Saturday, November 28, 2015

“A Righteous Branch” - November 29, 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The kings who ruled in Jerusalem were held in high esteem, at least some of them. They didn't always deserve it, of course, and the Bible doesn't hide the fact that even the best of them failed miserably at times. David allowed the heat of the moment to overwhelm his sense of right and wrong and he got the wife of one of his generals pregnant, then his attempt to cover it up led to the man's death. The baby, whom they named Solomon, grew up to be the nation's wisest ruler. Even so, some of the policies he put into place led directly to the country splitting into two after his death. The fact that people looked back on them favorably tells you something about the quality of their successors.

Things became bad over time. If you want to know how bad, read I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles. One of the deepest prayers of the ordinary people became the prayer that God would send them leadership that would live up to something approaching integrity.

That's a cry that echoes across time. At the height of the British Empire, in 1906 the British writer G. K. Chesterton wrote,

"O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry;
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die.
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide.
Take not thy thunder from us
But take away our pride."

Time after time people looked for someone who would reverse the trend. Time after time they were disappointed. Yet there were prophets who spoke to them to let them know not to give up. Among them was Jeremiah, who said,

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” [Jeremiah 33:14-16]
A funny thing about families, even royal families, is that they get larger and their branches spread. One branch of David's family, in time, gave up its royal pretensions and went back to ordinariness of the sort that David had known growing up as a shepherd and his father and grandfather had known as farmers. This branch even included carpenters like a man named Joseph who didn't live at the center of power in Jerusalem but in a provincial town called Nazareth.

You do see where this is headed, right?

If you want a truly righteous leader, that never has and never will come from among human political leaders. Even the best -- and there are some who really do try -- will inevitably disappoint even their most loyal followers. There's something about the will to power and the desire for authority that does bad things to those who get their wish.

True leadership that results in the good of the people comes from someone who knows that true power and belong to God alone. So when God sent a true King it would be someone born as far from a palace as you can get, in, say, a stable. The example he would give would be one of servanthood and not rule. 

And because he is that type of king, he expects that type of behavior from the people he leads.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name, 
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.
[Philippians 2:3-11]

            That is what it is for the Lord to be our righteousness.  It doesn’t mean we ourselves are righteous by any stretch of the imagination.  We’re more like the kings of Israel and Judah than we would want to admit, with their idolatry and their intrigues and their sins and their cowardice.  We’re far more like them than we are like Jesus.  But we no longer are tied to that life as the only option, and the Spirit of Christ, who brings us God’s love from the ground up and not just orders from the top down, continues to work on us from the inside out until, by his grace, one day we will just “get it”.

            May that day come soon.  May it even be today.  Amen.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

“The Year of the Locust” - November 22. 2015

Joel 2:21-27

            The practice of setting aside the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving went national in 1863, when a proclamation was issued by President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War in which he noted,

“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.”[1]

Thanksgiving isn’t just about looking at life and saying, “Thank you,” for how good it is.  If you can do that, sure, it’s a wonderful thing to do, and there are times in life when that is just what is called for.  Thanksgiving, though, is also about gratitude for how good things are in the face of how difficult they could be.  In our own national mythology the pilgrims embody that.  The traditional story of the first Thanksgiving includes the fact that a considerable number of people who had stepped onto the Mayflower died of disease and hunger their first winter on this side of the Atlantic.  They were joined at the feast by natives whose own villages had been decimated by smallpox that had also come from Europe.

            It is easy to hear the words of the prophet Joel [2:21-26] as simple joy at a good harvest and a call to feast in celebration.

“Do not fear, O soil;
   be glad and rejoice,
   for the Lord has done great things! 
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
   for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
   the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 

O children of Zion, be glad
   and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
   he has poured down for you abundant rain,
   the early and the later rain, as before. 
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
   the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 

I will repay you for the years
   that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
   my great army, which I sent against you. 

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
   and praise the name of the Lord your God …”

It’s easy to overlook that one verse [2:25] in there about “the swarming locust”.

            The earlier part of Joel is all about the land being overrun by a swarm of locusts that destroyed everything in their path.

“For a nation has invaded my land,
   powerful and innumerable;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
   and it has the fangs of a lioness. 
It has laid waste my vines,
   and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
   their branches have turned white.
[Joel 1:6-7]

As rain held off, and no new growth springing up, the livestock and cattle died, too.  Then among the dry grass and deadwood, wildfire broke out.

“To you, O Lord, I cry.
For fire has devoured
   the pastures of the wilderness,
and flames have burned
   all the trees of the field. 
Even the wild animals cry to you
   because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured
   the pastures of the wilderness.”
[Joel 1:19-20]

We live in a time and place where it's easy to forget how dependent we are on each link in the food chain and how easily it can fall apart.  A few people here might recall distant family stories about the Irish potato famine.  Others might have met people who grew up in the Dust Bowl.  Yet even with extreme drought in the agricultural areas of California, we still have bread on the table.

Is that in itself not amazing?  Is that alone not enough – if we think of it – to make us express, if not thanks, at least relief?  Can we not share at least a little bit of the awareness Joel expresses that God tends the world in wonderful ways, and that God’s provision for us is far greater than we usually realize? 

Remember the bad old days, whenever you can.  The memory makes you appreciate the present, even if it doesn’t always come up to Norman Rockwell standards.  Remember things like how much fun it was to get chicken pox.  (Two of my friends in college had escaped that as children, then came down with them on their honeymoon.)  Remember how good things were when segregation was legal and how many lives were wasted and how many potential friendships destroyed.  Remember how safe it felt to have atomic fallout drills in school.  Remember how happy parents were when sons were eligible for the draft in wartime.  Remember how managers were so eager to hire new workers to expand their businesses seven years ago.  Remember how, in September of 2001, we all felt so certain about everything in life when we looked at the sky and saw there were no airplanes flying?

Remember the years that the locusts have eaten, in nibbles or in gulps.  But remember also the word of the Lord:

“I will repay you for the years
   that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
   my great army, which I sent against you. 

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
   and praise the name of the Lord your God.”

And after you have eaten and offered praise, go ahead and watch a good football game.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

“When Things Fall Apart” - November 15, 2015

Mark 13:1-8

               I heard an Australian climatologist being interviewed on WHYY last week.  He pointed out what someone who had died in 1915 might have thought of the world if they had come back in 1965, just fifty years later. The world would have changed from horse to car, from kerosene lamps to electricity, from outdoor to indoor plumbing. Then he suggested that we apply that to our own lives. Fifty years from now things will be very different, for good or for ill.

               He was talking about much more than technology.  His topic was climate change and our possible responses to events that seem terrifyingly inevitable at this point.  Some of our most familiar cities may find themselves becoming islands and some islands may be underwater. New Orleans and Venice, New York and Amsterdam are all extremely vulnerable. The deserts of the world are likely to expand. Sections of the Middle East may become as uninhabitable as Death Valley.  Other places may see rainfall where there has been little for centuries. Species may find their habitat totally changed and their range shifting.  Our eating habits will need to change. And yes, our technology and our social practices will need to change to meet these situations. And if history is any indicator, much of it is likely to be accompanied by warfare.

               He was not trying to be alarmist. In many ways it's merely practical to think about these things before they happen, and to be prepared as best we can.

               It is also good to know that we are not the first to face terrible changes. It is good to know that Jesus himself taught his disciples and how to face times like that, when everything falls apart.

               At the time Jesus walked the earth, the temple in Jerusalem had been undergoing reconstruction and expansion for decades and would have years more to go. The goal was to make it grander and better able to handle large crowds. It's a lot like what's going on in Mecca now where the Saudis are building a large hotel around the grand mosque to accommodate much larger groups of pilgrims than they could handle in the past.  The disciples were very impressed by all of this. 

“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ [Mark 13:1]

It was progress and even if it was being built by King Herod, whom everyone hated, they probably could not help being at least a little bit proud of the whole project.  Jesus took a different view. 

“Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” [Mark 13:2]
When it all came to a screeching halt, as Jesus said it would, the whole world itself changed for them.  When the Romans overran Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D., the destruction of the temple brought everything crashing down around their ears.

               That city was, to them, the center of the world and the focus of their spirituality.  The temple was the spot where heaven touched earth, and the place where God was to be worshiped.  And then it was gone. It was destroyed, turned to rubble, and to this day all that remains is one small section of the foundation, which we call the Wailing Wall.  And well that the people standing there should cry, because if the temple is the place where you meet God, and the place is destroyed, where do you meet God then?

               In the long run, the destruction of the temple would mean the transformation of the Jewish religion from one centered on sacrifice to one centered on the Scriptures.  It would also mean the split of Christianity from Judaism. But living through that must have been torment even for those who did not have to endure the terrible war that forced the change.

               Again, if you lose the place where you meet God, and if you lose the ability to follow the practices that bring you into God’s presence, are you cut off?

               Climate change?  Do you not think that will bring dislocation in the life of the church?  When whole populations have to leave one area and go to another, won’t that mean a whole new set of expectations?  That will mean changes in language and ways of worship and what we consider normal in how we interact with one another.  Even in places untouched by population shifts, what does a change in the weather mean?  Older buildings will need to be retrofitted.  Heavier storms will be hard on roofs.  In our area, we can expect more snow, and that means more snowplowing and more Sundays when it’s hard to get to worship.  The growth in tropical diseases means we will be asked to do more to address not only natural disasters but ongoing health crises.  We have the capacity; the United Methodist Church has been one of the leading groups in efforts to eliminate malaria in Africa and we have made some headway, although there’s a long way to go.  But put that in the context of everything else and it’s likely that we will have to practice simple living more and more as a spiritual discipline, not just as a nice thing to do.

               We will have all kinds of upheaval.  But we will, by God’s grace, find ways to live and thrive, as we did when the temple was destroyed two thousand years ago. 

               Jesus made a comparison of that temple to himself. He said that if it were destroyed he would rebuild it in three days, and later the church understood this as a reference to his death and resurrection. The Romans knocked Jesus down, or rather lifted him up onto a cross, but when they had done their worst, God returned him in a way that means he can never be destroyed again.  The temple could be knocked down, and the Romans could and did prevent its rebuilding.  Now there is a mosque on top of the site and more fighting about who gets to pray where.  From a Christian perspective, though, that doesn’t matter. 

               Our access to God is not through buildings or monuments, but through Jesus, and he has promised that wherever two or three people gathered in his name he is there in the midst of them. His Spirit is with us right here and right now. It can also be with us standing in the parking lot and praying. It can be with us in a hospital room. It can be with us when the world itself comes crashing down.

               In all the changes that come along, and we are facing huge changes in the years to come, Jesus will continue to be present.  Do not let the things that scare us, even the apocalyptic changes that could happen in the world at large, make you think that he is not there.
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” [Mark 13:8]
We will find ways to work through whatever needs to be worked through. We always have, and we always will, and may even find greater grace along the way.

               Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

“Giving from Your Poverty” - November 8, 2015

Mark 12:38-44

            Since Halloween is over, and Thanksgiving is fast approaching, it’s time for the airwaves to be filled with Christmas music.

“Come, they told me,              pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
A newborn king to see,           pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
Our finest gifts we bring         pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
To greet the newborn king      pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum,
rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum,
So to honor him,                     pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
When we come.

Little baby,                              pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
I am a poor boy, too,               pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
I have no gift to bring             pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
That’s fit to give a king          pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum,
rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum,
Shall I play for you,                pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
On my drum?

Mary nodded,                          pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
The ox and lamb kept time     pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
I played my drum for him       pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
I played my best for him         pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum,
rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum,
Then he smiled at me              pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,
Me and my drum.”

Great lyrics, huh?    No, the story is not in the Bible.  It’s the Gospel according to St. Hallmark.  On the other hand, though, it does embody at least part of what the Gospel according to St. Mark talks about when we hear about the widow who contributed, as Jesus put it, “out of her poverty.” [Mark 12:44]

            Mostly we think of the kind of poverty that she endured, which meant not having enough to support life.  Certainly that is real, and a lot of people living in that kind of situation really do contribute the best that they can, and for that we can thank both them and God.  There are other kinds of poverty and other kinds of lack, and people can and do give from those as well.

            Some people have a wealth of confidence.  Ask them to do anything and they are certain that they can pull it off.  Ask them to speak, and there they are.  Ask them to organize an event, and there’s a clipboard in their hand within an hour.

            Others are unsure where to begin on the simplest task.  They see the enormous number of details to be addressed and how much can go wrong if any of them are missed, and they become reluctant.  It isn’t that they’re afraid, necessarily, but they want to do a good job and if they don’t think they can, they step back.

            Some people have a wealth of ideas.  In fact, some have so many ideas that one follows another with great speed.  I’ve known city planners who are like that.  They will look at one vacant storefront and say, “That would be a good place for an office.”  Then they notice that you need other services to support a business, and they start noticing where the nearest bus stop is and what the traffic patterns are.  They start wondering about the status of parking, and then thinking about what media outlets are addressing the needs of the neighborhood.  Could this building be covered under the Neighborhood Reinvestment Act?  If so, where’s the nearest bank to make the loan?  Could this all be bundled into a larger redevelopment so that the cost of services could be spread out?  Let’s look at the census figures to see if any of it is viable.

            On the other hand, some people see an empty building and remember when it was a candy shop.  They feel badly about it, and maybe get a sudden, inexplicable yearning for a chocolate bar.  Then they move on.

            Some people have a lot of love to share.  They see a child and they cannot help but smile.  They stop and talk to somebody sitting on a park bench.  They leave a goofy card for their spouse because it’s Tuesday or send flowers without warning. 

            Other people would do that stuff if they could, but it feels unnatural and forced to them.  They aren’t cold and unfeeling, but they are naturally quiet and withdrawn.  There’s a story about President Coolidge, who was known as “Silent Cal”.  A woman who was sitting next to him at a White House dinner said, “Mr. President, my husband bet me that you wouldn’t say three words all evening.”  He turned to her and said, “You lose.”

            The story of the widow who gave, not out of her riches but out of her poverty, is a good word for those who find it hard or awkward or ill-timed to respond easily when something is asked of them.  It takes great courage to put so much out there, especially when others may not realize how hard it is to do.  For someone who is used to public speaking, it’s easy to overlook how many people find it paralyzing to look out at a crowd.  I’m often impressed at a relative or friend who finds it in their heart to say a few words at a wedding or a funeral when they don’t feel comfortable, but do see it as something that they owe to someone they care about.  Or what about a parent who is under severe pressure at work and very strict time constraints who sets aside the evening to play with and read to his or her children, even though their mind is someplace else?  Giving from their poverty is a real part of their life.

            The thing is that those often turn out to be the richest experiences, the ones that touch the soul.  Who knows anything about the woman whom Jesus held up as an example, except this one act of giving?  It looked like nothing, and yet it stood at the time and stands to this day as a witness against injustice.

“As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’” 
[Mark 12:38-40]

Here was one of those widows, and she who would otherwise have gone unnoticed, because of this one action, put those who would oppress countless others like her to shame.  When anyone gives from their poverty that is where they will find a real blessing.

            Please don’t understand me as saying that if you do not have enough to eat, you should give your last coin to the church.  That’s not it.  The Church is the people, and the people’s needs are real.  Please don’t understand me as saying, like some TV preachers, that if you give money as a sign of your faith, then God will send you riches.  That’s unbiblical and that’s just greedy.  Besides, if you are giving in order to get, then it isn’t really giving.

            I do say, though, that it is often in the mere act of giving that we discover how rich we really are and what things truly matter, because we have to make choices when we face limits.  Do we care about someone else more than ourselves?  Do we care enough that we may decide to do without?  Are we really ready to put ourselves on the line if we have to – because it is ourselves that we have when we have nothing else to offer?

            It is in giving out of our poverty that we come to understand the words of the apostle Paul, who wrote:

“I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.  I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” 
[Philippians 4:11-13]