Sunday, November 27, 2011

Heaven Can't Wait for Hope

Advent #1  - Hope Can’t Wait
Isaiah 64, Mark 1, 13

Advent is a time of waiting.  And if there is anything that is harder to do than wait, it is to wait in the dark. Nights are so long. the sun goes down at 4: 32 and doesn’t show it’s bright little face until 6:50 in the morning.   Add to that the fact that the short days we do have this time of year are often overcast with thick clouds. 

The darkness isn’t just meterological, is it?  Did you read the paper yesterday? On Black Friday (see - dark) there was incident after incident of bad behavior on the part of bargain hunters.  People trampled, robbed, pepper sprayed by PS3 video game seekers.  Yeah, take that! Christmas Spirit! 

And, the stories that weren’t about bad behavior were about people who had sacrificed Thanksgiving dinner with their families in order to stand on line to get into a temple of consumerism - like Walmart or Best Buy or the mall. 

It’s pretty gloom and doom out there in the big cold world.  Economic uncertainty.  Political unrest.  Social polarization.  Environmental disasters.  It’s a dark time on planet Earth.

If we pay any attention at all, it is easy for our hearts to resonate with the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who cried out this prayer:   “O Lord!  Would that you would tear open the heavens and COME DOWN!”

It’s easy to think of God sitting up, beyond the clouds, in majesty and glory upon His throne.  And what we need is for Him to rip a hole in the clouds, and descend with power and might to remake the world one more time.  If God would do that he would set things right!  He’d teach those nasty shoppers a lesson.  He’d shine a light on the rats and roaches that are ruining our country and our world.  He’d rescue the little guys, upside down in their mortgages, and put to work the restless, purposeless young people who see no future for themselves.  O!  Would that you would tear open the heavens and come down! 

That isn’t our Advent hope, though.  Not because it couldn’t happen.  But because it has already happened - God has already torn open the heavens and come down.  The very first section of the very first account of Jesus’ life - the Gospel of Mark - uses that very image to describe the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry:  He says that the heaven were torn open - literally ripped - like a cloth, and God’s Spirit descended on the Christ. 

The Gospel of Luke traces the rip in the heavens all the way back to the night of Jesus’ birth, when the skies over the shepherds opened and the good news of great joy was announced by a heavenly choir. 

God ripped open the heavens and came down in the person of Jesus Christ.  Since that happened, hope has changed.  What he did, how he lived, who he touched, what he said - all of that means that what we hope and wait for is qualitatively different now. 

Our hope is deeper and more profound because it is based on the knowledge that God was not content to sit in the heavens and tsk tsk over human suffering and sin.  God ripped open the world and entered our darkness whole heartedly, taking on all our limitations and pains and problems.  God couldn’t wait for conditions to be right, or the world to be a promising place.  He couldn’t wait until everyone and everything was ready.  He jumped right in, in a surprising place, and at a surprising time.

I think that is one of the reasons Jesus, when he is talking about the future of the world, says that God’s coming is when the sun is dark and the moon has lost it’s light and the stars have fallen from the sky.  Because God comes when things are dark.  When we have lost our ability to see the future, God comes to bring us a bigger and better future than anything we could have imagined. 

This is hard to see in the macro world of economics and politics.  I’m not at all comfortable naming this development or that one as a sure sign of God’s future working itself out among us.   It is too soon to say if our country will become a better one because of these difficult days.  I’m not sure what is going to come out of the European debt crisis or the popular uprisings in the Middle East.  Something better?  I hope so.   But I don’t know about that.

But I do know that it is sometimes, often, the darkest areas of a person’s life are precisely the place where God’s tears into our lives to re ignite hope and open a future.
It’s not just that we hope that God comes down from heaven or that at the end of this messy life we get to go up to heaven.  It is that somehow the best part of heaven - God - is making us new even here and now, as we wait in the world’s darkness and our own.

This has happened to me.  This has happened to many of you. But I want to tell you a story that comes from another community about how God works to bring people in darkness the light.  (Shane Claibourne - Irresistable Revolution, p. 183)

This story is about a couple who couldn’t have children.  (Kinda like some couples in the Bible.)  And about a teenage girl who was having a baby for which she wasn’t prepared. (Kinda like Jesus’ mother.)  The couple invited the homeless girl to come and live with them, and after the baby was born, she stayed.  The couple helped her raise the baby, while she pursued her dream of going back to school to become a nurse.  They have been living together for over a decade now.  They are a family.   And the baby is a teenager.  And there is a heart-wrenching twist to this story, because the older woman in this family is very ill now.  But she has a nurse in her home to help take care of her, just as she once took care of the nurse.  Out of darkness - there is a profound and beautiful hope. 

So - how do we hope given our faith that God has torn open the heavens and come down?  Jesus says we hope and wait expectantly.  And the best image I’ve come across for that kind of expectation is that it is like being a kid, waiting for a parent to come and pick you up.  (Lifted from commentary by a PCUSA prof. at Luther Seminary.  After school, a music lesson, soccer practice.  You remember that feeling?  And sometimes mom or dad was late.  Now I guess kids can text to find out where mom is.  But back in the day, that wasn’t a possibility.  The best we kids could do was to do whatever we could think of to shorten the time and the distance between us.  We’d walk to the corner we knew mom would drive around.  We’d stand there, leaning out into the street to look for the familiar car.  We’d listen for the sound, watch the place it would appear. We’d wait expectantly, not passively, but moving in the direction of the one we hoped to see. 

Advent Hope is like that. It is the kind of hope that looks alert for opportunities to move in the direction of Jesus Christ.  God couldn’t wait to bring us hope, and we can’t wait to do whatever we can to share that hope with others.  We know God is with us when we do.  One of the things we do as a congregation is provide opportunities to reflect the light of Christ.  This week you’ve already heard about two:  The Outreach team’s “Creches and Carols” event is a way for you to invite a friend or neighbor to get to know our community, and sense the love of God.  And the Deacons have provided a way for you to feed a hungry family at Christmas time by shopping for food baskets.   In our lives, I pray that we will be alert for chances we have to move in God’s direction as we hope this Advent season. 

The days may be short.  The darkness may be all around us.  But as people of God we never lose hope.  For, as we’ve been saying for centuries: 

Christ has come, Christ is coming, Christ will come again.

Right here, right now - heaven can’t wait for hope.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sermon notes - 11/20/11

Nov. 20, 2011
Matthew 25: 31-46
The Final

I had a teacher in high school who would give us the answers to the final exam before the final exam.  Not just the questions, but the answers.  It was very helpful.  She said, “I don’t want anybody to flunk.  I want everyone to learn the material and be able to do well on the test.  It just makes sense to give you the answers, so there is no reason in the world why any one should fail.”  And . . . that was nice.

Our Gospel lesson this morning seems to indicate that Jesus, like my teacher, also does everything in his power to insure that when people face their final examination, they do as well as they possibly can. 

Does all this final exam talk make us a little nervous?  Well, it does me.  I think when we hear this our natural first thought is that this is about who gets into heaven and who goes to the other place.  And Jesus, who we all know is a forgiving kind of a guy, doesn’t seem to cut the goats in the story much slack.  This seems like a not very funny version of a St. Peter at the pearly gates joke (and, having searched my internet sources for an appropriate example to share with you, I must say, there are some funny ones, but not many a preacher can tell from the pulpit.  Want one anyway?  A nice little old married lady died and met St. Peter at the pearly gates.  St. Peter says,  Everybody has to answer a spelling question to get into heaven.  You’ve been married for 47 years, always good to your husband . . . can you spell the word “LOVE?”  Of course she can and she comes right in and makes herself at home.  A few years later, St. Peter asks her to watch the gate for him while he runs an errand.  As she’s sitting there, who should come up but her husband.  She’s so glad to see him!  “How’ve you been?”  she asks.  “Couldn’t be better, he says.  The last three years have been the happiest of my life.  I married Vicky, the nurse who took care of you during your last illness.  She’s a real ball of fire.  We’ve traveled all over the world.  Had the best time.   Why, today we were water skiing and my ski slipped off, hit me in the head, and here I am.  So how do I get in?”  “You have to spell a word.”  “What word?”  Czechoslavakia. 

Getting into heaven jokes are . . . iffy.  But the evidence is that Jesus’ story, is not so much about individuals getting into heaven when they die, as how the church that he was leaving behind on earth could fully and faithfully participate in the Kingdom that Jesus the Christ had brought into being on earth.

If it is true, that the Kingdom of God is at hand in Jesus’ life, and that Jesus has invited us to be a part of His Kingdom  -  then how do we exercise our citizenship in this divine new order of things?  How do we show that we belong and we long to remain where Jesus’ love is the ultimate rule?

Maybe this is more like a citizenship test.  Where does our love, loyalty and future lie? 
In some countries, passing a citizenship test is really hard.  You have to be born there, or be of the right ethnic group, or prove that you can speak the language.  But the test that Jesus tells us the answer to here (4 times in 10 verses! ) is really remarkably lenient. 

It isn’t asking us to do or know anything really hard.  We don’t have to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, or repeat the words of institution for the Lord’s supper.  We don’t have to quote a Bible verse, or show our sunday school attendance record. 

All we have to do is these things: 
Feed the hungry.
Give water to the thirsty,
Clothe those who need clothing.
Welcome the stranger.
Visit the sick and those in prison
It’s not asking for something that takes incredible skill, or courage, or massive amounts of time.  Or cooperation.  Or politic power.

He doesn’t say, “End world poverty”  “Design a water distribution system that meets the criteria of equity and fairness.”  “Heal the sick.”  “Free the prisoner.”  Just feed those who are hungry.  Give water to the thirsty.  Give clothes to those who need them.  Be nice to the new person in the neighborhood.  Simple, doable things that fit into anyone’s life.

And the world is full of hungry, thirsty, needy, strange, sick people.  You don’t have to look very far to find someone who needs your compassion, who needs your help.  Maybe the new mom down the street, maybe the child who doesn’t seem to have a coat.  maybe the mumblin, confused person on . . . The question isn’t “what should I do, but where should I start?”

It’s like we’re in the group of soldiers who set up camp in a forest at night.  They weren’t sure exactly where the enemy was, so they sent out a scout to find the location for their morning escape.  He was gone a long time, and when he came back, they gathered around.  “Great news!” he said, “We’re surrounded!  We can attack anywhere.”

There are opportunities everywhere to be loving, helpful, kind and generous people.  To serve Christ the King by serving the his brothers and sisters and ours. Praise the Ruler of All - the Good Shepherd - our Soul’s Teacher!  We know the questions, we know the answers!  We need not fear the final exam.  PS   It’s already started. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ready? Set? Burn!

This is what I THINK I'm preaching tomorrow.  Spirit willin' and the creek don't rise.

The Parable of the Ten Maidens and Their Lamps -

I count among my few friends a wedding planner.  What a high-pressure, responsible job! One of the biggest moments - one of the great events in any person’s life - When I read this parable this week, I couldn’t help but think right away of how the wedding Jesus talks about in this story could have used the services of my friend Gwen.  I mean REALLY!  The groom is late.  The guests fall asleep.  Half the wedding party fails to perform their assigned duty.  Then the groom locks out 5 of the bride’s best friends. . . What a disaster! And you know I am planning a wedding myself. In my current nuptial state of mind, I’ve had wedding nightmares this whole week.

But finally, I had to say to myself what I’m saying to you this morning:  Jesus isn’t talking about weddings.  The wedding stuff is just an analogy.  It’s just a narrative device.  So I’m not going to spend alot - heck, I’m not going to spend ANY time talking about first century wedding customs or explaining the whys and wherefores of wedding customs through the ages. 

Jesus is talking about Big Events - Once in a Lifetime Moments - Experiences that Change LIves Forever.   This parable is about Once in a Lifetime chances and whether we are able to rise the occasion.  So let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

And the first truth about moments like that - God moments in our lives - is that moments like that don’t happen according to OUR schedule.  We can’t write the really big events on our calendars with the time and the place in pen. 
In Jesus’ story - the groom does not arrive when he is expected.  He is delayed, and doesn’t show up when everyone is waiting and ready.   He shows up way late, in the middle of the night, when everyone has fallen asleep. 

This is the way God moments happen in our lives.   Week before last, Tim was gone all week.  From Monday through Friday he was in Phoenix, and Friday evening, when I expected him home, I was really looking forward to seeing him.  He pulled in the drive and I walked out to meet him, but as I did I saw a neighbor, someone I have known casually since moving to Philo, walking down the street.  I waved, and this person walked straight toward us.  “Cindy, do you have a minute?  I need to talk to you.”  Something had happened to that person that day that caused them to need to talk about God and life and death and the big stuff. I’d wanted to talk to this person about their faith, and share my faith in Jesus for ten years.   And this was the moment.  This was the time when the door was finally open and we finally got to share and pray together.  Was it on my calendar?  My schedule?  No.  It was not.  It happened when it happened.  And by the grace of God, ready or not, I was there.  That’s how God- moments occur. 

How can we loosen our grip on our schedules, our control, our goals and objectives just enough to be able to be there, ready and expectant, when a Big, life-changing moment comes too early, or too late to fit into our plans?

Some of the people in Jesus’ story managed to do that.   Some didn’t.  But some did.    Here’s the mark of the successful bridesmaids - They were packin’.  Not guns.  But flasks of oil.  They had the resources to deal with the unexpected at the ready.  Now, those other bridesmaids might have had plenty of oil in great big barrels at home.  Olive oil is hardly a scarce resource in Palestine, then or now.  But they didn’t have it with them.  They couldn’t pull it out and use it when the need arose.

What about our faith?  Are we packin?  When we face a “Big Event” - whether it is the chance to share our faith, or do an important service for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters -  Do we have what we need close at hand? Do we have a relationship with Jesus that is close enough, solid enough that we can describe it to someone who needs to know him?  Do we know how to pray well enough to do it if someone asks?  Have we thought deeply enough about the big questions to at least know how to phrase them should the occasion arise?   When it comes to faith, are we packin?  Having a Sunday go to meetin faith is good.  It’s like having a big barrel of oil at home.  But when someone is hurting - and they need a light for their darkness - it often isn’t enough to say, “My church has services on Sundays at 10.  That’s where God can be found.”  When it comes to faith - each of us needs to carry it with us.  We gotta be packin’. 

Which takes preparation.  Cause here’s the thing - each one of us needs to be prepared to meet God and to walk into the Once in a LIfetime moments God puts in our lives one by one.  There’s no such thing as faith by association.  That’s why the bridesmaids who have oil can’t share it with the ones who do not.  Your mother’s faith may be great.  But it isn’t your faith.  Your grandfather’s generosity may have been legendary.   But that doesn’t make you generous.  Your brother, or your sister or your best friend may be the most compassionate person ever.  But their compassion doesn’t make you a loving person.   To be the person God is calling you to be means that YOU have to respond to the call.  Nobody can trust God or serve God or meet God for you.   Each one of us has to decide what kind of person we are going to be and practice being that person for ourselves. 

Preparation is about habits and practice.  Part of Tim’s success is that he’s one of the best lighters around.  Putting the best light on a situation - literally - takes time and a certain amount of trouble. Sometimes people say to him, “Oh, we don’t really need to take the time to do it right for THIS shot.  It’s not important enough.   Not enough people are going to see it.  Nobody will notice the difference.  Nobody really cares.”  And he say, “That’s true.  This shot doesn’t really require great lighting.  But if I don’t do good lighting on this shot, then when the really important shot comes, I won’t know how.” 

The habits of faith - prayer, worship, giving, Bible study, building up the church, speaking the truth in love, forgiving one another, trusting God - are like that.  Most times whether we do them or not doesn’t seem to make much difference.  But if we don’t do them on a regular basis, they don’t become part of who we are, and when we DO need to do them, we find that we don’t know how.  The Big Event comes, a loved one dies, a child is in trouble, a opportunity to make a difference or to make a big mistake comes and we are clueless as to how to respond. 

The Big LIfe changing events happen and if we are ready, willing and able to answer the summons, we become part of the celebration of God and all those other invited guests.  We stand on one side of the door and enjoy the party.  But the door has another side.  And there are eternal consequences for not preparing, not being ready, not being able to respond. 

I don’t think Jesus was trying to scare people.  But I think he was trying to motivate people to be ready for the Big Opportunities for faithful living that God puts in each believer’s life. 

Let’s get ready for the moments that come whether we are ready or not.
Let’s get set by practicing our faith every week, every night, every day.
Let’s let our lights shine for Jesus.  Ready? Set? Burn!