Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sermon: Going Into His Father's Business

Grace Presbyterian Church
December 27, 2015, Christmas 1C
Luke 2:41-52

Going Into His Father’s Business
It is remarkable how little we truly know about the life of Jesus.  During the season we are accustomed to hear much about Jesus’s birth, of course, but remarkably little is told; only two of the gospels have any sort of birth story for Jesus, and Luke’s story spends almost as much time on the birth of his cousin John as on Jesus himself.  Once Jesus is born, aside from the text for today, we fast-forward almost thirty years to the public, adult ministry of Jesus.  Of this we are given, between the four gospels, about a three-year period of ministry before Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. 
This is not typical of the biographies of most major religious figures.  A casual scan of Wikipedia entries for figures such as Muhammad or Buddha will reveal stories that, if not complete, at least don’t have decades-long gaps in the life of the subject.  Even in the early Christian world stories of ancient heroes or demigods were far more complete, and likely to contain accounts of the subject’s childhood that suggest that the essential traits of that hero’s character, if not their miraculous abilities, were well-established at an early age.
It seems that in the early days of Christianity, around the second century or after, the absence of such stories about Jesus helped spur the writing of a number of “gospels,” some of them specifically infancy narratives or childhood stories, purporting to fill in the yawning gaps in the life of Jesus.  These “gospels” of course were not ultimately accepted into the biblical canon as we know it, and in more than a few cases we’re probably glad of this fact.  One such collection, known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas today, purports to cover an eight-year span of Jesus’s life, beginning from age five. Most of the stories are miracle stories, not surprisingly.  Some of them are harmless, or even cute: at age five Jesus is creating birds from clay and bringing them to life, and a little later, when helping Joseph in the carpenter shop, he magically stretches out a board that was too short for the use Joseph intended.  Some of the stories, however, are rather frightening. Jesus strikes dead a boy who bumped into him, and then strikes blind those who complained about the boy’s death. In another story Jesus raises a boy from the dead, but only so the boy could testify that Jesus wasn’t the one who pushed him off the roof. Frankly, in many of these stories Jesus comes off as little more than a brat with superpowers.
Fortunately, the one account of Jesus’s young life to be found in the canonical gospels is rather less gruesome. Indeed, it is a story that is at first glance remarkable for its unremarkability. Its context is that of a very typical, devout Jewish family life for its time, with regular trips to the Temple in Jerusalem for the observances required of the faithful. 
One such observance was the Feast of the Passover, which Luke tells us the family traveled to Jerusalem every year to observe. The year when Jesus was twelve years old was no different than the years before, evidently; the family gathered itself up and made its way to Jerusalem, in the company of relatives and other faithful acquaintances, for the Passover observance; they remained in Jerusalem for all of the appropriate events of the festival, and when it was all over, they, along with their relatives and fellow travelers, made their way home. All very typical of a devout Jewish family of the time, this was.
Only after a day’s return journey towards Nazareth did the story take its unexpected turn. Maybe in our extremely cautious age, where parents can keep children on leashes or attach beepers to them, this story is hard to believe, but a day into the journey home it became clear that Jesus wasn’t there. He was nowhere to be seen.
The sense of panic Mary and Joseph must have experienced is probably not hard for you to imagine. Emotions rise to a fever pitch, desperation sets in. And there’s no 911 to call, no Amber Alerts to issue; he’s just … gone. At last the only answer is for Mary and Joseph to retrace their steps to Jerusalem and try to find the boy.
Jerusalem is a large city, even at the time in which Mary and Joseph are searching. The frustration of wondering how this boy, normally such a good boy, could go off and do something so irresponsible was no doubt mixing with the sheer terror of desperately trying to find the boy before it was … too late. He’s not at the lodging. He’s not at the market.  Where could that boy be???
Finally, after three days of searching, the parents arrive at the Temple. Sure, this was where no doubt the family had spent much of their time during the Passover, but why would Jesus come back here with the festival over? And yet that’s exactly where Jesus was.
Seated among the teachers in the Temple, far removed from the celebrating crowds that had thronged there only a few days before, was the boy Jesus. Luke tells us he was listening to the teachers and asking them questions, and that those hearing him were extremely impressed, to say the least, by his questions, by his attentiveness, by his intelligence, by his insight.
Not surprisingly, though, the parents are not really in the mood to be regaled with stories of their son’s intelligence and perceptiveness. No, the first thing on their minds, perhaps first after OhthanktheLordhe’ssafe, is “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO US???” Luke describes the parents as “astonished,” or “astounded” – but not in a good way. Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. Now let’s put that in terms we can understand: Oh, Jesus, how could you put us through this?  Your poor father and I have been searching all over Jerusalem for you, and you’ve just had us worried sick! What were you thinking, son? How could you just go off on your own like this? Don’t you know it’s not safe? 
At this point it’s impossible to speculate what kind of response Jesus’s parents expected from him. Maybe Mary and Joseph themselves didn’t even know what to expect, or perhaps they expected no response at all, as long as he was quiet and did what he was told and took his scolding and didn’t sneak off again.
They most certainly did not expect the reply they got, though. That much is certain.  Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Why would you think I’d be anywhere else? The words must have cut like the sharpest of knives. How long had it been since Mary and Joseph thought back to those events of twelve years before, the strange angel apparitions and stars and shepherds?  And now, to be confronted with such a harsh declaration? No wonder they couldn’t understand it.
For all the seeming disconnect between parents and child, in the end Jesus was obedient, Luke tells us; he went home with Mary and Joseph, his mother and his earthly father, and if there were any similar incidents in Jesus’s teenage years Luke does not tell us about them.
Still, even though the scene doesn’t have the lurid appeal of a superboy striking people dead or blind in a fit of pique, what we do learn of Jesus in this account is disconcerting and disorienting in its own way. At the age of twelve, on the cusp of manhood in the Jewish tradition, Jesus has made his own declaration that, ultimately, he would be going into his Father’s business. Above all else, this twelve-year-old boy tells us, he is the Son of God; and this above all determines where he must be, what he must do, how he must live. Even as we’re told that Jesus grew up well and was well-regarded by those who knew him or met him, the overriding and unbreakable marker of his life was to be in favor with God, no matter how much his parents might not understand, or his brothers or sisters, or his fellow citizens of Nazareth. 
The biblical scholar R. Alan Culpepper describes two ways of understanding obedience to God, saying:
Some define their religious practices with lists of things they may not do: “thou shalt not … “.  Such lists set boundaries, but they do not define goals. A commitment to God that is born of the experience of God’s love and presence is expressed in grateful participation in God’s redemptive work. There are some things we have to do just because of who we are: “I must be about my Father’s business.”

In the end, that’s what we are given to learn from the youth Jesus. No matter how much others – even one’s own family – might misunderstand or resist, if we are truly to be about our Father’s business, there are things we must do. Not because they are written down in a list of rules or held over our heads as threats or dangled before us to entice us towards some reward, but because being a child of God means we do those things – we love God’s children, we care for those poorer than we, we worship when we’d rather be sleeping in, we teach our children what it means to be a child of God, even at the risk of their taking it seriously. To borrow words from our confessional document, A Brief Statement of Faith, we pray without ceasing, we witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, we unmask idolatries in church and culture, we hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and we work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. And we do it because we must, because that’s what it means to be a child of God, and because that’s what it means to be working in our Father’s business.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (all PH 90): “Once In Royal David’s City” (49), “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (48), “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem” (308), “Go, Tell It On the Mountain” (29).

from, Jesus Among the Teachers

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: Unsilent Night

Grace Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2015, Christmas Eve C
Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

Unsilent Night

John Bell, a hymn writer and leader of the Iona Community in Scotland, occasionally gives talks on the subject of the songs we sing as congregations and the ways they shape our thinking about God, for better or for worse. Bell is particularly keen to point out that our hymns and even carols sometimes have a really bad habit of putting in our heads very unrealistic images. For example, Bell cites the carol “Away in a Manger,” in which we are informed that even though “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Given the scene in which the infant Jesus is resting in a feed trough, with cattle and who knows what other animals are “lowing” and probably worse, I’ve always thought Bell’s response to that “no crying” line was quite on point: “Why not? What’s wrong with him?”
Even though we will in fact sing “Silent Night” toward the conclusion of the service, we need to be able to acknowledge that the Nativity was probably a bit more chaotic scene than we might imagine in our Christmas carol-informed minds. Because there was “no place for them in the inn,” Joseph and Mary had been shunted aside into an animal stall of some sort, where the newborn child Jesus was wrapped up in cloths and laid in a manger. There was no room in that inn most likely because the Roman emperor of the time had ordered an empire-wide census of all of the residents within the Roman realm, which led to the chaos of families and individuals packed up and returning to their family hometowns to be counted (remember this in 2020, and be glad all you have to do is fill out a form). Bethlehem wasn’t exactly a bustling metropolis, so the number of people filling the inn argued against quiet as well.
The animals accustomed to having the stall to themselves were most likely a bit unsettled by the presence of these unfamiliar humans in their space, and were likely making noise about it. Finally, the act of childbirth itself is not exactly a stress-free experience for most; if Mary was in fact quiet and silent, it was quite possibly because after their stressful travel and then giving birth, she was exhausted.
Finally, the child. Children are chaotic creatures. Whether it is the infant crying out for no apparent reason, or the toddler who can inexplicably get to everything in the house no matter how you child-proof it, or the twelve-year-old who really knows how to cause trouble (that’s a preview of Sunday’s sermon, by the way), children tend to wreak havoc. In short, no matter what Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber might have come up with, it’s pretty unlikely that the night of Jesus’s birth was anything at all like a “silent night.”
And that, my friends, is part – a big part – of the good news.
The kind of event Isaiah’s prophecy describes isn’t “quiet” news, for one thing. It’s joyful news, it’s news of something exciting and uplifting that God’s people will be delivered. It’s exciting that “a child has been born for us” – how many times do you hear an announcement about a new or impending birth being greeted by demure, polite commentary? No, people shout and laugh and make joyful noise. Isaiah truly wouldn’t get this business of a silent night.
Luke’s own account is pretty chaotic as well, even once you get past the actual birth itself. As if Mary weren’t wiped out enough, here come these shepherds, rousted from their pastoral duties by a decidedly unquiet “multitude of the heavenly host” singing their most unquiet song about “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” As the angels have told them, the shepherds do indeed go and find “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger,” which was a wonder for the shepherds but a little bit of a riot for the new parents, having a bunch of shepherds who had likely been out in the fields for weeks suddenly crowding into the stall.
No, it’s not a silent night, and that is good news.
God does not wait around for our lives to be perfect and orderly and prim and proper before breaking in on our world. God doesn’t wait for a room to open up at the Hampton Inn (or at Shands for that matter) before being born. God doesn’t wait until you’re ready for a holiday open house or homes tour before bursting into our lives with the deliverance and salvation we didn’t even know we needed. God comes to us when the time is right, not necessarily when we’re ready.
Amidst the chaos and clutter, “a child has been born for us.” Amidst the uncertainty and fear and disquiet of our own lives, “a son given to us.” Even as we face disorder and chaos and illness and even death, the angels deliver “good news of great joy for all the people,” even us. The one is born who will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” whether everything is peaceful and orderly or not.
And this, maybe more than anything else about this night, is good news.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (PH 41); “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (PH 31); “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” (PH 28); “The First Nowell” (PH 56); “Silent Night, Holy Night” (PH 60); “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (GtG 123)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sermon: Love, Not Apathy

Grace Presbyterian Church
December 20, 2015, Advent 4C
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

Love, Not Apathy

The Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, is an organization that, as its name suggests, conducts research on public attitudes about religion. Their research covers both attitudes of members of particular religions or denominations towards particular issues, and more general attitudes among Americans towards events or issues that involve religion. Their research is conducted primarily through polls and surveys. I follow them on social media, because sometimes it’s useful for a pastor to know such things.
In the wake of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s widely discussed proposal to bar all adherents of the religion of Islam from entering the United States, one of PRRI’s most recent polls asked respondents whether the “values” of Islam were “at odds” with American “values” and way of life. You probably won’t be shocked to know that Trump’s supporters answered the question overwhelmingly in the affirmative, with supporters of other candidates scattered across a spectrum of affirmation.
Yes, it is a shame that we are in such a state of frenzy that such a question is even necessary, about Islam or any religion. As long as politicians and other public figures find stoking fear to be a useful way of garnering attention, however, organizations like PRRI will be prodded into answering such questions. It’s worth remembering, though, that a few weeks ago that presidential candidate was obsessed with keeping Mexicans out of the US, not Muslims.
On the other hand, though, after spending time with both Micah and Mary these last couple of weeks, I think there’s something else that’s an even bigger shame, and perhaps a poor reflection on how we Christians in the US live. PRRI has never felt compelled to ask if the “values” of Christianity are “at odds” with American “values” and way of life. Both of these readings call attention to God’s ongoing and unapologetic favor towards those who don’t always find any favor at all in our society today, or in its past.
Micah’s oracle is a happy one for those who have had their fill of Advent and are ready to steamroll into Christmas: it brings us to Bethlehem! Or, at least it mentions Bethlehem, and that’s Christmas, right? But Micah also makes a point about Bethlehem that our sentimentalized tellings of the Christmas story don’t always bring home; Bethlehem was, well, nowhere. A small, insignificant town in one of the least significant tribes of Israel. Nowhere. Nothing. And yet from this Nowheresville was to come a great leader of Israel, a leader whose rule was rooted in ancient days.

This leader from Nowheresville is portrayed in a way that the old prophets like to talk about a lot, but that Israel and Judah had experienced seldom, if ever:

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

The greatness of this ruler, unlike those who had ruled over Judah or Israel in their unhappy existence, is marked by two things: “feeding his flock” and being “the one of peace.” Feeding the flock points to a long tradition in prophetic literature in which the king – the good king – was likened to a shepherd, feeding and caring for the people of the kingdom the way a good shepherd cares for the sheep of his flock. Chapter 34 of the book of Ezekiel is a good extended example of this metaphor in practice. You will, of course, notice that both psalmists (Psalm 23, anyone?) and gospel writers (“I am the good shepherd”) picked up on this metaphor as well.
This isn’t exactly how we determine that leaders are “great” these days, it seems. We don’t see a lot of leadership that follows the model of a shepherd these days. Micah wouldn’t necessarily see a lot of examples of the kind of leader he describes among our world leaders these days, or among those who want to be world leaders for that matter. Nonetheless, when Micah challenges Israel to look for this great ruler, this is what he describes; a king who rules like a shepherd. And the leader “of peace”? Do you see one?
If Micah challenges us to look outside our usual and predictable comfort zones for true leaders, then Mary makes it clear that this “siding with the underdog” thing is still a trait of God that we just don’t seem to remember very well (or want to remember?) these days.
The traditions that have accrued around Christmas over the centuries have had a remarkable tendency to sentimentalize and trivialize the events of the birth of Christ, sometimes scandalously so, and possibly no character has been more harmed by this sentimentalization than Mary. And the carols we sing are some of the worst offenders. “Gentle Mary laid her child lowly in a manger.” “Still, still, still, he sleeps this night so chill! The Virgin’s tender arms enfolding … .” From “Once in royal David’s city,” “Mary was that mother mild … .
Even the Advent hymn we just sang piles on a little bit in verse 3: “Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head, ‘To me be as it pleases God,’ she said.” Mary gets to be painted as “gentle” and “meek” all in one phrase! If Sabine Baring-Gould had managed to work in the world “mild” somewhere we’d have the Triple Crown of Mary references.
A plain reading of the first chapter of Luke should argue against such a simplified characterization of Mary, if only because an unmarried pregnant woman, possibly a teenager, doesn’t manage to survive on gentleness, meekness, and mildness, today or in first-century Palestine. Such a young woman could certainly be put to shame even in our day; in the era of this passage she could very well have been put to death.  
Add to this Mary’s immediate reaction of perplexity and guardedness to the angel; her pointed question about how she was going to be pregnant if she wasn’t married and had never, uh, done what married couples do; and finally the exultant prophetic song Mary lets out in today’s reading, a song which is many things, but decidedly not gentle, meek, or mild. No, we don’t really do Mary any favors in the way we do the Christmas story.
Actually there are three moments of prophecy in this passage; Mary’s well-known song, Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary before that, and even before that, the lone instance of prophecy of which we know of being delivered by a child in the womb. Elizabeth’s child, the one who will be called John, leaped within her at Mary’s arrival. Once Elizabeth recovered from that pleasant sensation, she offered her own prophetic salutation, one which echoed much of what the angel had told Mary, and flat-out made it clear, with no doubt, just who Mary was carrying when she exclaimed “and why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” And then Mary responds with her own prophetic exclamation. The Holy Spirit was quite a busy member of the Trinity in this meeting.
Mary’s song starts well enough; praise to God is a pretty typical, and of course highly appropriate, way to begin such a proclamation, and Mary’s words fit very snugly into the prophetic traditions of Israel and Judah. Perhaps it gets a little unusual when she offers that God has “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As Mary’s song continues, it is very important to keep this one thing in mind: Mary’s song is all in past tense. This is what the Lord has already done:
ü  Shown strength with his arm;
ü  Scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
ü  Brought down the powerful from their thrones;
ü  Lifted up the lowly;
ü  Filled the hungry with good things;
ü  Sent the rich away empty;
ü  Helped his servant Israel, in accordance with his mercy.
That’s not necessarily a comfortable list. Sure we can convince ourselves that we’re not proud, nor are we powerful; still, though, we don’t really tend to think of ourselves as being lowly, and we probably take a little pride (oops!) in making sure we and our families don’t go hungry. And again, we probably don’t call ourselves rich, but we see enough of the world around us to know that we’re closer, most of us, to rich than to poor. And maybe we even get nervous about the word “servant” as well. When we start seriously paying attention to Mary’s song, it might not seem such a comfortable fit with our manger scenes and sentimental carols.
And yet the one to come, the one to whom Mary will give birth, is the very Son of the God who has done all these things. The baby who will finally show up in the manger this Thursday night is the very Messiah come to be the fulfillment of all that God had and has done for his people. This is, in the sense that matters most, what Christmas is all about.
What we celebrate this week is ultimately about overwhelming, unstoppable love. God loves this world so much that he lifts up the lowliest of its people, feeds the ones who hunger, disperses the ones full of pride, overthrows the power-mongers. God cares deeply and passionately about this world, and frankly wants us to care too.
It’s easy, so easy to be overwhelmed by the need we see around us. And we don’t have to go off looking in the big cities to see that need. There’s plenty of it right here in Gainesville and Alachua County. And this is a generous congregation when there is need that we see, let there be no doubt about it.
But even amidst generosity it’s still possible to be so overwhelmed that we lose a little bit of our passion or our compassion. We don’t mean to, but there’s just so much poverty and hopelessness out there. We get calloused. We, maybe, get just a little apathetic. We can’t maintain a fever pitch of compassion, so we swing so far the other way that we just can’t work up our concern.
And yet the God who loved the world so much that he lifts up the lowly, who loved the world so much that becoming a helpless baby was not too much of a stretch to continue to lift up the lowly and to lead us all to keep lifting up the lowly, calls us to keep on loving, to keep on caring, to keep on lifting up and yet more: to reach out, and to welcome in, and to be with. It means not being comfortable with being comfortable any more with anything less than the world God wants.
That is our challenge as people who would dare call ourselves followers of Christ. That is where the child in the manger will call us to go. You see, that child won’t stay in the manger forever. This is the Jesus who will spend a life on earth caring for the least of these, challenging the religious authorities and those comfortable with them, and bringing the glad tidings of good news to all, what really is good news even if it doesn’t always sound like it to us. And if we truly call ourselves followers of Christ, that’s where Christ is going to lead us.
Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Hymns: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (PH 43); “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came” (PH 16); “My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout” (GtG 100); “Savior of the Nations, Come” (PH 14)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sermon: Peace, Not Corruption

Grace Presbyterian Church
December 6, 2015, Advent 2C
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11

Peace, Not Corruption

This Christmas finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and goodwill can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. If we don’t have goodwill toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by our misuse of our own instruments and our own power.

These are the opening words of a sermon preached by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Christmas season of 1967. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that they have every bit as much relevance now as then; if anything, the “paralyzing fears” are perhaps more intense and more present than ever. We have been at war for fourteen unbroken years; violent attacks across the world jolt our sense of security; even the most sober-minded and emotionally restrained individual has to consider the possibility that, no matter where they go, a mass shooting could break out. No, we are not at peace, within nor without.
If we turn to the scriptures seeking consolation, today’s offerings are a mixed bag. The reading from Philippians, one of Paul’s more effusive and loving greetings found at the beginning of his letters, seems a cheery prospect, as Paul rejoices in the Philippians, giving thanks for them, “constantly praying with joy” for them, expressing confidence that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ,” and so forth. It does, though, take a slightly less joyful turn by its end, when Paul expresses the hope that “in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,” which at least carries the implication that something will put that purity and blamelessness to the test. 
The other readings offered for the day put that difficulty, or at least potential difficulty, more in the foreground. The gospel reading for today, from Luke 3 (which was not read), features John the Baptist beginning his work of stirring up trouble, while citing the words of Isaiah about one crying in the wilderness and rough places being cleared out. The morning’s canticle offered in the place of the psalm, from Luke 1, takes us back to John’s father, Zechariah, and his prophetic exaltation upon John’s birth. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is a heck of a story itself, as two senior citizens are jolted out of their comfortable if lonely lives by the announcement of a son to be born to them. When Zechariah’s doubts come tumbling out of his mouth in unguarded fashion, he is struck mute by the heralding angel, his tongue to be released only upon his son’s birth and naming.
The words Zechariah utters are words of rejoicing, yes, but that rejoicing in the gloriousness of God and celebrating of the newly-born child is underscored with danger. God has been required (yet again) to redeem his people, to save them from enemies and those who hate them; the newly born son John will be called upon to “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” This newly-born herald of the Messiah is not being born into a peaceful and calm world.
And then, there is this passage from Malachi. Yikes.
It sounds promising at first. The messenger will come (we Christians have tended to interpret this a prophecy of John the Baptist), and then the Lord will come to his temple. Indeed, the one “in whom you delight” is coming! Joyful stuff indeed, and entirely suitable to our celebratory impulses as the day of Christmas approaches.
But then, the ominous question: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
This passage makes up one of the familiar early sequences of the oratorio Messiah, by George Frideric Handel, that is often heard from large choirs this time of year. Handel, of course, is working from a different translation so the text will be different, but he clearly gets the difficulty and portent of this passage – [sing] “But who may abide the day of his coming, and shall stand when he appeareth?” Not a song of comfort.
It’s as if Malachi has taken the encouragement of the first verses and turned it on his head. The one in whom we delight is coming … and we cannot possibly endure it?
Novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner gets at something like this in his book The Alphabet of Grace, writing about doubt:

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.

We have, in modern Christianity and particularly in modern American Christianity, become rather saturated with the notion that Jesus is our buddy, our best friend, maybe even our boyfriend in some settings. The ancients would have been utterly baffled by this idea. For all that Jesus undoes our understanding of God by coming down to walk among us in human form, what does not change is that God is a mighty God, powerful, fearsome, even terrible. To be before the face of such a God was not, in the mind of the ancients, something a human could expect to withstand without being fearfully and terribly changed by the experience, even in the face of a God who is also loving and merciful and compassionate. The love and mercy do not erase the fearfulness and terribleness.
What comes next is also a challenge:

For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

Being refined by fire and purified by the harshest soap there is, again, seems in discord with the Lord  in whom we delightappearing in his temple, and certainly seems at odds with the shepherds and angels and Baby Jesus and all we associate with Christmas.
And what does all that have to do with peace?
Perhaps it has to do with the things that prevent peace.
We know we are not at peace. We know ourselves, when we’re honest to be fallen, to be corrupted, even if we don’t use the theological language. We know ourselves to be sinful. And that sin, no matter how great or small, leaves us unable to know genuine peace.
We cannot stand before God in that state. But who may abide the day of his coming?
But we are not destroyed, Buechner’s concern notwithstanding. The Lord is like a refiner’s fire. A metal like silver, or gold, was in those times purified by fire. The silver or gold was changed, but it was not destroyed. The corruptions and impurities were removed, purged away by the fire. The worst stains were purged away by fuller’s soap.
So it is with us, in the day of the Lord.
If we truly seek the child of the manger, we cannot avoid the purifying and refining God. As much as it seems a paradox, it is all part of the same package. The terrible and fearsome purging away of our fallenness and corruption is that end to which the babe of Bethlehem takes us, even if we dare not contemplate it. And this is our deliverance, this is our hope, and yes, this is our peace, even amidst the refiner’s fire.
For the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (all PH ’90): “Prepare the Way” (13), “Song of Zechariah” (602), “Come Down, O Love Divine” (313), “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?” (11)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: Hope, Not Fear

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2015, Advent 1C
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Hope, Not Fear

May I be the first to wish you a Happy New Year?
As I’m sure you know, the season of Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year; we commence with a time of waiting and anticipation of the coming of Christ, followed by the celebration of Christ’s birth. That season of anticipation marks the beginning of a new cycle of scripture readings that lead us through the life of Christ, culminating in his death and resurrection, and then through early church history; and also lead us into a fairly (but by no means completely) exhaustive survey of the scriptures.
That season of anticipation, though, is a two-headed coin. Our scriptural choices direct us through many Old Testament passages that recall for us the waiting and anticipation, and even hope, that the people of God experienced in the years of the kingdoms of Israel in anticipation of the coming of the long-anticipated Messiah. But they also look forward to life reunited with Christ, the Advent for which we ourselves wait.
It is a brief excerpt that we read from Jeremiah, but one that covers much ground. Jeremiah speaks to the people of both Israel and Judah, not in this case to chastise them for their failures but to remind them of the promises of God and the faithfulness of God to fulfill those promises. It seems simple enough, in a way; the Lord will provide a faithful, righteous leader (in the lineage of David, as Jeremiah’s hearers would understand), who would “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” The kingdom would live in safety, and the Lord would be the righteousness of the land.
Sounds simple, but in the time in which Jeremiah wrote such promises seemed unbearably remote, and perhaps even cruel. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were no more. Israel, the northern kingdom, had been overrun almost two centuries before, and Judah, the southern kingdom in which Jeremiah lived and wrote, was being conquered even as he wrote. For that matter, Jeremiah himself lived in what should have seemed a personally hopeless situation, imprisoned by the failing king for the unforgivable crime of speaking truth and prophesying honestly, as the Lord led him.
To proclaim safety, to preach justice and righteousness in the face of such devastation must have seemed foolishness indeed. And if those prophecies had been dependent on the faithfulness of the people of Israel or Judah, or even of Jeremiah himself, they would have been foolishness indeed. But the promise, the hope, is not of human hands. The hope Jeremiah proclaimed was solely grounded in the faithfulness of a God Who insistently remained faithful, who insistently fulfilled the hopes of the people of God no matter their foolishness and disobedience. The hope was not that everything was going to change immediately; the hope was in a faithful and loving God.
We could stand to be reminded of this, you know. Our situation is not quite like Jeremiah’s, but we are surrounded by situations and voices that would encourage us to give up hope in favor of its enemy, fear.
Let me be blunt here. We see awful destructive things happen in the world. Only two weeks ago we were reeling from the news coming out of Paris, the horrific attacks in that city, not to mention other attacks in Beirut and Baghdad. In those two weeks we have been subjected to a belligerent cacophony of voices encouraging – no, demanding – that we fear. And these loud voices always have a convenient target to offer for our mandated fear, even if they aren’t remotely the ones committing those acts of terror we are supposed to fear. But never mind that – be afraid!
No. That’s not how it works.
We don’t live in fear. Not if we are following Christ, not if we are trusting in God, not if we are living in hope. It is not possible. The two cannot exist in the same space.
We live in trust. Today’s psalm makes that clear. Our soul is lifted up to God; we trust in God. We live in humbleness before the Lord. We submit ourselves to God’s instruction, trusting God to teach us the path in which to live. We wait upon God’s salvation. We rest in the mercy and the love of God. To do these things leaves no room for fear.
We live in gratitude towards God and towards each other. This is the lesson from today’s epistle reading. Written from an apostle bound in prison because of his witness to a congregation facing the first struggles of living faithfully in a world that doesn’t encourage it, this letter shows us how Paul – the imprisoned apostle – is consumed not with fear or anger or despair, but with love, gratitude, and hope expressed towards that congregation in Thessalonica.
If we are truly going to live into the hope of Advent, the hope of a God who is faithful even when we aren’t, then we will not live in fear, no matter how much fear is shouted at us. That is what Advent is. That is what keeping Advent calls us to do.
The painting you see in the narthex, by our own Jay Collins, captures this so well with the image of a lighthouse. When the weather is fair and seas are calm, lighthouses are pretty. You can climb to the top and see for miles. You can take pictures. It’s pleasant. But when skies darken and seas are storm-tossed, the lighthouse matters. It’s not cute anymore; it’s a lifesaver. So it is with the hope we proclaim in this season of Advent. Hope isn’t about the good times; hope is for the stormy times.
So I invite you to be countercultural. Live in hope, not fear. Live in hope because God is faithful, even when we aren’t.
And for that, Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Hymns (all PH ’90): “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (9), “Jesus Comes With Clouds Descending” (6), “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” (1)

Jay Winter Collins, "Hope ... Advent painting #1"
(used by permission -- I hope!)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sermon: Only the Beginning

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 15, 2015, Ordinary 33B
Mark 13:1-8; Hebrews 10:19-25

Only the Beginning

Wars, and rumors of wars…”. I think we’ve got that covered.
This is not the week I’d have chosen to preach this passage. In fact I’d quite likely not have chosen to preach this passage any time soon, to be blunt about it. It’s a pretty disturbing and unpleasant thing to preach on, and it’s the very kind of passage that is so easy for a certain kind of preacher, one who is more keen on using the Bible as a code book for deciphering end times than a revelation of Jesus, is so readily wont to abuse. Frankly, part of me thinks I am taking my study leave a week too late. However, the lectionary leaves it sitting here right in front of me, and I’ve been busily working through the gospel of Mark in the lectionary this year and even sometimes going off lectionary to stay with this gospel. It would be a pretty shameful thing for a preacher to do to bail out with just this one scripture left to go.
And besides, perhaps this is the week we really need to confront this scripture. Perhaps this week, reeling from the headlines as we are, is the very time we most need to confront a scripture like this, words directly attributed to Jesus by Mark, and be clear about what it does say to us, and what it does not. Perhaps we need to confront this disturbing passage with its pointing towards the future and sort out what it means for us here and now.
It happens while Jesus and his disciples are in and around Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly life. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the event we celebrate on Palm Sunday, has already happened, and the final supper with his disciples is just a couple of days away. Jesus has been in the Temple already this week, creating a major disruption in cleaning out the Temple’s marketplace one day, and teaching to the embarrassment of the scribes and Pharisees another, with a brief bit of commentary on a poor widow along the way. And it is on the way out of the Temple, for some time for reflection on the Mount of Olives, that one of the disciples looks up and notices the Temple. It’s a big and thoroughly impressive structure, to be sure, but after the challenging and provocative discourse Jesus has been giving in the Temple this particular week, maybe this wasn’t the time to get all goggle-eyed about it. In response, Jesus utters a bit of prophecy; this impressive and magnificent edifice would all be thrown down and destroyed.
Depending on when you believe Mark wrote his gospel, his immediate readers have either seen this event come to pass, or can see it coming and are under pressure to declare their allegiance. In the year 66 revolt broke out against the Roman government and military. Initially successful, the revolution was set back when new Roman forces advanced on Jerusalem. However, unrest in Rome interrupted the campaign in 68, but the final crushing defeat of Jewish forces in the year 70 brought the revolt to a close, as well as bringing about the destruction of the Temple (along with other parts of Jerusalem). So, Mark’s readers were either seeing the rebellion going on but in trouble, if you believe the gospel was written before 70, or they had witnessed the destruction of the Temple, if you believe it was written after that year.
Either way, this leads us to the first lesson in dealing with apocalyptic passages like this one: never forget we are not the first readers of scripture. For all we are eager to glean some divine plan for our lives out of such a text, we must remember that the first people who read this gospel had very specific reactions to the text and knew very clearly the horrors of which Mark wrote, and that our attempts to interpret those texts for ourselves cannot trump the meanings the text had for them. The “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” that Jesus mentions in verse 14 might seem mysterious to us, but Mark’s readers didn’t need to be told what it was to see Roman soldiers rampaging through the Holy City of Judaism.
Another caution to keep in mind; don’t claim to know what Jesus doesn’t know. I’ve picked on this one before. As Jesus goes deeper and further afield on the sufferings to come for his followers, one question he refuses to answer directly is when all of these things will happen. In fact, he very specifically avoids giving much of anything away. While Jesus is quite willing to speak of signs that will come, of persecutions to be endured and deception to be practiced by false prophets, Jesus will not be nailed down to any specific time frame. It is made bluntly clear in verse 32: “no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This is not an invitation to turn every last bit of difficult scripture into a code to be broken or a puzzle to be solved. You don’t know. You are not going to know. If some preacher tells you he (and it always seems to be “he” in this case) knows when it’s all going to come crashing down, run! Get away as fast as you can. You are in the presence of one of those false witnesses.
The third, related lesson in dealing with this chapter is perhaps the most important for us, in the brutal and violent times in which we live. Apocalyptic scripture is not an excuse to quit, and not an escape route. We don’t get to look at this chapter or other apocalyptic passages like it as a means to drop out of life. Our call to live in “the Kingdom of God … come near,” that message Jesus proclaimed way back at the beginning of this gospel, is not changed by this chapter one bit.
The reading from Hebrews captures this dynamic very effectively. Following on the account of Jesus as “great high priest” that serves as the theme of this extended sermon, the preacher’s counsel to his readers is pretty simple: keep your hearts true, in full assurance of your faith; hold on to hope, “without wavering”; and continuing to find ways to  provoke one another to love and good deeds.” For good measure, the preacher even cautions the flock about “not neglecting to meet together”! If you’ve ever been looking for a direct scripture command to keep gathering together like we do each Sunday, here it is! And these instructions don’t change in the face of impending, unknown … whatever. If anything, we keep on doing what we are called to do “all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Whatever we are to make of apocalyptic literature, whether this passage from Mark or even more elaborate writings such as are found in Daniel or Revelation, none of them are a reason to stop being the body of Christ. If anything they are reason to be even more faithful and more determined in doing Christ’s work in God’s world. A barrage of violence such as we have seen in just a few days, in Beirut, in Baghdad, and in Paris, is not a call to drop out. It is not a call to take up arms in ill-fated revolt. It is a call to keep being God’s people, or even to be God’s people even more. It’s a call to keep praying, to keep mourning, and yes, to keep rejoicing. It is a call to keep singing hymns and praying prayers and studying God’s word. It is a call to keep feeding hungry people, housing those with no place to live, caring for the sick and the dying, and even more so. It is a call to double down on imitating Christ, and nothing less.
We don’t know when “these things will come to pass,” and all the “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes and famines that we can see around us, as Jesus himself says, are not the end, and not even the beginning of the end, They are only the beginning. Our call does not change. We are to keep awake, yes, but we are also to keep working, to keep being followers of Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (all PH ’90): “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above” (476); “Near to the Heart of God” (527); “My Lord! What a Morning” (449); “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” (84)

Again, nails it.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sermon: Last Call For Jerusalem

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 8, 2015
Mark 10:46-52

Last Call For Jerusalem

This is not a miracle story.
“Hold on, pastor,” you say. “There’s a blind man who gets his sight back right here in the middle of the story. How do you say this isn’t a miracle story?”
True, there is a man, named Bartimaeus, who is blind when the story begins, and whose sight is restored by a word from Jesus. There is a miracle in this story. But it is not a miracle story.
There are miracle stories in Mark, lots of them. We’ve encountered quite a few over the course of this year in this gospel. There were two dramatic mass feedings; five thousand in Jewish country, four thousand in Gentile territory. There were two dramatic “water miracles,” so to speak; Jesus first calms a storm in chapter 4, and later Jesus walks on water in chapter 6, offering his disciples a spectacular if misunderstood theophany, or vision of the divine. There was strange transfiguration story.
And there were healings. There were many, many healings. Early in this gospel it seemed as if Jesus would never be allowed to get on with his teaching for being so pressed with so many seeking healing.
Demons were cast out. A leper was cleansed. A paralyzed man was made able to walk after his friends tore a hole in a roof to get him to Jesus. Jesus healed a man’s withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, an incident which set Pharisee and Herodian to the task of destroying Jesus. And all of these happen by chapter 3, verse 6.
Later, another demoniac is exorcized, a little girl is restored to life and an old woman is healed just by touching Jesus’s garment. Healings also happen in Gentile lands, with people bringing the sick into town centers and marketplaces to be healed by Jesus – imagine people bringing the sick into Butler Plaza or the Oaks Mall to be healed. A Syrophoenician woman pesters Jesus into healing her daughter.
There was, late in chapter 8, a blind man restored to sight. It might be useful to look at that story quickly to see what these miracle stories tend to look like. In Bethsaida, some locals bring a blind man to Jesus, begging that Jesus “touch him.” The action in the healing gets quite elaborate in this case. Jesus takes the blind man to a spot outside the village, spits and puts the saliva on his eyes, and lays his hands on them. At first the man can see only in part; people “look like trees, walking.” Jesus puts hands on him again, and the man can see clearly. Jesus sends him home, telling him not to even go back into the village.
I hope you’ll see that in comparing that healing story to our reading for today, there are a lot of differences. For one thing, today we have a name. The recipient of healing isn’t anonymous in this case; we are told he is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus (which is actually what “Bartimaeus” means). We are also told he is a beggar, sitting by the roadside on the way out of Jericho to Jerusalem. We are also told that he himself is the one seeking healing for himself; in many of the healing stories others are bringing to Jesus the one needing healing, or interceding on behalf of a sick person not even present. But Bartimaeus is pleading for himself, and far from having friends help, he is being shushed by the crowd.
Bartimaeus also seems to have some unusual insight about Jesus. We are told that he doesn’t begin calling out until he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth passing by. It’s an interesting choice of identification, given that the only other characters who call him “Jesus of Nazareth” up to this point in Mark are the demons being cast out in Capernaum, way back in chapter 1. As Bartimaeus continues to cry out to Jesus, he himself calls Jesus by yet another unusual name: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Not that “Son of David” is all that unusual to us in general, but this is the first time anybody has called Jesus by this name in the gospel of Mark.
Whether it was this unusual form of address or the beggar’s sheer persistence, Jesus stops and orders the crowd to call Bartimaeus forward. And Bartimaeus does not hesistate!  This is no ordinary verb for getting up from the ground; Bartimaeus sprang up! he jumped up! and somehow makes his way to Jesus through the crowd.  The text even tells us he threw off his outer cloak – a gesture of haste, maybe?  Throwing off anything, down to the last possession, that might keep him from getting to Jesus?  We can only guess what was going through Bartimaeus’s mind at that moment, we can only speculate how his mind was racing and his heart pounding as he sprang up and burst forward, maybe stumbling, maybe crashing into others in the crowd before finally (as far as he could tell, in his blindness) getting to Jesus. 
It might seem strange that Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s also curious that this is virtually the same question Jesus asks James and John in verse 36 of this chapter. Their answer, to be seated at Jesus’s right and left in glory, demonstrates just how blind they are, still not understanding or not willing to understand what Jesus had just said to them about his death and resurrection. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, has no illusions about his condition. He knows his own blindness. “My teacher, let me see again” is all he asks. And Jesus’s answer isn’t unprecedented; the woman with the blood issue is told something similar.
No, what sets this story apart from miracle stories is its ending:
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
Do you see the difference?
“Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
This is not a miracle story.
This is a discipleship story.
Bartimaeus followed Jesus, just as James and Peter and John had followed Jesus, leaving behind their fishing boats in chapter 1, and just as Levi followed Jesus, leaving behind his tax collector’s booth in chapter 2. Bartimaeus didn’t have as much to leave behind as they did; we are only told that he threw off his cloak as he jumped up to go to Jesus, and as far as we know that’s all he had. But for all that Bartimaeus left all and followed Jesus, something that is not recorded as happening in any of the other miracle stories in Mark.
Now the main thing that sets Bartimaeus’s story apart from those other discipleship stories is its timing. Peter and James and John, as well as Levi, got up and followed at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, jumps up and follows very near the end. You can look and notice that the very next story in Mark, in chapter 11, is the story of Palm Sunday, Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We are approaching the end.
The way on which Bartiameus follows Jesus is not just the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of suffering, of humiliation. It is the way that Jesus has chosen to travel, and Bartimaeus follows him on that way.
This is a discipleship story and this is a call story, for us.
We are called to name our blindness. When Jesus asks us “What do you want me to do for you?” how do we answer? Do we seek glory and power, continuing in our blindness like James and John? Or do we, like Bartimaeus, name our blindness? Do we confess our sinfulness? Do we lift up our weakness and fallenness and name them before Jesus? Bartimaeus’s response is our call; to name our blindness and to give it up to Jesus’s healing.
We name our blindness, we receive Jesus’s healing, and then we follow Jesus on the way. The way that leads to the cross. Nothing glorious, nothing that brings us power or fame or public renown. Just a cross.
Bartimaeus follows a fool. As novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner describes, “God shows us a man who gave his life away to the extent of dying a national disgrace without a penny in the bank or a friend to his name. In terms of men’s wisdom, he was a Perfect Fool, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without making something like the same kind of a fool of himself is laboring under not a cross but a delusion.” And yet, Bartimaeus follows him on the way.
Do we dare follow? Do we dare give up our blindness, our illusions of power or self-sufficiency or influence, and follow the way of humility, of sacrifice, of the cross?
Will we be something more than mere Christians? Will we be disciples?
For Bartimaeus’s sight, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (PH 466), “When God Delivered Israel” (PH 237), “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” (GtG 418), “Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons)” (GtG 716)

Not sure what I'll do when I'm preaching a text that doesn't have an cartoon.