4th Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Readings and Psalm
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
The LORD’s promise to David
You, Lord, have lifted up the lowly. (Lk. 1:52)
The mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ
The angel appears to Mary
Do not be afraid, for nothing will be impossible with God.
But God may not provide the impossible things we think we want when we want them.
David tried to box God in and that didn’t work out as he expected. When he told Nathan that he wanted to build a house for God, Nathan reminded him that God is with him. Go ahead, favored one, he says.
But God has something else in mind.
Who knows what had been on Mary’s mind before Gabriel showed up. David thought he should build a permanent structure for the ark of the covenant, but Mary became the ark of the covenant in an embodied sense. I can’t imagine it ever occurring to anyone to wish for that.
I also can’t imagine being as calm as she seemed when an angel appeared before her. Perplexed and pondering don’t quite do justice to what I might be feeling in similar circumstance.
“Do not be afraid, Mary” Yes thank you for that. I certainly would have needed to hear those words. The Rev. Dr. Shively Smith, from Wesley Theological points out that these “…words of assurance have purpose. They offer comfort when the status quo is about to be altered and the rhythms of the everyday about to be disrupted.”
Nathan assured David about building the house for God, but God had other plans. David is not to build a house for God, but God is building a house for David, a house that will last forever.
We might not have a hard time with that promise, but what about the other things we hear in second Samuel?
“I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;” True enough, God did that.
“and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you;“ Well, maybe up to that point. David had been very successful in battle.
“and I will make for you a great name,
like the name of the great ones of the earth.
And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more;
and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,
from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel;
and I will give you rest from all your enemies.”
Things just didn’t work out that way. Eventually the people of Israel were over-run by their enemies, the temple that David’s son Solomon had built was destroyed, and the peoples were scattered among the nations. Human greed and avarice seemed to gain the upper hand.
We might wonder if the status quo will ever be altered. We might wonder if the rhythms of the everyday will ever be disrupted. One might especially wonder about this if they have been out driving in this snowy, shopping frenzied, weather. I was out in this mess on Wednesday. Some last-minute prep for youth night. And you know, when the weather gets like this, people often ask about the Mini Cooper. How does it do in snow? Quite well actually, as long as the snow is not deeper than our eight-inch ground clearance. So anyway, I’m out among the million me-first shoppers as the temperature is dropping and the snow is getting higher and like them, I just want to get home. I’ve just left Costco and am heading toward Laurel Road on King Ave. Cars are just crawling up the overpass and I’m beginning to worry I won’t have enough momentum to carry the car through any loss of traction, when, surprisingly enough, it simply stopped moving. Yes, that was me causing the rush hour traffic jam. Four cars ground to a halt behind me.
All I can think to do at this point is to back down the hill a bit and try again. So, I get out of the car to get the other four cars to back down a bit also. While I’m out there, I see someone else has now stalled on the far-left lane, which means that now everyone is trying to squeeze through the middle before they lose momentum also.
Meanwhile the passenger of that car has gotten out and is trying to push the car up the hill. Up to this point no one seems to be thinking about anyone else, so I go over to help push. I have no delusion about being much help muscle-wise, but have seen how big guys jump in when they see a short middle-aged woman attempting the impossible.
And they did. And we cleared that car. Then we went back to the other side of the road to clear the cars behind me. Well the first car behind me wasn’t actually stuck, they just couldn’t find a break in the traffic. By this time, I’m feeling cold and annoyed, so I step into the middle of the road and signal the cars to stop. Did I mention, that is was youth night? And that I was wearing my collar? And that I had rather forgotten that detail?
Well, the cars not only paid attention, they seemed a little more considerate and cooperative after that.
This is not always the response the collar evokes. But at that time, in that place, I think people saw it as a symbol of God working in the world and a reminder of the best of Christianity. The status quo seems to endure, but God breaks through, bit by bit.
When the angel visited Mary, that was God breaking through. We think of the birth of Jesus the Christ as the main event. As something big that happened two thousand years ago. It changed everything but it seems it have changed nothing.
We do not live in peace; we are still afflicted by evildoers. When will this rest from our enemies be granted?
When we ask these things, we are building a box of expectations around God. Just as God asked David, we might ask ourselves: are we the ones to build a house for God? Are we the ones to decide God’s actions and God’s timing?
Or we might ask ourselves, are we the ones to bear Christ into the world, to be a symbol of God’s love to others? Little by little, day by day, God is breaking through to us, through us.
Each time we share the courage of young Mary and say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” God makes possible peace and rest from our enemies because we see no one as an enemy. And God changes hearts so that someday there will be no one who desires evil.
Do not be afraid, for nothing will be impossible with God.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Readings and Psalm
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
The day of the LORD
Psalm 90:1-8 9-11 12
So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Be alert for the day of the Lord
The story of the slaves entrusted with talents
Sermon – Perception is Everything
This parable about the talents can be interpreted in so many ways, depending on how we perceive God.
My first boss used to say, “Perception is everything.” He was right, and wrong, and it all seemed so arbitrary. We can’t control how others perceive us. And yet, their perception can change our lives in very real ways.
Think of the kid in school who has a “reputation”. We don’t even have to hear what she has a reputation for, because we have a pretty good idea. Are we going to let our kids go to a party at her house?
Even without social media, rumors, true or not, tarnish reputations and sometimes ruin careers and bankrupt businesses. So, yes, perception is everything.
When this parable of talents is presented as proof that God does not want you to be poor, it becomes terrifying and impossible and so arbitrary. I recall a conversation from way back, when I was studying theology in Seattle, before seminary. I was getting a haircut and when the stylist learned I was going to school, she asked me about this parable.
She started by saying “God does not want us to be poor.” Thinking she meant “God wants us to take care of the poor,” I nodded in agreement. She went on to say that those who have much will be given more, and those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
The divide between rich and poor does seem to expand, generation by generation. The poorest person in biblical times struggled to find food, shelter from the elements, and protection from other people. This was true a thousand years later, and it’s true today. The wealthiest people in biblical times had servants to prepare their food and build their shelters and protect them from other people. But even the wealthiest were not as warm in winter as the poorer people are today. And they could not expect to live any longer than the poorer people do today. The baseline of abject poverty seems to stay steady, but the available riches seem to increase, day by day.
When we take this parable to mean that “God does not want us to be poor” it makes sense that the increase in available riches should be given each according to what they already have. When we perceive wealth as blessing, we impoverish the poor. Perception can change lives.
And that seems so wrong, so arbitrary. So far, I’ve been talking about one possible interpretation of this parable, but what if I told you this parable is all about perception? Some might say the talents represent faith. If you have much faith, it will increase, if you have little, it will wither and die. I think these talents represent our perception of God.
Think of it this way: that kid with the bad reputation throws a party at her house. You decide to go, because everyone is going. It will be the event of the season. When you get there, you see all of the important people there, having fun, enjoying each other’s company, and happy to see you. Everything is fine, until you realize they aren’t just there for the food and the fun. They aren’t there despite who is hosting, rather they are there because of the host. If that seems all wrong, it will be hard to focus on anything else.
If a person thinks God is all wrath and judgement, they are likely to spend their time worrying about the behavior of others, fussing and judging and trying to save them. If a person remembers that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, they are more likely to enter into God’s joy, sharing and multiplying the blessing.
Perception is everything.
Sunday, August 27, 2017
Readings and Psalm
The enduring foundation of God’s salvation
O LORD, your steadfast love endures forever. (Ps. 138:8)
One body in Christ, with gifts that differ
The profession of Peter’s faith
Sermon — Mystique & Banality
Messianic secrets. The mystique of charismatic leaders. The banality of evil.
Into all this mist and mire, smoke and dust, enter Jesus.
“Who do the people say that I am?”
In the turmoil of reflection that is my creative process, I’ve been grappling with the fascinating, yet horrifying book called Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss. And I’ve been grappling with American politics and current events.
Amid monuments and violence on both side, yes on both sides, and media that isn’t news, and media that isn’t even diverse in ownership, and Nazi propaganda and vague but inspiring speeches, I wonder, how did Hitler come to be seen as a savior of his people? A messiah.
The messiah was nothing like this! I shudder to think that Hitler was taking a page from Christ’s playbook. But it’s possible that people aspiring to greatness try to take pages from Hitler’s playbook.
A narcissist would never ask “Who do the people say that I am?” That would be to risk too much. They need to believe they are adored by all. They need to believe they are god-like.
But Jesus did ask, and the disciples said “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” These are people sent by God to share a message from God. People sent by God to lead people back to God. These were not people who believed that they could become like gods.
You are God-Incarnate, but you are not God. We’ll come back to this because it is important, it is the key.
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
And Cephas answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
To us, who know the story, this is obvious. But what Simon Peter is saying is that Jesus isn’t just a person sent by God to lead people back to God. Simon Peter is saying that Jesus has a kinship to God that is closer than other people’s. Cephas knows that Jesus is not just another prophet.
Jesus rejoices because this is an expression of faith. An expression of the kind of faith that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
He doesn’t say to Peter, “you rock!”, but he says you are a rock! Not a rock star, not world leader, but a rock. When he says, on this rock I will build my church, he is not making Peter the foundation and leader of the church as we know church. One might even suggest that he isn’t talking about church as we know it at all. The word ekklesia, which we translate as “church” in a fuller sense means, “people called out from the world and to God”.
Certainly Jesus is playing with words. But it would have been clear to the listener that the rock that is Peter is not the rock that is the foundation of the church. It would have been clear because the language they spoke, Aramaic, and the language the gospel was written in, Greek, are grammatically gendered. The rock referring to Peter is grammatically masculine and the rock referring to the ekklesia, and the ekklesia, are grammatically feminine.
Jesus was playing with words, but he wasn’t laying the foundation for a cult of personality.
The Holy Spirit has gifted Peter with faith and that rock of faith is what will call people out of the world and to God. Further, Jesus tells Peter that he will give him the keys to the kingdom.
It’s tempting to think that Jesus is referring to some secret knowledge here. Especially when we read this together with the last verse of today’s reading “he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
Secret knowledge is a key element of charismatic leadership. Hitler had Goebbels to build up a mystique of messianic power, an aura of god-hood, around him. Goebbels is considered by many to be the founder and best practitioner of propaganda. Hitler himself was very careful to never offer proof to the contrary. He never offered details about how he would lead his country to greatness again. In fact, he didn’t participate in planning much of anything. Alone he made decisions and set directions. He followers were free to implement these directions and achieve these goals as they saw fit. Here is the really terrifying premise of this book: Hitler gave voice to the baser fears a person tries to rise above, he validated racial hatred, and he gave people permission to act on those fears. He never condemned violence. He did distance himself from specific acts of violence, but he never condemned it.
But Christianity is no more about secrecy than it is about violence. Regardless of how many leaders throughout the ages try to leverage Christian faith to their own advantage, ekklesia is not about political science or controlling the masses.
And Jesus does not keep secret the keys to the kingdom. He begins right away. First, know that heaven and earth are bound together, nothing happens on earth that is not experienced in heaven. This is what he means when he says “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The Gospel of Matthew devotes the next four chapters to demonstrating and explaining the kingdom of heaven.
It all points back to the commandment: love God; love others as you love yourself and it’s corollary: God loves you, so completely, so fully, as if you were the only one; and God loves everyone else the same way.
It’s is difficult to know which is harder to accept, that God loves you unconditionally, or that God also loves the other person unconditionally. When we can accept these teachings, the incarnation of God that is in us shines through and ekklesia happens, the kingdom of heaven is opened.