Sunday, November 21, 2010

November 21, 2010 - "Ultimate Gifts

Luke 23:33-43

It’s the end of the year.
The church year, that is.

Next week, we begin anew, with a new year in the life of the church … and we’ll start all over again … though no one ever steps into the same river twice.

We’re different today than we were a year ago.
Time moves on.
Things happen.
And we’ll discover a little bit more about Jesus Christ.
And what it means to live for him.
To abide in his word.
Grow in his grace.
The grace of our LORD Jesus Christ.

But today, we end a year.
We end at the lowest point.
Jesus dragged off to a place called the Skull, crucified between two thieves.
The lowest of the low.
Utterly rejected by the powers-that-be.
Betrayed by one of his own.
Denied by another.
Accused of crimes he never committed.

The verdict is handed down.
“Crucify him.”

Leaders scoff.
Soldiers mock.
One of thieves revile him.
And the people stand by, watching.

It doesn’t get any lower than this.
A place called the Skull.
A place where humanity fails.
Religion fails.
Government fails
Everything and everyone fails the Son of God, save one man.
The second thief.

The second thief defends Jesus.
Who would expect a dying man to rise to the occasion?
But who knows?     
Whoever this man was, he saw Jesus for something more than just another condemned man.
He asks to be remembered.
Remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom.
And here they are, dying on their crosses.
Condemned and rejected.
Yet the second thief sees in Jesus a future.
A world that could be.
And asks to be remembered.

When we think about it, it’s astounding.
The other thief rails and rants.
Do something Jesus.
Get us outta here.
Save us.
Save yourself.
Be a hero.

Reminds me of the first set of temptations.
After Jesus was baptized.
When the Spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness.
To be tempted.
Tempted to take the easy way out.
Tempted to save his own skin.
Satan offers the world to Jesus, but Jesus says, I’ll do it God’s way, not yours.

It says that Satan left him, only to wait for an opportune time [Luke 4:13].
And here it was.
The opportune time.
As bad as gets.
A place called The Skull.
A hideous way to die.

But Jesus says, I’ll do it God’s way.
Into my Father’s hands, my life.
I’ll run the race to its end.
I’ll not drop out.
I’ll not turn around.
I will give my life to the world.
I will not call upon legions of angels to defend me.
I will not resort to the tactics of empire.
I don’t have to win.
I will let the world think I’m the biggest loser.
So that the world will find real victory.

The second thief understands.
Is this not a moment of grace?
The second thief sees through the cloud of his agony and pain … he sees a world as it might be, he sees something of God in Jesus.
To the second thief, Jesus says: Truly I tell you, today you will be me in Paradise.

Three years earlier, when Jesus preached in his hometown, things got ugly real fast, and they tried to kill him then and there.
And all along the way, a rising tide of hostility.

Not from the people whom Jesus healed and helped and held, but from the powers-that-be.
Every healing brought Jesus a little more hatred.
Every parable brought a little more rejection.
Until the final few days in Jerusalem.
When the powers-that-be would take no more from him.
They flexed their muscles and showed the world just how powerful they are.
A little shock and awe.

Yet in the moment of their victory, Jesus offers a remarkable prayer: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

If anyone heard this, I can only imagine the response.
We don’t know what we’re doing?
Are you kidding?
We know full well what we’re doing.
We’re putting away a troublemaker.
A disturber of the peace.
You overturned our tables, and now we’re overturning yours.

We don’t like your kind.
You broke too many rules.
You ruffled our feathers.
We know how to deal with folks like you.
We string ya’ up on a cross.
For all the world to see.
This is what happens to troublemakers.
Yes, we know full well what we’re doing.

But in reality, they didn’t know.
They didn’t know that all of this is playing into the hands of God, for a mighty purpose – the salvation of humankind.
In this bloody moment of defeat and degradation, God is at work.
So that folks like you and me would look at the cross, and see the glory of God.
Love divine, all loves excelling.
That we would kneel at the foot of the cross and leave all of our junk there.
Fountains of mercy flow from that cross.
Fountains of hope and peace.
They didn’t know what they were doing.
Working hand-in-hand with God, for the salvation of the world.

In Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” there’s a remarkable moment when Jesus dies.
Satan is there, at the place of the Skull, and falls to his knees and howls to the high heavens … Satan knows that in the moment of death, when the Son of God descends into the dark pit of hell, the Son of God brings light and healing.

Satan howls, because the last thing Satan wants is for Jesus to die like this:
A perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Satan hoped that Jesus would beg and whine and cry and curse.
But Jesus offers forgiveness instead.
And to the second thief, Jesus offers Paradise.

No wonder Satan howls.
The pretense of hell is exposed.
There is nothing left in the repertoire of death.
Satan knows, the game is over.
It’s all over but the shouting.
A lot of moves left, but the handwriting is on the wall.
Satan has bet it all.
And lost.
Jesus gave his life.
And won it all.

We end the year with some simple reminders.
There is no greater power in the world then the powers of forgiveness and hope.

War and rumors of war abound.
Pestilence and famine.
And all the ills of humankind.
But don’t be fooled by what you see.
Don’t give in.
Don’t give up.

God is at work.
With forgiveness.
Forgiveness in the face of great crimes.
And to a man near death,
A man who didn’t ask to be saved.
But only to be remembered.
God bestows hope.

So here we are today.
20 centuries later.
Time marches on.

In some ways, we’re all of the characters who gather around or near the cross that day.

Are we not the thieves who have committed our share of crimes against God, and against one another?
Does not a part of our soul rant and rail at God as the one thief did?
Does not a part of our soul turn to God with humble faith?
Are we not the leaders, convinced of our own self-righteousness.
Do we not have our tables set up nicely, and who wants Jesus to come in turn a few of them over?
Are we not the soldiers, just doing our duty, going about our business, living our lives, never questioning what we’re doing?
Are we not the people standing by, watching?
We’re all of that and then some.

But we’re bathed in the forgiveness of God.
And we’re given hope, that even today, we might see something of Paradise.
A realm of goodness and decency.
Where life is fair and folks are treated with dignity.
Where peace has more than a chance.
Where religion is just.
And government works for the welfare of all.

We end our year at the lowest point.
The Son of God dies a hard death at a place called the Skull.

But in that dark moment, bright light.
In the worst of times, the best of times.
Hope dashed … hope born anew.
God at work.

LORD Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, when you come into your kingdom, remember us. Remember us, we pray.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

November 14, 2010 - A Gift to Give

Luke 21:5-19

Jesus and the disciples have finally arrived.
The fabled city of David.
A city set on a hill.
Jerusalem the Golden.

On the mount of Jerusalem.
The temple, in all of its glory.
The dream of every Jew to see.
The heart and soul of Israel’s faith and hope.
A visible sign of God’s presence, and all the promises of the Covenant: You are my people, and I am your God.

Throughout the Roman Empire, wherever there’s a synagogue, a per capta tax collected for the support of the temple – a half-shekel from every Jew around the world.
During Passover, tens of thousands of pilgrims pour into the city to celebrate the festival of their deliverance from slavery in the land of Egypt.

The disciples were impressed.
Impressive buildings on every corner.
Think Washington, D.C., or London or Paris or Beijing …

I remember the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, I wept.
The first time I walked along Wall Street, I felt the power of the place in my bones – I said to Donna – “the world’s economy is anchored here, in these offices.”
Or standing on the top floor of the Hancock Center in Chicago, at night, and the city stretches out north and south and west … and the dark waters of Lake Michigan to the East.
And the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, the Capital Building and the White House and the Pentagon …

We know how the disciples felt.
We’ve felt it, too.
In great places.
Mighty cities.
Soaring buildings.
Lofty cathedrals.

What humankind can accomplish.

Jesus is not so easily moved.

Jesus says:
As for all these things, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.

Jesus tells his disciples of strange times to come.
Things will change, says Jesus, and change for the worst.
Hard times are coming.
And don’t be deceived by those who offer easy answers and quick fixes.
All kinds of Messiahs will pop up here and there.
Offering advice and even claiming that the end is near.
But don’t be deceived.
Don’t be frightened.

And when things really get bad,
This will give you an opportunity to testify.

That’s the verse that caught my attention this week.
In tough times, we have an opportunity to testify.

I’m sure you’ve been following the adventures of the cruisers stranded on “The Splendor” – ah yes, “The Splendor” … fire in the engine room, and the mighty ship goes off line – adrift in the Pacific … no power to cool the food, no flush toilets, no air conditioning … Navy helicopters deliver bottled water and Spam …

A blog poster wrote: "If this is considered an 'ordeal,' then it's official: Americans have now become the biggest wusses on the planet."

Another wrote: "Maybe this could be a new idea for a diet reality show! Board a ship, and get stranded offshore with only Spam to eat."

A former cruiser, wrote: "When something unexpected happens, you put on your big-girl pants, and you deal with it."

Now I like that.
Put on your big-girl pants and deal with it.

Jesus says to the disciples, “Put on your big-girl pants, you big-boy pants, and deal with it.”

Because times are always changing.
And times are always tough, more or less.
One way or the other.
If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.

But listen carefully to Jesus.
This isn’t about the end of the world.
These are not terminal times.
They never are.
They are, however, transitional times.

The Bible says very little about the end of the world.
In spite of what fundamentalist preachers claim.
The Bible isn’t interested in the end of the world, because that belongs to God, and to God alone.
And however it ends, it’s going to be okay … for everyone and everything.

The Bible, rather, says a great deal about changing times.
Transitional times.
From one era to another.
As the world turns.
And those are always the hardest.
For any of us.
Growing up.
Getting hired and getting fired.
Marriage and divorce.
Illness and loss.
Transition and transformation.
Never easy.
Always difficult.
And sometimes really hard.

Jesus doesn’t promise his disciples a rose garden.
He says to the disciples, You may well be killed.
And some were.
All along the centuries, folks have had to stand up for their faith, and lay down their lives for the sake of Christ.
It still happens.

But we’ll not be lost.
Death is not the worst that can happen to us.
We can lose our soul, that’s the worst.
Sell our soul to temporary comforts.
Run away from our spiritual responsibilities.
Take care of ourselves and close our eyes to the large truths of life.
Choose comfort over commitment.
Ignore the suffering of the world.
Refuse to let our souls ache for justice and peace.
Avert our eyes from the least of these and live in a very small world of me, myself and I.
These are the temptations that threaten our souls.

The little prayer, “If I should die before I wake….”
Might well be reworded.
“That I might wake before I die.”

Changing times are always an opportunity for the church to testify to the larger truths of life.
That God is important.
Christ, the anchor of life.
Christ, the guiding light.
Our strength.
Our hope.
In this life, and in the life to come.
And not even death will separate us from God.

Jesus prepares his disciples for hard times.

Some folks won’t like you.
Religious people will resent you.
Governors and kings will arrest you.
Even your families will turn against you.

Why should this be the case?
Why doesn’t the world welcome Christ with open arms?
Why would religious people miss the point?
Why would governors and kings be so cruel?
Why would the gospel divide a family?

But so it is, in this world of cabbages and kings.
John’s Gospel says it pointedly:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed [John 3:19-20].

The stakes have always been high.
The struggles always much the same.
Women’s suffrage and women’s ordination.
The Civil Rights Movement …
Labor union movements …
The struggle for marriage equality …

We’ve worked our way through much of this, and we’ll continue to work our way through to a better day.
The truth has a way of emerging out of the worst of it.
Because Christ walks out of the tomb.
Faith proves valiant.
Hope stirs the heart.
Love rises above the ashes of sin and sorrow.

Think of Christ dear friends.
Everything Christ offers.
The Beatitudes.
The Parables.
The sermons.
Blessed are the poor … blessed are the peacemakers … blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.

And everything Christ does.
He welcomes the outcast and the stranger.
He snubs the powerful.
He ignores their rules.
He hangs around with all the wrong people.
He kowtows to no one.
Welcomes everyone.
Forgives easily.
Loves much.
He sees the world for what it could be and lives as if it were so.

When the disciples ooooh and ahhh over the glorious buildings of Jerusalem, Jesus says, They won’t be around long.

Nothing is, in the grand scheme of things.
Everything changes.
And it’s time to testify.

To help people change with the changes.
To be less committed to the world as it is, and more committed to the world as it could be.
Less committed to holding on to things as they are, and more committed to reaching forward, toward things as they might be.
More freedom, not less.
Less fear and more courage.
More hope and care and kindness.
Less war and more peace.

And who knows where and how it’ll all work out.
Even now as we speak, the world is convulsing.

But we have gifts to give.
We point to Christ.
We lift high the cross.
Though everything change, Christ remains.
God is our refuge and strength,
 A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
 Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
 Though its waters roar and foam,
 Though the mountains tremble with its tumult [Psalm 46].

Though we tremble ourselves.
We look to Christ all the more.
We read our Bibles and find a profound comfort.
I am with you always.
I will never leave you or forsake you.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

There has never been a better time to testify to the things of Christ.
To be awake in the light of God’s love.

“For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep”
[William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other].

By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

November 7, 2010 - "Not Even Death"

Luke 20:27-40

The resurrection of the dead is written on every page of the New Testament:
When the archangels sound the trumpet on the last day and raise the cry to awaken the dead … death shall be no more … the final enemy, conquered, at last … sorrow put aside … tears dried … and the sun, never to set again!

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
[John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10]

The last lines of the Apostles’ Creed:
 I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life ever-lasting.

Every Easter, we sing:
Up from the grave he arose;
     with a mighty triumph o'er his foes;
     he arose a victor from the dark domain,
     and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
     He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Paul the Apostle writes:
Listen, I will tell you a great mystery! We will not all die, but we all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed [1 Corinthians 15:51-52].

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words [I Thessalonians 4:16-18].

Whatever else can be said about the Christian faith, this must be said, and said again and again:
We believe in the resurrection of the dead.

And why?

Because we believe in God.
God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
We believe that God is greater than death.
That death does not have the final word.

God is the Alpha AND the Omega.
God is the beginning and GOD is the end.

That’s how it’s going to end, dear friends.
For each of us.
For loved ones long gone.
For every creature, great and small.
Death will be no more.
Darkness, no more.
War and hatred, no more.
Envy and jealousy; rage and fear, no more.
Theft and murder; lies and deception, no more.
Bullying and intimidation; discrimination and partiality, no more.
Bad hair and dandruff and grumpy bosses, no more!

It’ll be Pentecost Day all over again, where every tongue is respected, and all the languages of the world are lifted up to the glory of God.
No one will be an alien, because all are welcomed.
No one will be left behind, because God doesn’t leave anyone behind.

With the Paul the Apostle, we cry out to the world:
I am convinced that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our LORD. Not even death!

Because the dead are raised.
And God is the God of life.

Everything we are in Christ and everything we do in faith is rooted in the resurrection of the dead and the victory of Christ over the grave.
The final goodness of God.
Life and light and peace and truth and kindness and forgiveness and hope and faith.

Life overwhelms death.
Light overcomes darkness.
Peace defeats war.
Truth banishes all lies.
Kindness replaces stinginess.
Forgiveness does away with bitterness.
Hope drives away despair.
Faith consumes fear.

Because God is the God of the living.
To God, all of them are alive.

But maybe doubt and cynicism shapes our souls, and we say to ourselves:
“So what? What does this mean to me? All this resurrection stuff … what difference does it make?”
“I still have to get up in the morning when I don’t feel like it, go to a job I’m not too fond of, my family life is less than what I want it to be, government spending is out of control, Sarah Palin is a media star, and I’ve got lousy hair.”
And in the end, everyone dies.
So who really cares?

As a young friend of mine said recently, “Life is fleeting.”

If death has the last word, who cares?
I mean, really, who cares?
You live your life, I’ll live mine.
You choose one set of values, and I’ll choose another, and maybe in between, we both change our minds.
But nothing really counts.
Because it all ends up in the same landfill called death.
The best and the brightest, the worst and the meanest – the good, the bad and the ugly - who cares what anything means, if it all ends up in the same dark dank place – the tomb – a black hole from which there is no return!
Dust to dust, earth to earth, ashes to ashes.
End of the story.
And there is no more!

Think for a moment - if there were no resurrection of the dead.
If death had the last word.
Death would be god!
Death would be everything.
The all-consuming reality.
And hedonism would probably make sense: Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die [1 Corinthians 15:32].

Well, if we’re looking for a quick fix, we’ll not find it in the resurrection of the dead.

But if we want a reason to live, a reason to care … if we want a guiding light that does not fade, and the strength to make a difference, or at least, try to make a difference, we find all of that and a whole lot more in the resurrection of the dead and the victory of Christ over the grave.

The God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist [Romans 5:17].

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
That’s no temporary deal.
There is no expiration date stamped on God’s love.
All of our life, and then some.
For us and our loved ones.
For all of creation.
From here to eternity.
Now and forevermore.
World without end!

The resurrection of the dead is the energy of God’s love at work in all things, including the worst.
The love of God rolls away the heavy stone and walks Christ right out of the grave.
Up from the grave He arose …

To confirm for us the reality of Christ.
That Christ is worth it.
And his words are - the Word of the LORD!
This is my beloved Son, listen to him.

If there were no resurrection of the dead, there would be no Easter.
If there were no Easter, would we pray as we do?
Would we pray the LORD's Prayer?
Would we even bother with it?

We pray the LORD's Prayer because the dead are resurrected, and there is an Easter.
We pray because tombs get emptied sooner or later … and sooner or later, the powers-that-be get their comeuppance … Pilate is proved the fool, and Rome nothing more than a bad dream … and all of the horror and foolishness of humankind – that, too, will pass.
And when we fight the good fight, when we stand up for the oppressed and the excluded and the marginalized … when we go to bat for folks who aren’t even allowed into the game, we’re on the winning side.

If we align ourselves with the voices of hatred and power.
If we cheer on the big boys at the expense of the little ones.
If we build gates around our heart and live in seclusion from the sadness and injustice of the world.
If we simply don’t care about others because we’re frantically shoring up the foundations of our own lives, then we’re on the wrong side.
We are on the side of death.

The resurrection of the dead gives us the to courage to stand up for life, here and now … it isn’t easy to stand up for life, but Jesus never promised us a rose garden.
I Twittered Friday afternoon that I was still “working on the resurrection” … and a friend replied, “So is Jesus.”

The resurrection of the dead gives us the courage to pray the LORD's Prayer:

Hallowed by thy name … not the name of Caesar or Wall Street … or any other name that comes to mind!
Thy kingdom come … because we need something more than ourselves to think about … we need stars to stare at in the night … big ideas and grand adventures …
Thy will be done … no matter how hard it may be, thy will be done, because God’s will is life … rather than going with the flow, we have to swim against the current now and then … to run toward the smoke of battle rather than turn tail and go with the crowd. The crowd always plays it safe, and sometimes we can’t. For the sake of Christ who didn’t play it safe, we can’t either.
On earth as it is in heaven … heaven prevails, heaven wins, heaven is real, heaven is truth, and the hope that a little bit of heaven will go along way here on earth … we can never be content with the way things are, because there’s too much death right now, and not enough life, and we can’t put up with it, we can’t close our eyes to it, we can’t ignore it.

Give us this day our daily bread … not mine, not yours, ours, because we’re all in this together … if one person is hungry, something is wrong; if millions are hungry, then something is really wrong …

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors … because God Almighty withholds the judgment we deserve, and gives us the mercy we don’t deserve … and the next time we’re all hot and bothered about what someone did to us, and all hot and bothered by illegal immigrants and Muslims and poor people and whatever or whomever else the latest hot-button big deal might be, we’ll remember the judgment we didn’t get, and the kindness we didn’t deserve but was given to us anyway.

And lead us not into temptation … because we might not hold up too well … because none of us are all that strong.

And deliver us from evil … because evil is real … out there, and in our hearts and minds … every time we give into bullying and bigotry and partiality and exclusion and fear and anger and cheap faith without ethics and a loose tongue, we forge one more chain and shackle ourselves to evil a little bit more, and sometimes only a miracle can break the chains we forge … sometimes, only a miracle can stop us in our tracks and turn us around and move us in better directions …

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

Because the dead are alive to God.
And Christ walks out of the tomb.
Amen and Amen!