King David, from whose line Jesus himself was descended. David was the conquering hero who was a brilliant military strategist and who united the northern and southern kingdoms of Judah and Israel, establishing the capital of the united kingdom in Jerusalem. If King Henry II wanted his one-time friend Becket out of the way of his ambition; if Herod’s wife Herodias wanted the head of John the Baptist on a platter because he publicly deplored the marriage of Herod and his brother Philip’s wife as incest; and if David in a conniving lustful act had the husband of Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite, killed, in order to clear the way for himself with Bathsheba, we begin to get a sense of the power of royalty. Life and death are in their hands––at least on this side of the veil.

We have no king or queen in our country, because we are a democracy, although there have been a few presidents who would seem to have liked the idea of being crowned king. And so we have to depend on our observations of those countries where there is royalty, whether they are constitutional monarchs, as with Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, or King Harald V of Norway, among many others, or whether they are absolute rulers, such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or King Mswati of Sawziland, also among others. It is our observations, our reading, our paying attention to the news that can inform us of the power of the role of king.

Does Jesus, as we celebrate this feast of his kingship today, does Jesus look like the traditional powerful king? Jesus was and is the most powerful of kings, but, exemplar of irony that he is, the power rises out of powerlessness, not claiming power for himself. He was a person completely surrendered to God, and in that surrendering of his own personal power, his life even, he became the medium and minister of God’s power. It passed through him. Again and again, the faith of the people he encountered was what drew power from him. As he said to the disciples when the woman with the issue of blood touched the hem of his garment, “I felt power go forth from me.” It was her faith that drew forth that power of God to heal.

We might even appropriate the words of Henry II, “mocked so shamefully by a lowborn clerk.” I could imagine that the pharisees and the scribes were beside themselves with jealousy and anger, not to mention fear of a Roman backlash because of the activities of that lowborn Jew from Nazareth. Recall from the first chapter of John what Nathaniel replied when Philip said, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote––Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Jesus’ humble beginnings were undeniable.

Consider that in a little more than a month, we will once again be celebrating the birth of this lowborn king. Irony strikes again. That he should have been born in a stable, in a manger on a bed of grass, or something very like it. That’s about as lowborn as you get. I think of Jesus saying in his later life, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” It was ever so for him. But as we see in today’s gospel, notwithstanding his humble beginnings, the people were getting really stirred up about whether Jesus might be the Messiah for whom they had been hoping and waiting. Their great King David had also had humble beginnings as a shepherd boy before his ascendancy through the court of King Saul. Would this Jesus lead in the same way? Could they hail him as the Messiah, the next great king who would free them from Roman oppression? What this larger crowd who laid their cloaks on the ground before him and hailed with palm branches were looking for was the same thing that the apostles were still looking for and wouldn’t fully understand until Jesus had died and was raised up, and the Spirit sent upon them.

Let’s consider the setting of today’s gospel. Jesus has sent two of his disciples to go to a nearby village and get a colt. They should bring it back, and if anyone questions them, they should just say that the Master has need of it and will send it back shortly. Whether Jesus has foreknowledge or whether he has made arrangements on a previous visit to Jerusalem is not clear and not particularly germane to the reading. What is germane is his mounting on an ass or donkey that has never been ridden, That was fitting because for an animal to be used for a sacred purpose, it should never have been used for any other purpose before.

That Jesus chose a donkey or ass rather than a horse has great significance. Notably, in Jesus’ time, the ass was as much an animal of kings as the horse was. The difference was that when the king went to war, he went astride a horse. But when he came in peace, he rode on an ass. We must note the kind of king that Jesus was claiming to be: He came meek and lowly, in peace and for peace. His was a prophetic and highly dramatic action. When people weren’t getting the message in words, sometimes the prophets of Israel would resort to these kinds of dramatic actions. In this dramatic action of Jesus, the entry into Jerusalem, he embodied the words of the prophet Zechariah 9: 9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, and riding upon an ass, a colt, the foal of an ass.”

The point? This king was coming in peace. Not what the people were looking for. The people were looking for the conquering hero, the successor king to David, and it was in that mode that they exclaimed, “Hosanna,” in both verses 9 and 10. That word is quoted and used as if it meant “Praise!” which it did come to later mean, but which in this context, transliterated from the Hebrew was, “Save now!” The people wanted the Savior, the Messianic King. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” Exclamation points all over the text here. The people are excited.

The gospel of John, unlike the three synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, has the triumphant entry into Jerusalem following by a day the raising of Lazarus in nearby Bethany. He is suggesting that this is why the residents of the city, some of whom had been at the dramatic events of the day before, this is why they are at a fever pitch. The news about Lazarus had traveled like wildfire. Even without John’s spin on the event, it is dramatic enough in its own right. One issue that needs to be raised is whether the people were seeing him as a prophet or as the awaited Messiah.

In Matthew the people were asking, “Who is this?” Verse 11 has the crowd answering, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” a prophet of the messianic kingdom. But it is also true that Matthew introduces the quotation from the prophet Zechariah, cited earlier, about your king coming to you “without display, astride an ass,” not what the people were looking for or what they hoped for, but just what and how Jesus chose to declare his messiahship, his kingdom. A kingdom of peace. There is no way we as a community trying to be Christian can get around that. Jesus is not a man of war. He is and was a man of peace. Others would have proclaimed him King and Messiah in a heartbeat if he would have acquiesced to their vision of kingship, and what is still the more widely accepted understanding of what it means to be a king, but Jesus wasn’t buying it. He knew who he was and he knew that his hour had come.

In the last few verses, “he came into Jerusalem into the Temple. After he had looked round everything, when it was now late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” There’s an air of finality and fatality about these verses. They feel ominous. One commentator I read suggested that this was the quiet before the storm. It was a time of deliberate acts and deliberation, with Jesus making choices with his eyes wide open. He was not a victim in that sense. He chose his course. He was summing up the strength of the opposition and his own resources before the decisive spiritual battle he was about to enter upon.

No incident shows the sheer courage of Jesus as much as the entry into Jerusalem. Considering the authorities who were out to trap and arrest him, we might expect him to try to enter the city secretly, but no. Jesus did just the opposite. He entered in such a way that the whole city was stirred up by his entrance. To quote William Barclay, “One of the most dangerous things a man can do is to go to people and tell them that all their accepted ideas”––in this case what the role of Messiah was––”that all their accepted ideas are wrong. Any man who tries to tear up by the roots a people’s nationalistic dreams is in for trouble.” But that is what Jesus deliberately did. He was making the last appeal of and for love and making it with a courage that was heroic.

Jesus returned to Bethany with his apostles, where he had friends. He sought the presence of God there, and it was only with that prayerful assurance that he could face what he had to face.

So, does this change your image of what Christ the King means? If we have the messianic king riding an ass into Jerusalem as the opening into the end, we also have for our first reading the vision of Daniel, who sees one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. “He approached the Ancient of Days,” the scripture reads, “and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.” That’s the other side of the messianic royal coin.

But Daniel is vision, and Mark’s account in the scripture is history of a kind. It is a living history for some of us who believe in the Spirit of God who occupies and thereby quickens the words to life. All well and good, but what is there for all of us that the kingship of Jesus can mean? The living kingship can be found in service. One scripture that means a great deal to me and to which I return again and again, is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, saying to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who has sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

This Lord and Teacher and yes, King, kneels before these peasant men and washes their dirty feet. This is the same One whom Daniel sees in vision being ushered into the presence of the Ancient of Days who gives him all sovereign power. If we empty out in service, however that is called for at any given time, as Jesus did in this humble exercise of loving service, God will be able to fill us with his Spirit, as he did Jesus, who surrendered his life to the One he called Father. We are invited to do the same.

Jesus kneels before us to wash our feet no less than he knelt before the disciples. Can we deal with that? The Savior of the world wants to wash our feet. What that can mean is that he wants to do for us, help us, comfort us where we have need of comfort, indeed cleanse us from the inside out, but the key is we have to be willing to let him. No time for false modesty or pretense of humility. Let him wash your feet. Then can you go forth and do likewise. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Language of Apocalypse

Sheespcott Community Church November 15, 2009

1 Samuel 1: 4-20

Mark 13: 1-8

The Language of Apocalypse

I would like to start with a poem of Robert Frost’s, one most of us are familiar with: “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

There’s great pleasure in simply reading the poem for the narrative because we in New England can easily picture the setting and imagine ourselves in the poet’s situation. I can imagine David O’Neal pulled off the road in his plow truck on the crest of the hill at the Old Sheepscot Road turnoff on the Alna side of the bridge, looking down toward the Village as the snow falls.

Or Alden Davis and Chuck Reinhardt in those same moments standing under a tree in their yard and looking down and across the field and pond toward Donna Krah’s, Bill and Sonnie’s and the Hill Church. That would of course be before the snow began falling so heavily they couldn’t see their hand in front of their face.

The poet is successful in his unspoken invitation to the reader, and we, and David O’Neal and Chuck and Alden, all of us stop, as we probably did on the fifth of this month, to watch the snow and have the long thoughts that such watching brings. Having set up a vivid visual picture that we can identify with, the poet concludes with the evocative lines:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Again, the simple narrative is satisfying, but the lines do resonate at a deeper level, do lead to those long thoughts of how much time we have before we enter those dark, deep woods, where the snow falls, and falls on that cold ground. How much time have we have left to do what we are here to do: to learn to love, to become ourselves seats of reconciliation, to discover our gifts, and in that discovering to learn to share those gifts––whatever they might be––with the larger community, which I believe is the Body of Christ.

In a few words, there is a literal level of the poem, which, if successful, leads the reader to the figurative level, where indeed the deeper meaning is. I offer you that by way of introduction to today’s gospel, which contains some of Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings to the disciples about future events.

The gospel opens with a disciple’s comment about the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem. “What massive stones!” the disciple exclaims. Indeed, they were massive stones. The Temple, which Herod built for the Jews, was one of the wonders of the world of its time. The building was begun between 20 and 19 B.C.E. and was still not finished when Jesus lived. The historian Josephus wrote that some of the stones used in the building were 40 feet long by 12 feet high by 18 feet wide. It would be just those stones that would move the disciples to such amazement that they commented on them to Jesus.

Imagine their surprise when he countered with the statement that with regard to the buildings made of stone, not one of those stones would be left on another. Every one would be thrown down. To the disciples the Temple seemed the height of human art and achievement, so vast and solid that it would last forever, so we can understand their amazement at Jesus’ statement. They were filled with curiosity about when it would happen. We know what that’s like because we’re just the same way. If we hear about a prediction, we want all the details.

Jesus explained to them that others would come in those days in the time of the destruction of the Temple, claiming to be he, Jesus, the Christ. He warned them not to be deceived. He told them that there would be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, nation rising against nation, and so on. These latter matters are almost commonplace and occur in every generation, but when Jesus spoke about them, his disciples were hanging on his every word because Jesus was presenting as future fact these events as a sign of his coming and of the end of the world, which he expected to happen before that generation had passed away. That seems to be an indication of him being fully human, not understanding the complete and larger picture.

The Temple was destroyed for the second time in 70 C.E., as Jesus had foreseen. There are other items on Jesus’ list, but we don’t hear the long list this year before the beginning of Advent, as we usually do. Still in chapter 13 of Mark, verse 24 ff.: “But in those days following that distress,/’The sun will be darkened,/ and the moon will not give its light;/ the stars will fall from the sky,/ and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’”

These lines are directly from the book of the prophet Isaiah and qoted in Mark. I mention that because the language Jesus is using when he describes those end-times is poetic language, figurative language, not to be taken literally. The underlying reality of the so-called Second Coming of Christ, the appearance of God at the end of history, will be like nothing they have ever seen. That’s the point. The pictures Jesus used to communicate the size and impact of the day of the Lord, or Judgment Day, and the Second Coming, which are inextricably woven together in the scripture, are meant as impressionistic pictures, a seer’s visions that aim to impress on the minds of human beings the greatness of the future event.

If Robert Frost tells a story we can easily follow in “Stopping by the Woods,”where image and line present a clear picture but hold and hide a deeper meaning, Jesus does the reverse. He presents the fantastic of apocalyptic poetry and expects his listeners to extrapolate from that language the fact of the great events of the Last Judgment and the Second Coming, like nothing ever seen.

This kind of apocalyptic language, as used by Jesus and by some of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, was familiar to the Jews of that time, which is why Jesus used it. The Jews never doubted that they were the chosen people, and they also never doubted that one day they would occupy the rightful place in the world of such a chosen people of God. They had fought and fought again to hold on to the Promised Land, but the lived history of successive defeat, oppression and captivity indicated that that was not going to happen except by the intervention of God on their behalf. So there grew up this language and literature of the all-powerful God who would interrupt history on their behalf, on behalf of his chosen people.

That day of intervention was referred to as “the day of the Lord.” The terror and horror of that day is repeated again and again in the prophets. From the prophet Amos: “In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas’! They shall call the farmers to mourning, and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentations, and in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord.”

From the prophet Joel: “The day of the Lord is coming... a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness... I will give 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.” You get the picture, and I can’t help but mention again the Wizard of Oz. People like to be frightened for some reason. They respect what scares them more than what holds them in an embrace.

Jesus would employ this language about his Second Coming, which, as I mentioned was inextricably textually interwoven with the so-called terrible day of the Lord, he would employ this language because it was familiar to the people. The religious literature of the time that pictured God breaking into history on behalf of his chosen people was called Apocalypse, from the Greek apokalupsis meaning an unveiling. The books of apocalypse were dreams and visions of what would happen when the day of the Lord came and in the terrible time preceding it. Old Testament imagery was used, supplemented with new details as history and circumstances unfolded. Apocalyptic literature was meant to paint the unpaintable and speak the unspeakable. It was poetry, not prose; visions, not science; dreams, not history. It was never meant to be taken prosaically as timetables of events to come.

I think all of us have heard contemporary commentaries especially of the Book of Revelation that try to squeeze into a precast form of understanding the meanings of the prophetic sayings in the book. While the Book of Revelation does contain truths for all times, including ours, it’s important to remember that it is apocalyptic literature, written at a moment in history especially for a people in that moment who would have had the cultural tools to decode the intended meaning.

Jesus always worked with what the people knew so that he could get his message across in the limited time he had. As we know from the gospels, he taught through parables, stories that employed the commonplace of people’s lives at the time. Think of the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the sower of the seed. These were everyday images the people would understand. The lost coin, the yeast in the bread. Just so, Jesus employed the extant apocalyptic figures, which the people would understand from hearing them in the synagogues. They would have taken in these stories with their mother’s milk. That was the language he chose to get across to his disciples the importance of his Second Coming. At this juncture in the gospel, he is in Jerusalem and about to undergo his passion. He is setting the stage for what the disciples would later recall to each other after he had died and was raised up.

This is for all intents and purposes, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the break between this apocalypse we consider today, and the four Sundays of Advent before Christmas. It’s a heady brew, this mixture of end and beginning, destruction and preparation, but that is the way of our liturgical year, ‘round and ‘round.

What can all of this apocalyptic talk mean for us? The fact is all times are end times for us individually. The world as we know it ends for us at death. That is our personal end time. Meanwhile God is communicating signs and portents to us through everything and everyone around us. If we will open our eyes, our ears, our minds to that voice that is the poetry which informs our lives of the deeper meaning of those lives, we will hear and see God, not with the physical senses, but with the listening spirit within. Christ is always coming in us and to us. Might we, illuminated by the Spirit of Christ, be ourselves the Second Coming? Now there’s a thought to keep you awake tonight. Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Walking the Walk

Sheepscott Community Church November 8, 2009

Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17

Mark 12: 38-44

Walking the Walk

After I had gotten Jon and the kids off to school and had finished the housework on my 44th birthday, I knelt in the kitchen, where I was at the time, to pray. I had a secret joy, the one that most of us, some of us? feel on our birthdays: this is my special day. I also felt an even greater joy because after 15 years of working on personal historical matters where inner healing was needed, I knew that that period of healing was finished, over. I could feel it in my body, my mind and my spirit. I could move on in my life.

I had a sense of great anticipation, a sense of earned freedom whereby I could begin to do those things I had previously felt constrained about. Maybe I would go back to school and finish my degree. Maybe I would simply immerse myself in poetry. Maybe I would finally learn to knit a sock, to study French, to plant long-wished for flower gardens, be a literacy volunteer. It was a heady moment in my life, and I felt exhilarated.

It was in that moment, filled with joy and gratitude, that I knelt to pray. I thanked God for my life and all he had done for me––the usual sentiments of beginning prayer. Hardly was I underway than I began to sense the “Approach,” I ‘ll call it, of the Presence of God in a question, “Now that you have a life, are you willing to give it up?” I should note that every day, from the time I was a sophomore in high school, where I was taught this prayer by my favorite nun, Sister Henry Marie, who began her day with it,––every day since that I had said, “O my God, I offer thee all my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day, in union with Jesus for the intentions of his Sacred Heart.” Another I intoned, “All that I am, all that I do, all that I’ll ever be, I offer to you. Amen.”

I note these prayers, with their language of surrender, of offering, to get across that I had talked the talk for most of my life up to that point. At that point, however, God was drawing up for my attention, that yes, I had verbally offered my life. Now that all of the obstacles, the big obstacles to realizing that life were removed, now that I had a life, would I give it up. No, was my first response. And my second: No. My reasoning as I desperately tried to hang on to the life I felt I had recovered was that this is my life. I finally have it back. I’ve worked hard to get it back, and now you want it? I have to give it up? No.

But the relentlessness of the approach of God was a reproach to my clinging to what I saw and understood as my life. With my words every day over so many years, I had indeed created forms for the foundation of God’s use of me as an agent of change in the world. Now here he had backed up the cement truck to those forms and was ready to tip out the cement to make a foundation for the future of my usefulness.

Could I have said no and followed through with it? Theoretically, yes, but given the consistent choices I had made for God over those years, those choices would have given the lie to a different choice on my part. And there was this relentlessness of the approach of God in the place of prayer. So, with a heavy heart and no small amount of resentment, I said yes, thinking, well, there goes the life I had hoped for and didn’t even have time to plan. It took me about three days to recover my equilibrium. I was not pleased with God.

So, what does this have to do with today’s gospel? Everything, at least I think so. The widow who tosses everything she has into the temple treasury––two small copper coins worth only a fraction of a penny, as the scripture tells us––this widow has made everything possible because of her generosity of spirit. It’s a reckless thing she does with an apparent inherent faith in and coincident trust in God for the future.

Do you think she should maybe have saved out one of the coins? Would that have been more prudent and responsible, making her less likely to become as completely dependent on the Jewish society she was part of? Not according to Jesus’s lights. In her recklessness she does not withhold anything she has from God. I can’t claim that same generosity of spirit in my birthday prayer because I wanted to hold back this and this and that, but I finally acquiesced for God’s purposes and reasons, because at that point it didn’t really seem like I hd a choice, and the juggernaut that is God was about to roll over me anyway. I think the widow is a model for us all that real giving must be sacrificial, the amount of the gift never mattering so much as the cost to the giver, not the size of the gift, but the sacrifice that that gift is.

We may feel that we don’t have much by way of material gifts or personal gifts to offer to God in Christ, but if we do put all we have and are at God’s disposal, God can do things with it and with us that are beyond our imaginings. And I do stand here as a witness to that. Being willing to and then trying to carry out God’s will and purpose for our lives is the centerpiece of our lives, not a side issue. It is the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner, not the vegetables or the dessert, that with apologies to the vegetarians among us. I think you get my point. That being willing to, and trying to walk the walk is in fact creating the path to holiness or sainthood, which I was talking about last Sunday on All Saints Day. We create the path by walking the way. That is the path to holiness, which is to say, God.

On the day I was working on a first draft of the sermon, in the reading for the day in Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, the writer asks whether we have broken our independence with our own hand and surrendered to Christ. “Has that break come?” he asks. “All the rest is pious fraud,” he continues. Strong language. “The one point to decide is––Will I give up, will I surrender to Jesus and make no conditions whatever as to how that break comes? I must be broken from my self-realization”––or the more fashionable term in these times, self-actualization––”and immediately that point is reached, the reality of supernatural identification takes place at once, and the witness of the spirit of God is unmistakable––’I have been crucified with Christ.’” Galatians 2: 20.

“The passion of Christianity is that I deliberately sign away my own rights and become a bond-slave of Christ. Until I do that, I do not begin to be a saint,” he concludes.

That’s so distasteful to us, isn’t it? Really giving it up to God? At least from my perspective, everything in me rails against it. This is my life, the one life I get––as far as I know––and the Western model of individual self-actualization bridles at the idea, the prospect of giving it all up to an unseen God, which brings us back to the widow tossing her coins in the temple treasury. Little did she know who was watching her, the One for whom all of creation existed. She was simply being herself, acting out of her own principles and conviction, out of the truth of who she was. It is in those private moments, when we are being ourselves unselfconsciously that the truth of our character is revealed. By grace we may be shown in one of those moments that we have need of repentance, or, as likely, that by grace we may be shown we have cause to rejoice. Repentance or rejoicing, both before God, who sees who we are through any attempt at pretense. What a relief, huh? To be known that way? And loved.

Back to the widow of the moment. It was through her acting out that Jesus provided an example for all of us. It was a teachable moment. It’s also reminiscent of the parable of the mustard seed, wherein Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a grain of mustard seed. “When it is sown upon the ground, it is the least of all the seeds upon the earth. But when it is sown, it springs up and becomes greater than all the herbs,” and the birds can nest in its branches.

Indeed in Palestine, the mustard seed stood proverbially for the smallest possible thing, which did in fact grow into something very like a tree. The message of the parable is to never be daunted by small beginnings. We often feel that for all we can do it is hardly worthwhile starting a thing at all. But we must remember that everything must have a beginning. Nothing emerges full grown. It is our duty to do what we can , and the cumulative effect of all the small efforts can in the end produce an amazing result.

Both the widow’s coin story and the parable of the mustard seed are both based in a God who will use whatever we offer, no matter how small or seemingly useless in the eyes of the world. God will use that smallest of coins to bring about the greatest of good, will use that smallest seed to bring about the largest shrub. Specific to the widow’s mite or coin is that it is given with generosity. In God’s economy, that generosity has nothing to do with an amount but everything to do with the spirit in which that small amount is given. In a way we don’t understand with our minds, things are transmuted in God.

The humility of the widow’s attitude is completely contrasted with that of the scribes and pharisees whose attitude Jesus speaks sharply against when he addresses the people gathered in the temple courts, where he was teaching. Right there in that site, the place of the visible expressions of power of the scribes and pharisees, Jesus makes a series of charges against them, who I remind you are the experts in Jewish Law. As he points out to the people, they like to walk around in flowing robes. A long robe, which swept the ground, was the sign of a notable person. It was the kind of a robe in which a person could neither hurry nor work, so the message such a robe communicated was that the wearer was a man of leisure and therefore honor.

On these robes were sown tassels, in obedience to a directive in Numbers 15: 38. The tassels were meant to remind the wearers that they were the people of God, and it’s probable that these legal experts wore large tassels to communicate special prominence. An example of that tendency among human beings is a story of how members of the Shaker sect came to have mirrors. Initially the Shakers forbade the possession and use of mirrors because of vanity. However, it became clear after not too much time had passed, that the Shakers, who valued order and cleanliness in their work and lives, had a need of mirrors. And so, the community’s law was changed. Mirrors were allowed but only up to a certain size, the stipulations of measurement exactly laid out. Very Shaker. What’s endearing in its humanity is that all of the Shaker mirrors were made the maximum size. I won’t call the scribes’ wearing of very large tassels particularly endearing or admirable, especially when small ones would have done just fine, but even there, the sheer humanity is understandable and something we can’t help identifying with.

Besides wearing flowing robes, the scribes coveted greetings of honor and respect. And they liked the highest places at feasts, which places were carefully socially orchestrated, just as they are now at dinner parties, the place of greatest honor at the right hand of the host, the second greatest at the left hand of the host and so on, right along the table. Who does not hear in his or her mind at this point an echo of Jesus’ exhortation, “When you are invited [to a feast] take the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ ... For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Also, I hear an echo of the gospel of several weeks ago when the disciples James and John were asking if, when Jesus came into his kingdom, they could be seated at his right and left hands. Places of honor.

Flowing robes, places of honor, and then the last charge against the scribes and pharisees concerning the devouring of widows’ houses. The idea behind this was that these experts in the religious laws were able to convince widows, often vulnerable socially and economically, that they would have a high place in the heavenlies if they would support them, men singled out by God, who would in turn pray for them. These experts in the Law could receive no pay for their teaching; they were supposed to support themselves with other work. I think all of us have read in the newspapers and seen on television and the Internet that the temptations to exploit positions of power in the field of religion have not abated and neither have the numbers of ministers of religion who succumb to such temptations abated.

In this scripture, Jesus warns clearly against the desire for prominence, for deference, and against the attempt to make a traffic of religion. The contrast of these men of the Law with the unselfconscious humility of the widow with her copper coins could not be greater, and there is no question about Jesus’ position on the matter. Every day he is inviting us to give all of what we have, to surrender who we are to God. We ourselves are those few coins tossed into the temple treasury, but if we think of ourselves as both the tossed coins and the tosser––the small coins and the poor widow––and we do it without holding back anything of or for ourselves, as with the mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, God will make something great out of our offering. Not perhaps in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of Jesus, which is finally all that matters. Amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Our Feast Day: All Saints

Sheepscott Community Church November 1, 2009

Ruth 1: 1-18

Mark 12: 28-34

Our Feast Day: All Saints

Does it shock you at all that I should entitle this message “Our Feast Day: All Saints”? Don’t let it because that is what we are: saints in the making. A path to the holiness that is sainthood lies within our individual life circumstances. That path brings to bear our strengths and weaknesses as we respond to the needs of our families and neighbors and to our particular moment in history. We can let this feast day encourage us to create our own path of holiness by walking it, as Bartimaeus who had been blind but who was able to see after an encounter with Jesus created his path of holiness as he walked it.

If you recall from last week’s gospel, Bartimaeus inadvertently gave us a model of discipleship, following his healing. He had a need––he wanted to see, and he told Jesus clearly that that was what he wanted. Then, he saw. His expressed desire was fulfilled, and he himself was filled with gratitude and followed Jesus on the road toward Jerusalem, where the Lord was headed to meet his own fate at the time of Passover. While Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the literal road to Jerusalem, we are called to do the same on a figurative road, and that walk, that creating of a path of holiness is made more possible, is made easier by the company of others, and in addition, by the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which we will share today.

This feast of all saints does not honor what are tantamount to demigods. No. As with Bartimaeus, a blind man from the neighborhood whom everyone knew from his probable begging on street corners, and, as the son of Timaeus, the company of saints is a company of ordinary people, like us, like Bartimeaus, who can take seriously the challenge to follow Christ up the road to Jerusalem, creating a path of holiness by walking it. It’s in the walking, the doing that we actually create the path.

I find the homely story of Ruth, today’s first reading, a good example of saintliness in the making. Let me explain. Just as Bartimaeus followed Jesus up the road to Jerusalem after his healing, so Ruth followed her mother-in-law Naomi up the road to Judah, Naomi’s homeland, from which she and her late husband had migrated to Moab when their country was under the lash of famine. Now, years later, after the death of her husband and her two sons, who had married the Moabite women Ruth and Orpah, Naomi sees no need to stay in Moab any longer and heads home.

Her daughters-in-law, both of whom obviously love her, follow after her. She exhorts them to turn back, to return to their people, as she is returning to her people. She has no more sons for them to marry, she tells them. Orpah concedes, but Ruth will not be swayed. Ruth was loyal to her mother-in-law Naomi both in season, when she was married to Naomi’s son, and out of season, after the death of that son. That loyalty is reminiscent of the third step in Bartimaeus’s discipleship: that loyalty whereby he follows Jesus up the road to Jerusalem. Ruth following Naomi up the road to Judah, back to Bethlehem, where Naomi had come from. Loyalty, which comes out of loving gratitude that apparently is a response to the kind and loving way Naomi treated her daughters-in-law. As Ruth so beautifully puts it in the scripture, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” She had made up her mind. Love will make us do that. Love will lead us to follow another and to create a path of holiness in the process, the path along which we choose to walk, saying no to ourselves and yes to something greater than ourselves..

How does this reading about Ruth square with today’s gospel? Why would the editors of the lectionary from whence these readings come, group these two as one of the choices for today? I think it is because Ruth loved her neighbor––one way of speaking of her mother-in-law Naomi––as herself, and a demonstration of that was her willingness to follow her back to her homeland, to leave her own tribe behind or, as she puts it, “your God will be my God.” She will take on the worship of the God of Naomi, whom Jesus declares in this morning’s gospel, is one. One.

In today’s gospel, a scribe asks Jesus, “What is the first commandment?” And Jesus answers, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” No Jew who was listening would have disagreed with what Jesus said was the first commandment, but Jesus did something that no other rabbinic teacher had ever done. He combined the first and the second commandments, calling for love of God and love of neighbor as oneself as one. This was new.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord,” is the creed of Judaism, the basis for monotheism. It is called the Shema, which is the imperative form of the Hebrew verb to hear, and it is so-called from the first word of the sentence. “Hear, O Israel...” It is that sentence that began the service at the synagogue then and still does.

The second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is from Leviticus 19:18. In that original context, the command had to do with a person’s fellow Jew. That was the neighbor. It would not have included the Gentile, whom it was permissible to hate. What Jesus did in quoting it was to remove the boundaries, the limitations of the love to include all. He took an old law and filled it with new meaning. No rabbi had ever combined those commandments before. Religion to Jesus was loving God and loving human beings as well, and not just some of the human beings, but all human beings. As it is written in Matthew 5:43 ff....

A good illustration that answers the question, Who is my neighbor, this one I am commanded to love, is found in the gospel of Luke in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan. He is the man who stops to wash the the wounds of a man who has been beaten and left for dead by robbers. A priest and Levite, perhaps in a hurry to get to the Temple to fulfill ritual obligations and not feeling any obligation to this man, passed him by. Remember, always remember, that Jesus came to teach us a new way of holiness that is illustrated in this story. It isn’t the hairsplitting of the law about how to fulfill the hundreds, even thousands of obligations of the law that he favors, but the generous interpretation that makes clear we are all sons and daughters of the same God, and consequently are all brothers and sisters in the same family, like it or not. The adapted Creed of the Masai Tribe in East Africa contains the line, “God loves the world and every nation and tribe on earth.” God does not distinguish. Neither should we, when we are considering whether or not to perform an act of kindness, whether to pray for this one or that one. Will we be limited by judgments about geography, blood relation, religion, politics, social status? Note well that in this morning’s reading, Ruth paid no attention to any of these. She left her people to go to another country where she knew no one but her mother-in-law because she loved her and so, was loyal to her.

Bartimaeus left behind his family, his fellow Jericho townsmen and maybe even the cloak he had tossed aside in order to get to Jesus more quickly. While Jesus was a fellow Jew, he was neither from the neighborhood nor a blood relation. But Bartimaeus was filled with loving gratitude that inspired loyalty, as with Ruth and Naomi, and he followed the life-giver up the road.

I like to think he might have had the thrill of a lifetime on that very night, when we can imagine he shared supper with Jesus and the disciples. Maybe he studied the Lord’s face, he who until that day had not been able to see. What must he have thought of this crew among whom he found himself? We can only imagine. While he had been anything but tongue-tied earlier in the day, shouting out to Jesus with no shyness but impelled by the power of his desire to see, I expect he would be all ears––and eyes, listening to the stories. Bartimaeus had found a cause, a person, greater than himself, who was deserving of everything Bartimaeus could give or offer. He gave his life, as we can reasonably interpret, from that point on. How did he do that, this fellow we never hear about again? Maybe he just told the story over and over to anyone who would listen. Maybe that was his path to saintliness, to holiness, as simple as that. A path we would do well to ponder and perhaps imitate, as in, You know what Jesus did for me?

As far as Ruth is concerned, her story is only opening up this week. Next week, we will hear more.

And now, just a few words about communion, eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. I was thinking about this table set for our small meal, thanks to Chrissy and her helpers. It made me think of two stories: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Hansel and Gretel.” If you recall, Goldilocks came upon the three bears’ house, smoke curling out of the chimney, and the table set with steaming porridge for three. How irresistible was that? There really is something to say for a well-set table, full of the promise of satisfaction of our senses.

And who can forget the appeal of the gingerbread house in the forest to the hungry Hansel and Gretel––and that house being edible! A child’s dream come true.

Think of this well-set table with bread and grape juice, communion service and linens, and a much better outcome than those two stories. After partaking of the meal done in remembrance, we partake of an enhanced reality, where, as we share bread, we become increasingly one body in and of Christ. We are fed and have the strength to continue up the road of holiness, of saintliness, as we indeed find it through our own life circumstances––if we so will, if we so desire, and if we so act. Amen.