Friday, February 20, 2015

an out-loud season



I love Lent.





I know this puts me in several minorities. Brethren are generally not liturgical, and we have a history of rejecting those things associated with the oppressive state and institutional churches. The Church calendar falls in this category, as does prescribed penance, liturgical fasting, and, really, any church-appointed season or practice attractive enough to entice McDonald’s to alter its menu. (Speaking of, how in the world can a spiritual practice that endorses a fast-food conglomerate’s profit-making engine make sense to a child of the Radical Reformation? The Filet O’ Fish really is the height of Constantinian Christianity, is it not?)

Still, as empire-endorsing as it may be, I love Lent. I like contemplation. I appreciate the honesty of repentance and the unveiled truth-telling inherent of the story of Jesus’ passion. We humans are created, contingent, and bent on turning away from the One who created us. Lent has the capacity to walk us through every depth of suffering and abandonment, abuse, oppression, and trauma, to ask us to confess our own complicity. Lent tells the story of God being murdered…and ends with the incomprehensible miracle of resurrection. That resurrection makes no sense without contemplating the muck of human inadequacy and sinfulness from which it arose.

So, you know, Lent is just FUN. It’s a barrel of monkeys over here, contemplating the cold-blooded slaughter of the Creator. How could you NOT love a season like that?

All right, fine. I understand the lack of Lenten popularity. And, if I’m honest with myself, there is probably a sliver of hipster satisfaction in my profession of love for this unpopular season, as if Lent were the latest bandwagon hit indie act:

“Oh, you like Lent? Yeah, I’ve loved those guys since seminary. Like a decade ago. Their new stuff is okay, but do you know any of the older stuff? Yeah, you really don’t know anything about Lent unless you’ve done the giving up of the alleluia. Stations of the Cross, meatless Fridays…it’s life-changing, man. Life-changing. But yeah, I’m on to other stuff now. There’s this new thing. Heard of “Epiphany” yet? Dude. Get on that. Actual ASTRONOMERS bring some crazy shit to Jesus. Frankincense, man. And myrrh. Geez, the myrrh. It’ll blow your mind.”

But hipster cred is not the only reason I like Lent. Another, possibly more valid reason is that for these six weeks, people are speaking my language. People are reading the bible, and praying more, and practicing spiritual disciplines. They’re posting about it on Facebook, and they’re TELLING ME about it in FACE to FACE conversations. For somebody who earns a living by teaching, preaching, praying and leading others into some kind of spiritual discipline, often without much buy-in, this is a huge thing.

This is my job, it’s part of my vocation, and it is a huge part of what fills my head and my heart every day. That a gigantic slice of the world is suddenly interested in all of that stuff makes a huge impression. What I do might matter! Other people might actually be interested in these kinds of things!

Of course, there are other reasons to love Lent. For a bookish introvert caught in a culture of busy distraction, Lent is a blessed relief. During Lent, we’re supposed to slow down. We’re supposed to be more reflective. The frivolity is necessarily abridged, and sitting down to think or pray or write about something serious and life-affecting is not only acceptable but even publicly commendable.

Lent is an out-loud season. It’s when people wear their faith on their foreheads. How many ash-covered eyebrows did you see on the streets this week? How many of your friends have posted about their Lenten discipline? People want companionship and accountability during these weeks. We want to know that this discipline is not solitary, that our faith is not ours alone. We want to draw ourselves closer to God and, in the process, closer to one another. Lent makes room for our faith to be lived aloud, in public, and in community.

And that’s great. Lent requires us to face some nasty truths about ourselves and about our world. It forces us to own up to how much fast-food we’re eating, how many hours we spend actively distracting ourselves from troubling realities, how far we’ve allowed ourselves to drift from a life lived in communion. Lent asks a lot of us. It requires humility and strength, grace and companionship. We need one another to face the honest truth.

So, I’m not giving up Facebook this year, even though I could certainly use a break from that particular morass of inanity. I won’t give up TV or chocolate, like I’ve done before, and I won’t throw myself around the country, like I tried one year. I won’t even commit to sitting in silence – my favorite spiritual discipline in Lent or any other time.

During Lent this year, I’m going to focus on more being connected – not through my phone or Twitter, really, but genuine human connection. I’m going to nurture relationship – with God and with those around me. I’m going to try to be honest about the reality of myself and the reality of the world, and attempt to share that honesty with those around me.

For a long time, I’ve had a self-imposed rule to counterbalance my hermit-like tendencies: to be healthy, I need to leave the house once each day and make plans with someone outside my normal circle of interaction once a week. This has saved me countless times, changed my attitude and brought me joy in ways I could not have imagined. But it is a maintenance thing, and not any particular spiritual discipline. So I’m going to attempt more.

This might mean writing letters, or being attentive to my new housemate, or calling you up for a long-overdue chat. It might mean baking cookies for my neighbors, whom I have long neglected to meet and befriend. It may mean praying for those BVSers I met last week, or engaging that sad stranger in the grocery store check-out line. I’m not sure exactly what this discipline will look like, but I do know that I am tired of the empire keeping me solitary, sad and lonely. I am tired of settling for the weak-sauce of casual acquaintance and passer-by. I’d like to nourish some connection and build up some webs of interdependence. I’d like to try to face the truth of my own disconnection and to dwell in the repentance, pardon, and reclamation of that brokenness.

So, here it is, declared in the presence of God and all ye blog-reading witnesses: I’m submitting myself to the discipline of connection this season. Call me up. Ask me to dinner. I will not say no without a good reason. Expect to be hearing from me in some form or fashion. 


Sunday, February 01, 2015

Demons? No sweat.




Sermon 2-1-15
Manassas Church of the Brethren
Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[m] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Mark’s gospel moves along at a steady clip. He tells a fast-paced narrative, uses the word “immediately” and “and then” as transition phrases, and keeps his readers moving right along through the narrative of Jesus. Matthew and Luke - the later gospels that used Mark’s skeleton as material for their more detailed, finer-pointed storylines - will wander into a sidestory or insert a sub-plot into the larger one, hit harder on metaphors or particular narrative styles, but Mark: well, Mark is a pretty bare-bones kinda guy.

Mark is also the only gospel writer who makes the outright claim that his book is a GOSPEL, a tale of good news, the “euangelion” in the original Greek. This is the story of utmost importance, the story of salvation, and its central character is - you know - Jesus, the Christ.

Mark is concerned with making sure we know who Jesus is. This is not a modern-day evangelism that is hoping to inspire us to a deeper personal devotion. Mark just wants to tell the story of Jesus, to make known that this guy has come and that he is The One. Capital T, Capital O. JESUS: The Christ, God’s Son, God’s Beloved, the Bringer of the Kingdom. This guy is IT.

So, Mark skips over all the birth narratives - no Christmas, here! He starts with John the Baptist, who is heralding the coming reign of God, and as soon as Jesus shows up on the scene, he gets baptized. God’s spirit descends, claims Jesus as his own, and immediately Jesus goes out to call his disciples. “Come, follow me,” he yells at some guys out fishing, and they do. They drop their nets and join this guy, the guy who is The One.

And now - fully baptized and surrounded by his posse - Mark throws Jesus immediately into a fight scene. Oh, sure, Jesus was the instigator of non-violent protest, the most pacifist peace-maker there ever was, but that definitely doesn’t mean he avoided conflict. Jesus, The One, has not come to walk away from confrontation - he has come to transform it. He has come to show the way toward God’s Kingdom, to teach and preach and heal and save and cast out demons.

And even though everybody around him is kind of confused as to what all that might mean - his own disciples are especially clueless - those demons KNOW who Jesus is. In today’s text, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue - never mind how he got permission or authority to get up there and preach, this kid from Nazareth that no one had heard of, but there he is, teaching in the synagogue about God’s Kingdom. And everybody around him was astonished, because he taught “as one with authority.” Jesus did not teach like the scribes did, the teachers and academics of the day, because even the scribes were still interpreting, still translating, still conjecturing about what the scriptures might mean, about what the coming Kingdom might look like. No, Jesus, being The One, KNEW what the coming kingdom was. He knew it, because he WAS it.

So Jesus is there in the synagogue, teaching with authority - the authority that comes from authenticity of being God’s Son - and some guy in the back stands up and yells out: “What are you doing here!? You’re just a kid from Nazareth! Are you here to destroy us?! I know who you are!”

Man with the Unclean Spirit
Ian Pollock, "Man with an Unclean Spirit"
Everyone present knows that this guy yelling at The One is not in his right mind. The whole crowd was completely in awe of Jesus’ teaching, and here’s this guy heckling from the back row - surely he’s not serious. But it turns out that the heckler is actually a demon: Mark says he was “a man with an unclean spirit.” Jesus, of course, knows immediately what’s going on, and wastes no time in responding. He “rebukes” the Spirit, and “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”


I do not know what it looks like when an unclean spirit exits someone’s body, but it sounds pretty gruesome. Later on in Mark, Jesus will send some other unclean spirits into a big bunch of pigs who run into the sea and drown, and that’s a great visual, too. But this spirit gets off easy - it isn’t destroyed, it isn’t drowned, it’s just rebuked and commanded to leave the poor guy in the back row alone. And - wonder of wonders - the spirit obeys exactly as Jesus commanded it.

This is the FIRST thing Jesus does in his public ministry. He gets baptized, stamped with God’s approval and calls some disciples - regular fishermen who will become revolutionaries, and then he immediately enters into this conflict with the unclean spirit. The demon recognizes Jesus, even though he hasn’t done anything of note, yet. The demon is terrified - who ARE you? Have you come to DESTROY us? And Jesus dispatches with it quickly, easily, and with no apparent difficulty. “Demons?” he seems to be saying, “No sweat.”

And that’s the point: for Mark, the most important aspect of Jesus’ identity is this authority to rule over the demonic forces of evil, hatred, and scarcity present in the world around him. Jesus is The One. And The One has the power to defeat all others.

Mark goes on to tell 17 more miracle stories in his gospel, more than any other gospel. 13 of the miracles are healings, and 4 of the healings are exorcisms like this one. The miracle stories testify to Jesus’ power: power over evil, power over illness, power over nature, power over scarcity, power over the rules of physics, even, and finally, power over death. Jesus is The One, the one with power to defeat every foe, to save God’s people from every force that threatens to rob them of the abundant life of the Kingdom.

This is how Mark INTRODUCES Jesus. This is who Jesus is, from the very beginning. The story of Jesus is not rags-to-riches, it isn’t a story of hard work leading to reward, it isn’t a story of overcoming-the-odds, it isn’t even a story of miraculous transformation. The story of Jesus STARTS HERE, with power to overcome every other authority, every other principality or power vying for primacy in the lives of the people walking around here on earth.

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I went to visit one of our members last week, in the hospital after having some major surgery on his back. He’s doing very well, and he gave me permission to share this little moment with you. I walked into the hospital room less than 48 hours after his major back surgery, expecting him to be reclining in the hospital bed, maybe a bit out of it from pain killers and actual pain. I was fairly certain that he’d still be down for the count.

But I walked into the room and he was sitting up in the chair, talking to his wife . As soon as he saw me, he started wriggling around and, to my great surprise, STOOD UP all of his own accord. I sort of gasped, open-mouthed, surprised to see him so mobile already. When he got himself upright, his arms shot out in front of him and I quickly stepped forward, thinking he was unsteady and needing help for balance. But he surprised me again, pulling me in - not to be caught or steady himself, but to offer me a big - if slightly tentative - hug. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said, and headed toward the door, scrambling the nurses at their station who knew he wasn’t really supposed to be walking without official supervision.


Now, I’m not a doctor and I can’t exactly endorse this guy’s insistent refusal to remain immobilized for as long as his doctors request him to...healing is sometimes slow work, and rest is a big part of it. But as I read this passage from Mark and thought about what it meant for us to live as followers of Jesus, walking around on this earth as if we belong to The One who has the authority over every other power that might try to rule us, our friend's unexpected behavior in the hospital came to mind.

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For Mark, Jesus is The One. He starts out as the most powerful, the one who can cast out all demons and heal all affliction. That’s just who Jesus is. So if we’re meant to be followers of that guy, shouldn’t we also start...THERE? Shouldn’t we also start with the assumption that Jesus has come, that we are already saved, that healing is already here, that God’s Kingdom is already among us?

There are fancy theological words for this kind of thing: “realized eschatology” is a way of saying that God’s Kingdom is already here and we, as Christians, are called to act as if the world IS God’s. Realized eschatology means that while we live in a world that is broken and in need of healing, we also get to live in the knowledge that the great Healer has already come and the great Healing is already in process. We live as if...as if we were already healed.

Because we are.

What would it look like if this attitude of being people who are already healed became our default? How would we act differently? What would the world be like?

Well, it probably makes sense to take stock of the powers that are currently ruling over us, holding us hostage, assuming our loyalty. What are the demon-like things keeping us from following Jesus?

Are we ruled by a sense of fear?
Or scarcity?
Or selfishness?

Are we being held hostage by the assumption that some things are too far gone to be reclaimed?

Are we bowing down to the demands of some economic force or market demand?

Are we letting the residual pain from our old wounds keep us from standing up and embracing those around us?

What is it that’s exercising authority over your life?

Is it Jesus?

Because what Mark is trying to tell us is that Jesus is more powerful than any other possible authority figure. And, moreover, that Jesus has already come and has already set us free from the tyranny of those other powers.

So. If we’ve already been set free, how, then, shall we live?

I can imagine that there’s a whole lot of joy in living like we’re healed. And justice, yes, and an incredible abundance of compassion. The world keeps telling us that we are broken, and it’s true. We are. But what the world doesn’t get is that we are also already healed. We can’t let our lives be small and fearful when we’ve experienced freedom. So live big. Live healed. Live with joy.

Dance a little. Laugh more. Be generous. Let go of what’s holding you back. Act as if those old insecurities and uncertainties and hurts were already exorcised. Because they are.

The people who watched Jesus rebuke that demon in the synagogue were amazed. “What is this?!” they wondered. “This is a new thing! And he’s doing it with such authority! Even the demons obey him!”

That’s who we follow, y’all, The One so powerful that even demons cower before him. And if demons cower, what else have we got that can stand a chance?

What’s your hang-up?
Where are you hurting?
What nasty spirit do you need excised?

Hold it up to Jesus. If Jesus is anything like the way Mark describes him, I’ll bet that he takes one look at your problem, smiles gently at you with all kinds of compassion - and maybe a little amusement - and says simply: “Oh, you mean THAT thing? No sweat. I got you. Why don’t you go ahead and stand up? Let’s take a walk.”

Amen.


Monday, December 08, 2014

in the wilderness


Sermon 12-7-14
Manassas Church of the Brethren
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

A couple of years ago, I decided to stay away from social media during Advent. Advent isn’t traditionally a season of LESS, but I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with all that the winter months required, and wanted to focus more on Jesus, less on status updates.

I put a little note on my facebook page that I was going to fast from Facebook for Advent, and signed off. While I was home for Christmas, my family went out to brunch with some good friends from the church where I grew up, Sue and Michael and their young adult kids. Their daughter Meg, who is a really sharp lady but in this case, a little slower on the uptake, thanked me for the seasonal reminder she’d seen on my Facebook page. “I saw that and I thought, OH RIGHT! IT’s ADVENT! And I remembered that it was fasting time. So I quit eating meat.”

“Yeah,” her mom chimed in, “she called me and asked about the meatballs we always have for Christmas Eve dinner. She told me she wasn’t eating meat and asked if we could have vegetarian meatballs. I thought, huh, that’s weird, but sure, I love her and if she wants vegetarian meatballs, I’ll make ‘em!”

So Meg spent December not eating meat, and Sue spent the month looking for meatless meatball recipes. When they all gathered on Christmas Eve, Meg’s brother Jeremy made a beeline for the meatballs. He bit into the first one, and, realizing something was not quite right, spit it out immediately. “What IS this?!” Sue said, “Well, Meg isn’t eating meat right now so she asked for vegetarian meatballs. I found the recipe and made some.” “Why aren’t you eating meat, Meg?” Jeremy asked. “Because it’s ADVENT, Jeremy! Don’t you know you’re supposed to FAST during ADVENT?”

“MEG,” he yelled, mad about the meatless meatballs at his Christmas Eve dinner, “It’s ADVENT, when we CELEBRATE. YOU FAST DURING LENT!”

To be honest, I feel a little bad about being somehow responsible for the meatless meatball incident. Despite my impulse to simplify and get off the internet, Advent is not, traditionally, a time of fasting. The big thing we’re anticipating is the coming of Christ, the incarnation of God, the gift of love’s presence among us. This is not Lent, when we look ahead to an unfair trial, unjust death, grieving community, and despair of the cross. We want this season to be one of celebration, connection, generosity and abundance. We want all our dinners to be authentic feasts - no sacrifices or substitutions allowed.

Advent is a time of joy – and well it should be. The birth of Christ is almost unimaginable in its glory, in its importance. In Eastern Christianity, the incarnation – God becoming human and dwelling with us here on earth – is considered even more important than the resurrection. That God would decide to join us in this way, to love us in this way that we might begin to understand…that’s huge. And joyful. And glorious. All the celebrating we do this time of year is GOOD.

And still, the scriptures we read during these weeks are not exactly gilded with gold. They’re sort of scary – stars falling from the sky and crazy guys yelling prophecies out in the desert. If Advent is time for celebration, why is it that the stories of this season are so strange?

For instance: today we have John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness. You know John the Baptist, right? He’s Jesus’ cousin. He’s the kid who made a fuss in his mom’s womb when the in-utero Jesus and HIS mom, Mary, showed up. He’s the guy who got in so much trouble for messing in the marital drama of King Herod that he was beheaded and had his head delivered to the Queen on a platter. That’s in scripture – I’m not making it up.

John had quite the life, but it’s his beginning that gets the most attention. He’s the one whose priest father, Zechariah, was struck dumb for not believing the angel who came to tell him that he would have a kid in his old age. And when Zechariah finally regained the ability to talk, eight days after his son was born, he opened his mouth and sang one of the most beautiful songs in all of scripture:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon
us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

“By the tender mercy of our God” is one of my favorite phrases of all time. And it gets followed up with “the dawn from on high will break upon us,” and that dawn, brought to us by the mercy of the God to whom we belong and who belongs to us – our God – is meant to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. And that light will guide our feet into the way of peace.

This is some seriously hopeful stuff. And it helps us to know that this is the context out of which John shows up, wearing camel’s hair and leather, eating locusts and honey, wandering out in the wilderness preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins.

This context is how we know that John isn’t just a crazy guy on the street corner screaming nonsensical things into a megaphone. He was born a prophet, meant to herald the coming King and remind people what they ought to be doing to prepare for the glorious resurrection and celebration that is to come. John’s job – described in his father’s song of rejoicing at his new son’s birth and the recovery of his own voice – was to point out the signs of God making his way through the wilderness, to point those signs out to God’s own people.

I’m reading this great devotional right now, and the author talks about John the Baptist and Zechariah’s song to him. Imagine, he says, Zechariah cradling his baby boy in his arms and singing this song of hope and promise to him. And remember, the author says, no matter what your luck is in the human-father department, this song is for you, too. Only Jesus can be Jesus, but every one of us can be John the Baptist, pointing out where we see God on the move, preparing the way for the coming King.

I’ll confess that I am typically better at seeing the messy and painful realities than I am at watching out for signs of God moving through it all. And, some weeks seem more filled with those things than others. If you pay attention to the news, this week may have been one of those weeks. Our justice system struggles to accommodate the complexities of race and the job of law enforcement, our public universities struggle to care well for students who’ve been sexually assaulted. Our sisters and brothers in Nigeria continue to face increasing physical and religious violence, and radical militias are doing some serious killing in the name of God. Even if you’re not attuned to the news of the world, the news of your own life – especially during these days when rejoicing seems almost mandatory, even for those of us who would rather be practicing lament - might be enough to obscure the promise of God’s imminent incarnation.

But we are not alone.

In Mark’s gospel, John the Baptist arrives to the tune of an ancient text. Mark knows that his hearers will immediately recognize these famous verses from the prophet Isaiah, and that they will mean something specific. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” the way Mark opens his story of good news, is either a direct quote or a faithful riff on Isaiah 40:

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The author of this passage from Isaiah knows what it means to struggle to see God at work in a messy world. The book of Isaiah is actually a combination of the writings of at least 2 different prophets, and chapter 40 – where this text comes from – is the beginning of what scholars call “deutero-Isaiah,” or the place where the 2nd author picks up. This second Isaiah was writing during the time of the Babylonian exile: Israel’s land had been overtaken and all the people had been forced out. Isaiah writes about a voice in the wilderness because his people were actually living in the wilderness.

Far from home and unsure when – if ever – they’d be able to return, Isaiah’s people lived in exile and in hope. They knew what it was to be forced out of comfort, security and home. They knew the fear of living in an occupied land, and the brokenness of a world constantly at war. They knew what injustice looked like, and how it felt to be left vulnerable to violence and uncertainty.

So when Isaiah writes that a voice is crying out in the wilderness, that God is coming and everyone should get busy preparing the way for him to sweep through, he’s not talking about a metaphorical exile. For Isaiah, the issue at hand is not some philosophical ennui or psychological platitude. The King is coming to save his people in the midst of real exile, complicated situations of justice, messy questions of territory, identity, and life.

In the same way, Mark paints a picture of Jesus entering into a world of deep need, deep confusion, deep pain. John the Baptist calls for the people to confess their sins, to be honest about their pain and the pain of their world, and to accept forgiveness and newness right there in the Jordan River.

And that seems really hopeful to me – that Isaiah’s predicted return from exile and Jesus’ incarnate birth happened not once everything finally got resolved and everyone was fully prepared for salvation at last, but those restorations happened, instead, deep in the midst of the current realities.

So, is Advent meant for celebrating? Or is Advent meant for fasting? Was Meg right to give up meat in preparation for the feast? Or was Jeremy closer to the truth in insisting on the abundance of the season?

The incredible, difficult thing is: yes. Both. Advent is celebration of the coming kingdom. And it is also and at the same time, being honest about the current messy realities. We travel through the wilderness pointing out signs of the coming kingdom, eyes wide open to the pain around us, hearts wide open to the promise that salvation has come and is again on its way. Like John the Baptist, we pay attention, we make note of the signs, and we speak up. We get to be voices crying out in the wilderness, preparing a way.

So what should we be doing, here in the midst of our own world? We all get to be John the Baptist, right? I’d advise against the camel hair ensemble – I hear it’s itchy. And locusts & honey just sounds…gross. So how is it that we prepare ways in the wilderness, make it known that God is on God’s way, that salvation is at hand? There are as many answers to that question as there are people in this room.

We can take a cue from John’s own suggestions, though. John says: repent. Confess your sins. Live holy lives. Repentance is a scary word. It calls to mind images of fire and brimstone, judgment and punishment. But I think it starts with opening our ears and our hearts to the possibility that we might, in fact, be wrong about something. Or, that there may be another way of understanding a particular part of the world that’s different than we’re used to. Repentance starts with openness to correction, with ears amenable to listening to the voice of another. Repentance opens the way for feasting and fasting in faith – for living in exile and in hope. It keeps us honest about what is and open to what might be. It gives us eyes to see ourselves how we really are, and the promise to imagine ourselves how we were created to be.

How can we make ways in the wilderness through repentance? I think it starts with listening to the voices we’ve been avoiding. For me, right now, those voices are the voices of people of color, sisters and brothers whose experience of American life is so drastically different from my own that they – along with many others who’ve been listening – have been driven to protesting in the streets this week.

There was a demonstration at my seminary this week – called a “die-in,” because hundreds of students lay down in the courtyard between Candler School of Theology and Cannon Chapel, singing hymns and holding signs and chanting. The University posted photos of the protest, and one of the photos brought me up short. A young, black seminary student lay prostrate on the red brick courtyard, most of his body obscured by a poster-board sign. The sign said: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” Mark 1:3.


(image from Emory's facebook page)


I am trying to listen for those voices in this wilderness, trying to withhold my own quick judgment so that I might make way for repentance, that my own repentance might become a small part of preparing a way in the wilderness, might make room for the coming Kingdom.

What is it that you’ll listen to or for this Advent? What repentance will you allow, what wilderness paths will you sweep clear? How will you fast? And how will you feast?

It is Advent. We are preparing. We are celebrating. We are making a way.

Because our God is on the way.

And Isaiah says: Don’t be afraid.

Amen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

this dense heart

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It was one of the worst flying experiences I’ve had – and that’s saying something. This one was worse than the midnight, mid-air turn around, leaving me stranded overnight in an ATL ice storm. It was worse than the near-fatal, almost-wheels-down steep bank back up into the sky after the pilot was belatedly informed of another plane on our landing runway. It was worse than the 2-hour marathon seated in front of an inconsolably angry boy with autism and his divinely patient, saintly mother.

Delays, false assurances, hidden charges, ill-trained flight attendants, surly gate agents, incompetent customer service…suffice it to say: I will never, ever fly Frontier again. The part of the trip that has a hold on me, though, had almost nothing to do with the airline.

Because Frontier charges at least $8 for you to pick your own seat, I was stuck in the middle seat of the farthest row. I slid in, punched my bag under the seat in front of me, gathered my wide-ish shoulders as close together as I could, and steeled myself for a couple of uncomfortable hours. The young woman next to me pulled her headscarf further over her eyes, slammed the tray table down and fidgeted with her plastic grocery bag full of snacks. She muttered something under her breath.

Some commotion emerged from my other side, someone demanded to see the seat assignment of the woman sitting across the aisle. She looked up from her iPhone prayer app, pulled her headphones out of her ears and apologized in heavily accented English. “Yes, yes, I will just move here, okay? Okay. Yes, sorry, sorry, I move.” She plunked her large purse and her large self down beside me, smiling slightly. She pushed the buds back into her ears, Arabic streaming out of them and into my own.

It was late. I had been out of town for the last six weekends in a row, and I was finally headed home. My nerves were frayed and I was tired, but something made me pay attention. Something was…off. The women on either side of me didn’t speak to each other, but the older, praying one on my left keep glancing over at the younger, muttering one on my right. Something was weird. “Are you really so lowbrow that you can’t handle sitting between two Muslim women?!” I asked myself, probing not-so-gently at what I thought might be some unwarranted racism. But that wasn’t it, not really. I was uneasy. Something was wrong.

We took off, finally. The woman on my left put her head in her hands, chanted prayers still seeping from her headphones. The woman on my right threw her hands in the air reaching for…what? Her overhead light? The flight attendant call button? Her elbow slammed my shoulder on the way down. I turned, offered to help: “do you want the light on?” She shook her head, silently, turned away. I opened my book.

Gradually, the woman on the right’s muttering grew louder. She fidgeted, throwing limbs this way and that, finally turning completely around, kneeling on the ground with her head in the seat, attempting – I assume – sleep. The older woman glanced over, again and again, but said nothing. I closed my eyes, tried to sleep.

About halfway through the flight, the muttering finally grew audible. She wasn’t singing, as I’d convinced myself, or praying, as I’d hoped. She was cursing: violently and at herself. “Fuck you, bitch!” “I said shut the fuck up, you bitch!” “NO. Fuck you, bitch.” The older woman glanced over, dropped her head back into her hands. My heart sank, and broke a little bit. The cursing continued through the flight, through the landing, through the protracted wait for a Dulles gate to open up and receive us. I started praying.

When we finally landed, everyone grabbed their carry-ons, scrambling frantically to stand up and wait again in slightly less cramped positions. The older woman looked over at the clearly agitated younger one. “You okay, Fatima? You tired, eh? Sleepy a little?” Fatima did not answer, just kept cursing, though now it was only under her breath.

I do not know what demons Fatima was fighting. I don’t know if she has companions in the battle. I don’t know if the woman sitting with us in that airplane is her mother, and I don’t know if she has taken her to a doctor, or a counselor, or an imam. I don’t know if she has a diagnosis or medication, and I don’t know if that kind of cursing is something that happens all the time or only when things get particularly confining, anxious, strange.

Most of the time, spiritual practices and prayer feel to me like eternal slogs through a mundane and unchanging landscape of selfishness. Occasionally I will get a glimpse of how deeply self-involved I am. Once in a while the tragic gap between what I am and what I ought to be gets revealed. But sometimes, in very rare moments – I can see how God has been at work all the while, sanding and scraping away at a particular chunk of barnacle-like boorishness. This is evangelical language, pietism in stark relief. And it is the truth.

I sat between the cursing Fatima and her praying companion and noticed the change in atmosphere. I was aware, and concerned, but I did not freak out and I did not shut down. I paid attention, and I prayed. That might not sound like much to you. It might sound like what any old person with any sense in their dense heart would do. But I’m telling you, it was something.

This is one of the million things that have changed for me since becoming a pastor, agreeing to open myself to other people’s stories. It is one of the billion things that I understand both more and less. I heard in Fatima’s cursing the curses other people I have learned to love. I saw in her mother’s drooping head and prayer app other mothers I’ve learned to know. And I was not afraid.

When the line of people finally began to move, I stood up. Fatima stood behind me and as I  slid out of the aisle and toward the door, I heard her whisper quietly: “I am so sorry.”

She might have been talking to me, but I have to tell you that I kind of hope she was still talking to herself. We could all use some absolution.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

a ridiculous parable

Sermon 10-12-14
Manassas CoB
Matthew 22:1-14
“Invite Everyone You Find”

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Let me just tell you that story again. It’s a strange one – in approximately 17 different ways – and maybe it will help to hear it again.

Jesus is talking to a crowd, including both his disciples and the chief priests and Pharisees, and he’s telling parables. So, maybe it’s helpful to know a little background: In Matthew’s day, Christians were not an entirely different religion than Jews. Jesus was Jewish – he spent time in the temple, he argued with the priests, he knew the religious system. And his disciples were, likewise, Jewish. The earliest Christians were a sect within Judaism – Jewish people who were trying to interpret their religious landscape to include the amazing story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

So when we find Jesus standing around Jerusalem telling parables – stories with some kind of metaphorical point – he’s not just a preacher on the street corner trying to convert some heathens. Jesus is telling these stories within his own religious community, talking to the priests and his friends, telling stories with symbols and metaphors that he can assume everyone listening already knows. So here we are. Jesus is in Jerusalem, telling stories to the Jewish community.

And this is the story he tells:

The Kingdom of Heaven might be compared to a King, who throws a wedding banquet for his son.

(Oh, right – everybody listening would have known that a “wedding banquet” was code for “how it will be in the end times.”)

The banquet was ready, everyone had gotten their invitations, and so the King sent his servants out into the town to tell everyone it was time.

But no one came.

So the King sent out more servants, armed with the delectable details of the party – the meal is ready! The fattened calf has been ceremoniously butchered and prepared – we’re talking some supremely delicious pit bbq, here. Come on! You’re the guests! It’s a party!

But the guests still refused to come – a few went out to the fields to work, others went back to their storefronts, going about business as usual. No one paid attention to the epic party happening down the street at the royal family’s palace. Except, here’s a weird part, other guests grabbed the messenger servants, beat them up, and killed them.

What?

The King was, understandably, angry. Having had his servants killed, he went into retaliation mode and sent even more servants out to kill the people who had killed his people, and then he set the entire city on fire.

(So, pause, because a city on fire would have meant something very particular to all the readers and hearers of Matthew’s gospel: Jerusalem was the center of the universe for the Israelites, the place where The Temple had been. In the year 70 A.D., the Roman army had burned Jerusalem to the ground and destroyed the temple. That single act of destruction had and continues to have incredible repercussions for Jewish faith and life and politics, but suffice it to say that here, in Matthew’s Gospel, written not too long after that, including an angry King who burnt a city to the ground would have aroused a visceral reaction.)

So, having burned the city, the King said to more of his many servants, “Okay, fine. No one that I invited to the party is coming. What. EVER. There’s still all this food! My son is still getting married! We’re going to party with or without those people. Go out into the roads and the backwaters and the hidden places and invite everyone you find.”

So the servants did that. They brought back all kinds of people – the text says they brought back both good people and evil people. The party went on.

But when the King came into the banquet hall and saw all those people enjoying his son’s wedding banquet, his glance happened to land on this one guy who was dressed a little inappropriately – he had no wedding robe. “Friend,” the King said, which – in Matthew, calling anybody “friend” signals that something big and problematic is about to happen; it’s what Jesus calls Judas at the last supper when he knows Judas is just about to betray him. The King was NOT attempting make nice with this underdressed wedding guest. Instead, he asked him, “Friend, how’d you make it through the door without the right kind of clothes?”

The under dressed man was speechless. He had no response – remember, he’d been found on the side of the road and randomly invited to this spectacular party. And so the King summoned his servants (that guy had a LOT of servants) and commanded them to bind up this guy, throw him out – into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And then the parable ends with a neat and tidy little aphorism: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

Ooooookay.

First of all, how often have we heard that little aphorism – many are called, but few are chosen – and in how many contexts? How many of us knew that it originated in such a bizarre biblical parable? It sounds like the tagline for some epic superhero blockbuster. It isn’t. It’s the conclusion of an odd little parable from the Gospel of Matthew about a vindictive King.

Second of all, what in the WORLD does this parable MEAN for US?

There are similar versions of this parable in other gospels. Luke tells the story with absolutely no mention of the angry King – just the command to invite unexpected people who can’t repay the generosity to your feasts.

It’s fairly clear what Matthew meant the parable to convey in the world he was writing for. In a muddle of religious identity, where the temple had been destroyed and Jesus’ followers were trying to figure out where they fit within the ensuing mélange of religious practice, Matthew tells this parable for two reasons: first, he wants to remind the religious leaders of the day that they are ignoring an invitation to something BIG (aka Jesus as Messiah). But he’s also reminding his fellow early church-goers that even if they’ve joined this particular religious movement, there are still some pretty steep expectations placed upon them in terms of what following Jesus is going to mean.

Both of those things make sense in Matthew’s context.

But what does this parable mean for US? Our context is not Matthew’s context.

So, what does this parable mean for us? Which character are we supposed to identify with?

Are we Kings, who ought to be inviting more outsiders to our parties?
Are we invited guests who need to learn the etiquette of a proper RSVP?
Are we unwitting bystanders who get lucky when the invited people don’t show up?
Are we inappropriately dressed, clueless about how to celebrate and about to get thrown out on our rear ends?
Are we some of the legions of the King’s servants who are constantly running to and from the palace inviting everyone we find to this big party, whether or not they come?

There is plenty of good news in this parable, weird as it may be.

But what, exactly, that good news might be for us, together, here and now, is not immediately obvious. In situations like this, I become increasingly grateful fall back on Brethren tradition. Borne of a time of religious tumult maybe a little similar to the time of Matthew, our tradition insists that scripture is best interpreted when sisters and brothers gather together and read the Word together.

We don’t appoint any religious authority to interpret scripture for us. We claim to be “non-creedal,” that is, we have no code of beliefs that anyone is required to sign onto before joining us. Instead, what we’ve got is something much more difficult – no creed but the entirety of the New Testament, as interpreted by the gathered body with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

What that means is that no one – no preacher, no district executive, no bishop, no theologian, no professor – no one is going to swoop in and tell us what this parable means. What it means is that we are responsible for reading the text together, for trusting that God’s good news of salvation and freedom is present, for waiting patiently for the Holy Spirit to show up in our midst and reveal herself to us in even these weird old crazy kingdom stories.

And the great part is, we already know all this! I cannot tell you how many people I have heard tell me some version of this surprised story: “You know, when we started all this pastoral transition process and the beginning was those Vital Ministry Journey bible studies, I could not understand why we had to sit around and READ the BIBLE together instead of just getting on with it already and hiring a new pastor! But then my group started to meet and you know what? I LIKED it! We really clicked, and I really enjoyed reading scripture with those people.”

Just this week, I’ve heard several people talk about how they wanted to do more of that kind of thing – reading scripture together in small groups.

Reading scripture, together, is such a simple thing. And it is so, incredibly, mysteriously powerful.

What did you hear in this parable?
Did you hear and feel convicted that we are to invite everyone we find?
Did you hear and realize that you’d been feeling a tug toward celebration here in this place?
Did you hear and sense God calling us to risk our lives for the good news like the servants in the parable did?
The beauty of this gathered body is that all of those hearings are real, and respected. But the challenge of the gathered body is that in order to practice real discernment, we’re required to share our convictions and our hearings with one another. We get to do the hard work of listening to one another, sorting and sifting through our interpretations together, put them up against all the spiritual and institutional and exegetical wisdom we hold collectively, and listen to what – in the midst of all of that – the Spirit is convicting us to be and to do, together.

I do not know what this parable from Matthew means for us. I’ve spent all week trying to figure this parable out – with Jr. High youth, with Pastor Chris in the office, gleaning the insights from Wednesday night bible study, even resorting to Facebook, and I still don’t know what this parable means for us, today.

But I do know this: I LOVE exploring scripture together. I love exploring scripture with YOU. This is how we listen for what God might be calling us to do – we gather around scripture and invite the Holy Spirit to grant us eyes to see and ears to hear.

Maybe – just maybe – all this richness of scripture – the parables and poetry, gospel and grace, family legends and apocalyptic fables – maybe THIS is one kind of banquet, a feast we’re all invited to. Maybe we ought to RSVP our acceptance, and show up when we hear the reminder to join the party. Maybe feasting on the word is a real thing, and maybe we are in danger of missing out.

The food is ready and the table is set. We are all invited. Let’s rejoice in that abundance and feast, together.