On Forgiving the People Who Killed Your Relatives, Showing Up Early for the End of the World, and Jesus Screaming

Untitled designI try to use this column as a spiritual discipline, writing down thoughts and stories connected with the Biblical texts for the week in a way that may not be total sermon material, but still kind of interesting enough to spark the Biblical imagination (or maybe even make up for a bad sermon I preach on Sunday).

I know, I know, sometimes these columns for other pastors and at other churches are more typically devotional, and sometimes they relay information about something coming up in the life of the church.  And sometimes I do that, too.

But normally I’d just rather riff off the texts a bit and connect it with real life somehow.  This time is no exception.

But, I’m conflicted. Because the texts for this week are awe-some, in the truest sense of the word.  All three readings (from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the Epistles, and from the Gospels) are packed full of wonderful imagery and golden threads that, if pulled, will unravel a whole tapestry of spiritual meaning for the attentive person.

So instead of just riffing off of one, I’m going to point out three major themes, one for each reading, and I’ll let you connect it with your life however you need to. Ready?

First up: Jonah 3:1-5. Go ahead and read it first…I’ll wait.

See, here’s the thing we miss about the story of Jonah: the whole thing is about his dead relatives.  At least, that’s my take on it.  You missed that part of the story, right?  Well that’s because it’s not in there, but it is implied for the student of history.

See, God asks Jonah to speak a saving word to Nineveh, and because he’s reluctant to do so, we think that he’s just hard-headed and hard-hearted.  But what we miss is that the Assyrian Empire and Israel’s Northern Kingdom had a sordid history, including a number of battles and clashes that took a heavy toll on Israel to the point that Israel had been paying tribute to Assyria as a servant would pay tribute to a ruler.ed37ea12da72eee16916f2d5e0248323

The Assyrians beat up on Israel more than a few times, resulting in much death.

In other words, the story of Jonah is a story of God asking Jonah to save the very people who looted, plundered, and yes, probably killed, his grandparents’ generation (or great-grandparents, depending on which scholarly time-lines you trust).  Which would require a whole lot of forgiveness on Jonah’s part, or at the very least a whole lot of “bygones being bygones” and letting go of grudges. And if you think that’s too long to hold a grudge, well, you’re not thinking with an ancient brain.

Grudges lasted in those days, Beloved.

And, if William Faulkner is correct when he asserts that, “The past is never ‘past…'” then we can safely say that grudges still last.

Forgiveness is a tough pill to swallow.  But what if swallowing it meant saving the people who killed your grandparents and continued to threaten your existence (throughout ancient history Israel and Assyria were, at best, friends of convenience and, at worst, fierce enemies…and Assyria would eventually win that battle)?

The question that falls out of the book of Jonah for me is this: could/would you save the killer?  Especially we who come from a shared history of Hatfield and McCoys, of “Never Forget” bumper stickers, the death penalty, and “you get what you give” karmic mentality.

Could you effectively offer redemption, forgiveness, to the one(s) who did/do the unthinkable?

Yeah, Jonah is a book that stings the conscience when you dig deep.

Next up? 1 Corinthians 7:29-31. You’re really going to want to read this one or else you’ll miss what’s going on.

A funny thing about 1 and 2 Corinthians: we’re pretty sure they’re in the wrong order.  Historical critical study thinks that Paul probably wrote 2 Corinthians first, and then 1 Corinthians as a follow-up to another letter, and there’s probably a lost correspondence somewhere in the middle there.

godupdates are we living in the end times fbAnd another thing we’ve lost is the perspective of St. Paul and the ancient churches.  They were certain, certain(!), that they were living in the “last days,” much like some Christians today (and of every generation…funny how Jesus says, “no one knows the hour,” and yet in every era someone claims to know the hour).

And this response of St. Paul’s to Corinth is indicative of this “last days” mindset.  The ancient church’s urgency was real.  How did they get it so wrong?

Or, was their life so difficult that the thought of escape was a relief rather than a fear?

And what do we Christians do on the other side of this text, knowing that it was not the “last days” anymore than any day is the last day for someone?

But there is certainly some truth to this passage.  The present form of the world is always, continually “passing away,” and indeed Paul knew in one sense or another that Jesus’ ministry, life, death, and resurrection ushered in something new and reality-altering.

The question is: do you live as if it is new and reality-altering?

Ok, and then the Gospel: Mark 1:14-20. It’s familiar, but read it again anyway.

It’s Jesus calling the first disciples, his “inner-circle” as it would turn out: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  All fisherman tearing their hands while tearing fish from the sea.

Jesus first appears on the scene “proclaiming” the “good news.”

But here’s the thing about that phrase, “good news.”  In the Greek it’s not just any phrase, it’s a royal phrase.  The Emperor is the only who who gave “good news.”  All news not from the Emperor was just regular old news.  In fact, there are ancient artifacts that use that exact phrase to describe the Emperor’s decrees.

And so, when Jesus shows up on the scene proclaiming the “good news,” he’s speaking out against the supposed “good news” of the Emperor, speaking against the powers of the day and saying a

Godly word in contrast to the Emperor’s godly word (because Caesar was supposed to be a god).

No, I missed something. We need to circle back.  Because he was not just speaking, but proclaiming.

gospelofjohn-post01-yelling

Shouting.

 

Yelling.

 

And while you might get the picture from the reading that Jesus is casually wandering around the sea-side picking up followers like one might pick daisies in a vacant field, the Greek betrays the urgency of the scene.  The “follow me” that Jesus throws out to the net-throwing fisherpeople is not a question or a plead.  It is in the imperative form, which means it was a command.

No, not just a command, a yell.  Jesus yelled, “Follow me!”

We don’t like to think of Jesus yelling, but here in the Gospel of Mark that’s all he’s doing in these first verses.  And he’s probably yelling because Jesus knows humanity too well, and knows our propensity to fish for all sorts of things: fame, fortune, compliments, correct answers.  He know how easily we follow any sort of good news we might hear: advertisements, political gossip, political decrees, racist jokes, Siri’s bad direction, sales pitches.

And so Jesus starts out yelling because, I think, God knows we are a people hard of hearing.  Or rather, we find it hard to hear God amidst everything else we’re listening to and fishing for.

Ok. I’ve gone on long enough.  Now the task is yours, Beloved.

Consider a question from Jonah: what have/haven’t you forgiven about others or yourself?  What if God is asking you to? What do you need to claim God’s redemption upon?

Consider a question from 1 Corinthians: do you live as if the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means a darn thing in your life?  And I’m not asking if you go around converting people (can we be honest about how annoying that is at the coffee shop?), but in your daily life, how do you live? Afraid? Angry? Mean? Full of regret or grievances?

And finally, consider a question from Mark’s Gospel: What are you fishing for that you need to put down? What kind of “good news” are you relying too heavily upon that you need to let go of?  And what in the world is Jesus yelling about today that you need to listen to?

And with that…I’ll see you in church.

 

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Where in the World is TJB?

As I sit down to write this update it is just starting to snow in the Raleigh area.

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Plaza de la Revolucion, Managua, Nicuragua

Meanwhile, in Managua, Nicaragua it is 77 degrees Fahrenheit and probably won’t rain the whole time I’m there.

But I don’t expect that the weather will be the only difference I’ll observe in the next ten days.

Many of you have asked why I’ll be in Nicaragua, and though the blanket answer I’ve been giving is that I’ll be on an educational trip with a group of pastors from North Carolina, the much longer answer is that we’ll be doing some in-depth immersion, seeking to learn from another culture what community can look like.

Since November of 2016 I’ve been meeting regularly with a group of pastors along the 40 corridor of North Carolina through a program at Wake Forest Divinity School.  I applied to this cohort, named “Clergy Making a Place,” because I was intrigued by their conviction that clergy could be a voice for change in their specific contexts.

Over the year we’ve met for two days at a time every other month, a congress dedicated to hearing from experts across the state on issues facing North Carolinians: hunger, education, political underhandedness, economic inequality, and healthcare.  The goal of each congress is to gather information, do some community digestion, and dream of ways that the local church can be both incubator and stimulus for change trusting that pastors can “incarnate resurrection” in the places they lead.

The denominational make-up of the group is a bit of a Reformation melange.  We have two pastors from the peace traditions: Mennonite and Brethren.  An assortment of Baptists make up the largest single contingent, from Cooperative to Alliance (and some a

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Most of us looking good.  The others not pictured looked good too…you just can’t tell.

mix of both).  There is one pastor from a historically African American tradition, the AME Church, and another who has roots in the Alliance Baptist tradition and the United Church of Christ.  One United Methodist pastor, three Presbyterian pastors, a Disciples of Christ pastor, and me, the liturgical Lutheran, round out the group.

Oh, and a partridge in a pear tree.

The diversity of theological thought has been one of the most enriching parts of each gathering, as each tradition brings their own lens to a topic.

And it has been fascinating to see how each theological lens brings focus to the issue and is also broken by the issue at hand.  These are heavy issues, weighed down by systems much larger than any one pastor, any one church, any one denomination or political party can handle.  History has shown that the church can be both blessing and curse when it comes to human flourishing.

We’re all committed to being the blessing God has called the church to be.

And so we’re headed to Nicaragua.  But I have no illusions that we’ll somehow “be the blessing they need” down there, and I don’t say that in any sort of “I’ll gain much more than I’ll give” piety that usually flows from Christian mission trips.  We are no American saviors here, and this is not a mission trip in that traditional understanding of that phrase.

In fact, we’re going to be the anti-that in most ways.  We’re going to learn how this community organization, AMOS, trains and equips the native Nicaraguans how to provide for their own healthcare and train their own leaders.  And AMOS doesn’t go in because they see a need, they go in because the locals have asked them to be their partners in helping their community flourish.  The missionaries are the people already in place in a specific community.  We’re just the mission support.

So, what will we be doing, specifically?

Well, first we’ll fly into Managua, Nicaragua and receive some cultural orientation. As part of this training we’ll visit some local churches and markets, meeting and learning from Managuans.  During this time we’ll also listen to local historians talk about Nicaragua and her proud people through a historical lens.

We’ll then begin some focused training on what we’ll be doing with the small communities we’ll be visiting over the next week, learning how to maintain and repair the water filter equipment they use to provide clean water for their communities, devising a fun sports camp for the youth of the communities (a fun request to partner with them on!), and exploring ways to best work with church leaders from within the community to address community needs.

After our orientation and training, we travel to Nacascolo, a community of 265 persons (roughly 70 families).  There we’ll work with, learn from, teach some, and play with this community, exploring the ways they make a place together.

Nacascola-Neighborhood-view

Nacascolo, Boaco, Nicaragua

Here is where we’ll spend the bulk of our time, being trained in the ways of “making a place” organically by people who have done it for generations.

When our time in Nacascolo is complete, we’ll head back to Managua for some debriefing and intentional reflection.  The next morning we’ll pack up and head for a night to Granada to rest before boarding our plane to return home, our bags full of thoughts and moments that we’ve carefully wrapped to share, somehow, back here in North Carolina.

This whole experience with Wake Forest Divinity has been part of what I see as the call you’ve put upon me as your pastor.  Through this work I’ve learned more about North Carolina and her people, more about the congregations that make up the Christian church in this state, and more than I ever really thought I’d want to know about the systemic issues that hamper human flourishing here.

But God is at work here in Carolina, and we are a part of that work.  I look forward to sharing my thoughts and reflections with you upon my return, and I’m excited for the ways that Good Shepherd continues to become more and more a place of incubation and stimulus for change in our neighborhood, our city, and our state as we hear God’s call upon us to love our neighbor more fully.

I welcome your thoughts and prayers for the journey!

Pace.

 

 

I Wonder

John 1:1-5, 10-14

hqdefault1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

I Wonder

Let us pray:

Holy God,

Holy and mighty,

Holy and powerful:

Sometimes you don’t seem so powerful.

Sometimes you don’t seem so mighty.

Sometimes you don’t seem to be God at all

Or even present.

So we pray, tonight, that you make yourself known.

We pray tonight that you come upon your people

As the light that no shadow can overcome.

Amen.

Blessed evening.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky…

It’s one of my favorite carols, and Appalachian tune that this state knows so well.  Appalachian music is a gift to the world, a favorite child of this state, and the heritage of my heritage, the Scotch-Irish who decided that the mountains that stretch across our Eastern sea-board look enough like their highlands back home to make it their new home.

I wonder about a lot of things.

The “I wonder” questions always arise at moments of tragedy, but they often take a different form.  “How could this happen?!” is usually the phrase we say…the phrase I hear…the phrase I say, too.

I wonder why bad things happen to good people.  I wonder why good things happen for bad people.  I wonder how we so easily label people good or bad.

I wonder why some people smoke their whole lives and never get lung cancer, like my grandmother, and why some people quit smoking and then 25 years later get lung cancer, like my grandfather.

I wonder why some people seem to have babies so easily, and others try and try and try and it never happens, or it happens and then stops happening.

I wonder why some people are born in the United States and some in Somalia, or some people are born in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which has the highest average income in America, and why some are born in Beattyville, Kentucky, where the average income for a family is just $16,000 and that’s if they can find work…

That lottery of where you are born, the color of your skin, your genetic soup, that roll of the dice, that unfair fling into the cosmos of our being…I wonder why some land here and some land there.

Those that say God is in control of it all on the very macro-level that gives everyone so much comfort doesn’t realize how heartless God seems when babies are being passed out and your home gets skipped, when good genes are being passed out and your child, your spouse, you get skipped.

If God is pulling levers in heaven deciding who lives and who dies, well, then I have a bone to pick with God because I have done too many funerals for babies, for victims of tragedies, for people who just didn’t deserve it…

I wonder sometimes why it all happens the way it does.

And I don’t like the idea that ‘it will all make sense one day,’ because for one: I’m very impatient no matter how much I meditate, and I want it to make sense today if it’s going to make sense at all; and two: ultimately whatever reason there is out there for all of this won’t change it…so it really doesn’t matter the reason, if there is one at all greater than, “Sometimes that’s just how it is.””

You know, these Holidays/Holy Days of the church, especially Christmas, can be helpful with all of this if we’ll get past the sparkling lights and the Hallmark channel.  Luke and Matthew start with Jesus being the product of less-than-ideal circumstances, born out of wedlock to a family who can’t find a place to sleep and have to settle for a barn.  I wonder how often Mary dreamed of her ideal husband, her ideal first child’s birth, her ideal future…and this is what happened.

I wonder how often Joseph dreamed of his life, his wife, his ability to provide for his family, only to end up taking what many take in this life: the left-over charity of some stranger.  It’s the best option out of all bad options.

I wonder why God decided to come on the scene in this way…perhaps God decided to do it this way because, well, this is just how life is too often, full of a whole bunch of crappy situations that we have to make do with and God has to eek out a blessing from.

Mark’s Gospel skips the whole birth scene and goes straight to Jesus walking out of the wilderness.  The salvation story in Mark’s Gospel starts with a wandering stranger from the unknown wilderness.  I wonder how many times I’ve thought to myself, “I don’t know how this is going to be made right…everything just seems so strange and weird and wild right now.”  For those of us who have ever thought that, Mark’s Gospel is for you…because that’s how salvation starts.

And then we get to John the philosopher, who decides to start his salvation story at the very beginning, in the shadows of chaos.  He makes the audacious claim that God’s salvation didn’t start when things went wrong, but started even before things went wrong.  He makes the claim that God was in the saving business long before there were even people around to ask “I wonder questions.”

Maybe John’s point for us on this shadow of a night is that, while we’re free to ask the “I wonder” questions in this life, there may be no answer…sometimes shadows are just too deep to get any clear answer…but do not lose hope, Beloved, because there is always the spark of God in the universe that cannot and will not be overcome.

In other words, God is always working things toward salvation, even if we can’t see it, feel it, know it, or touch it.  It doesn’t take away our tragedies, our inequities, our failings, or the ways the world has failed us, but it does indicate that they won’t define us.

It’s amazing, though, how small things can combat the shadows of life.  Like lighting a candle, which we’ll do tonight.  It’s no wonder that humans haul out the candles in moments of tragedy and despair.  There is something about lighting the wick, of standing in that light, no matter how great or small, that comforts the soul.

A piece of that light that cannot be overcome, perhaps, held in the palm of the human hand…it reminds us that perhaps our light, too, is held in the palm of a Godly hand, and that the shadows, though they seem to overcome us, cannot…will not.

They will not, by God.

You are Looking, But are You Seeing?

looking<Sermons are best heard, just like margaritas are best blended. To hear this one, click here.>

Mark 13:24-37

[Jesus said:] 24“In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

 

You are Looking, But are You Seeing?

Let us pray:

Tear open the heavens of our hearts Lord,

Enter in.

We know not the time or the place we’ll meet you,

But you’ve promised that where two or more are gathered

You are present.

And here we are.

So enter this church, Lord,

Enter our hearts today.

Amen.

The theme of sleeping occurs again and again throughout the scriptures, but especially in the Jesus stories. Think of all the instances: Jesus is asleep on the boat when the storm kicks up and the disciples are scared.  When Jesus is praying in Gethsemane the disciples fall asleep waiting for him to finish. And in his parables, the bridesmaids fall asleep in the night and half aren’t ready when the bridegroom shows up.

Sleep in the scriptures always seems to be a negative thing…which doesn’t bode well for me because I love to sleep.

It’s like in those moments when your kid doesn’t want to go to bed and you just want to grab them by the shoulders and say, “My Lord, child!  Do you know what I would do for the chance to go to sleep right now?!  Don’t you know how lucky you are?!”

But these mentions of literal sleep are just the tip of the iceberg for Jesus, because all of these instances of physical sleep are all just pointing to the many and various ways that the disciples, that you and me, are spiritually asleep, emotionally asleep, mentally asleep when it comes to seeing God at work in the world.

I mean, it’s like Jesus throughout his ministry is saying to his disciples, “I know you are looking, but are you seeing?”

Beloved: I know you are looking, but are you seeing?  Am I?

It’s a good question.

We approach this text with some fear and trembling, and the verbiage here once again seems at odds with how the world is reacting.  Because we’re all singing,

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…”

And not,

It’s beginning to look a lot like the apocalypse…

The strong language that Jesus uses here, and he’s quoting from the Hebrew prophets, borrowing their words in this piece, the words of Daniel and Joel and Isaiah, the strong language that Jesus uses here is meant to wake the disciples up, wake us up, wake you up to the reality that God will come, is actively approaching, has already arrived on the scene in this world.

And we so often miss God because, well, we’re sleep walking.

You know, on Tuesday mornings this past month we’ve been reading the book of Esther together, about 25-30 of us, and it’s been a hoot.  And, look, I know that probably doesn’t sound like a hoot to most of you in this room, this whole reading obscure parts of the Bible, but it’s been really fun!  Join us!

Anyway, the whole point of the book of Esther, a book where God isn’t even named, is that even though God isn’t named, even though you can’t see God in the actions of the main characters, God is present, behind the scenes, motivating, encouraging, moving.

It’s like a total Advent book, this idea that in the shadows where it doesn’t seem like the light of the world is shining, God is still there, even perhaps, most especially there, like a mystery in the darkness.  So don’t get distracted, look for the hidden God behind it all.

And I love it because it’s so instructive for us, Beloved.  Us, who are so easily distracted.  Us, who so easily fall asleep with the monotony of jobs, retirement, the same old fights in politics, the same old fights in our families.  Same old, same old, sleep walking through life…we might as well be asleep.  Keep awake!

We’re rising when it’s still dark outside in these days, working, and then going home when it’s still dark.  This time of year can lull us into cocooning, into insulation, into turning in on ourselves.  And the pretty Christmas decorations can distract us to the point of forgetfulness.

Which is why we come here every week, week after week, lighting a candle to add to the flame, reminding us to stay awake in these days of long nights.

Which is intended, Beloved, to practice for those times in our lives, those night times in our lives, when we just wish we could go to sleep and may not care if we wake up, where it seems like there are only shadows and no light,

in the deep depressions of our lives,

the failed marriages,

the miscarriages,

the addictions that we think we can handle but secretly know we cannot,

the family strife, the lonely nights with no one to love or love us,

the troubled children, and the troubled parents,

the lost jobs;

Advent reminds us that even in those night times of our lives when it feels like everything is falling apart, like the sun won’t shine, like the stars in our eyes have gone, like we’re lost in the middle of a wilderness journey with no map,

when it feels like everyone else is Christmas happy and we’re in the middle of a personal apocalypse,

that even then, and most especially then, God is present, and active, and working.  We’re looking, but we’re not seeing, so we light a candle to help brighten the room, enlighten the moment, remind the parts of ourselves not asleep at the wheel that the promises of God do not pass away.

The promises of God that say, “I love you and you are mine.”  The promises of God that say, “when you pass through the waters, they will not overcome you.”  The promises of God that say, “I am with you always, even until the end of the ages.”

The promises of God that ring especially true in this season that say, “Unto you a child is born, unto you a Son is given, and the government will cause him trouble, but he will be a wonderful counselor, mighty one, everlasting authority, the prince of peace.”

You know, one of the cool things about this text is that Jesus hauls the cosmos into it.  The sun is darkened, the moon won’t shine, the stars fall…he’s quoting the Hebrew prophets here, but one thing we miss with our post-modern Western eyes (because we’re looking but not seeing, you know?) is that those celestial bodies in ancient days were often thought of as gods and governors themselves.

And so Jesus is saying that, when everything falls apart, even those stable and staple things that you’ve relied on just like you’ve relied on the sun, those mini-gods you think are reliable…in modern terms perhaps he’d have said, “When your job refuses to produce, when your health won’t shine, when your stocks fall…”

When all those things pass away, my word, my presence, will not pass away.

Stay awake, then.  Don’t be lulled to sleep walking through life by the opioids of consumerism, by the delusions of depression, by the siren calls of the various distractions that are so attractive but ultimately all fail.

Advent starts in the shadows, in the confusion of beginnings and endings, and that’s where so many of our lives are in these days…so it kind of makes sense.  But keep watch, Beloved.  Learn to see, not just to look. Because, as theologian and author Barbara Brown Taylor notes in her book _Learning to Walk in the Dark_, “…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts with the dark.”

God is coming, and you don’t know the hour, perhaps it is even now.

You’re looking, Beloved, but are you seeing?

Take Off Your Captain America Socks

SocksAdvent begins in darkness.

It always does for those of us north of the equator.

The days are increasingly shorter, and have been slowly becoming so over the last few months, though we never really seem to notice until the November-December hinge of the year. These days I wake up in the dark and leave work in the dark more often than not.

And Advent readings, too, begin in the dark.  This year we’ll be reading from the Gospel of Mark (my favorite Gospel), and the readings on Sunday continue this march through dark, apocalyptic texts that highlight beginnings and endings.

Before going on, why don’t you read this Sunday’s Gospel?  You can click here to do that…the rest might not make much sense unless you read it first.

So let’s get the elephant out of the room before we begin: Lutherans do not affirm the idea of a “rapture.”  This theology that has totally infected Christendom is not an ancient idea, but a rather new one, fabricated (in my expert opinion) by a man named John Nelson Darby in the 1800’s.  He and his adherents, obviously in error, predicted the rapture would occur a few times…and yet, here we are.

I had a childhood friend recently write me for my opinion on the rapture.  Apparently he has a friend at work who is constantly waiting for it.  “What do you think about it?” he asked me.  “It’s junk theology,” I responded. “Not worth thinking about.”

Usually I’m much more measured in my words, but this particular theology has caused harm to our planet, anxiety to infect our children, and has made millions of dollars for profiteers who plague on the fearful.  The only thing that should be “Left Behind” is that sort of theology (and the fiction books aren’t even well-written!).

And here’s the thing: someone, in every era of time, has made the claim that we are in “the last days.”

And they’re absolutely right in some respects: time, culture, civilization, is absolutely in continual flux.  The way of being that we were used to in previous generations is coming to an end; we are in the last days of what has been.

And they’re absolutely wrong in most other respects: time continues on. The scriptures do not predict the end of time like some fortune cookie or crystal ball, and those who look for clues to the end of time in the scriptures will come up wanting.  They’re using scripture wrongly.  It’d be like using Shakespeare to try to predict the weather: the one wasn’t made to inform the other. Instead, the scriptures predict that, whenever the end of time comes (and even Jesus doesn’t know when that will be), God will still be God.

Ok, stepping off the soap box…onward.

So, if Jesus is not talking about all of that, what is he talking about?

First: he’s quoting scripture.  Using pieces of Joel and Daniel and Isaiah, these prophets who brought attention to how God’s salvation was at hand for the oppressed and despairing people of Israel, he’s recalling the prophets of old to embolden his followers because they, too, were languishing under Roman occupation.

The Messiah (he uses the phrase from the book of Daniel, “Son of Man”) comes to throw off the old ways of being.

And this God that the prophets give testimony to is reliable. That’s the second thing Jesus is talking about.  He’s saying that, even when those old reliable things in this world, like the sun, the moon, and the stars, who were often seen as ‘gods” in their own right, even when they fail, the God the Messiah points to will not fail.

And where is this Messiah?

Well, that’s the third thing: Keep awake!  Who knows when the Messiah might show up?!  Perhaps they’re even standing in front of you…

Because when you encounter Jesus, your world will never be the same.  The old things you relied upon…you’ll see them for what they are: failing beacons of light who were only deluding you in the end.

If Jesus were to give this same speech today, instead of “sun darkened,” “moon muted,” and “stars falling,” perhaps he’d say something like, “position lost,” “financial freeze,” and “stocks falling.”  We don’t look at the sun, moon, and stars as gods anymore, preferring the gods of status, bank accounts, and nest eggs…

For my birthday Finn and Alistair gave me Captain America socks.  I love them, and they love them (which is part of the fun), and I’ve worn them a few times now.  But I was looking at them the other day and reminded myself that no matter how much I rely on the super hero stories of this world, or even the super hero stories of my own life, none of it will save me in the end.

Indeed, I often lull myself to sleeping in false security by telling myself these hero stories day in and day out.

The true story is that Jesus shows up all the time, and I miss him because I’m distracted and asleep, drunk on these other powerful things in the world.

So, Beloved, take off your Captain America socks (or wear them humbly), because you don’t need them.  All of that will pass away, but the Word of God, the Love made real, seen in Christ, lasts.

But we have to be awake to see it in Christ…so wake up!  Don’t let the Advent darkness encourage the sleep.  Light a candle, and then two, and then three, and then four…as many as you need to remind yourself that Jesus shows up, is showing up, will show up.

Today. And after everything else has passed away.

 

Fear Can’t End Up as the Main Character in the Story

Matthew 25”14-30

Are you ready?

Fear[Jesus said to the disciples:] 14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”

Fear Can’t End Up as The Main Character in The Story

What have you given us, Lord?

What do we have to invest for you?

So often we can’t see what you’ve given us

Because we secretly imagine we’ve earned it

Or we’re too reluctant to claim it

Or we’re too distracted

Hurt

Or afraid.

And sometimes we’re just glib

So remind us today, Lord

Of what we have from you

And what you expect of us.

Amen.

Whoa, Jesus has given us another upper of a parable for today, right?

It’s weird because we’re all prepping for later this week, that Thanksgiving meal where we’ll all gather around in a Currier and Ives setting, join hands over a roast turkey (or for those vegetarians amongst us, a roast tofurkey), and we’ll honor the Pilgrims and Native Americans gathering together for a meal eating literally almost nothing that they would have eaten at that first meal.

And then we’ll retire to the coach to watch football, because you know that the first thing the puritan Pilgrims and Native Americans did after that meal was play a little full-contact football…

That’s where all our hearts are, but even as we’re prepping for Thanksgiving, the church is stuck in this weird November time that is sandwiched between All Saints Day and Christ the King Sunday.  The church is preparing for the end and the beginning of a new year.

And so it chose all these apocalyptic parables that don’t predict the future, but rather provide a lens into a reality that is deeper and more true than the unwritten future.

And so much of the spilled ink on this parable, so many pastors around the world and throughout the ages have focused on this supposedly harsh man who entrusted this money, these “talents,” to his slaves, and how he’s so cruel to this last slave.

But I actually think that the main character in this story isn’t even named.  At least not yet.  But today, today we should name that character because I have a sneaky suspicion it’s the same character at play in many of our lives, and in much of our world today, and that character, Beloved, goes by many names, but you’ll know them best by their most common nomenclature: fear.

Fear is the main character in this parable.

Specifically the fear that this last servant has.

And fear, like a bridegroom, comes with some unsavory folks in the bridal party, who go by the names: assumption and power.

Fear is often preceded by assumptions and is usually in the presence of power.

Look at it: this obviously wealthy and powerful person lords over these servants.  And they desire to please him, but are also, especially in the case of this last servant, quite afraid of him.

And, look, this is an important parable for the world to hear today because as sexual misconduct allegations fall from the thrones of the powerful in these days, we need to realize that the fear of not being heard, not being believed, not being listened to because the perpetrators were too powerful is real.

Fear is often real.

Power must be tempered by honor, or else it will just seek its own preservation and will begin to think that it can do whatever it wants to do without consequence.

Going back to the parable from a different angle, look, too, at the assumptions that this servant brings to this situation.  He says to the man, “I know you are harsh, taking what isn’t yours from people…”

And the parable never says if that’s true or not, but think to your own life, Beloved, and how many times in any given situation do you write the ending long before the storyline has played out?  How often we just decide how something will play out before anything has happened, and how so often that just taints everything else.

Power is one groomsman of Fear, and Assumptions is the other. They come together like the wicked guests that they are and take up real estate in our stories, and often without our permission, we get married to them.

And maybe this parable is a long example of just what giving into fear, assumptions, and power plays will do in the kingdom of God: it turns it from a place of love and peace into a place of strife and discord, because Lord knows that fear is best at taking even the last little bit of hope and courage from a people, for those who have little in the face of fear, even the little bit they do have is eventually taken away if that fear immobilizes them…

Not every idea in this world is prudent, Beloved.  But even those that are often end up stifled because fear, assumptions, and power enter into the room.  It’s the reason that we make enough food today to feed everyone in the world, but we can’t figure out how to share it well.  It’s the reason why we’re having a housing boom in Raleigh, and yet we can’t seem to figure out how to stem the tide of gentrification that is pushing our poor populations further and further from the city, where we’ve set up most of the resources for them.

That all hits close to home, but lets go closer to home: we often fear investing our money and time in God’s missions in this world because we’re afraid.  We assume there isn’t enough, and the powerful pull of mortgages and bills and dance and soccer practice that aren’t free, you know, and retirement nest eggs and 401k’s and the rising cost of college and how can we decide what charities to give to when charities have exploded over 400% since 1983…?

We assume there is not enough.  Fear will tell us there is never enough.  Being irresponsible is one thing, but often times we claim something is irresponsible not because it is, but because we are afraid…

I had a meeting with a boy scout a few weeks ago.  He’s looking for an Eagle Scout project, and we were talking about things at the church, and I kicked out the idea that perhaps instead of just having these little dividers in our parking lot with essentially ground cover, what if we could use the real estate in those dividers for the betterment of the world?  What if we could build little gardens in there?  Gardens that we tend that produce food and flowers for Raleigh?  Food for Memory Café, Coffee House, and Family Promise dinners?  Food for the 100’s of people that take shortcuts through our parking lot as they walk from Sawmill to Creedmoor?  It could provide science lessons for our Preschoolers.

A drop in the bucket of hunger, but a drop nonetheless.  And when you pull into the parking lot you’d see what we know is true but have a hard time showing sometimes: this church cares about Raleigh, by God!

What if that’s part of our talent that we’re being invited to invest, Beloved?

But then fear sets in with those always present attendants: what if people don’t tend them well?  In the fallow winter months, it will certainly look overgrown and dried and unpleasant, and you know, appearances are important…and it’s really not a lot of food, so it probably won’t do much, and we might lose some families because they don’t want a church parking lot looking like a community garden…

But, of course, if we do not actively work toward the growth of God’s kingdom here in Raleigh and the betterment of the hearts, souls, and stomachs of the people God has placed in our mission field, there is a day when we probably won’t need as much parking lot as we have…

To those who have been given a little, even that will be taken away because they won’t need it anymore because…or so the parable goes…

I do not think this parable is about a harsh God or a lazy servant.  I think that is all a mask that the true main character, Fear, has placed on it.  I think Jesus is giving us a parable of what happens when fear overrides God’s mission.

And it’s true both in our life as a church, and in your personal lives, Beloved…how often is fear the man character in your life, bringing along assumptions and power for the ride?

But there is, of course, grand hope.

Because Jesus does not send the fearful away empty, as the man does in this parable.  God in Jesus takes the fearful to the tombs of death and depression and despair that we are so afraid of and gives us a tour.  On Easter we all get to tour the inside of fear where the angels tell us, “Look, here, this is where you thought God would be dead, but God’s not here.  And look, here, this is where you thought the mission was dead, but it’s actually alive!”

And that’s why this is a parable, Beloved, and not the truth about God: because in God’s story, fear is never the main character.  In fact, every time an angel shows up on the scene in the scriptures, the first thing they do is send fear out of the room, “Do not be afraid!” they say…

In the parable of our lives fear can be the main character.  But in God’s grand story, it doesn’t win the day, so why are we entertaining it so often?  It’s like dating someone abusive you know you’re not going to marry!

Because in God’s story fear is crucified, with power on the left and assumptions on the right, and from the tomb comes the new creation of grace and peace and love.

I’m going to leave you with a poem…I know, predictable, right?  But it’s a great poem by priest and author Teri Harroun.  And it’s a poem for all of us who entertain fear too often as the main character in our lives even as God is trying to send it from the room.  It’s for you, it’s for our church, it’s for our world.  And maybe it’ll provide enough courage to live more into God’s story, if even for today…

there are at least a million reasons to be afraid
to stay home
to shut the windows
lock the doors
to never look a stranger in the eyes, and think the worst of them
to fill our pockets with fear
and let that fear decide where we will stand,
where we will hide

yes, there are at least a million reasons to be afraid

it would be so easy now, to turn the wine back into water
to return the blessings
swallow despair
curl up with Jairus’ daughter in the tomb

yes, there are at least a million reasons to be afraid

but there is also a thread of love in the world
that connects us all
that sings to us in our sleep
that already turned the water to wine, and raised Jairus’ daughter
and breathes within our breath

if we breathe in that love, 
in the next breath we will have 
the strength to take a step toward someone new
the courage to open our hearts and our minds
the stability to stand with the outcasts
the persistence to never look away
the resistance to be a stone catcher
the voice to speak, “We will love one another!”

today, 
do one thing to put love in the world
do one act of extravagant kindness
share one story of hope
spend one minute being peace
and dream big, bold, beautiful dreams
empty your pockets, and take a big breath;
we belong together

 

The Main Character is Fear. But You Missed It…

fearEmbarrassing story time.  Ready?

The first time I rode a roller coaster I wet my pants.  I was 8, and scared, and begged my father to have them stop the train and turn around the minute it left the loading dock.  But, of course, it was too late because the train had literally left the station…there was no turning back.

My body found a way to express the way my insides were feeling at the moment.  Terror had seized me, and if I thought I could have survived it, I would have crawled right out of that car.

That first hill…you know, that hill on the roller coaster that gives you enough momentum to complete the other hills…scared me beyond belief.  I closed my eyes tightly and held on tightly.  And they didn’t open again until I hit the station.

Until I knew I had survived.

But, of course, I had to ride it again because a) it was fun and b) in my fear I had missed the whole thing!

On my first roller coaster experience, I thought the main characters were me, my father, and the coaster.  But I was wrong.  The main character in that story was fear.

In fact, I’d say that fear is the main character in many of our stories in life, though they often aren’t named in the credits.

The same could be said in this week’s Gospel lesson.  Our November texts are tough texts that talk about beginnings and endings, apocalyptic parables that, if we’re not careful in our reading, could give us the impression that God intends doom and gloom for humanity (and many so-called Christians have said as much over the years).

But that’s not the God we see in Jesus, so that can’t be the God we see in Jesus’ stories, right?

This week’s lesson, the “Parable of the Talents,” is especially rough (click on it to read it).  Go ahead and give it a read.  I’ll wait.

Done? Onward…

It’s a tough tale, especially that last line about taking from those who have so little.  How are we to interpret this?

Well, perhaps that’s the wrong question, disciple.  Maybe we let the parable do its work on us instead of thinking we have to do all the work.

Because this is what I’ll say about the different servants: they’re each me, depending on the situation.  And probably you, too.

And the difference between them isn’t their status or education.  The difference between the slaves isn’t their trustworthiness, either…the master trusts them all (even though they are trusted with different amounts).

The difference between them all is the assumptions they bring to the task; the fear they bring along with them.

That last slave, entrusted with that single talent, assumes that the giver is wrathful, vengeful, out to take what is not theirs.  They lead not with their task, but with their fear.

They are afraid of it all.

And so they miss everything about the task because the fear overwhelms them.  The most they can do is just bury the whole thing and pray it’ll be enough to get them through it all.

But by burying it they get the same result as if they’d never been given it at all.  So why should the giver bother to give the task in the first place?

In closing my eyes through the whole roller-coaster ride, I missed it all.  My assumptions about the whole thing, my fear of the whole thing, left me incapacitated, buried too deeply in myself that I didn’t really experience it.

That’s what fear does: it makes us hole up, bury ourselves to the point that we might as well not even have the opportunity to do whatever task is at hand, whatever experience is in front of us.

We balk at the last line of this parable, about how even the little bit that is given to those with the least will be taken away from them.  But isn’t there a deep truth about fear here?

Because fear that isn’t fought will absolutely take even the last bit of yourself from you.

God has not created us to be holed up in ourselves.  We have been given gifts to use and share in this world, a peace that passes all understanding (if we’ll tap into it).

And believe me: fear is real.  I know this.  We can sometimes be so afraid that we wet ourselves, literally and figuratively.  We can sometimes be so afraid that we run to weapons or strategies or lock our doors and hide like those talents buried in the field.

But that’s not what God has called us to, Beloved.  You can’t outrun, outhide, outsmart, or outdo fear, because fear comes from the inside, not the outside.

If November in the church year says anything to us it tells us that, despite whatever we’re afraid of and the internal fear and assumptions it produces in life, we must keep our eyes open!  Because God is showing up, and opportunity is always present, and we will miss it if we let fear be the main character in our witness.

And so often it is the main character and we miss it.  Fear has a crafty way of disguising itself like other things.  We must stay awake (unlike those tired bridesmaids last week).  We must set aside our assumptions and work off of courageous faith, even in the face of fear.

The main character in this parable isn’t the angry giver or the servants, it is fear.

And what about your story?  Who is the main character?  Because here’s the secret that fear won’t tell you: you will survive.

So let go of your assumptions and invest in the life God has given you.

See you in church.