Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jesus' Wish List

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 21:1-4.  This series was based on A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

Next week, according to the online auction site eBay, they will have a million extra items on their site, as people seek to purge themselves from presents they have received that they don’t want.  But in the wonders of corporate jargon, this isn’t simply a form of re-gifting; instead, according the eBay spokesman Richard Kanareck, this is re-homing.  Even though 62% of adults, according to a recent survey, claim that spending time with family is the most important thing to do at Christmas, or what they most looked forward to, compared to only 2% who said it was receiving presents, it seems that most of our focus, year after year, is on the very things we know that won’t bring us true happiness, that will in fact distract us from what truly matters, and cause us to be paying bills in January that we’d rather not have, and we miss the very things that we want to be focusing on.  Year after year we continue to treat Christmas as if it is our birthday, rather than Jesus’ birthday and we spend even less time wondering what is on Jesus’ wish list.

One year my father played Santa Clause for a department store in Phoenix.  Now some of you have met my father, and so you know how perfect that is for him, and for those of you who haven’t seen my father, one year I got him a shirt that says “Santa’s Stunt Double” which will tell what he looks like.  As he prepared for that assignment, he came up with a list of what he, as Santa would want for Christmas.  To his great disappointment no one ever asked him, but his wish  list was very similar to the song popularized by Amy Grant entitled, Grown-Up Christmas List, which says “So here's my lifelong wish, my grown-up Christmas list, not for myself, but for a world in need: No more lives torn apart, that wars would never start, and time would heal all hearts, every man would have a friend, that right would always win, and love would never end, this is my grown-up Christmas list.”  Perhaps that is also closer to Jesus’ wish list as well.

We began this series in looking at a different way to do Christmas three weeks ago by hearing Jesus’ first sermon, the message that kicks off Jesus’ ministry for Luke.  Jesus, picks up the scroll from Isaiah and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  To proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.”  And then throughout the rest of Luke, Jesus continues to do exactly that, and we have spent three weeks looking at how God’s scandalous love works in the world, and how as disciples of Christ we are expected  to pick up our cross, how often?  Daily.  And what are we supposed to do with it?  Follow Christ.  Pick up your cross daily and follow me, Jesus says, and when we do that we have to give up on perfect because when we give ourselves, give our lives full over to God, we are going to be led into the imperfect because it is in the imperfect where God is found.

The nativity story is not perfect, the story of the cross is not perfect, our lives are not perfect, and our Christmas’ will not be perfect, because even that first one was not perfect.  But what God says to us is that we are called to work in the midst of the imperfection, because it is in the imperfect situations where God is needed most, and it is there that we are called to be disciples of Christ to proclaim a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of joy and a message of love, the very things we have been proclaiming each week as we light the advent candles, and we are called to see what Jesus would like to receive for his birthday, but what Jesus asks us to do, what Jesus tells us to do is not to get something for him, but to give something to the world.

One day as Hannah Salwen, who was 15 at the time, and her father were driving through Atlanta, where they lived, as they stopped at a light, she noticed a Mercedes stopped next to them along with a homeless man sitting on the curb, and she said to her father, “If that guy didn’t have such a nice car, then that guy could have a nice meal.”  Hannah’s father Kevin was on the board of Habitat for Humanity for Atlanta, so they were already involved in working  with people in need, but Hannah’s statement led to a greater conversation about what they family had versus what the family needed, and how they might be able to give back.  “We stopped and paused and thought about what are the things in the world that could really make a difference… in the world,” Kevin said.  Initially they thought about selling their cars or other things, but then Hannah’s mother Joan suggested selling their home, moving into a home half the size, and giving half the proceeds to those in need.

No one really expect Joan to be the one to make that suggestion, because this was her dream home.  Built in 1912, it was 6500 square feet, had five bedrooms, eight fireplaces, a cooks kitchen, and even an elevator to take you up to what was Hannah’s room.  “I have to admit,” Joan said, “I loved living in this house.  Does that make me an evil person?  I hope not because it’s a beautiful place.”  But selling the home was a challenge.  “It was a test, almost to see: How committed are we?”  Joan said.  “I mean, how serious are these kids about what we should do?  And they all nodded and there we were.”  And so the Salwen’s put their home up for sale, with an asking price of 1.6 million, they were able to donate $800,000 for charity.  Their money ended up going to help 30 different villages in Ghana, where it was used to build clinics and schools, and to teach the villagers sustainable farming practices.  Jon Coonrods, who is vice president of the Hunger Project, the charity the Salwen’s choose to receive the money, said that in the end the money may help as many as 20,000 people in Ghana.

Now I will admit that the Salwen story may be a little extreme, as I don’t know anyone here who lives in a house worth 1.6 million, and I am not telling you to go sell your homes, but it is an example of the over excess with which many of us live in this country.  “We as American’s have so much,” Kevin Salwen said.  From those who have much, much is expected, Jesus’ said, although that’s not a quote we hear being bantered around much lately.  But we don’t have to give a lot for our gift to have meaning and importance either.

Jesus is watching people place their offerings into the offering box at the temple.  He sees people who have plenty to give, and are doing so, and then he sees a widow who puts in two small copper coins, and he says that she has put in more than any of the others, because those who were wealthy gave from abundance, but she gave everything she had.  To truly understand what is happening here, and what Jesus says, you have to understand what she has contributed.  A denarius was a Roman coin that was equal to one day’s wages for a common day labor.  A denarius was made up of 128 lepta, or a small copper coin, and the widow puts in two lepta, in other words it’s almost a meaningless quantity, and yet hers is the amount that Jesus holds us because she has given what she has.  By what standards do we judge ourselves and others?  We lift up the stories like those of the Salwen’s because of what they give.  We name buildings after those who give a lot, but Jesus recognizes the smallest gift that everyone else would overlook because of its importance.  Small gifts are easily overlooked or ignored all together, but sometimes that are the ones that make all the difference in the world.

How often do we down play the small acts we do, or that we might do, because we think they are unimportant, that they don’t measure up to what people are really concerned about, that they are too small to even pay attention to?  This week I read a story of a security guard at Disneyland who kneels down in front of every little girl who is dressed up like a princess and asks for their autograph.  Such a simple act, but what do you think those little girls will remember from their trip to the happiest place on earth?  It doesn’t take selling a 6500 sq ft home to make a difference in the world, but how many people overlook what that security guard does?  By singling out the gift of the widow, Jesus highlights the insidious effects of claiming that those who give more are more important, or even better people, than those who give small gifts.  But the importance is not in what we give, but how we give and what the gift means in relation to who we are.  Do we give from abundance, that we can give without it making any difference, or do we give sacrificially, and does our gift match what Jesus has called us to do in the world?

Every year, without fail, as I talk about rethinking Christmas, of calling us to do Christmas differently, someone will accuse me of not liking Christmas, of being the Grinch who wants to ruin people’s traditions.  But, nothing could be further from the truth.  I love Christmas, which if you’ve driven by our house you might see, and I have spent the last seven weeks listening to the 225 Christmas Cds that I have in our personal collection.  Santa will be visiting our house this year, and we will be giving and receiving presents, but we do thinks a lot differently then we have in the past, and I hope that Christmas is becoming more meaningful for us and for our children.  It’s not the presents we give or receive it’s the time we spend together, and the memories that we create, the experiences we have, and how we experience Christ and how we offer Christ to the world that make a difference.  Giving presents is important, and learning how to be a grateful receiver is also important, but it’s a question of priorities and what the giving and the receiving mean and why we are undertaking these activities.

Jenee Woodward has impacted your worship experience nearly every week even though most of you have probably never heard of her.  She was studying to go into the ministry when she and her husband gave birth to a son who was severely autistic, and so she gave up her career to stay at home to care for him.  But what she could do was create a website which provides resources, enormous amounts of resources, for preachers. A number of years ago she wrote this story.  She says “Our family learned to slow down at Christmas a number of years ago when [our son] was unable to tolerate *any* of the celebration. He could not handle the changing scenarios - the twinkling lights, the changes in grocery store displays, the changes in the sanctuary at church, presents appearing under the tree, the tree ITSELF, and the moved furniture. He would fall on the floor and scream, unable to move, afraid to open his eyes, almost constantly from Thanksgiving until well after Christmas when it was all over. We carried him through that time his head covered with his coat so we could get through the grocery store, or sat with him huddled in his room, carefully ordered EXACTLY the same since summer, with no Christmas trappings.

Worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was over-crowded and yet hushed, not a good combination for an autistic child. Christmas celebrations at home were a nightmare. Phil would scream and cry as each package was moved and (gasp!) unwrapped. As frightened as he was when each new thing appeared, he was equally frightened when it changed or disappeared. We'd try to find him a present he'd enjoy, but he'd merely scream and cry in panic at the intrusion on his carefully ordered world, and the gifts would sit ignored until he outgrew them and we gave them to some little boy who could appreciate them.

He wanted nothing. He asked for nothing. He anticipated nothing. He just screamed and cried at all of it. It is no bliss to have a child who doesn't get it - who doesn't want anything and doesn't want to have anything to do with Christmas commercialism - or it is only bliss in some romantic fantasy. In real life it is a surreal nightmare.

One year, right around Thanksgiving, we once more asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas. Our 14-year-old daughter sat down and made out her list. And our 10-year old son, for the first time in his life, answered the question. "PlayStation 2," he said. "I want PlayStation 2 Christmas." We just about fell over. His sister gave him a piece of paper. She wrote "Phil's Christmas List" at the top. He wrote, "PLAYSTATION TOW" under her heading. "At Sam's," he said. "Go to car."

So, we drove to Sam's. He has never looked at anything there, never seemed to notice that Sam's has anything he might want. But he led us right to the PlayStation 2 sets, picked out the bundle he wanted and put it in the cart. "Open at Christmas," he said. He watched gleefully as we wrapped the package, and then he solemnly placed it under the tree. So, a PlayStation 2 game set sits there, wrapped, with his name on it, and he waits to open it. "December 25," he says. "Open PlayStation 2 December 25."

Last night we'd returned from yet another Christmas rehearsal with our daughter, Phil found a Best Buy ad in the paper and turned immediately to the PlayStation games. He circled "Harry Potter" and "John Madden Football", handed the ad to Bob, and said, "I want Christmas." There were tears in my eyes. It's such a small thing, but such a truly amazing thing. It's one more bit of hope that he will be able to function in some semblance of society as an adult one day - Consumerism might be "the enemy", but a kid who understands none of it is only a hero in a Chicken Soup for the Soul story.

This Advent season I am grateful for being able to appreciate what complexity and miracle is involved in such small "selfish" acts as wanting something for Christmas and expressing those wants to another person. I'm grateful that my son is able to enjoy some of the commercial cultural trappings of the holiday this year instead of running from them screaming. I'm grateful for the many ways Phil helps me stop and look again, even at my most "Christian" conclusions. And I'm especially grateful that my son helps me see Christ's humble birth, over and over again, even in the midst of nightmares and worries I could not have imagined 10 years ago."

Christmas has nothing to do with us, and it has everything to do with.  Christmas is not our birthday, it is Jesus’ birthday, and we celebrate God’s greatest gift to us, we are recipients of God’s gracious and scandalous love, and we are called to give up on perfect and instead to dream God’s dreams and to be God’s agents of change in the world, to proclaim the Christmas miracle not only in our lives but for the lives of the world.  We are called to pick up our cross daily and to follow Christ and to live into and live out Jesus’ wish list for the world.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Scandalous Love

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The passage was Luke 19:1-10. This series was based on A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

Bishop Will Willimon tells the story of the first time he went to visit a prisoner on death row.  He said he was a little nervous going in knowing that the person he was going to be meeting with had probably committed some atrocious crime.  After arriving at the prison he was searched and then given a long set of instructions about what he could and could not do and could and could not say, and when he entered the room he had no idea what was going to happen.

After the prisoner he was meeting with sat down, Bishop Willimon asked him what he wanted to talk about, he said “Do you think the United Methodist Church is doing enough to reach out to a new generation offering them Christ?”  That was not really the question he expected to start the conversation out with.  As they continued to talk, Bishop Willimon found out that the man had become a Christian while on death row.  When asked how he came to Christ, the man said “well I heard a lot about Jesus and I thought he and I had a lot in common.”  To which Bishop Willimon said, “are you Jewish too?”  “No,” the man said, “Jesus was on death row and was executed by the state, and I’m on death row waiting to be executed by the state, so I think we’ve faced the similar things.”

Sometimes I think we have so domesticated and boxed in the gospel message, that sometimes we forget that the Jesus we worship was arrested, tried and executed by the state and the symbol of that execution is hanging here right in front of us every week.  I think people have a better sense of what crucifixion was like because of Mel Gibson’s Passion, from a few years ago, although I think that Gibson over did it but if you’ve seen most of his other movies you know that he has an interest in gratuitous violence.  But the Romans were really good, and very creative, in their torture techniques, but when we sanitize the cross, when we sanitize how Jesus was killed and why he was killed, we lose a lot.  We lose the scandal of the cross.  Jesus was killed because he was seen as a threat to the Empire and to those in power.  If he was just some guy who was walking around saying that we should all just get along, nothing would have happened to him, he would not have been arrested, and sometimes we sanitize what it means to be a Christian to that sort of message, but we have to understand the edge of Jesus’ ministry, we have to understand the threat that he posed to those in power, both other Jews and the Romans, and we have to understand his offering of God’s scandalous love.

In addition to sanitizing what actually happened at the cross, we also sanitize and sentimentalize what happened when Jesus was born, which we covered last week, but let us remember that Mary was a young girl, maybe no older than 13 or 14, and she became pregnant before she was married.  The penalty for such an offense, especially since she was engaged, was death by stoning, and this wasn’t just an idle threat that was never carried out, it would have been a real threat for Mary, and yet that is what we are told about Jesus’ birth.  He is born to a teenage mother who was not married when she became pregnant.  Like the cross, this too is pretty scandalous.   I’m sure that Mary got plenty of criticism from friends and family.  I’m sure that she was chastised and maybe even ostracized by some, and would her reception be any different in the church today? How many churches, even though we all know the story, would welcome a pregnant teenager who was not married, or even if she was a married, with open arms?  How many churches would be willing to extend a welcome to a Mary in their midst?  Or how many would be willing to extend a welcome to someone who is, or has been in prison, let alone death row?

I’m willing to bet not a whole lot, because in a survey done a few years ago, adult churchgoers with teenage children were asked, from a list of situations provided, what would be most likely reason to stop them from going to church, and the number two reasons were a son who was arrested, or a daughter who became pregnant.  We worship as the messiah, who was born to a teenage mother and who was arrested and executed by the state, but the number one reason given by parents of teenagers of why they would stop attending church was if their teenage daughter got pregnant or their son got arrested.  What part of the gospel message are we missing?        

We see time and time again in scripture that God and Jesus offer a scandalous love, by  offering that love to people others think are not worthy, people who clearly have fallen away from God’s ways, people who are outside the pale of acceptability, and yet they are offered God’s love.  Scandalous is defined causing scandal or shocking, and that is the type of love that God offers and calls for us to offer.

CrossRoads United Methodist Church has been ordered by an Arizona state court to stop offering free meals to the homeless community of Phoenix.  Neighbors complained about the church inviting the homeless into the neighborhood to be served, you know bringing “those types of people in,” even though the church has been reaching out to the homeless population in the area for more than 50 years.  Rev. Dottie Frank, the pastor of the church, said they would fight the decision.  “We must stand together with those who are suffering,” she said.  “We just can’t stop caring for and feeding those who need us most.”  Scandalous love is in reaching out to those the world says we shouldn’t be reaching out to.  “the son of man came to seek out and save the lost,” Jesus says, which is exactly what Jesus does in today’s passage as well.

Zacchaeus is not a good guy, at least in the eyes of the world in which he lived.  He’s not only a tax collector, but he is the chief tax collector.  Of course with the impending financial cliff, as they are calling it, looming in front of us, we are hearing a lot about taxes right now, as we did in the election, but regardless of our own feelings about taxes, we cannot apply our understanding to that of the ancient world.  What happened in the Roman Empire was that Rome would open up a contract on tax collections, and whoever bid to give them the most money would win.  Then that person, or family, or group, would go out into the cities and countryside to collect whatever they could, with the bare minimum being what they had agreed to pay to Rome.  But, in order to make any money at the enterprise, they had to collect money above what they owed to the Romans.  Rome really didn’t care what tactics tax collectors might use to get the money, as long as there was no unrest caused.  As you might guess the system was ripe for corruption, and the fact that we are told that Zacchaeus was rich tells us that he was really good at what he did, which was shaking people down for everything he could get.  Tax collectors were viewed as traitors to their faith, as collaborators, they weren’t even considered Jewish anymore. 

But then Jesus displays his scandalous love.  Zacchaeus has climbed a sycamore tree in order to see who Jesus was, and Jesus calls him down and tells him that he is going to stay at his house.  In today’s translation, we are told that Zacchaeus is happy, but a better translation of the Greek word here is “rejoiced.”  Zacchaeus rejoiced in welcoming Jesus into his home, and of course the people grumbled.  How can Jesus associate with this sinner?  How could he possibly want to be seen with someone who has betrayed not only his people but his faith?  How can he socialize with one of those people?

But Jesus’ scandalous love says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ home.  The man who is beyond redemption has been redeemed.  Zacchaeus says that he will give half of his money to the poor, and he will give a four-fold restitution to those he has cheated.  The problem is he does not have enough money to carry out what he has pledged to do.  He couldn’t even give a two-fold restitution because everything that he has, all of his wealth is gotten from collecting taxes, so all of it is from cheating and defrauding people either directly or indirectly. Salvation comes to Zacchaeus not because what he pledges to do, but because Jesus has entered his house and because God’s grace and love are truly extravagant and scandalous, and they flow even to those of us who are undeserving of it.  Salvation comes to Zacchaeus because he is willing to climb down from the tree to receive God’s scandalous love, and because of God’s scandalous love Jesus is willing to climb up on a tree and become the Christ.

The Church of the Common Ground is located in Atlanta, Georgia, and every Monday they too run a program reaching out to the homeless population of Atlanta, but there program is a little different.  Every Monday, Rev. Bob Book and a group of volunteers wash the feet of the homeless men and women who show up.  They get a soak, a pumice rub, nail trim, massage and a fresh pair of socks.  The service isn’t merely symbolic, reenacting Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, but it also helps stave off foot infections, which affect the homeless disproportionately, many of which also lead other health problems.  If any of those being served need medical attention for their feet, Rev. Book tells people when they can come back for a free medical exam when there’s a doctor volunteering their time at the church.  And while their feet are being cleaned, other volunteers clean their shoes, providing air fresheners, and even new insoles.  What does scandalous love look like?  Let me provide one more story from scripture.

Hosea, a prophet with whom most of us are probably not familiar, is told by God to go and marry “a wife of whoredom,” that is to take a prostitute as his wife, and so he married Gomer, and later again God tells Hosea “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress.”  And why does God tell Hosea to do this?  Because Gomer, Hosea’s unfaithful wife, represents the Israelites, represents you and I who turn from God, who are unfaithful to the things we are called to do, and yet in spite of all of that God loves us.  God wants to be in relationship with us, and God enteres into this relationship knowing all that will happen.  Hosea says “the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”  I don’t really understand that last part, maybe it’s like living fruit cake, but God loves us scandalously because God loves us regardless of all the things we do wrong, regardless of the fact that we fail to live up to what we are called to do, but God is faithful nonetheless.  God offers a scandalous love that includes pregnant teenage girls, and chief tax collectors, and homeless men and women, and ranchers and teachers and postal employees and those who work for the railroads and retirees and even poor preachers.  God loves each of us scandalously, and what does God want in return?  God wants us to love scandalously as well.

“God is not oblivious to the fact that one child dies every five seconds of a hunger-related cause,” Rev. Mike Slaughter says.  “God knows that one child dies every forty-five seconds from malaria, which could be prevented by a simple mosquito net that costs less than ten dollars.  It is not a secret to him that, each year in Darfur, as many as sixty thousand children die from dehydration due to diarrhea caused by water-borne illnesses,” and I believe that God cries over each of these situations, because they are preventable by scandalous love.  God cries over the 27 people who died in the terrible and senseless shooting on Friday, but God also cries for the average of 55 children and teens that are killed by guns every single week according to the Center for Disease Control.  Every week there is the equivalent of two shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, every single week.  Now in doing some research on this this week, one of the common refrains I read was that that number included teenagers, and in particular African-Americans who are involved in gang activity, implying that they shouldn’t really count because it’s those people who are doing those things.

What Christmas reminds us again is that God’s ways are not our ways.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave us his only son,” John says.  The incarnation is the revelation of God’s scandalous love affair with humanity.  “Behold I bring you good news of great joy,” say the angels to the shepherds, “that shall be for all people.”  It is not good news for some people, it is for all people, “to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the messiah, the lord.”  Good news of great joy that shall be for all people.  God’s love is truly scandalous.  We began this series by talking about the miracles that we might create this Christmas season, and most of those miracles are created simply by offering a scandalous love.

Hosea loves Gomer, and Jesus goes Zacchaeus’ home, and Bishop Willimon visits prisoners on death row, and Elizabeth, pregnant with her own scandalous child John the Baptist, says to Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  I’m sure that is not the greeting that Mary expected, but that is the scandalous love that she received.  What the Christmas story shows us time and time again is that God’s ways are not our ways.  God loves scandalously and bounteously, but God wants us to live the same way. 

Helzberg Diamonds is currently running an ad, in which they are asking us to tell them “how you know you’re loved.”  Of course what they want is for you to buy a diamond, or to receive a diamond, in order to prove that you love or that you are loved, but you want to know the ultimate way that you know that you are loved?  It is to look into the manger and to know that we have received  the greatest gift that the world has ever received, the gift of the Christ child, because God so loved the world, and it is because of the scandalous love of God  that God loves each and every one of us, and wants to be in relationship with each and every one of us, and who wants us to return that love, by having us offer a scandalous love the world.  The question that must then be answered is what are we going to do about that?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Giving Up On Perfect

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 9:18-27.   This series was based on A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

This is a famous painting by Norman Rockwell, and it has been used to represent the sort of perfect holiday gathering. Grandma and grandpa serving the turkey with the entire family gathered around.  It, along with much else that Rockwell had to paint, have become a symbol of a sort of lost time in America, except for the fact that these times never really existed.  Rockwell himself said that he didn’t paint what was, but instead what he hoped to be.  But still, we have sanitized, idealized and idolized this image, just as we have done with Rockwell’s other paintings of the holidays, that this is what things are supposed to look like, these are what we are to strive for, and if we don’t make it look like this then we are missing something, because surely others are having these types of holidays aren’t they?  And so we strive to have that perfect Christmas, and we strive and we strive and we strive, and yet we never quite get there, it’s always that allusive thing that’s just beyond our grasp, and so we simply say, “well next year, this is what we will do differently in order to make it perfect,” and yet next year is never perfect either.  We try and live into this perfect picture, this perfect world, this perfect ideal, but not only can it never be, but it never ever was either.  And we’ve done the same thing with our story of the nativity as well, in order to sentimentalize it, we have removed the reality from it, and made it out to be this perfect scene.

If you were here on Christmas eve last year, I asked you to picture any nativity set you’ve ever had or ever seen, and just like the one we are assembling here, where Mary looks peaceful and serene, not at all tired after having just walked 80 plus miles and then given birth to a baby, and Joseph looks on adoringly.  Even our Christmas hymns sanitize it all.  In Away in a Manger, we sing “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”  So let me get this straight, a newborn is woken up suddenly by cows mooing, but he doesn’t cry?  That’s unlike any infant I’ve ever been around.  I understand that Jesus is special, but am I really supposed to believe he didn’t cry when a cow woke him up from his nap?

Growing up my favorite songs were two Bing Crosby classics, Do You Hear What I Hear? and The Little Drummer Boy, but it’s the second of those that is really at the heart of ridiculousness.  What person, even a young first time mother, is going to let anyone play a drum around a baby, especially one that is not yet crying, and what about the ox and lamb who are keeping time, or the other barnyard animals, as we all know there is a certain odiferousness that comes along with them, and flies and everything else, but that is not what we think of when we picture the nativity.  We have created an image in our minds and in our art of perfection that cannot be achieved, that we hold up and imagine every year at Christmas.

Last week we heard the annunciation made to Mary that she has “found favor with God” and that she will conceive and bear a son.  A girl, maybe no older than 13 or 14, is told that she is to become pregnant outside of marriage, without having relations with her betrothed.  This is not a blessing, this is something which can and often did result in the death penalty, and she’s supposed to be happy about this?  And then there’s Joseph, who finds out that Mary is pregnant and he is supposed to stay with her, even though the child is not his, and he is supposed to be happy about it.  This is one of those times that we might say it’s not a blessing but a curse, or maybe with friends like God, who needs enemies?  Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts at some point in your life.  Now maybe they were truly happy, but I imagine instead a lot of turmoil and worry and consternation and alarm and anxiety and fear and apprehension.  I don’t imagine that they just simply sat back and thanked God for everything that was happening and wondered how they could be so blessed and important.

And then just at the time that Jesus is to be born, Mary and Joseph have to leave their home and travel back to Bethlehem. Just at the time that Mary needs the women in her life to support her during the birth of her child, including her cousin Elizabeth who has already given birth to the baby who will become John the Baptist, she is left all alone.  And they reach Bethlehem, but there was no room in the inn, and so Mary gives birth.  We are actually not told in scripture where the birth takes place, we tend to think of it as being in a barn, or maybe a cave, but we are not told.  It’s just as likely that she gave birth in the street, all that we do know is that she laid the baby in a manger, which is a feeding trough.  And then Mary and Joseph are visited by a bunch of shepherds, who are not seen as being a respectable group of people, in fact they, like women, could not testify in court because they were not considered trustworthy, and let’s be honest, they’ve been out in the fields, and have probably been there for a long time, and so they has to be a certain odor that comes with them.  And so there are Mary and Joseph and the baby, surrounded by the mud and the muck of the street, and the stench and effluvia of the animals, and the shepherds, and maybe someone pounding on their drum.

This was about as imperfect of a birth as you can get.  And then we are told, that sometime between the birth and the time he turns two, that Mary and Joseph must flee with Jesus and go to live as exiles in Egypt, because Herod orders the death of all male children under the age of two.  It’s a good thing the Egyptians did not have a strict anti-illegal immigrant policy.  Is that how you picture the birth of Jesus?  Is that the image you conjure in your mind of what that night, and the days that followed must have been like?  It was definitely not like a Norman Rockwell painting, and it was far from perfect.  And so how does that true image of what happened that night fit into our idea of the perfect celebration of Christmas?  And with all this in mind what does it mean to call Jesus and to understand Jesus as the messiah?

In his story, The Wise Men, Mike O’Marry recalls his second grade Christmas pageant at his catholic school.  “I  played one of the three wise men,” he says.  “I was the second wise man–the one who brought the frankincense.  I enjoyed being one of the wise men. There were bigger parts–Mary and Joseph had pretty substantial roles, and even the innkeeper and shepherds had more lines–but being a wise man was quite a distinction. You had to carry yourself with grace and dignity. You had to look wise.   That’s why I was a little confused when I learned that Mike Walston had also been designated a wise man.  Mike Walston was singled out as different, possibly ignorant, and, generally speaking, not a good person to associate with. All I knew was that the honor of being designated a wise man had been diminished by my having to share that distinction with Mike Walston. And to make matters worse, he was the head wise man. He was to present the gold.

We began rehearsals right after Thanksgiving. We three kings would stand in the wings during most of rehearsal, Mike Walston first, me behind him, and Joey Amback, the myrrh guy, behind me. When it was time for us to enter, Mike Walston, being gold, would lead the way.  Unfortunately, Mike Walston was having trouble remembering his lines. (“We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”) As we got closer to opening night, Mike Walston was still having trouble. Many of us speculated that Sister Julia would have to make a switch, and I, being frankincense and the next wise man on the totem pole, was the likely candidate to move up. So when Sister Julia asked me to stay after school the day before the performance, I was prepared: If she felt my talents were better suited to the role of head wise man, I would, with all due grace and dignity, accept the promotion and present gold to the Christ-child on opening night.  But that’s not what Sister Julia wanted. Instead, I heard these shocking words: “I want you to help Mike Walston remember his lines when we perform the play tomorrow night.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  “I want you to practice his lines with him before you go on stage,” Sister Julia continued, “and if he forgets his lines when he kneels down by the baby Jesus, I want you to kneel down beside him and whisper his lines to him so the audience doesn’t know he forgot.”  I walked home that day in a daze. This was not the way it was supposed to be. Nonetheless, the next night, I did as Sister Julia told me and Mike Walston and I went right to work on his lines: “We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”  He did it fine offstage when he was relaxed, but I was afraid that once we got on stage, he’d freeze. I was prepared though: if he froze, I’d kneel down beside him and bail him out. If nothing else, my friends would know who was the hero and who was the goat.  The play went on and then it was time for our big entrance.

Mike Walston led us across the stage toward the Star of Bethlehem and the manger. With Mary and Joseph looking on, Mike knelt in front of the baby Jesus and–didn’t say a word. He froze. I was about to kneel down to help him, but just then, he glanced up at me and smiled a big smile. Then he turned, looked at Mary, and spat out his lines: “We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”  I was stunned. There was a fairly long pause before Joey Amback gave me a nudge. Then I remembered where I was. I knelt down next to Mike Walston, turned to Mary, and said, “And I bring you gold.”

I couldn’t believe my own words. I was the frankincense guy, but I had said, plain as day, “I bring you gold.” There was a shocked hush over the entire church basement audience–broken only by a few nervous coughs–until Joey Amback knelt next to me and said, “Yeah, I bring you gold, too.”  Then the whole audience roared. The third wise man had bailed me out. Life in the second grade would go on. I would not have to spend my remaining days standing against the fence during recess. And Mike Walston would receive kudos for his fine performance.

The lesson stuck with me. Years later, when my boss was having trouble and there was talk of replacing him, I remembered the Christmas play and lent him a hand. There’s room for compassion in this world. I know firsthand that even the wisest of wise men stumble once in a while."

It wasn’t in the perfection of that Christmas pageant that Mike O’Marry encountered the true meaning of Christmas and what it means to be a disciple, nor was it in the perfection that he encountered the grace of God.  No, God was found for Mike O’Marry, and the lessons he learned were found in the imperfections.

Who do the crowds say that I am, Jesus asks the disciples.  Jesus has just fed the five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes, so they must think he’s someone important.  And so Peter gives him some answer, but then Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?”  That is the question that all of us must answer, and Peter’s answer is “The Messiah of God.”  For Luke this proclamation of Peter is directly related to the nativity story, because Peter is the first person to make the proclamation since the angels say to the shepherds “to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the messiah, the Lord.”  But to understand the proclamation of Lordship of Jesus as Messiah, Jesus then makes clear what comes with that, and that is to pick up our cross daily and to follow him.  This is not really about the readiness to die in the time of persecution, but instead about yielding ourselves to God every single day, continually following and continually picking up our cross.  This is the ultimate mark of giving up on perfection because it is giving ourselves over entirely to God and letting God guide us and lead us, and that is bound to lead us into things that are less than perfect.

And what we discover is that it is in the mess and the muck and the stuff of life where we find God.  In fact I might even argue that God is not found in perfection, but instead in imperfection.  Jesus says I did not come to save the righteous, but sinners.  God is not found in perfection, God is found in imperfection.  God does not come in spite of the mud and the muck and the imperfect stuff of our lives, God comes because of those things, and when we treat God as a way to give us whatever we want, most importantly at this time of year some sense of perfection, then not only do we miss out on our call to discipleship but we miss out on encountering God altogether.  God is not found in perfection, God is found in imperfection, and we celebrate the birth of Jesus’, Immanuel, God with us, in the midst of all of this stuff of our lives, because the true miracle of Christmas is that in the midst of all of this stuff in our lives God shows up.  God shows up in the most unimaginable of places and is born to the most unimaginable of parents, and the good news is given to the most unimaginable of people, even us.  It is time for us to give up our search for holiday perfection because God is not found in perfection, God is with us in our imperfection, not inspite of it, but because of it.

I have spent my entire adult life searching for a Norman Rockwell Christmas
And I have never found it” says an online poem written by Paula.
“I want everything to be perfect.
I want a huge, real pine tree. Decorated with perfect lights.
Garland perfectly wrapped around and around.
Perfect Christmas ornaments hung perfectly spaced.
Perfectly wrapped presents with perfect ribbon and bows.
The smells of Christmas waft through the house.
Cinnamon, wassail, pine and cookies.
Perfectly dressed children sitting patiently under the tree waiting
to take turns unwrapping those perfectly wrapped gifts.
Then they scream and oh and ah that it is the perfect present.
"Just what I wanted"
Then the family gathers around the piano and sings Christmas Carols
while the snow falls outside. And the stars twinkle.
And the carolers sing.
And everyone is happy.
And in the oven is baking the perfect turkey.
To be served with all the perfect side dishes.
And everyone is happy.
that has never, ever happened at my house.
In fact one year my son so aptly pointed out
"Mom, we don't even own a piano."
So I am not looking anymore.
Cause my artificial tree with a string of lights that don't work is perfect.
And the presents that are unevenly wrapped and have no ribbons and bow are perfect.
And the kids that will sit under our tree, while not perfect, are happy.
And they will oh and ah and be happy with what they get.
And hopefully there won't be any snow.
And we are having ham and not turkey.
And I might try to make some wassail.
How hard can that be?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Expect A Miracle

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 4:16-21.  This sermon series was based on the book A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

In the movie Grand Canyon, Mary McDonell’s character finds a baby which has been abandoned under a bush, in talking with her husband, played by Kevin Kline, she tells him that her finding the baby was a miracle, which he discounts.  But she responds that maybe miracles are so rare that we don’t notice them when they occur.  While I love that movie, that line has always struck me as being wrong.  if something is really rare, those are the things we tend to notice.  So instead of being rare, maybe miracles are in fact so common that we no longer notice them, they are in fact so common they we no longer call them miracles, they are in fact so common that they pass us by every single day, maybe even the ones being done by us, and we never even notice they are there.

And if we ignore miracles during the rest of the year, I think we’re even more prone to ignore them during Christmas because most of us just want to get through it, we can’t wait until it’s over.  In Dr. Seuss’ classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he says “the Grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season, oh don’t ask why no one quite knows the reason…”  But for most of us we could be able to name the reason.  It’s a time of stress and hustle and bustle, it’s a time of even busier schedules and fuller calendars, or maybe we are dealing with loss or illness or one of the many other things that keep us from even believing it’s the most wonderful time of the year, let alone living like it, and so we miss the miracles of the season, the small ones and even more importantly the big ones.  We become so obsessed with the things we are told to be focusing on during this time of the year, that we even miss the gift of Jesus Christ in our lives.  Is there another way to live and a different way of doing Christmas?  I think there is, and so today we begin looking at a different way.  Over the next four weeks will focus on the ways that Christmas can, and does, make a difference in our lives, based on a series created by Rev. Mike Slaughter, and promoted by the church for this advent season

Today’s passage from Luke is really about one of those miracles, and in two very different ways.  In Luke this is the first message that Jesus delivers, it happens even before Jesus has called the twelve disciples.  If we ask what is the Gospel, which literally means good news, for Luke?  It is a message of redemption, welcome and inclusion.  This is miracle of what Jesus represents to us, and the miracle of his birth.  But for those who hear the gospel message of hope in this passage, then it is also a witness of a miracle.  Picking up the scroll and reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

For the poor, for the blind, for the oppressed, for the captives, this is a miracle message of hope that not only has God heard their cries, but that is doing something about it.  That Jesus is going to make this proclamation to them, to us, and to the entire world about why he has come.  Jesus has come to proclaim the acceptable year of the lord’s favor, which means the year of jubilee, or the 49th year when all debts would be forgiven.  Now that would truly be a miracle, and it has been a claim that has brought hope to people as long as the statement has been made.  “the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me” he has appointed you “to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me” he has sent you, “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  What miracle does the world need this Christmas?  Who do you know who needs a miracle this Christmas?  What miracle do you need this Christmas?

Since we’re in an area in which you understand the importance of high school football, and especially understand what it is like in Texas, so you will understand what happened at Grapevine Faith Christian School in 2008 that made it so remarkable.  Located 20 miles north of Dallas, the Faith Lions, as they are called, had 70 players, 11 coaches, the best equipment money could buy and were 7-2 going into a game against a team from Gainesville.  Although only another 50 miles to the north, Gainesville might as well have been a million miles away because of the differences.

They only had 14 players and 1 coach, had no field and so every game was on the road.  They usually only had a few fans who traveled with them and that did not include any cheerleaders or band, and they went into the game with Grapevine at 0-8, having scored only two touchdowns the entire season.  For you see the Gainesville school is a maximum security prison for teenagers.  Knowing the great disparity between the two teams, Faith’s head coach Kris Horgan came up with a truly radical idea.  What if for one game, he said, the Faith community split their fans in half and had a full sideline cheering for the other team, and what if they sent their JV cheer line over in order to lead their fans in cheers for the other team?

After this idea was announced, one player walked into the coach’s office and asked why they were doing this?  The coach responded “Imagine if you didn’t have a home life.  Imagine if everyone had pretty much given up on you.  Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”  And so for one night, when the Gainesville players got off the bus and had their handcuffs removed, they ran onto the field through a throng of cheering fans and through a paper banner held for them by their cheerleaders, and the stands on their side of the field were full of people cheering for them.  “I thought they were confused” said one Gainesville player, “they started yelling ‘dee-fense!’ when their team had the ball.”  Another player said “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games.  You can see it in their eyes.  They’re lookin at us like were criminals.  But these people, they were yellin for us!  By our names!”

Coach Horgan’s message to the Faith community was simple: “here’s the message I want you to send,” he said, I want you to let them know that they “are just as valuable as any other person on planet earth.”  Although Faith beat them 33-14, for one night the Gainesville Football players were just as normal as anyone else.  After the game, as the faith players gathered at the center of the field for prayer, the Gainesville quarterback and linebacker, whose name was Isaiah, as if you need another message from God, joined them and asked if he could lead the prayer.  “We had no idea what the kid was going to say,” Coach Horgan said, but Isaiah said this: Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank you, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”  As the Gainesville players made their way back to the bus, surrounded by 12 uniformed guards and were handcuffed for the ride back the prison, their coach grabbed coach Horgan and said “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight.  You’ll never, ever know.”

The spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed us to proclaim miracles to the world, and more importantly to expect miracles and even to be the miracle workers.  Maybe it will be as simple as Nine Nanas, an anonymous group of women who bake cakes for people they know who need a pick-me-up, which they then leave on their front porches with a note that simply says, “somebody loves you.”  Maybe it’s as simple as Teresa Gavin, who inspired by an anonymous donor who gave a kidney to her uncle, decided to give one of her kidneys, and her act spun a group of 30 other people who also paid it forward and donated a kidney to others.  Or maybe it’s as simple as two strangers who lifted Patrick Connelly out of his wheel chair and held him on their shoulders for 20 minutes in 100-degree heat so that he could actually see Blake Shelton perform at the concert he was attending.

The prophet Isaiah, the same one whom Jesus quotes, says “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named wonderful counselor, mighty God, ever lasting Father, prince of peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.”  The simple truth is God does not bring about amazing miracles through great actions, “miracles” Rev. Slaughter said  “are conceived and delivered through ordinary people who are willing to dream God’s dreams and then act on God’s vision.

One of the biggest obstacles to revealing and creating miracles is the simple fact that we don’t think we can do it, that the problems are too big for us, or we don’t know where to begin.  “If we really try to grasp the full import of” of what we are trying to do, Carolyn Bush says, “we may despair, or try to hide or run away because we do not know what is to be done.  That is where faith communities come into place,” she says.  “(Faith communities) believe in the possibility of transformation, of turning around from the path we have been following.  Equally as important, in the Christian faith tradition, is hope.”    Immanuel means God with us.  “God doesn’t need your ability” Mike Slaughter says,  “God will work the miracle through you – all God needs is your availability and commitment to act.”

In your bulletin you will find a card, and on that card I want you to write a “Christmas Miracle Wish List” for the world.  I want you to write 3-4 miracles, or more if you would like, that you would like to see happen this year, and then I want you to select one and commit to a specific way that you can make on these Christmas miracles happen this year. What will be your miracle this year?  What miracle will you bring about this year?  what miracle do you need this year?  To make change in the world, we must become the change that we seek.

This reminds me of the starfish story written by Loren Eiseley, which some of you probably also know:
One day a man is walking down by the ocean, when he sees someone else father down the beach who looked like he is dancing.  The man smiles when he thinks of someone who would dance to the day, and so he picks up his step.  As he gets closer he sees that it is a young man, and he is not dancing at all, instead he is running around picking up small objects and throwing them into the ocean.  As he gets even closer he sees hundreds of starfish that have been washed up on the shore, and this is what the young boy is picking up and throwing.  “Why are you throwing the starfish into the ocean?”, the man asks the boy.  The boy replies, “The sun is up and the tide is going out, and if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”  Upon hearing this, the man looks up and down the beach and says “young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish everywhere.  You can’t possible make a difference!”  At this the young man bends down picks up another starfish, throws it into the ocean and says “I made a difference for that one.”

Picking up the scroll and reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  What miracles will God accomplish through you this Christmas?  What miracles are you willing to undertake?  Christmas is about a miracle, but miracles don’t just happen they are born, just as Jesus is, through labors of pain.  We are the mean’s to bring about God’s change in the world.  We have the power to do amazing things, we have the power to create miracles both big and small because the spirit of the lord is upon me, and it upon you, it is upon all of us, to preach the good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  The power of the lord is upon us to be miracle workers this Christmas season.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What Shall We Serve?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 6:24-33:

At my last church, every Thanksgiving we took up a food collection to give meals to 200 families in inner-city Boston, but every year I found much amusement because when people brought the food in, they had a kneeling rail, which is actually the remnants of fences in churches, but they would stack up the food on the top rail of the kneeling rail.  And every year I would tell them that out here in the west we too stack up cans on the top railing of fencing, but we do this for a much different purpose.  (we shoot them off).

This reminded someone of a similar amusing experience they had.  One of the members of their congregation had brought her young granddaughter who was visiting with her to church, and they too were taking up food for the local food pantry.  So there were cans and boxes of food stacked up around the altar.  The little girl was interested in what was going on, and so asked her grandmother what all the food was for, and she was told that the church collects the food to give to the poor who otherwise would not have enough to eat.  Now, it also happened that this particular congregation’s choir processed up the center aisle every week as well (don’t get ahead of me).  So as the choir approached the little girl she cried out “Look grandma!  Here come the poor people now!”

Today in the church we sort of celebrate two events.  The first is Christ the King Sunday, which is the culmination of the Christian year.  Normally the passage for Christ the King is an apocalyptic passage, but since we have been talking about apocalyptic works for the past three weeks, we also sort of spent three weeks exploring the idea of Christ as King, that Christ will come again to rule.  Many of the hymns we sang over the past three weeks were also ones that are typically sung for Christ the King Sunday.  But we also are on the tail end of celebrating Thanksgiving, a day in which we give thanks by watching football and overindulging, and then spend the day after, or at least some of us do, an approximately 308 individual store visits and 11.5 billion dollars, in order to buy things they had just said the day before they didn’t need in order to be happy.  So perhaps today’s passage from Matthew is an appropriate one to be assigned for reading on Thanksgiving.

Matthew places this lesson as part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Although the teaching is also included in Luke, he places it much later in the story.  I have also expanded what the lectionary calls for by including the line prior to the main passage about not being able to worship both God and mammon because I believe we have to hear this in order to understand what Jesus says about not worrying about tomorrow.  We often throw out the line about not being able to love God and money as a claim about the problems of wealth, certainly you have heard me saying a lot over the past few months.  And that is important, but mammon is about more than just money as we see by the passage that immediately follows.

This line wasn’t meant to apply just to those who have wealth, but even to those who are poor because the desire to have wealth and things is just as damaging as actually having those things.  It is in thinking that only if we have one more thing then we will be truly happy.  Indeed, American Capitalism is based almost solely these days on the massive spending that we do on things that we are told that we “need.”  We are inundated by these ads all the time, and they will only get worse as we get to the culmination of excessive spending and overconsumption, which is Christmas.  How did that happen?  How did we flip the idea of Christmas on its head, and let it become what it has become?  How did we come to believe that in order to celebrate the greatest gift that the world has ever received, the person of Christ, that we need to go out and buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t even like?

One of the things that strike me about this statement of Jesus, is that it does not say, “if you worry,” as if some of us might worry about these things, while others might not.  Instead Jesus tells us not to worry, knowing that worrying is just part of who we are.  But part of the problem with this, is as someone said “telling someone not to worry is like telling them not to think of an elephant.  As soon as you say it, all you can think about is the elephant.”  As soon as we here, don’t worry about what you are going to eat, or drink or wear, we either start worrying about it, or we wonder how it’s even possible not to worry about it.

Now there are some people who don’t worry about these things.  One group are those who are so wealthy that they don’t need to worry, although while we might think that if we had several million dollars in the bank that we wouldn’t worry, but it’s not true.  I’ve known several people whose personal fortunes put them into the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans, and few of them didn’t worry about things.  In fact most of them were focused on making more money because they thought what they had wasn’t enough, and those that didn’t worry, except for one notable exception, did not think about the poor.

And it is the poor, who also can be those who don’t worry, but they didn’t worry because they have given up, not because they are not truly concerned about these issues.  They have given up, because there does not seem to be an hope available, and dollar amounts that would seem trivial to most of us can mean the different between life and death for their children, although they have little hope of coming up with those amounts.  These are people we see on the news whenever they decide to cover one of the tragedies taking place somewhere in the world.  But it is at times like this that we take Jesus statement from today, and combine it with his cry of anguish from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

This is part of the tension of living a Christian life in which we have lamentations as a part of our belief, and also these statements that tell us to simply have faith.  But we have to remember that the request in the Lord’s prayer to give us this day our daily bread, is not just some idle request, or some empty phrase.  For the people that Jesus originally spoke to, many of them would not have known where their next meal may come from, and the same really remains true for us as well, regardless of how well off financially we may or may not be.

Some have taken the last line of today’s reading, “strive first for the kingdom of God… and all these things will be given to you,” as a statement that God will give us everything we ask for, including wealth and possessions, if only we had enough faith, or the right type of faith.  This is known as the gospel of wealth, and it really says that if you are poor, if you are worried about these things, it’s because we don’t have enough faith in God, otherwise God would have given them to us.  But I think that is the farthest thing from what Jesus is actually saying here.  Nor is Jesus saying that all we need to do is simply sit back and let God do everything, which is known as quietism.  Strive for the kingdom of God.  This is not a statement that says that God will take care of everything.  It is a statement about faith and faithfulness because in order to strive for something we have to be active and engaged and energized and doing the right things in the world.

I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that in Matthew 25, in the story of the sorting of the sheep and the goats, that Jesus talks about the very same things he addresses in today’s passage.  When people come to meet Christ for the final judgment, what Jesus looks at, and what the people ask Jesus is “when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty … or naked… and did not take care of you.”   And what does Jesus say?  “whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me.”  One of the ways, and maybe the most important way that God is in service to the world is through us, in allowing our hands and using our hands to do God’s work in the world.  We are called to proclaim the gospel message to the world, we are to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God, and as St. Francis famously said, we should even use words when we have to.  God knows we need these things, just as we know we need them, but when we align ourselves with God, when we decide to fully serve God, it’s not that these things just magically appear, although sometimes it’s amazing how sometimes they do, but instead it’s as we have talked about for the past few weeks, when we have faith in God and put our trust in God then we can have joy and hope and peace and assurance regardless of what is going on in our lives.

In Ireland, there are circles of stones or mushrooms that seem to appear naturally, and are known as fairy circles.  Within Irish mythology these circles are believed to hold mythically creatures, like fairies, hence the name.  When he was visiting Ireland, the author Michael Lewis asked his driver if Irish people actually believed in fairies, and he was told says “I mean if you walked right up and asked [them] to [their] face, “Do you believe in fairies?” most will deny it.  But if you ask [them] to dig up the fairy ring on [their] property [they] won’t do it.  To my way of thinking, that’s believing.”

Ralph and Cheryl Broetje are owners of the largest privately owned orchard in the United States.  Consisting of nearly 1 million trees spread across 5500 acres in western Washington, they annually pack 5.5 million boxes of fruit in a 1.1 million square foot packing and storage facility, and employ 700 full-time workers.  What is striking about this business is not only the size, but how they run their operation.  Broetje Orchards gives away roughly 75% of their profits, including 100% of their profits from their cherry orchards, every single year.  One of the reasons I like Ben and Jerry’s is because they give out a portion of their profits too, but they only give away 10%.  Ralph and Cheryl give away nearly 75% which finances outreaching projects not just in Washington, but around the world. but that’s not all.

When they saw that many of their employees where pulling their older children out of school in order to have them watch their younger siblings, they made a commitment to provide quality education, housing and training to all of their employees.  Today they have a housing development which rents 126 single-family homes at below market values to their employees.  They also subsidize their on-site preschool so that no one ever pays more than $7 a day, no matter how many children they have attending.  But that’s not all.

When they decided to add machinery to their packing facility in 2004 they could have installed new highly efficient equipment which would have forced them to lay off some of their employees.  Instead, they added machinery which was not quite as efficient but did allow them to add 35 positions.  And if that was still not enough, and for me this speaks more about their faith than anything, in 2006 when 70% of the apple crop was wiped out by a hail storm their insurance company told them they would pay on the policy but only if no harvesting was done.  That meant they would have to lay-off several hundred of their year-round workers, and not hire any of the even more migrant workers who come to work their orchard each year.  Instead, Cheryl and Ralph said they decided to trust God, discarded the insurance money and went ahead and picked the fruit.  They were able to keep everyone employed and broke even that year.  Imagine what a very different place we might be in today if all our companies were being run more like Broetje orchard.  Imagine if we lived our lives like the Broetje’s do.

We are going to worry that’s just part of who we are.  The question is are we living our lives claiming allegiance to God, but living differently, living as Craig Groeschel has said as Christian atheists, or do we actually live our lives believing and acting as if god truly is in control?  You cannot have two masters Jesus says, because you can only be devoted to one, so are we devoted to God, or are we devoted to things and the pursuit of things, trying to put our reliance on ourselves?  At this time of year we are supposed to be taking time to stop and reflect as we give thanks for our blessings and as we prepare to again gather around the manager and welcome the Christ child, but instead our culture wants to push us faster and faster. Do we only believe that God is in control and that we are pledging our allegiance to God, or do we actually live it out in our lives as well?

In order to understand Matthew’s view of his Christology, that is who Christ is for us, we have to understand his eschatology, that is what the end of time will be like, and to understand his eschatology we have to understand his Christology.  The two are inherently linked.  How we live our lives, Matthew is saying, or Jesus is saying, is driven by our view of Christ and our view of what is to come.  “Strive first for the kingdom of God,” Jesus says.  Strive first for the kingdom of God and for God’s righteousness, give thanks to God and give your allegiance to God, and all these things will be given to you.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book of Revelation: A Proclamation of Hope

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Revelation 21:1-7:

Last week we talked about the four traditional ways of interpreting Revelation.  The first, and the most recent was that of the futurist perspective, which, even though it is the most prominent one in America today, it didn’t really come into a major interpretive model until the late 19th century.  The futurist perspective has argued that everything that is talked about in Revelation has not yet taken place, that it is all in the future.  The futurist perspective replaced the historicist perspective, which said that some things talked about in Revelation had already been fulfilled, and some are yet to be fulfilled.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was a historicist. There are several problems with these positions, but the two biggest in my opinion, are first that it is seen as a blueprint for the future, which I don’t think it is, and they also see Revelation as presenting a linear progression, that is chapter seven leads directly to 8, which leads to nine, etc.  Except, if you read Revelation, you’ll see that that is not how Revelation operates.  It does not run from one thing to the next to the next.  Instead there is a sort of circular pattern, and is repetitive in what it portrays.

The third model is the Preterist model which says that what John was talking about was applying simply to his own time, and that the events have already taken place.  This model helps to seek to explain the two most troubling images with which most people are familiar.  The first is the whore of Babylon, of whom we are told “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery; “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.  And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.”  This woman is seated on one of the beasts described earlier which has seven heads, and then we are told “the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.”  Now this is a little question on history and myth.  What city was built on seven mountains, or seven hills?  That’s right, it’s Rome, and so we are told who the beast is.  Two weeks ago we also talked about the Romans destroying the second temple.  What empire destroyed the first Temple?  The Babylonians, so there is a direct connection made here between the empires that destroyed the Temple, so the whore of Babylon and the beast both represent the Roman empire, who are the powers who run the world, and they are also the ones who are pe

And while many emperors did this, Nero was perhaps best known.  Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome, and so began arresting them and having them killed.  They were introduced into the Roman coliseum to be killed by animals, and it is even reported that Nero would have Christians covered in pitch or tar, and then at night lit on fire at his Roman palace not only to provide light, but also to provide entertainment for his guests.  As you might imagine, Nero was not well thought of by Christians, and in fact his treatment of Christians became so bad that other, non-Christians and non-Jews began to object to his treatment.  As his reign came to an end, and his generals and the senate turned against him, Nero committed suicide.  But rumors began to spread, especially in the eastern provinces, the very places that John was writing to, that Nero had not in fact died and that he would return to power.  Augustine records in the year 422 that this was still a popular story.  So there was great fear of Nero, which leads us into the most well known declarations from Revelation, and that is the mark of the beast, which we are told is 666.  What does this number mean and whom does it represent?

Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value attached to it, so if you add up the values of Hebrew spelling of Nero Caesar you get the value of 666.  But here is an interesting quirk, some manuscripts of Revelation do not say that the mark of the beast is 666, but instead 616.  And this can also be explained, because there is a character in Hebrew called the aleph, which is actually not pronounced, if you spell Nero Caesar without the aleph on Nero’s name, then the values add up to 616.  Now the use of 666 was more symbolic because it is an ultimate mark of imperfection.  Seven is an important number in Revelation, and is a sign of perfection, and so three sevens is even more perfect, so three sixes is then the sign of the ultimate imperfection.  So regardless of who we might hear has the mark of the best, and it is an ever changing person, the only person for whom both 666 and 616 work is the emperor Nero.

One more point to clarify is something that many people think is in Revelation, but which is in fact not only not in Revelation, but not even truly in scripture and that is the rapture.  For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, the rapture refers to claim that Jesus will come and back and all true Christians will instantly be taken up into heaven.  The rapture will then be followed by seven years of tribulation, or warfare, until Christ comes again at the end of the seven years for the judgment, which will then bring in a millennium of peace.  People who believe in this are called premillenialists, that is the judgment is before the millennium.  Those who follow the Left Behind novels, or ascribe to that theology are almost exclusively premillinialists.  There are others who are post-millenialists, that the final judgment will come after the millennium, and there are also amelinialists, people who say that the millennial referred to in Revelation is like other things, a symbol, not something to be taken as literal.  These tend to be people who follow the final interpretive model which is known as the idealist, which says that Revelation and all apocalyptic literature are not to be taken literally, but instead are about the struggle between good and evil in all times and places and to give us a sense of hope and encouragement.

There are two passages that are most used to justify the rapture, and this is one of those times in which you can say that you can get the Bible to say anything you want to, especially if you take them out of their context.  The first comes from Revelation Ch 3 v 10 in which John is writing to the church in Philadelphia (and that’s not Pennsylvania), and says “because you have kept my word, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming.”  But the Greek here can also be translated as something like “keep you throughout the trials,” and if we continue reading the context of the passage he continues “hold fast to what you have so that no one may seize your crown.  If you conquer…”  you will be rewarded, which indicates to me not that they will escape, but instead that there will be martyrs, and that the people need to remain faithful in the face of that persecution.  But the most important passage comes from 1 Thessalonians, Paul says “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”  But what Paul is talking about here is the resurrection of the dead and the final coming of Christ, not a secret coming.  The Thessalonians were concerned that some of their members had died and so they were worried that they would miss out on the second coming, and so Paul is telling them not to worry that they will all participate when Jesus returns.   For 1800 years no one read this passage this way.  It wasn’t until John Nelson Darby came up with this interpretation, which he needed in order to explain his very unique and new interpretation of revelation, that this came into being.

I do not subscribe to the idea of the rapture, and here is the biggest reason why, it’s escapist.  We are not called to be escapist, and that is not what John is telling the churches either.  While we are called to be not of the world, and that is clearly part of John’s message, we are called to be in the world.  When James and John ask for positions of power, when they ask for the things that the world says we should seek, what does Jesus say?  Can you drink from the cup from which I drink?  They say they can, but initially they can’t.  Even Jesus asks that the cup be removed from him, but then concludes, “But not my will, but thy will be done.”  When Jesus is on the cross, the people mock him and tell him to order his angels to come down and save him, in other words to perform his escape, but he doesn’t, instead he endures to the end.  And Jesus tells us to do what daily?  Pick up our cross and follow him.  We are not called to escapism, we are not called to rejoice somewhere else while others suffer and tortured, instead we are called to persevere, to remain faithful, to continue proclaiming the gospel message of God’s love and forgiveness even in the midst of suffering and despair, and the rapture bypasses all of that.

But, here is the really bad news for all of you, or at least most of you, if the rapture does exist, which again I do not believe, according to Lehay and Jenkins, the writers of Left Behind, you will not be taken in the rapture because you are sitting here in a Methodist church, and according to them we are not true Christians, we are apostates.  That is we are no longer even practicing the same religion, and since only true Christians will be raptured, that means we will be left behind. 
But not only does the rapture revel in escapism, but the futurist perspective also seems to revel in the idea of violence itself, especially in violence that might be done to those who think, look, and act differently than themselves.  This theology is used to justify and support lots of things that I do not believe we should be supporting, while ignoring many of the problems in the world that I believe that we are called as followers of Christ to address.  John sees a vision in which he is told that only the Lion of the tribe of Judah, of the root of David, who has conquered can open the scroll, and he looks around, but rather than seeing the lion, the symbol of force, he instead sees a lamb, with the marks of slaughter on it.  As Bruce Metzger said, “He looked to see power and force, by which the enemies of the faith would be destroyed, and he sees sacrificial love and gentleness as the way to win the victory.”

It is not violence that is redemptive it is the love of God that is redemptive.   It is not the lion who overcomes the power of the world, it is a lamb, a slain lamb, that redeems the world.  Even in one of the most powerful scenes, and one used by futurists to defend violence, Jesus, who is called the word, rides in on a white horse and he pulls from his mouth a sword.  This, however, is not the sword of violence, it is the sword of the word, and it is the proclamation of the gospel.  As they say, the pen is mightier than the sword.  The powers and the principalities don’t ultimately conquer because they can’t.  They don’t ultimately even understand what power, true power even looks like.  They think it is force and the exertion of will, but true power comes, as Jesus says, in laying down your life for your friends. 
Revelation is about the power of the slain lamb, not the power of the sword, and it culminates in this beautiful message of ultimate redemption and reconciliation, in the coming of the New Jerusalem in which death and crying will be no more, in which suffering and sorrow will be no more, in which pain will be no more, in which the Kingdom of God will come and the creation will be complete once again.  That is the message of hope that is proclaimed in the Book of Revelation.

John is writing to these seven churches in Asia and is encountering two things.  One is those who have become complacent in their faith and he is telling them to repent and turn to the ways of God.  But John is also writing to churches that are faithful, but which are facing, or will be facing persecution because of that faithfulness, and he is telling them that they must remain faithful even in the midst of everything else that is going on.  Some of them will become martyrs to the faith, but rather being delivered from this situation, they will be delivered through this situation.  Desperate times they say, calls for what?  Our answer should be a stronger and deeper faith.  Desperate times, John is saying, calls for a deepening and strengthening of our faith, even in the midst of suffering, pain, mourning, and death, God will be with us and we will win the eternal reward, and the powers of the world will meet their justice.  Just as we will have to answer before Christ when he comes again, so too will those who oppose the will and work of God.  The answer to evil and injustice and oppression and hate and violence is not to meet like with like, it is to meet it with the power of the slain lamb, with peace, with forgiveness, with reconciliation and with love, it is to meet it with faithfulness to the word of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians and pastors.  When Hitler and the Nazi’s took over Germany he immediately began speaking out against them, even in the face of fierce opposition.  When he saw the German churches capitulating to the will of the state, he formed the confessing church which claimed that Jesus, not the fuehrer was head of the church, and affirmed God’s faithfulness to the Jews and God’s chosen people.  Twice Bonhoeffer left Germany, but both times he returned to his native land, because he was not an escapist.  He felt that in order to do what God was calling him to do, in order for the church to be what the church was called to be, that he had to be in Germany actively opposing the Nazis, and so he kept coming back, because there was, in his words, no cheap grace.

He was finally arrested in 1943 and spent the next two years in various prisons and concentration camps, but then in April 1945 after completing a worship service, he was led away by prison guards, and he was said to have said “this is the end – for me the beginning of life.”  Four days later he was executed by hanging, just two weeks before US soldiers liberated the concentration camp where he was located.

While we will never know what Bonhoeffer was thinking of, or what he prayed for as he made his way up to the gallows that day, I’m sure that he did find hope and know that no matter what happened to him, that he would be with the saints and martyrs singing praises, singing hallelujahs to God, and that the beasts of the world, in all their forms, would be thrown down and destroyed, and that he would come face to face with God longing to hear him say, “well done my good and faithful servant.”  And so he went to his death with hope.  The camp doctor who witnessed his execution said, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

During the war, the British had a poster put up, which has sort of become popular again, which said “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and I think that is what John is saying to us.  The powers of the world do not control the world, because they can never have the final word.  What Revelation says to us is that there is always hope, even in the midst of despair and suffering, that God will make things right in the end because he is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, and he will give us water as a gift from the spring of the water of life and all things will be made new.  That is the promise for us.  That is the message for us, and that is the hope for us.  Revelation is not a book of escapism or violence.  Instead, it is a message of hope, of redemption and of conquering through the word, through love, and through the power of the slain lamb.  And the book ends this way, “the one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely, I am coming soon.’  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.”  Amen. Amen. And Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Knowing the Game Situation

In yesterday's game between the Broncos and the Chargers, with time winding down, the Chargers went for it on 4th and 9. Under duress, Philip Rivers just threw up a pass. If it's incomplete, it's first down for the Broncos at the last line of scrimmage.

Instead of just letting the ball fall, or even batting it down, the Broncos linebacker dove for the ball for an interception. It was 4th down, what are you doing intercepting the ball?!!!! That mistake cost his team 15 yards. This was the result of being completely unaware of the game situation, poor coaching, or being concerned only about personal stats rather than the whole team. Whatever the reason it was dumb football.

But here is what is even worse, the commentators did not say anything about it. They did not say, "hey it was fourth down, he should have ignored that ball rather than dove for it as there was not even a Charger receiver in the area." Instead they said nothing. On the next play they did talk about how smart it was for the Broncos' receiver not to go out of bounds in order to keep the clock running. "That was football intelligence," they said. It was, but the play before was not and you needed to call that out and say that it was "unintelligent football."

As much as the call at the end of the Greenbay and Seattle game earlier in the season was totally wrong, giving Seattle the win, it too was a situation of a player not understanding the situation.  It to was 4th down.  Why are you going for the interception?!!!  Knock the ball down, the game is over and you win!

Who is coaching these players on simple fundamentals and paying attention to the game situation?  It was dumb football, but I wonder if during the film the coaches will call him out or praise his effort in trying to catch the ball?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Jury Duty: Feeling Like A Good American

Yesterday I completed a four month jury duty assignment.  And, up to yesterday, I had never been selected for a jury, but yesterday I was chosen. The charges were assault and battery with a deadly weapon and possession of an illegal knife.

I am not a rah-rah America type of guy, but there are times in which I am proud to be an American, and yesterday was one of those days.  To be sitting in that room with eleven other people, most of whom would never be in the same group together, and discussing the case was a really great experience. The state had to prove the guilt of the accused, the accused did not have to prove his innocence, and knowing that if we decided against the state there was nothing they could do to us or the accused was an important reminder.  I think we forget sometimes that this is not true in many countries in the world (including some we support).

I was a little nervous going into the deliberations because I was not sure that the prosecution had proven their case on the first charge, but there was no way to know how the other jurors were thinking.  In the end, on the account of assault and battery with a deadly weapon, we did not think the prosecutor had proven the case and we found the accused not guilty on that charge.

I do have to say that the police officer who testified certainly did not do the prosecution any favors, as he left us more confused about events.  But conversation amongst the jurors was handled with the serious and  deliberateness that the situation deserved.  We probably spent more time than we needed to in reaching the verdict, but everyone had their say, we asked questions of each other, corrected areas where we heard things differently, and in the end reached a consensus.  And then just to be sure, we went back over each of the charges again for a final vote.  On the issue of possession we found the accused guilty based on the testimony of the officer who said he took the knife from his pocket.

This was the best possible out come for the defendant, as I'm sure the attorney had told him that he was probably going to be found guilty on the possession charge, and if fact the defense attorney never challenged anything about this charge.

I'll be honest and say that I was not looking forward to having jury duty, that I was happy when I had not been selected in the past, and wasn't really thrilled with being chosen yesterday.  But in the end it was something I was very happy to have done.  I completed my civic duty, we decided as a group of peers on charges, and in the end I am very happy with the decision we made and feel it was the right one.

We must remember that we do have obligations to this country, and the only reason it works the way it does, for good and for ill, is because of the effort that we put into keeping it what it is and pushing us towards a "more perfect union."  I for one am glad to have done my part, and today I am glad to be an American.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book of Revelation: Is This The End?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Revelation 1:1-19:

In the lead-up to the election this week, one news stations reported on, in their words “a hellish post-apocalyptic world in which all you saw were political ads.”  That would definitely be hellish, although if you were here last week, then you know that that is an incorrect usage of the term apocalyptic.  It is certainly eschatological, which has to deal with the end of times, or with cataclysmic events, but it is an incorrect usage of the term apocalyptic.  Does anyone remember what apocalyptic means?  That’s right it’s an unveiling or revealing.  The Greek word Apocalypsis, translated into Latin becomes revelation, which is why we talk about the Book of Revelation, and it reveals something to us, just as all apocalyptic literature does.  It seeks to reveal earthly realities through visions of Heavenly truths, and this was a very popular literary genre at the time that Jesus was alive, and after, and we are spending a few weeks looking at this genre, and our only full-blown apocalypse, which is the Book of Revelation.

My sister in law says that when she hears a sermon she wants to laugh, she wants to learn something, and she wants to be moved.  I sort of hold onto that as my guiding principle when writing sermons.  Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not, but today I am only going to be touching on the first two.  If you want something deeply moving from the sermon, you’re going to have to come back next week, as this is the first part of a two-part message, and the moving stuff comes next week.  Today we are going to look at different ways to interpret apocalyptic literature, and the Book of revelation in particular, and we’ll do a little more defining of terms which will then set us up for next week when I will tell you what I think Revelation says and what we are to take away from it.

But before we delve into everything else, let me clear up one thing.  Last week I said that if you disagreed with something I said during this serried, that it was okay that you don’t have to agree with everything I say, but that you shouldn’t come up to me and try and make a point by point argument from scripture about how wrong I am.  Some people thought that was a little dismissive, so let me apologize and say that was not my intention.  I am open to having a discussion on anything I say, but what I don’t want to do is sort of have to have a point by point scriptural argument about things, because neither one of us are going to be better for it, but if you would like to sit down with me and discuss these things, please consider this an invitation to do so.

The Book of Revelation has been a controversial book right from the start, with some challenging whether it should be included in the Bible and others questioning who wrote it.  During the time of the Protestant reformation, which we celebrated the 495th anniversary of on October 31 of this year, Martin Luther said that John did not write Revelation, that he could see no inspiration of the Holy Spirit in its writing, and that it should be removed from the Bible.  If Luther had gotten his way, the landscape of American Christianity would look very different today.  Now it should be noted that this was not the only book that Luther wanted to remove.  He also thought the letter of James should be removed as it was but he lost that argument too.  Luther was successful in removing the books we know as the Apocrypha, which are found in what are commonly referred to as Catholic Bibles, although it is becoming much more common to also find the books in “Protestant” Bibles.  While Luther did go on to write a commentary on Revelation, it was not originally in his list, and the other great Protestant reformer John Calvin, never wrote a commentary on Revelation, although he did write one for every other book of the Bible.

How Revelation should be interpreted has also been greatly debated, although there are four standard interpretive methods.  We’ll start with the one that is most prevalent today, although it was basically unknown, most especially in Protestantism until the 19th century, so roughly 150 years ago, and it is known as the futurist model.  The futurist model holds that although Revelation was written around the year 95, that nothing from what it says will happen has yet happened.  Everything in Revelation after chapter 3 has yet to unfold and all will take place at the end of the age.  This is the view taken by those who subscribe to the ideas presented in the Left Behind novels.  Now a true futurist will, in looking at events taking place around them, not claim that the events themselves are what was prophesied, but instead they are the signs that the end of times are near.  Now that does not stop people from making such predictions, but it does fall outside of the typical interpretation.  This might be the most prevalent interpretive lens being used today, certainly in fundamentalist churches.

Now one of the great ironies about the futurist model, and there are lots of ironies well dealing with this subject is that while it is new in the Protestant tradition, it actually comes out of Roman Catholicism.  Many of the Protestant reformers, Martin Luther amongst them, claimed that the Pope was the whore of Babylon, or perhaps the Anti-Christ discussed in Revelation, a  common theme still today.  But in order to combat this interpretation, a Franciscan monk by the name of Francisco Ribera, said that this can’t be, because the anti-Christ has not yet come, because the events of Revelation have not yet occurred.  Ribera did this in order to protect the integrity and standing of the Pope, but in doing so he created, and as I said this is greatly ironic, the modern American fundamentalist position on the Book of Revelation.  Ribera’s position remained within the Roman Catholic church until 1826 when the librarian to the archbishop of Canterbury published a pamphlet promoting the futurist idea, which was then picked up by John Nelson Darby, who began his professional career as a lawyer, then became an Anglican priest, before leaving to form the Plymouth Brethren, which also sounds like a failed car design, and put Ribera’s ideas, along with his own, to form the ideas that have come down to us today.

But before Darby popularized the futurist perspective, the most common perspective, and the one held by most Protestants, was the historicist.  The historicist model says that the events told about in Revelation began happening in 95, or whenever the book was written, and they have continued happening over time.  Some see every chapter as a different period of time, both past and future, so that Revelation speaks to the church in all ages.  As one scholar put it, Revelation is said “to sketch the history of Western Europe through the various popes, the Protestant Reformation, the French revolution, and individual leaders such as Charlemagne and Mussolini.”  While there are some who still subscribe to the historicist model, its adherents are much smaller in number.

The Preterist Model believes that the events that are talked about in Daniel, and in Revelation, are events that were taken place at the time they were written, and need to be understood as such to understand what the writer is saying.  The term preterist comes from a Latin term meaning “gone by” or “past.”  Preterists understand that the churches to whom John was writing were undergoing, or about to undergo, persecution and suffering because of the growing emphasis in emperor worship, which they could not do because of their faith in Christ.  While there are strengths and weaknesses to all of these, this model takes seriously the injunction at the beginning of Revelation that these things “must soon take place,” but there is little way to see the final victory of the final chapters of Revelation, a victory also largely ignored in the Left Behind novels as well.

The final interpretive method is known as the idealist, which sort of breaks into two categories.  Some idealists say that the events portrayed were never meant to be heard or understood as being literally true, while others take a preterist approach, but what idealists want to highlight is that every generation faces this battle between good and evil and so the text speaks to us not because it is forecasting what might happen, but instead taps into the timeless truths that we can find in the imagery about the battle of good and evil and the need to explain suffering, and encourage faithfulness in the face of suffering.

Each and every one of us will approach scripture with our own lens, it’s impossible not to, but what we should be aware is the lens that we use so that we can be aware of it and try and test it off against other interpretations in order to try and guard against forcing ourselves onto scripture to make it say what we want it to say, rather than having scripture speak to us itself.  My own lens is that of a sort of combination of preterist and idealist, falling into the first type of preterist.  I believe that we have to understand the context in which Revelation was originally written in order to understand what John is saying, but also know that it has to move beyond that understanding for it to still speak to us here in our own day.  So let me give you an example to illustrate.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul encourages people not to get married and even later says that the celibate life is better, which has obviously had major impact on the church and what is held up as better, but why does Paul say this?  Because he says “the appointed time has grown short… the present form of this world is passing away.”  In other words, Jesus is going to return at any time, and so don’t worry about long term commitments because there won’t be long-term commitments.  So we have to understand Paul’s original context so that we can understand what he is talking about, and when we don’t do that then we are liable to make statements and leaps that are troublesome and sometimes even dangerous to make.  Now Paul’s words still have a lot to say to us in our day, but that’s for another message.

Now these are all ways to understand the last portion of Revelation, but what we have to understand is that Revelation is not only an apocalypse, but it is also a letter, just like the other letters in the New testament, like those from Paul.  That means that there is a specific audience that John is addressing, and they are the seven churches in modern day turkey.  John does not begin his letter, “John, to the Christians in North America, who live in the twenty-first century.”   We need to understand this original audience.  But, one of the arguments that futurists will make is that in addition to being a letter, and apocalyptic, that John is also writing prophecy, and with that I would also agree, but this brings us back to our task of defining things, and that is of a prophet and of prophecy.

Normally when we think of someone who is a prophet, it is someone who is making predictions about things that will happen in the future, and we would say that if someone makes a prediction that is not true they are a false prophet, although ironically that position is not applied to all the people who have made claims about when the end will come that have not come true, which would be nearly all of them.  But that is not a biblical understanding of prophecy.  We certainly think it is because we look at what we are Christians claim are prophecies about Jesus, which we will begin to hear again in just a few weeks as we begin Advent, but prophecy was not about predicting the future the way we understand it now.

Instead, prophecy was about trying to get people to repent, to return to God and to turn to righteousness, and it was also to convey the word of God.  Anyone who said, “thus says the Lord,” or something similar, was making a prophetic utterance.  Abraham was a prophet, as were Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Deborah, Esther, Joshua and Abigail, not people we normally assume with being prophets.  Probably the best, and maybe most successful prophet the way prophecy should be understood is Jonah.  Why?  Because he goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent or that God will punish them, and the people repent and so God gives them a reprieve.  He does not give a timeline of exactly how things are going to happen and what is going to happen in the future, his goal is to get the people to repent and begin to follow God, which is what happens.  What the prophets do not do is to say that this will happen 500 of even two thousand years in the future, but instead that it will happen right now, but it need not happen.

What they prophesy is a warning that if things don’t change, then bad things will happen, and a call to faithfulness, and the same thing could be said here. John’s prophetic voice is to these seven churches, some of whom are being faithful and are suffering, or about to suffer, but that they need to remain faithful to achieve “the crown of life,” which is what he says to the church in Smyrna, but he tells the church in Ephesus, that while they have been “enduring patiently” that they have “abandoned the love you had at first,” and so what is the solution?  They must, in John’s words, “repent, and do the works you did at first.”

We are in the mainline churches have ignored apocalyptic books and passages because we are uncomfortable with them, they make us uneasy and we’re not sure what we are supposed to do with them, and so we ignore them completely, not only to our detriment, but to the detriment of the church and the proclamation of the gospel message.  Fundamentalists churches have a tendency, through their over emphasis on the Book of revelation, and other passages, to ignore the rest of scripture, or simply to use it to support their eschatological claims.

Leonard said to me last week that the Book of Revelation is just as important and other pieces of scripture, that it’s in the bible for a reason, and I couldn’t agree more.  As I said a few weeks, the tree of life is found in the book of Genesis in the Garden of Eden and it is also found in the Book of Revelation, most especially  in the final two chapters, and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence.   Jesus says I am the first and the last, the alpha and the omega.  Revelation is the completion of the scripture story, it does tell us about what we can expect from God, that God writes the final chapters, and that we must not give up that God is proclaiming a message of hope for us and for the world, a message of hope that we will look at next week.  Amen.