Sunday, December 14, 2014

The approaching twilight of the grand and glorious cat

Sometime this month we estimate that our older cat, Mickey, will turn ten.  When a pet gets into double-digit age, there's not much question anymore that your pet is a senior citizen.

Mickey in his role as my "thinking cat."

This March will mark ten years since Mickey joined us.  It wasn't a planned thing at the time.
We live in West Palm Beach at that point.  We were heading away for a few days and were boarding our dog, Miss Piggy (R.I.P.), with our vet, which also had a pretty sizable boarding facility.  Miss Piggy had already been checked in and was being led off to her boarding cubicle, happily following the vet tech as she was wont to do.  While she was off I was waiting for more paperwork to sign, but that left me a few moments to wander about in the lobby.
Besides the boarding facility, this vet office also had a couple of display windows.  A local rescue group would occasionally bring in kittens to the office who would spend a few days there, and would be on display in these very large display windows with food and litter box and toys, and even folks who didn't come into the office could see them and ooh and aww and be lured into adopting.  I had noticed the mostly black-and-white tabby with some more golden brown highlights in the window as I was bringing Miss Piggy in, but with a highly motivated dog straining at the leash to get in (yes, I know, most dogs don't want to get into the vet's office, but Miss Piggy was always a curious one that way) I hadn't stopped to look.  Now, with nothing else to do, I went over to take a peek.
It happened that Mickey (this was already his name) was being particularly cute at the time, rolling over on his back and swatting at some kind of mobile-type toy.  For a three-month-old kitten he was already a pretty substantially sized feline (six pounds, as it turned out), but he was still small enough to be kittenish.  So, I smiled, and it's possible I let out an "aww" or something like that.
To this day I have never figured out how the vet tech, who had juuust gone to take Miss Piggy, was suddenly over my shoulder saying "would you like to hold him?" I mean, she was not young and she was not small.  But even an NBA point guard or Olympic sprinter shouldn't have been able to move that quickly.  Not really waiting for me to answer, she reached into the window and lifted a surprised Mickey out and onto my shoulder.
At that point I was totally in the tank.
The tech suggested that Mickey and Miss Piggy have a little get-acquainted time when we returned from our trip -- not that I was all that worried, since Miss Piggy had shared our space with two cats for most of her time with us in Tallahassee.  We did it, and within five minutes Mickey was curled up on Miss Piggy's paws napping.  Mind you, every vet tech in the building crowded up to the windows of the exam room at some point to watch.  Clearly this cat was a charmer from the get-go.
So we made arrangements for adoption, and within a week my wife had picked the cat up from the vet's office and had him stretched out on her chest and shoulder by the time I got home from campus that Friday.
His early size was an accurate predictor; he is a large cat.  The preferred term, we have been repeatedly informed, is "grand and glorious."  This doesn't keep him from getting into, onto, over, under, or otherwise around anything he chooses, for the most part.  And it does give him the strength to knock over whatever he chooses in order to get our attention.  Most recently it was their primary cat bowls.  The best way to describe him is "barrel-chested."  This was never going to be a small cat by any stretch of the imagination, but even if he were a more normal weight he was always going to look big.  (I can sympathize, Mick.)  Pluto, on the other hand, is a very long cat, and therefore looks slim and sleek even though he's quite the monster himself.  It's not fair, Mickey, I know.
He's now outlasted Miss Piggy (that was more or less inevitable) and learned to tolerate our all-black Pluto.  He's generally been a healthy cat, despite his weight and occasional sneezing spells.  He has been, in all the ways that matter, the dominant personality in the house.
This isn't a "farewell" post, not by a long shot.  He's still an active and even frisky cat sometimes (to the degree that any adult cat can be called those things, given that the sleep anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of the day).  Still, one can just barely start to see that he's a senior cat indeed.  He isn't going gray (he still has the amusing gray spot on his muzzle that makes him look like he has a dirty face).  He might have lost a little bit of weight (Pluto actually weighs more now), but nothing so much as to cause alarm.
But he is a ten-year-old cat, and that's not nothing in cat years.  Every now and then his "little" brother actually manages to be the bully, a fact which annoys Mickey to no end.  Maybe he's a little more attention-hungry than he used to be.  He's a lot more likely to seek me out for use as a cat sofa than he used to be, not to mention the "thinking cat" perch he frequently takes if I'm in that recliner.  Like any cranky old person, he wants things his way; that cat fountain may be satisfactory for Pluto, but only the bathroom sink upstairs will do for Mickey.  And if there isn't anyone there to turn it on for him (he hasn't quite mastered that trick), he'll knock every pill bottle or cup into the sink until his demands are met.  He is less intolerant of belly rubs than he used to be, though they're still not his favorite (he really likes what might be called a full-face pet most of all).  In other words, he has both mellowed and gotten more cranky with age.
He's still a pretty fearless cat.  Nowadays if there's a stranger in the house Mickey is almost immediately out to investigate.  He's still ready to make a break for it if anyone leaves a door open too long.  And when he sets his mind to it, he'll still climb or otherwise get into whatever he can.  The leaping and climbing may not be quite as effective as they used to be, but he can still surprise us with where he manages to appear.
He may well be with us for another ten, for all we know.  But bitter experience has taught us that cats, or any pets or "animal companions" if you prefer, are no more guaranteed to last forever than we humans are.  And we also know from that bitter experience that whenever that day comes for Mickey, or Pluto, or any future feline family members, it will hurt in ways Hell cannot possibly imagine.
For now, he's still the big boy, even if his "little" brother has passed him.  He's still the dominant cat, and he's still first in line for attention and first in line for breakfast in the morning.  With any luck this will still be true for years to come.

Sermon: Rejoice

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
December 14, 2014; Advent 3B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55


One of the more fascinating moments in the early history of the church involves the bishop Ambrose of Milan forcing no less than the Roman Emperor to engage in an act of public repentance.  Theodosius, the emperor in question, had reacted violently to a riot in the city of Thessalonika; under the pretense of hosting a chariot race, seven thousand Thessalonikans had been lured into the city stadium only to be massacred by Roman troops.  Upon hearing of this Ambrose had not merely made a statement but physically barred Theodosius from entering the church in Milan, and ordered the emperor to perform public penance before he would be allowed to enter the church ever again.  Amazingly to our modern sensibilities, Theodosius submitted to Ambrose’s rebuke, and made penance before the public, and was eventually allowed to enter the cathedral again.
I dare say such a result would be inconceivable today.  I dare say any modern-day Ambrose who so challenged the leader of any country on this planet would far more likely end up arrested or simply killed, and the church probably destroyed as well.  Yet such challenge to the powerful was the lot in life of most of those Old Testament figures we lump together under the label “prophet.”  Only occasionally were the results of such challenges by those prophets so spectacular; the prophet Nathan’s challenge to King David after David had stolen Bathsheba and had her soldier husband killed stands out as one.  More likely the prophet might be imprisoned or at minimum cast out of the king’s presence (the career of Jeremiah shows a few examples of the sufferings a prophet might suffer in the course of doing his or her job). 
Perhaps the worst fate, though, might simply be to go unheard. 
You preach, you proclaim, you deliver the word God stirred you up to deliver, and … nothing.  The powerful ignore you, the people go on their way without noticing, … nothing changes. 
One wonders if the prophecy recorded in Isaiah 61 left its proclaimer with such feelings.  Couched in gentle language though it may be, this is about as subversive a message as any biblical prophet was ever charged to proclaim.  It starts off typically enough; “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…” is actually a fairly formulaic way of introducing a prophetic speech.  What follows might be a little unusual, if only because rather general; instead of a specific charge against a specific king or against a particular class of wealthy or powerful people, the message becomes one of good news, promises to the brokenhearted, the captive, the prisoner, those who mourn.  It’s actually kind of poetic; “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” becomes rather lovely in the reading, even translated into English.  The poetry turns to striking meaphor in verses 3 and 4 – “oaks of righteousness” as a description of those who had been weak and powerless indeed.
It’s all very lovely and hopeful, and yet the prophet can’t seem to resist one dig, back in verse 2.  Did you catch it?  To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (emphasis mine).
It happens again in verse 8: “For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing(again, emphasis mine).  It is a fearful thing to see or hear the Lord use the words “I hate.”  Yet here they are, bold as brass, again enmeshed in a passage of beauty and poetry and hope – “I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them…  The promise to the poor and downtrodden can’t seem to escape being laced with words of … well, wrath, or something like it.
In the midst of words of rejoicing, to hear such jarring interjections is perhaps difficult to handle.  Maybe we get distracted by it, or perhaps we just tune it out and focus on the pretty stuff.  Even many biblical commentaries pass over these interjections lightly, not wanting to lose the train of thought of hope and joy, perhaps? 
It is, though, part of the passage.  And we aren’t called to blow off those scripture passages that bother us.  So, what do we make of it? 
Something similar, albeit milder, also happens in the gospel text taken from Luke today.  Here we are confronted with a rather different sort of prophet; a teenage girl who is pregnant, under what we shall delicately call suspicious circumstances.  Over the millennia the church has built up Mary into a tremendously important (or in some corners, nearly divine) figure, but let us not lose sight of her station in life at this point; an unwed pregnant girl, not only powerless but subject to being cast out of the community or worse, had Joseph chosen to do so.  That “likely story” about being “pregnant by the Holy Spirit” probably didn’t help her cause.
And yet, in the presence of her much older and also pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Mary lets out one of the most dramatic prophetic (and yes, that’s what it is, prophetic) utterances in the New Testament.  As lowly and powerless as she is, God makes of her a prophet in order to return to themes heard before in Isaiah and other prophets.  Even in this prophetic utterance Mary recognizes the incongruity of herself, so lowly a servant, being now called blessed by all generations because of what the Mighty One has done for her.  But before long, the prophecy returns to themes of the lowly being lifted up and mercy being given to those who fear God. 
But listen to what else goes on;
…he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…
…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones…
…and sent the rich away empty…
Again with the dagger amidst the poetry.
What we are confronted with in both Isaiah and Mary is a God who, unapologetically and unequivocally, takes sides.  And what’s left at least a little vague in Isaiah is made uncomfortably specific in Mary’s Magnificat – “the proud…the powerful…the rich.”  And if we really hear it, if we don’t get blinded with the music and poetry of it, we’re probably a little concerned. 
The title of this sermon is “Rejoice,” and in liturgical circles this third Sunday is sometimes called “Gaudete” Sunday (from the Latin word for “rejoice,”) and these texts do have much to them to provoke rejoicing, particularly for the poor, the hopeless, the oppressed, the captive, and so on. 
But is that how we really see ourselves?
Let’s face it; by comparison to many in the world we are not remotely poor.  We generally don’t know what it is to be oppressed – did anybody try to prevent you from coming to church this morning?  Was anybody here barring the door? 
Perhaps more to the point, the descriptives applied to the “other guys” in Mary’s song are actually … well, kind of appealing if we’re honest with ourselves.  We are kind of proud of what we’ve done, of what we’ve “made” for ourselves, proud that we’ve made it through life and survived and even done pretty well for ourselves sometimes.  We don’t necessarily see ourselves as powerful or rich (unless there’s a county commissioner in here who’s been holding out on me), but if we’re honest, we’d be pretty happy to be either.  I mean, right now, my wife and I are facing the task of finding a new place to live in a new city to us.  It would be very helpful to be rich right about now. 
And yet between Isaiah and Mary we’re left with the inescapable conclusion that the rejoicing that this Sunday promises isn’t necessarily compatible with those promises that some preachers make, that JESUS WANTS YOU TO BE RICH or that you can live YOUR BEST LIFE NOW! Maybe the challenge of this day is to realize that rejoicing, genuine rejoicing, is not found in those earthly measures of success.  Maybe the challenge is to understand once and for all that our hope is built on so much more than bank accounts or social status or political influence or any human thing that might tempt us into pride.  Maybe the challenge is to understand that before God, we are all poor and in need, and that to set ourselves otherwise is to set ourselves to be sent away empty. 
We have hope, we have reason to rejoice, not because of what we’ve made or what we’ve earned or what we’ve accomplished or who we’ve controlled.  We have hope because God.  Because Jesus.  Because we live in “the year of the Lord’s favor,” as lowly as we may be. 
It isn’t that we rejoice in our lowliness, even.  You may have known the type who is perhaps a little too caught up in bragging about their lowliness?  The “po’ but proud” type who is a little too proud of being po’?  We aren’t hopeful because we’re poor or oppressed or captive or anything like that; we are hopeful because God is hope.  We rejoice because God gives the joy. 

We want to get it right, I know that.  We’re not always good at recognizing who the oppressed or poor or downtrodden are, though.  Even bishop Ambrose, the emperor-defying hero from the beginning of the sermon, got it wrong on occasion.  On a different occasion he used his influence to prevent Theodosius – yes, the same emperor – from providing compensation to a community that had lost its place of worship when it was burned by rioters.  You see, the place of worship was a synagogue, and the rioters were Christians.  We still get blinded by our own fears.  We can’t see through our own struggle to hold on to what little power we think we have to see that we sometimes turn into the oppressor.
As Advent winds towards Christmas, our hope, our joy is found not in Herod’s palace, nor in the headquarters of the Roman Empire.  It turns up in a piddling little out-of-the-way town out in the sticks.  It comes in the form of the baby born to that unwed pregnant teenager, that baby who ended up being laid to sleep in a feed trough, with no decent accommodation available.  That hope was witnessed by shepherds, among the most lowly-regarded of all Israel, and eventually by a few foreign star-watchers.  Not even in the relatively lowly province of Israel – a minor corner of the Roman Empire at best – could this setting have been called “powerful” or “rich” or “proud.” 
We rejoice in a God who takes sides so profoundly that even in crashing into history, that God did so in about the most powerless way possible.
For the God who takes sides and gives us hope to rejoice, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): O Lord, How Shall I Meet You? (11), Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (48), It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (39)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sermon: But...

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
December 7, 2014; Advent 2B
Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Mark 1:1-8


As a former music history scholar, I confess I get excited when a scripture reminds me of or evokes my former career.  When one sermon text I preached over the summer was on a scripture set to music in one of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorios, I got so excited I actually sang the relevant tune. During the sermon.
So at first glance at today’s text from Isaiah, it would seem to be a musician’s dream.  A significant portion of this chapter was appropriated by George Frederick Handel for some of the early solos and choruses of his oratorio Messiah.  It’s one of those pieces of music that’s almost impossible to avoid this time of year.  If it’s not being performed live somewhere, it’s probably going to pop up on your TV or radio if you happen to watch or listen at the right time.  It’s a Christmas tradition, as they say.

It can be inescapable this time of year.

Seriously, I’ve sung these portions of the work so many times as to have large chunks of them memorized.
You get the idea.  Handel mined this chapter very heavily in writing the first portion of his oratorio – “Part the First,” in the ornate language of some of the early published editions.  And it’s not hard to get why.  It’s a beautiful, hopeful text.  Unlike so much of what prophets like Isaiah had to say much of the time, it provides reassurance to a people, whether in Isaiah’s direct audience or to us today, that are rather in dire need of some form of reassurance.  Where much of the prophet’s task was to call out the people for their sins, and last week we had the prophet basically suggesting that God should just blow in and knock everything over and push the restart button, here the message is much more gentle and accessible. 
Much the same message is found in today’s psalm.  It offers us some beautiful, if rather curious, images – “righteous and peace will kiss each other” might take a moment to sort out in the imagination – but it, like most of Isaiah’s chapter, provides hope, comfort, and even a kind of joy in its evocations of righteousness and peace, love and faithfulness. 
The trouble is, when we leave here and go home, perhaps with the radio on in the car or the TV on when we get home, or perhaps when we look at the newspaper we didn’t finish this morning, it becomes very hard to remember all this stuff about comfort, or love and faithfulness, or righteousness and peace kissing.  Another hostage killed in the Middle East.  Another shooting in another American city, with nobody held responsible.  Another oil spill.  Another typhoon in the Philippines.  Governments of small Pacific islands planning to evacuate their citizens, not because of a typhoon or another storm, but because sea levels are rising so fast the islands are truly sinking into the sea. 
There’s a disconnect between what we see around us, what we know and observe about humanity, including ourselves, and what promises we hear in these bits of scripture from Isaiah and Psalms.  We feel it as much as know it.  Peace is nowhere to be found; righteousness seems an illusion; faithfulness and love sound like pipe dreams. 
If a modern-day psalmist were to describe our contemporary culture, he or she might pen lines like “…steadfast hate and vindictiveness will meet; abusiveness and greed will high-five one another…  Promises of comfort, as Isaiah proclaims, sound hollow, more like fantasy than real, earthly possibility.  How can we possibly look for that?
But Isaiah has more to say, something more that makes clear that these promises are not fantasy, and that they are promised even in the face of the human frailties and faults we know all too well.  And the musician who communicated this best of all – who “preached” this message far more effectively than I could ever hope to do – was  not Handel, but Johannes Brahms. 
In the second movement of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, that composer appropriates a piece of Isaiah’s chapter 40 as well, but he avoids the passages made famous by Handel’s settings, choosing instead from the central movement of this text in verses 6-8.  Like many psalms and like last week’s passage from Isaiah 61, this first portion of Isaiah 40 has three mini-sections that move in contrast to one another.  Verses 6-8 provide a kind of reality check after the effusive promises of verses 1-5.  With a tone a bit more pessimistic and maybe even a little cynical, this passage provided plenty of reasons for Handel to skip it in creating Messiah.  On the other hand, it was perfect for Brahms.
Verse 6 echoes verse 3 and its language of one “crying out.”  But where verse 3 doesn’t exactly make clear who is crying out (we’ll see who gospel writers thought it was in a little bit), in verse 6 the prophet is positioning himself as the object of the command: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’”.  But somehow the prophet isn’t impressed.  Psalm 81 and its promises seem far from his mind.   
What does come to his mind is the very thing that seemed to be missing from our psalm excerpt and from the beginning of this chapter; the frailty, faultiness, and outright disobedience of humanity.  The prophet’s reply “What shall I cry?” would probably benefit from a little slang interpretation here;
Cry out?  Cry out what?
What can possibly be said to these hateful, faithless people? 
These people are like grass.  They have all the faithfulness and constancy of the grass in the field – looks pretty now, but withers and dies when the heat comes on.  What’s the point of prophesying to such a faithless, worthless bunch?
Now there’s some stereotyped Old Testament prophet talk.
For all the inconstancy of the people, though, there is one thing that is sure.  And Brahms says it much better than I.
What you are about to hear begins about seven minutes into the second movement.  This is the fourth time Brahms repeats the prophet’s weary claims.  It’s in German (this is the German Requiem, after all) but you can keep track beginning in the second half of verse 6 – “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” and then skipping to verse 7 – “the grass withers, the flower fades…”

(Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, track 2, begin at 7:00) [NOTE: in the linked video the section starts around 7:34, lasting to a little before 9:40.  In my humble musical opinion the "Aber des Herrn Wort" needs to be a lot faster.]

Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit.” “But the word of our God will stand forever.
But! Never has so much power and hope and attention been musically invested in that little conjunction “but”!  Okay, in German it’s actually “aber,” which translates as “but.”  Here those three little letters are packed with so much hope.
Our inconstancy, our faithlessness, our hatefulness, our spitefulness, all of those horrible things that we see in ourselves as a species and as a human race cannot outlast the promise of our Lord.  Our failure cannot be the final word; it will always be trumped by the “word of the Lord” that endures through all eternity.  Brahms, who if anything would probably fit within the modern category of “spiritual but not religious,” nonetheless saw the hope in that little German word “aber” and found a way to express it with a power and a joy and an exuberance that maybe we can learn from and hold on to in our own reflection on this passage. 

"Spiritual but not religious," or simply "None"? Can't decide.

Something a little similar happens in our gospel passage for today, from Mark 1, although no composer has emerged to set it in such an effective way.  In verse 4 we are introduced to the character John “the baptizer,” whom many early Christians quickly decided was the one crying out in the wilderness early in Isaiah 40.  If we take verse 6 seriously then “character” seems a pretty accurate description of the man.  The gospel writer wastes little time in introducing us to John and his message – “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  But by verses 7-8 it becomes clear that John’s message is less about himself than about The One yet to come, One who is going to bring something new and different:
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

There’s that word again – “but,” or in this case the Greek word “δε.”  Here, though, while it is a word that signifies hope, there’s also maybe a little danger with it, maybe a little disruption.”  What does it mean to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit”?  Sounds a little scary.
It’s no longer about God doing something in the abstract, no longer about God’s faithfulness outlasting our sinfulness and faithlessness.  Now, that little conjunction “but” is introducing a far more challenging promise; God isn’t just going to do something, God is going to do something to us. 
 It isn’t about God out there in the distance being all Godly and powerful.  It isn’t even about God tearing open the heavens and shaking things up as in last week’s scripture from Isaiah.  It’s about God getting inside us and shaking us up.  And maybe that’s … well, not exactly scary, maybe, but … okay, maybe it is a little scary.  It means we might change.  It means we might not be able to kick back in our own comfort zone and leave all the work to God.  This One who is to come baptizing us with the Holy Spirit is hope, yes, but hope that comes with a little bit of threat, a little bit of an edge. 
That’s the thing about Advent, if you take it seriously.  It’s not quiet.  It’s not passive, really.  It is charged with the energy of a God whose faithfulness will outlast all of our faithlessness, yes.  But it’s also charged with the energy of a God who doesn’t feel like waiting that long, a God who chooses to break in now and turn us inside out and upside down with the Holy Spirit, a God who instead of tearing open the heavens and starting earthquakes invades humanity in the form of a human who turned over tables, and healed the sickest of the sick, and turned the heads of the religious leaders inside out with his challenge to their stock theology, who exalted the poor and told the rich to give it all away, and who didn’t even have the decency to stay dead when humanity finally killed him.  And that, friends, is the power and the challenge of Advent.
“But,” for three little letters packed with hope and danger, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (PH 9), "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (2), "Lord Christ, When First You Came to Earth" (7)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sermon: Tear Open the Heavens

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 30, 2014, First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

Tear Open the Heavens

First of all, Happy New Year!  Liturgically speaking, of course.
Today marks the first Sunday of the season of Advent, and as such the beginning of a new liturgical year for the church.  Beginning with this season, the church follows a cycle of anticipation and preparation, culminating in the celebration of the Nativity in the brief season of Christmas (it really does last twelve days, just like the song says).  That culminates in the event given the name Epiphany, marking in most reckonings the visitation of the Magi, or Wise Men, or the Three Kings, whichever you remember best.  After a period of what is sometimes called “ordinary time,” Ash Wednesday surprises us with the initiation of the season of Lent, another preparatory season with a focus on the events leading to Christ’s final days on earth and the Crucifixion.  Easter announces the Resurrection of Christ, and the season that follows (seven Sundays in all) leads to Pentecost, marking the manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the disciples following Christ’s ascension into heaven.
Ideally, this pattern leads us on a yearly basis through the life cycle of the church, so to speak; a season of anticipation followed by the celebration of the birth of Christ, a season for teaching and learning Christ’s life and teaching, commemoration of Christ’s death and life again, and the so-called “birthday of the church” at Pentecost.  Ideally, that is.
In practice, certain occasions or seasons tend to get overlooked, actively pushed aside, or misunderstood.  Depending on where you look, Advent is all three.
This may partly be because Advent has a double meaning.  It does mark the approach of the Nativity, the first coming of Christ in the form of the child Jesus, which is celebrated at Christmas (or often weeks before) with pageants and music and decorations and nativity scenes and all manner of festivity.  However, Advent also serves the more here-and-now purpose of encouraging reflection upon Christ’s return, that great day a-coming when we will no longer live in separation from our Lord, but will “see him as he is” in Paul’s words and will be gathered together for eternity.
For some, this is what might be called an off-ramp.  It conjures up images of those hell-fire preachers with their codes for reading the Bible for clues to the date of the “Rapture” or some other contrived remaking of Christ’s return.  We Presbyterians – for whom the phrase “decently and in order” was invented – tend to be suspicious or maybe fearful of such out-of-control theological gamesmanship and to want to keep our distance from it, which is fair enough. 
Still, there is something disruptive about Advent, if we take it seriously, that we as a church, and perhaps especially we as Presbyterians, need. 
Today’s reading from the Old Testament offers something of the proper – that is, radically upsetting and even destructive – frame of mind for marking a genuine celebration of Advent.  Just look at that phrase that opens the chapter: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”.  That is an image we just don’t associate with Christmas.  Yet it is practically the essence of observing Advent: identifying and claiming the intense, even painful desire for return, to be among us humans once again, even if it sounds a little destructive.  We know ourselves to be cut off, and we want to be reunited with our Lord, whatever it takes.
As the chapter continues, we see that it sounds a lot more like a psalm than the usual business of a prophet, chewing out the people for their sins.  In this case the prophet becomes the voice or the mouthpiece of the people, putting into words their desire for God and even their petition for God to return to them, even if that requires “tearing open the heavens.” 

Impressive, but not "tear open the heavens" impressive.

As is often the case with psalms, there is at least a three-part structure to this psalm-like unit of the prophet’s writing.  In this case, the first part of the “psalm” is a plea, a cry out from the people for God to…well, to “be God,” to do the dramatic, earth-shaking, attention-getting things that the people remember from their memory and their sacred story.  They cry out for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” to come in such a way “as when fire kindles brushwood and fire causes water to boil.”  They’re looking for a dramatic intervention, in other words, for God to go all Old Testament on the world and shake things up, to get their foes trembling and the earth to shaking. 
It takes a little while to understand why a people would want to invoke such a thing.  What could they possibly be thinking?  Why in the world would you cry out for earthquakes and the heavens tearing open?  Why would they be crying out for the kind of divine action that overwhelms and leaves no room for human will – brushwood has no choice about burning when fire is set to it, nor water about boiling when it is heated.  Why have the people given up?
It helps to know just who the prophet’s audience is in this case, whose words are being evoked here.  The author of Isaiah, or at least this last part of it, is widely understood to be preaching among the people of Israel who have returned from Babylonian exile.  They have returned to Jerusalem, but Jerusalem isn’t what they remember.  It’s in ruins.  It’s unlivable.  It’s unsafe and a sitting duck before Israel’s enemies.  The people are scared, they’re frustrated, and they don’t know what to do. 
In time, the prophet-psalmist gets around to admitting the harder truth.  The condition of the people is largely their own doing.  Oh, they try to pass the buck.  They even try to blame God for “hiding” from them (v. 5).  Even that cannot stand, though, as the people are eventually forced to admit that it is their own iniquity that has brought about their circumstances.   No matter how much they might want to blame God for hiding, they have to admit the truth of an old saying: “If you think God’s far away, guess who moved.”  Finally, the prophet and people have to resort to pleading with God to remember that “we are all your people” (v. 9), no matter how badly they’ve fouled things up. 
The psalm for the day (that is, the selection from the actual book of Psalms) actually covers similar territory as the passage from Isaiah.  A call for God to come leads to a lament at the seeming distance of God, and finally a plea for restoration.  Psalm 80 is so much more polite than the Isaiah passage, though, so much more tame and suitable for singing in worship.  The raw desperation of Isaiah’s pseudo-psalm is particularly evocative, even to us moderns on the edge of another Advent season. 
The reading from Mark’s gospel gives a fairly vivid picture of what happens when God really does intervene in dramatic fashion.  Even this, though, doesn’t quite capture the desperation and violence of Isaiah’s language.  There is another passage in Mark, though, that echoes Isaiah rather strongly.  In chapter 1 of the gospel Mark offers a very brief account of the baptism of Jesus.  As Mark describes the event,
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:10-11)

“The heavens torn apart.”  Sounds familiar, yes?  It is no small thing, no sweetly picturesque picture.  It is violent, upsetting whatever stands in its way, disrupting and revolutionizing and refusing altogether to be decent and in order. 
It is worth our time as Advent begins again to spend a little time with the likes of Isaiah, as well as perhaps the psalmists.  The people to whom the prophets preached or ranted or sang had plenty of experience with waiting and anticipating.  They didn’t always do it well, mind you, as today’s reading suggests, but they knew what it was to live in anticipation, to know that life as they knew it was not life as it was meant to be.  Likewise, we don’t live in paradise.  We don’t live in perfect union with God or perfect fellowship with Christ or in perfect unity in the Spirit.  We might just be able to learn something from these people and their failings and their yearnings.
Thirty years ago the Methodist pastor and author Will Willimon wrote a commentary on this Isaiah passage, one which was situated in a time when American society was possessed of a rather different attitude than we might see around us today.  Remember “Morning in America”?  All optimism and sunny smiles and no, there’s nothing wrong with America?  And then, once the presidential election was over, … oops, we actually do have a deficit, and taxes are going to go up, and maybe things are not quite so perfect as we promised.  OK, maybe it wasn’t that different of a time, but we do live in a society in which the rich get richer and the poor die trying, when society goes crazy on Black Friday at Walmart harrying employees who rely on food stamps and welfare to survive on a Walmart salary, when our legal system twists itself into knots to say it’s o.k. to shoot an unarmed youth as long as he’s black. 
Okay, maybe we can understand why Isaiah’s people might be looking for dramatic divine intervention, for God to tear open the heavens and come down.  But when we call on God to come down, we need to know what we’re invoking.
The heavens tearing open.  The mountains shaking.  Fire set to the brushwood engulfing it in flame, setting the water aboil.  Our lives disrupted, our routines disrupted irreparably, our paths rerouted in ways we can’t imagine.  Families set against one another, brother against brother, child against parent.  Our comfortable accommodations to the world exposed as the cheap socially distorted Christianity that they are.  Left with no escape from a God who wants and even expects us to give everything we have, not just the convenient parts. 
The world does its best to drown out this call, and is pretty successful when you get right down to it.  There isn’t a lot of disruption in your average Nativity scene.  It’s very cute.  It’s sweet.  It’s quite tame, unless the proprietors of the live Nativity are using a real baby who decides to get squawly and start crying its lungs out. 
But we need the distraction.  We need the child to start screaming.  We need to hear the cries of the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten, the rejected.  We need to hear the groanings of our own hearts, burdened and brought down by our own iniquity, our utter inability to set things right on our own.  As fearful and frightening as we (rightly) might consider it to be, we know we are lost and without hope unless God tears open the heavens and comes down. 
C.S. Lewis reminds us that “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy.  But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”
If we’re honest, we know the despair. 
Are we really ready for the joy?
Are we ready for Advent? 
Be careful what you ask for.

For Advent in all its disruptive power, Thanks be to God. 

Hymns: "Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People" (PH 3), "Savior of the Nations, Come" (14), "Prepare the Way (13)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon: The Shepherd King

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 23, 2014, Christ the King/Reign of Christ
Ezekiel 34:11-24, Matthew 25:31-46

The Shepherd King

You may have noticed by now that I’m not much of a hell-fire and brimstone preacher.  I hope it is clear that I will, when needed, call out those things that are wrong in the world or especially the church (things I recognize usually because I see them in myself), but I’m not especially prone to going on and on about the wrath of God and eternal damnation and that kind of thing.
You probably know people who do get into that kind of preaching, though.  I’m highly aware that there is a portion of the Christian church that seems to exult particularly strongly in such denunciations and prophecies of doom.  For those people, the book of Ezekiel might be a favorite.
Ezekiel is not shy about bringing the hell-fire.  Stretches of this book are so couched as to make his fellow prophets blush with horror.   Ezekiel is also the prophet of record for some of the more unusual bits to be found in scripture – not quite on the level of the apocalyptic writings found in Daniel, but pretty strange in a couple of places.  You might remember the “valley of the dry bones” to which God commanded Ezekiel to prophecy in chapter 37 of the book; the dry bones rise up and connect to each other, eventually coming to life as a valley full of people.  The very first chapter of the book launches into a dramatic and fantastic vision of a great chariot and fiery wheels within wheels, one that makes Ezekiel a favorite among UFO conspiracy theorists today. So strident and sometimes overwhelming is the tenor of Ezekiel’s prophecy that some modern observers speculate that the prophet suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, possibly related to the circumstances of the Babylonian Exile in which he lived and prophesied.[i]
Still, even the most fantastical of prophets needs to “bring it home” at some point, to deliver a message that something good is possible, that some kind of redemption is possible no matter how badly the people have fouled up their lives and failed to follow God.  Chapter 34 contains one of those moments for Ezekiel, one in which the prophet stresses that no matter how bad things look now, Yahweh will intercede on behalf of the exiled and desperate people of Israel.
The first part of the chapter, before the portion included in our reading, takes aim at the kings of Israel, those who are judged as “bad kings” for their failure to lead as God intended.  It might be a surprise to us to see kings portrayed as “shepherds,” but in fact the metaphor of king as shepherd was actually pretty common in ancient Middle Eastern thought.  Egyptian writings often stressed the role of kings or even deities as shepherds of the people.  The Babylonian god Marduk was interestingly described as the “shepherd of all the gods.”[ii]  In more mundane terms, the famous Law Code of Hammurabi stresses the role of the king (namely, himself) as being “to promote the welfare of the people, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil that the strong might not oppress the weak” –exactly the kind of language describing a shepherd’s responsibility towards the sheep under his care. 
Given this context, Ezekiel’s discourse here comes as a relief and fits into a familiar political as well as theological framework.  The kings of Israel are indicted for their failure to be true shepherds to the people, as in verse 3 and following: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.  You have not strengthened the week, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have scattered them.”  In turn God promises through Ezekiel to take such leaders away; beginning with our passage in verse 10, the “right” shepherd is revealed to be none other than God.
God promises to re-gather the sheep who have been scattered or driven away by the bad shepherds, to seek them out and to restore the flock.  God promises to feed them and to restore their health.  There are times the language here sounds an awful lot like the ever-familiar Psalm 23, with its promises of good pasture and good water.
Still, though, God has a bit more for Ezekiel to say about not just bad shepherds, but bad sheep.  The gentle pastoral nature of the passage is badly disrupted at verse 16, in which God promises that “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.”  What seems like a jarring interruption turns out to be a major interjection, in verse 17 and following:
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but must you tread down with your feet the rest of the pasture?  When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?  And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (17-22)

Between sheep and sheep (lean or fat)
It isn’t just bad leaders God condemns through Ezekiel; the grabbers, the greedy, the hoarders among the sheep themselves also come under condemnation.  Those who greedily consume the good grass and water, and even go so far as to foul the grass and water they aren’t consuming, are judged by God.  There are probably three different sermons to be preached just on this passage alone.  For today, let it be enough to note that the flock, the community of God’s people, are disrupted both by bad shepherds who scatter the flock and exploit their rule to enrich themselves, but also by members of the flock itself who crowd out fellow sheep from access to good grass and water, the good gifts of God given for all the people of God, not just a select, privileged few. 
Ezekiel promises that God will intervene for the sheep, both casting aside the bad shepherds and promising, where the fat sheep are concerned, to “feed them with justice” (v. 16).  It’s hard to resist the urge to read that phrase as suggest that God is going to shove justice down the throats of the fat, greedy sheep, but in any case their grasping, wasteful ways are under the judgment of God.
Ezekiel goes on to suggest that another shepherd, out of the house of “my servant David,” will be appointed to feed the flock and be their shepherd, and to “be prince among them” (v. 24).  It’s quite likely that Ezekiel had in mind a new king of Israel, who might serve as a truly just shepherd of the people under the guidance and leadership of God.  Still, it’s not hard to see why early Christians would read this passage as a presaging of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, reckoned as a descendent of the earthly line of David. 
Whether one sees this passage as prophetic of Jesus or not, one thing that it does make clear is that we humans are in need of this divine intercession.  As much as we might see ourselves us as among the innocent sheep scattered or starved by the bad shepherds or fat sheep, it’s never too far a trip from lean sheep to fat sheep.  Humans, particularly humans placed in power or even merely more advantaged than another, fail.  Don’t doubt that each one of us has at one time been the sheep treading down the grass or fouling the water with our feet.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr probably expressed this best in his Moral Man and Immoral Society:
…the limitations of the human imagination, the easy subservience of reason to prejudice and passion, and the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior, make social conflict an inevitability in human history, probably to its very end. (xx)

We are, particularly in large numbers, prone to wrongdoing and exploitation.  We need deliverance.  And the Shepherd King is promised to deliver us from the exploitation of bad shepherds and fat sheep, and even – maybe most of all – from ourselves.
It’s hard not to make the leap from this Old Testament prophecy to today’s Gospel lesson, the familiar “parable of the sheep and goats,” particularly as the parable as Jesus tells it uses the same kind of metaphor as Ezekiel attributes to God, sorting “sheep from sheep … rams from goats.”  Jesus’s point in the parable is also pretty similar; those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, cared for the sick, and visitied the imprisoned are the blessed ones, while those who did not do those things are not, because whether you did or did not do those for “the least of these,” you did or did not do them for Jesus himself. 
The sheep from the goats
Jesus’s teaching directs us to care for “the least of these,” but I suspect Ezekiel would be in the background reminding us not to forget about why those people need feeding and clothing and visiting and so on.  The good Shepherd King in Ezekiel’s narrative cares for the sheep by “feeding them with justice,” or maybe shoving justice down their throats in some cases.  Those who are given to the exploitation of the sheep, whether as bad shepherds or self-fattening sheep, are held to account in Ezekiel’s vision; the Shepherd King restores the flock by strengthening the weak, but by destroying the fat and strong sheep who keep butting the weaker sheep out of the way. 
That’s harsh language to us, but crazy old Ezekiel with his dancing dry bones and fiery wheels within wheels is not going to concern himself overmuch about our delicate sensibilities.
I know I’m relatively young compared to some of you, but I am hard-pressed to come up with many examples of the kind of kingship (or leadership, to ease into more modern models) described by Ezekiel here.  It’s hard to imagine a true shepherd leader getting out of the primary stage in a contest for any political office, but even the church is at times lacking for the pastoral touch, the restorative and rehabilitating justice practiced by Ezekiel’s model king. 
At the very least, it might suggest that our idea of Christ the King, that idea being celebrated on this final Sunday of the liturgical year, needs to be held in check constantly.  Even the hymns we sing – yes, even a couple of the hymns in today’s service – put all sorts of other images of kingship in our heads.  It’s easy to sing about a king’s power or might, or gloriousness, or any number of attributes that sound … well, kingly. 
It isn’t that we have no concept of God as shepherd – between Psalm 23 and the “I am the good shepherd” teaching from John 10, it’s a very pervasive image in our teaching.  We don’t often put the two together, though.  A king who reigns restoratively – without regard to taking gain from the subjects of the realm, but strictly for the welfare of the people; restoring the scattered back into the community, healing those who have been wounded, giving comfort to those in need … how many kings (or queens, for that matter) can we recall who have ruled that way? 
But that is the Reign of Christ.  That is what it is to be ruled by a king who is also a shepherd.  That is what it is to part of the flock shepherded by our Lord Jesus Christ.  And our task is to take up the work of that Shepherd King, feeding, caring, restoring. 
For the Shepherd King, Thanks be to God.

Hymns: "O Worship the King" (PH 476), "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us" (387), "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord" (441)

[ii] Among may other epithets:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Survivor's guilt

I'm less than a month away from the second anniversary of my surgery.  Woohoo.

I will always be able to remember the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shootings; the first reports of that mass murder were just coming in while I was in the prep room waiting, I thought, to get resected and spend the rest of my life with a bag attached to my side.  That such was not the case was my pleasant surprise in coming to.

Today (or late last night, depending on your point of view) saw another campus shooting, in the main library of my doctoral alma mater at that.  Those just happen now, and The Powers That Be insist this is somehow necessary for Freedom.

Today was also a memorial service on the seminary campus for a classmate who died last week after a struggle with cancer in the brain.  I knew she was a little older than me, but only found out this week that she was the same age as my youngest sister would have been had she lived.  That sister died about fourteen and a half years ago, from cancer in the brain.  Some of us get virulent, killer cancer.  Some of us get "lucky" with cancer, if the word "lucky" can ever be used with the word "cancer."

Maybe I get it again someday, and am not lucky.  I'm a good candidate to do so someday.  Anyway, I've realized that having been through a major illness like that was going to form a lot of my pastoral care in ways that would have been different if I hadn't gone through it; being on the receiving end of pastoral care was my clinical pastoral education.  I'm now realizing a different aspect of that experience and its less-helpful impact on my potential as a caregiver.

Why did I get the less-destructive, or slower-growing, or otherwise non-fatal cancer?  I get that "the rain falls on the just and the unjust," but some of us sure end up being more drenched than others.  My sister is dead, my classmate is dead, and I have to go to the bathroom inconveniently often.  There's no fairness, no justice even, in that.

This is a headspace that won't work.  At some point, presumably, I'll end up in a call, and I'll have to be pastor to a person dying of cancer, and that headspace won't work.

We are called to minister in a world that still doesn't really have a good grasp on cancer, in the long run, my own recovery notwithstanding.  We are called to minister in a world where too many people treat a sports team as their preferred object of worship.  We live and work and preach in a nation where a little mass murder in the library is The Price of Freedom, and being able to get health care for cancer or a gunshot would or anything else without going into monster debt is a pipe dream.  We live in a world, frankly, where I have to wonder if Jesus would actually last three years of itinerant preaching before getting crucified.

Whether it's my former classmates already serving in a call, or those of us not quite there yet, or those of us who never will quite get there, this is the world.  Frederick Buechner follows that phrase with "Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don't be afraid."  There are days or weeks when seeing the beautiful things is awfully hard in the face of the terrible things, and the last seven or eight days have been such a period, right after coming off a wonderful high point, which somehow seems more devastating.

I'm beyond the age of throwing youthful temper tantrums.  I have things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.  I will be grateful for what it is to come.  But there are days when the only prayer I can pray is "Why?" and that's not going to change just because I have a "Rev." in front of my name, presuming we actually get to that point.