Monday, November 28, 2022

11.27.22 "First Sunday in Advent: Hope!"

 Isaiah 2.1-5; Matthew 24.36-44

All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth

My two front teeth

See my two front teeth

Gee, if I could only have my two front teeth

Then I could wish you, "Merry Christmas”

Where would we be without hope?

Hope is the stuff of life … perhaps it’s nothing more than our two front teeth, though at the age of loosing teeth, it’s a big deal, for sure.

As we grow older, hope become a bit more elaborate … 

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas

Just like the ones I used to know

Where the treetops glisten and children listen

To hear sleigh bells in the snow


Hope grows more complex in times such as ours … the age of uncertainty … politics polarized … Christianity struggling for its identity … and for all of us, the day-to-day stuff of life, rearing our children, caring for loved ones, wondering what to cook for the evening meal, or shall we just go out to eat? … the daily stuff, working to make a living, working to make a life.

Hope is the energy of the Bible … from Genesis to Revelation, and everything in between, the power of hope … 

Temporal hope - for this life, this world, here and now … 

Eternal hope - that somewhere beyond this life, beyond the boundaries of time and space.

A place where God and humankind are at one with one another … where every tear is wiped away, death is no more, sorrow and lament are gone, pain and grief are no more … a place: where there is no need for lamp or sun, because the LORD God is Light for all.

A Christian writer put it this way, as I recall, “For myself,” said he, “I was content if there were no life to come … I’ve lived a good life, mostly a comfortable life … yes, I’ve had my difficulties, my setbacks, and sorrows … but for me and my family, life has been good, and when I die, and there were nothing more, I would be satisfied.

And then I travelled to the Third World … I saw children starving to death - skinny little arms and  tiny legs, bloated bellies, eyes large with fear … mothers grieving … fathers crying … death, death, everywhere, and none of it right, and none of acceptable … all of it wrong!

That all of these children should perish in such a miserable state … 

It was then my heart cried out for more … for an eternity where these children could find the life God intended … a fulness of life and love and kindness and contentment … 

What was so cruelly denied to them here, I prayed, would be given to them on the other side of the great divide … for them, I longed for eternity … for them, a safe haven … for them, the light of life, a life of peace, forever with God.

In a world so thoroughly occupied with the here and now, our homes and hearts stuffed to the rafters with the things of life … it’s a bit strange to think about eternity … maybe we don’t need it, but it’s a part of the story … I think it has value, but it’s been misused over the centuries.

When eternal life was used to quiet the cries of distress … the rich and the powerful, the comfy and the contented, tell the poor and the oppressed, “There will be streets of gold, diamond and pearly gates, in the sweet by-and-by … here and now, there’s hardship for you, because God made it so. 

God decreed that some should rule, and be privileged by the work of others.

Enslavement is for your own good. 

Believe in Jesus, and when you die, you’ll be carried away on angels’ wings to everlasting joy.”

There is something wrong with that … tragically, wickedly, wretchedly, wrong.

Is it any wonder that people of good conscience and kindly ways have rejected the preachings of the church?

The colonizing churches proclaimed a message just plain wrong … even into this century, the preaching of salvation without a social conscience … telling people to wait for the “sweet bye-and-bye” … while denying them good and fair wages, while denying them their freedoms and their lives.

I say, loud and clear, there is a component of eternal hope, that has a rightful place in our faith … what we believe, those things for which we hope … the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting … this kind of hope transcends time … 

What we hope for, what we pray for, takes up a lifetime and then some … others will carry on for us when we’re long gone from the scene … 

Eternal hope is real hope … hope, for the here and now, needs eternal hope.

To keep it fired, to keep it hot, to keep it focused and faithful … to never give up … to accept loss and setback, as well as victory and fulfillment, because God is at work in all things for good! The greatest good of all.

Eternal hope is the strength and power of temporal hope … what do, here and now, for the sake of the kingdom of God, really counts … in ways we cannot imagine, or even begin to understand.

Because whatever good we do is taken up into the heart of God … “ … even our halting, halfhearted attempts at faithfulness are counted by God as victories.”

Today, the first Sunday of Advent … hope … 

I think of all the people who’ve made an indelible mark on the world for good … were they not people of hope? 

The odds were often against them .. time and circumstance can be cruel, but they held on to hope, even as hope holds on to us.

Hope is the energy of God … 

God pushes ahead to the Promised Land … Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee … the Apostle Paul sets out for Spain …

Throughout the ages, women and men of good conscience and wise judgment … poets and playwrights, scientists and inventors, politicians and preachers … gifted with the power of hope - inspire us  to this very day … 

Isaiah’s hope in God: a time when the nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Paul the Apostle put it like this: Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

God’s Peace to all, and to all, the power of hope. Amen!

Monday, November 21, 2022

11.20.22 "Christ the King Sunday" - a Nine Act Play

 Jeremiah 23.1-6; Luke 23.33-43

Christ the King Sunday: A Nine Act Play

  1. The Skull

Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the year … not the calendar year, but the Church Year … it all began last year, with the Four Sundays of Advent … and next week Sunday, we begin all over again, with the Four Sundays of Advent, taking us into Christmas, the birth of Jesus.

Today, the crucifixion of Jesus … a strange way to celebrate Christ the King Sunday. 

A way of saying: Life can be hard … sometimes really hard.

It takes effort to do good, to choose mercy, to uphold the best of human instincts, to say no to the worst … it takes effort to be true to God, self, others … it can be hard, sometimes very hard.

What plays out here is power … two kinds of power … two kingdoms; one of Caesar, the other of Christ … one, an empire of love … the other an empire of crosses … crosses raised on hills and byways all across the empire - thousands of crosses, to remind everyone who’s in charge, who’s boss, who holds the reigns of power.

Jesus dies at a place where others have died, and many more in subsequent years … a public execution, a Jim Crow lynching, to terrify, intimidate … on a small prominence half a mile outside of town, “a hill of death and dead bones,” with two others deemed a threat to Rome … Jesus dies here … the ultimate surrender of God to the power of sin, to bring about the power of love … a place, called The Skull.

2. Jesus Speaks

It all stops here … there is no revenge, no armed effort to overthrow the powers … Jesus is clear: about non-violence … a philosophy that inspired Gandhi of India, and Martin Luther King, Jr. … 

Jesus lays before the Father in heaven a plea that those responsible for his death be forgiven because they haven’t a clue what they’re really doing … maybe that’s true of us, too, most of the time … in our way, as the spiritual puts it, we were there when they crucified our LORD.

In these words, Jesus clears the playing field … a fresh start.

The authorities would have loved to hear him rant and rail … scream and shout … as Emperor Palpatine says to Luke about the Dark Side, “Let the hate flow through you.”

Jesus says No! 

In the Garden scene, Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away. 

This is strength, of the highest kind … Jesus conquers the worst by giving to the world the very best. God is not a God of vengeance and punishment, but a God of grace, mercy, and peace. Father, forgive them!

3. Soldiers Cast Lots

There’s a sadness here in all of this … occupation soldiers … bored to tears, glad for a little diversion … a decent piece of clothing … roll the dice … winner takes all.

Occupation soldiers … how many wars had they fought … how many battles, won and lost, and won anew … here they are, in one of the more troubled regions of the Empire … a client state, but still a trouble-spot … resistance fighters popping up all over the place … the call goes out to the command post, the soldiers put on their battle gear, set out to pursue and capture.

There’ve been some theories offered that Jesus didn’t really die, but merely fainted. 

When he was buried, he revived. 

But this much must be said: Rome was a killing machine … the soldiers knew what they were doing - how many times had they done this? … and here they are, wagering over a decent piece of clothing … what else to do until their victims are dead? 

Jesus, believe me, didn’t faint; Rome knew how to kill people. Death here, and everywhere is real!

4. Mockery

We mock what we don’t understand … we mock those whom we deem inferior to us … we mock that which unsettles us… 

Mockery is a form bullying … the bully bullies only when the bully feels safe, when the victim is helpless …  

The leaders scoff, the soldiers mock - all of them victims of the Roman Empire … leaders govern at the pleasure of Pilate and his armies; soldiers are under orders… mockery is their own version of power.

The soldiers offer cheap wine - it was likely there to slake their own thirst - putting it on a sponge at the end of a pole, was, perhaps, an act of some kindness? … or, maybe, just to prolong his pain, torment him a bit more. Wine for the king. Mockery is an ugly business.

5. The Sign

The King of the Jews … some ancient texts tell us the sign was written in three language, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew … to be sure that everyone understood.

Here is a pretender to the throne … here’s what happens to anyone who challenges the power of Rome … there is but one LORD, one Savior, one Son of God, and it’s Ceaser … 

All those titles, including allusions to a virgin birth, were attributed to the Caesars …  

A point of irony - here IS the king … whose throne is not of gold, but hewn wood, who’s glory is found in the sacrifice of love.

Jesus takes upon himself the worst of it, so the worst will not prevail, but rather something else, the Kingdom of light and peace … thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

6. Criminal #1

A bitter man … and who can blame him? … nailed to a cross … naked … 

He’s bitter … he’s lost the game … from what we know, he wasn’t “a common criminal” - he was a resistance fighter, a partisan, a Zealot - an idealist … determined to set his people free … he chides Jesus … 

He calls Jesus “Messiah” - was he expecting a messiah like King David, with the might of sword and spear, chariot and steed? But here’s a Messiah who comes to Jerusalem on a donkey. 

I'd like to think that when Jesus speaks of forgiveness and hope, he includes this forlorn and broken man, too … none are excluded. All are forgiven. 

It has to be this way, or there is no way at all.

7. Criminal #2

The second criminal makes an usual move - he accepts his fate, Look, we knew the risks we were taking … we gave it our best, and we lost. There’s no one to blame, no one to chide. 

This resistance fighter knows the underground of resistance … he knows Jesus isn’t a part of it … Rome crucified Jesus - not for his physical resistance to Rome, but his spiritual resistance … what he said, and what he did, to give people a better life … and then the decisive moment: Jesus disrupts the currency and commodities market in Temple Square - overturns the tables, declares his Father’s Temple to be a place of prayer.

Rome realized, here was a dangerous man …  

The religious leaders of the city agreed … 

A tragic alliance - political power anchored in Rome, religious power anchored in Jerusalem - to maintain the status quo, to keep the peace … 

To this very day, this “dangerous man” inspires our quest for freedom and dignity.

8. Criminal #2 to Jesus

The cry of every soul … remember me … don’t let me be forgotten … don’t let me be swept aside by the violent tides of time and war … let there be a place for me … somewhere somehow … 

This lonely man on the cross … he accepts his reality, his fate, and turns to Jesus … the flicker of faith … hope … that maybe, just maybe, this Jesus on the cross is going to make it … there will be a better day … and when that day arrives, remember me … I did my best, as I knew it to be … I tried hard to do what’s right … I gave my life for me people.

Don’t forget me.

Here’s the plea of every soul … don’t let the sands of time bury me … some built pyramids, others mighty monuments … some leave behind remarkable books, achievements, discoveries and patents on this and that everything else. But in the end, history has its own cruelty … but eternity never forgets.

Remember me …

9. Jesus Speaks

Today, you’ll be with me in paradise … comfort for a dying man … to assure him that his life counts … there’s more to life than meets the eye … 

Last week, I noted how the modern world has pretty much eliminated from life the thought of eternity … in some respects, because eternity was used an excuse to change nothing on earth; preachers told the poor and the suffering to hold on, to wait for them golden streets … while the rich here enjoyed earthly gold, and denied life to millions.

The words of Christ call for the integration of the two dimensions - eternity is not an escape clause, but the energy of moral and spiritual transformation, here and now.

There is a dimension of life far and beyond our lifespan … life counts, our decisions are important, and the good we do is added up in ways we cannot even imagine …“in life and in death, we belong to a faithful Savior” … when the little girl asked her mother, “Will grampa be there?” … and the mother said, “Everyone you love will be there.”

Today, you’ll be with me in Paradise.

Hallelujah and Amen!

Monday, November 14, 2022

11.13.22 "Hope & Caution"

 Isaiah 65.17-25; Luke 21.5-19

Isaiah’s stirring words of hope are written to a people who have known more than their fair share of disappointment and loss.

Across the ancient land, years of warfare, deportations, death and destruction, a great lament is heard … faith trembles, faith weakens, faith falls to its knees … anger, despair, frustration grow like weeds in the lawn … hope takes flight, leaves town … the human spirit is battered … who can believe in the God of Abraham and Sarah any more? … who can believe in the covenant promises of a king “always on the throne,” a land always safe and secure?” Who can believe that any more?

To the weary hearts of a weary people, to those who have suffered untold loss and grief, the stirring words of hope.

For I am about to create new heavens, and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind … for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

I have no doubt that Isaiah’s words of hope were met with catcalls and blistering laughter … How dare you speak of hope in such a time as this? Look at us Isaiah. What can come of this? We’re beaten. We’re defeated. It’s all gone; it’s all lost.

What’s going on?

I do not presume to know the mind of God … but the promise of God to be at work, in all things … in ALL things for good … is the anchor of our faith … 

A faith that has withstood enormous tragedy and loss … a faith that speaks to our hearts, encourages us to push on, to push ahead … to not be afraid, and if we are afraid, well, that’s ok, too … God understands.

Call it hope.

Hope is a deeply personal element … best experienced through the community of faith … through one another … none of us has enough hope all by our lonesome … what hope we have is good, but hope joined to hope is better still … 

When I can’t sing of the love of God, someone else can … and one day, when they can’t sing, I will sing for them. 

We do this for one another … this is the power of the church!

In this moment, in this place, we’re surrounded by history … the voices of those who trod this way long before we showed up … they raised this building to the glory of God … they gave us the windows through which the light of Christ shines upon us all …  

Hope … but let’s be wise in matters of hope … hope doesn’t always pan out for us … at least as we had hoped. History makes that clear … Israel in Egypt 430 years … how many prayers were offered, how much raised to heaven, and how much hope lost in sorrow and tragedy? 

Hope needs the cautious words of Christ … we cannot hope beyond reason … hope has its limits … we know that, and we don’t like it, one bit … which is why religious charlatans will always have a job … we’re desperate for hope, and hope ginned up by pundits and preachers promising the moon has tremendous attraction - but all that glitters isn’t gold.

Fr. Greg Boyle says: “I do not think it is preposterous to believe in God. I am just hoping people stop believing in a preposterous God.”

Here in this place, we’re Presbyterians - grounded in Scripture, mindful of the wide traditions of our story, restrained in our emotions, and determined to do what’s right. 

God is a god of miracles and wonders … but God is also the god of silence and sorrow … all our prayers are heard, all our prayers answered … but often in ways we cannot fathom, in ways we’d rather not …

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Jesus speaks of suffering and death, and then adds, … not a hair of your head will perish.

A proverbial expression throughout the ancient world, a proverb of eternal hope … hope transcending time, hope beyond the boundaries of our days and months and millennia … eternal hope to give a finish to time … not a hair of your head …

What is greater than death?

Is it not Christ? 

Christ for us … Christ for humanity … Christ for every creature, great and small … none shall be lost; all shall be saved … the eternal hope is the capstone of time.

Paul the Apostle writes: If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Eternal hope strengthens moral hope … we have to work, of course, and work hard, to bring about the kingdom of God. 

We can’t sit back and hope that God will do something about climate change, the homeless challenge, the anti-Semitism again rising again like a poisonous fog.

We cannot sit back, we cannot ignore our calling - to love one another, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

We cannot stand idle … 

The German pastor, Martin Niemöller, after WW2, spoke often of his quietness in the face of Nazi evils … his famous quote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Pastor Niemöller made it clear: … through silence, indifference, inaction, Germans had been complicit in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people. The silence of Protestant church leaders, including his own [silence], was particularly egregious because they were in positions of moral authority.

“The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.”

The Apostle Paul writes: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.

This day, whatever the world will give to us … weal or woe, I pray that all of us will stand by one another … if we can sing the songs of Zion, let us sing with all our heart … if we can’t sing today, others will sing for us.

The ancient stories of faith, hope, and love … stories enshrined in our windows, and the cross of Christ centered in our chancel … beams of light reaching to the four corners of the world …

To the glory of God. Amen and Amen!