Saturday, November 26, 2016

“What We Do Not Know” - November 27, 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

            The Bible readings for the season of Advent, which starts today, traditionally focus on not only the first coming of Christ, as a baby, but also on his second coming, as judge and ruler.  With regard to the Second Coming, there is a lot of bad theology out there that doesn’t actually have a lot to do with what the Bible says about that.  So this is the first in a series of sermons that touch on that whole tangle of interpretations and misinterpretations.  The titles are, in turn: “What We Don’t Know”, “What We Do Know”, “What We Have Known and Will Know”, and “Whatta Ya Know!”

            So let’s get to it.

            A couple of months ago I was at the bank and the teller, whom I have chatted with in a friendly but shallow way often enough, saw the “Rev.” before my name for the first time and her voice changed tone.  “Uh-oh,” I thought.  “Here it comes.”  There’s a certain look that gives this question away in advance and I saw it.  “Do you think that we’re in the End Times?”

            When somebody asks that I know that they have already made up their mind.  They are sure of it.  Almost.  They have been reading novels by Tim LaHaye or listening to Jack van Impe.  If you don’t know those names, good for you.  Someone who asks whether we are in the End Times already (mostly) believes that to be the case but has a small bit of doubt that they identify as a sinful lack of faith and they want a random authority figure on TV or radio or across the counter to reassure them that, yes, the latest war in the Middle East will lead us to Armageddon.  Yes, they want to hear, the United Nations is the tool of the devil.  And on and on.  Then, reassured of certain imminent doom and destruction, they can breathe a sigh of relief.

            There is something wrong with that.

            I didn’t give her the answer she wanted, though.  I told her, “I have no idea.  Jesus said he didn’t know, either, so I guess we’re in good company, huh?”  She looked a little annoyed at what I am sure she considered my impiety, irreverence, and possible blasphemy, finished the transaction, and sent me on my way.  And you know where she suspects I am going.

            Jesus did say, though, that it isn’t for anyone to know when the world will come to an end and when history as we know it will finish.  It’s right there in Matthew for anybody to read.

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” [Matthew 24:36]
 I’m not sure how he could have been any plainer than that.  A lot of time and effort and paper and ink have gone into people’s estimations or guesses, generally based on misreadings of the books of Daniel and I Thessalonians and Revelation that ignore the writers’ setting, who they were first written for, and how those people would have heard things. 

Jesus had other things to attend to, like healing the sick, binding up the brokenhearted, calling sinners to repentance, and proclaiming the mercy of a loving God.  He said that the kingdom of God is at hand, and taught his followers to pray, “May your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” not, “May your kingdom come, but please give us 48 hours advance notice.”  If we have one foot in the kingdom already, we can step into it more easily whenever the time does arrive.

            To be fair to us human beings, there have been times when it has seemed logical that the end of the world might have been upon us.  I recently read a book called 1816: The Year without Summer.[1]  It was about how a volcanic eruption on Java in April of 1815 set off a series of meteorological events in the northern hemisphere that were so widespread and cataclysmic that the end did seem near.  There was snowfall in parts of Italy that rarely see it, and the snow was red and pink.  All across Europe that summer there were floods that destroyed crops from Ireland to the Balkans.  People barely escaped famine and disease came with physical weakness.  Switzerland saw lightning storms that didn’t seem to end.  On this side of the Atlantic, there was a widespread drought.  New England saw forest fires from the dry weather.  There was snow as far south as Pennsylvania in June and frost off and on into July. 

That year there were many who believed that it was the beginning of the end, and it spurred a religious revival in many places.  While it’s good that anyone confronted with the fact of their mortality should turn things around and pay attention to their relationship to God, it should not take a catastrophe to do that.  The timing of that kind of conversion points to being motivated more by fear of death than by love of God.  I suspect that it’s far better for us not to know the day or the hour (which, I repeat, we do not) because acting out of fear is not what God wants of us.  Have you ever seen that mocking bumper sticker that says in large letters: “Jesus is coming!”; and then underneath in smaller letters: “Look busy!”? 

            It’s better for us not to be able to fall into the trap of saying, “I have time.”  You very well may, but you very well may not.  There is no calendar, no ticking clock, no computer alarm that will tell you when you need to answer the constant call of Jesus to your heart. 

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [Matthew 24:42]
If you trust God’s timing, and stay awake to God’s grace, the present is the important part, not the future.  The present is where we live, and where even now we can meet Christ through his Spirit. John Greenleaf Whittier put it well:

“I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.

I know not where his islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond his love and care.

And so beside the silent sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.

And thou, O Lord, by whom are seen
Thy creatures as they be,
Forgive me if too close I lean
My human heart on thee.”

            So here and now I am telling you that I don’t know when the world will end or when Jesus will return, but I do know that he is kind and loving and ready here and now to lead anyone who will follow him into the ways of the Kingdom of God without waiting for the last-minute rush.

[1] by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).

Saturday, November 19, 2016

“Rejoice in the Lord” - November 20, 2016

Philippians 4:4-9

            Sometime in the spring or fall of 1995 or 1996 I tried out for Jeopardy.  (Okay: “What is ‘Jeopardy’?”)  I didn’t get onto the show, but I did make it to the second round of tryouts, which were held in Atlantic City at a hotel owned by a then-prominent entertainment personality with interests in casinos there and in Las Vegas.  I refer, of course, to Merv Griffin, who produced the show.  (Who did you think I meant?)  Anyway, the tryouts were divided into two sessions with a lunch break in the middle, I suppose with the idea that the potential contestants would spend that time dumping all the coins in their pockets into one-armed bandits to fund the Griffin empire.  That is not my thing, and I hope it is not yours – we can talk about that another time.  For the purpose of this story it’s enough to say that I didn’t want to stick around there watching people lose money to make a millionaire richer and I went for a walk on the boardwalk.  As I said, it was off-season, so most of the boardwalk attractions were closed and it was too chilly to walk on the beach for very long, but the municipal pier did have a sign out that advertised an exhibit of paintings done by female artists from New Jersey.

            Now, I should mention how I was feeling at that point, which was more than a little bit disappointed.  It was already clear to me that I was not going to qualify, that I would not be going to California, and that I would not be saying, “Why, thank you, Alec.  I’ll take thirteenth-century Scholastic philosophers for $500.”  If it had simply been because I didn’t know the answers to the questions, that would not have bothered me so much.  Believe it or not, I can handle the idea that I don’t know everything. 

            There are people who believe that to be a person of faith is to be someone who claims to have all the answers to everything, and here I mean the big questions, not trivia about the gross domestic product of Guatemala in 1954.  To live a life of faith means to trust the Lord despite having no quick or easy answer about the big, big, big questions.  Why does anything at all exist?  Can it be said to be good when there is so much clearly wrong with the world?  Why is life so hard for so many and seemingly easy for a handful?  Why do the evil prosper?  These are the questions about what Douglas Adams called, “Life, the Universe, and Everything”.  To have faith is to answer all of these, “God knows,” and to add to that, “and that is good enough.”

            In an essay that he wrote as an introduction to the book of Job, G.K. Chesterton considers how Job, suffering the loss of his family and his wealth and his health, demands an answer from God as to the “why” of it all.  When a whirlwind appears and God speaks from it directly to Job the answer is, essentially, “None of your business.”  But here is what Chesterton points out:

“Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.[1]

            Which brings me back to that day in Atlantic City.  So, no.  I was not upset about not having all the answers to Jeopardy questions.  What did bother me was how often I knew the answers but was just not quick enough on the buzzer.  One of my friends had actually been on the show and had won, and he had coached me to depress the button ever so slightly in order to get that tenth-of-a-second advantage over the other contestants and to figure out in advance whether I would be faster using my index finger or my thumb.  I never got the hang of it, though, and time after time somebody would buzz in before me with the answer that I knew. It was frustrating.  Frustrating and disappointing.  That’s how I felt when I wandered out into the midday sunlight and found the exhibit at the municipal pier.

            When I walked in, the paintings mirrored my frustration and disappointment.  It was as if the artists had tried to put Job’s lamentations onto canvas.  There were dark landscapes of trees without leaves.  There were paintings of storms.  There were works done entirely in black, gray, and brown.  There were models who were posed to look glumly at the ground or to stare at the onlooker with a kind of accusation in their eyes, as if to say, “You.  You are the reason I have been forced to sit still like this for the past six hours without a break.”  There were abstracts that had titles like “Melancholy Number Six” or “Shark Attack off Manasquan”. 

            Then, way down at the end of the hall, I saw this other painting.  It’s by a woman named Marilyn Brandt and it’s called, “Open House”.  A woman with a big smile is holding two pizzas and light is falling on her from what is probably an open door.  Her husband has one hand held out to shake and the other extended toward a coffee pot and a sugar bowl.  They’ve lit some candles in the background and they are glad you are there.  I bought it.  It made me happy then, and it still does.  An artist friend of mine often says, “You have to live with a painting, so you want one that you can really live with.”

            And that’s what Philippians tells us, too.  Not so much about paintings, but about what faith leads you to fill your life with.  Life in Christ means that when your insides are as bleak as the outside, for whatever reason – the serious ones that Job experienced and that are way, way too much a reality for the vast majority of human beings or just the basically unimportant but nevertheless vexing moments that amount to “having a bad day” – and when it all heaps on, we get the reminder that the weight of the world is not on our own shoulders, but was carried with the weight of the cross on Jesus’ shoulders.

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.   And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
 [Philippians 4:6-7]

           So spend less time on looking at all that is wrong, because you won’t be able to fix it all anyway, and spend your time on the things that the Lord has done and continues to do in the midst of the troubles, the wondrous gifts of God that “surpass all understanding” and have nothing to do with easy answers to anything.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” [Philippians 4:8]

Cherish those relationships, enjoy the stupid jokes, retell the old stories around the Thanksgiving table, realize that you will one day miss that annoying relative, go visit somebody you’ve been putting off.  Above all,

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” [Philippians 4:4-5]

Saturday, November 12, 2016

“Laborers and Lazybones” - November 13, 2016

II Thessalonians 3:6-13

Even though Paul faced a totally different world, his words to the Thessalonians became partly responsible for the successful settlement of North America by the English.  When the Virginia Company of London set out to plan what would become the Jamestown colony, they recruited settlers from among what they considered “the best people”, by which they meant the gentry.  Unfortunately, English squires and the younger sons of the nobility were unfamiliar with the work that needed to be done when they landed over here, or any other real work, for that matter.  They knew nothing about farming and looked down on it as beneath their station in life.  That misplaced pride contributed to what the colonists who survived the years 1609-1610 called “The Starving Time”.  John Smith saw it coming and had warned them:

“Countrymen, the long experience of our late miseries I hope is sufficient to persuade everyone to a present correction of himself, And think not that either my pains nor the adventurers' purses will ever maintain you in idleness and sloth... the greater part must be more industrious, or starve... You must obey this now for a law, that he that will not work shall not eat (except by sickness he be disabled). For the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain a hundred and fifty idle loiterers.”[1]
Unfortunately, instead of learning to grow corn they went hunting for gold.  Guess how much gold you’ll find in Tidewater Virginia.  Even if they had discovered El Dorado, they would not have been able to buy bread where no bakery had been built and no firewood had been cut.
The situation Paul faced was serious in a different way but was also one that put the community at risk.  Paul had taught the new Christians in Thessalonica of Jesus’ promise to return from heaven to usher in God’s kingdom and the Thessalonians had really latched onto this part of the message.  It was to this group that Paul had to write to reassure them that the believers who had died before Jesus’ return would not be left out.  Some of them were quite worried about that.  Others, though, started thinking about themselves instead of others, which is always the beginning of trouble.  If Jesus were to return quickly, they asked, then why should they be putting a lot of effort into the future?  For that matter, why should they be paying attention at all to the transitory things of earth?  Work?  What for?
Colonial Virginia or ancient Greece, the fact is that when people think only of what’s in it for themselves, everybody gets hurt.  If somebody is part of a community, whether the kind of political and economic experiment that was colonial America or the kind of spiritual venture that is the Christian life, then they don’t have the option to be a mere spectator or to just go along for the ride.  That is the nature of a community.  If you are in, you are in, and you matter.  You matter to the people around you, and they should matter to you.
Even the exceptions to the rule Paul laid down and John Smith picked up are based on mutual care and understanding.  John Smith mentioned that no heavy lifting was expected of somebody who was sick.  The same way, nobody who is suffering from, for instance, the loss of a spouse should ever be expected to be putting together someone else’s wedding reception.  To ask that would be cruel.  You don’t ask somebody who has had a series of miscarriages to stay in the nursery.  If someone has lost a job or has had a pile of medical bills, that is not the time to ask them to consider increasing their pledge for next year.  There are times when it is totally justified for someone to step back and let somebody else carry the load, and there are even some times when the community that cares about its people really should say to someone (hopefully in a gentle way), “Don’t you think you should take a little time off?”
Paul is not speaking about those times.  Instead, he’s pointing out that putting oneself first all the time cannot be a way of life, and that when someone does that habitually it harms the community in a very insidious way by introducing a kind of poisonous resentment.  He had to tell the Thessalonians,
“Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” [II Thessalonians 3:13]
You shouldn’t have to say that but quite honestly, people do get weary of even worthwhile work.  When they see others not pitching in, it becomes even harder because they feel like others are taking advantage of their good will.  Then they also feel like throwing in the towel.
I would go back to an incident in the gospels where Jesus is visiting at the house of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha.  Jesus is in the front room, teaching about the kingdom of God and Lazarus and his sister Mary are right there, listening and learning.  Meanwhile, Martha is in the kitchen making supper or doing dishes all on her own, to the point where her temper begins to boil over like a pot of soup and she steps out of the kitchen long enough to say – not to her sister directly, but to Jesus, which tells you something –
Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” [Luke 10:40]
Have you never felt that way?  I’m feeling that way, and I’ll tell you why.
            We have been listening for months to politicians and pundits, talking heads and facebook friends, going on and on about what’s wrong with the world.  We have been listening to folks, and one person in particular, encouraging division and hatred and trying to match one group up against another.  We have been hearing the ugly comments and the cheap shots and the outright lies flying fast and furious, and there are those who have been getting some really sick gratification out of it and some who have been making money off of it and some who will continue to do that as long as they can get away with it.  And then they turn around at the last minute and ask, “Who is going to bring us together again as a nation?” or, “Who will help us to heal?”  Some of them even have the nerve to expect that the healing of Tuesday’s bloodbath is supposed to be provided from the pulpit on Sunday.  “Why can’t we all just get along?” is what I and thousands of others are supposed to ask today.
            Well, it isn’t that easy.  To say so would mean being what the Bible calls “a false prophet”, that is someone whom a real prophet, Jeremiah, criticizes, saying,
“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
   saying, ‘Peace, peace’,
   when there is no peace.”
[Jeremiah 6:14]
If you really want to heal the wounds that these months have either inflicted or exposed, then realize that those wounds are not the kind that a band-aid or a one-time treatment will help. 

            The role of the community of faith, the Church, the Body of Christ is to do the thankless work and the impossible job that nobody else wants to do, work that requires us to put our own needs or wants aside for the greater good.  In a childish society, we have to be the adults.  We have to be the ones to look at the underlying problems that led to the melee of 2016 and not only ask, “What is wrong with us (‘us’, not ‘you people’ and not ‘them’)?” but also ask, “What are we going to do about it?”  Unless we work, we don’t get to see the good that comes to those who do, and if we do not declare a better way of life and follow it, no one else will do it for us. 

            It was as the Civil War was ending and not long before President Lincoln was shot and killed that he spoke to this country and laid out the problem clearly.  The desire of people not to do their own honest work had led to the introduction of slavery and people had tried to justify slavery by pointing to the scriptures.  He said,

“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.[2]                    

That was in 1865, and the same racism, the class-division, the sectional jealousies that were present then are still with us.  They caused a terrible war and they have persisted as a tool for the cynical to this day, all so that some can eat at others’ expense.  If we go back and pretend that hasn’t just happened, then our national disease will return with a vengeance, like a virus that lies dormant, just waiting for an opportunity to flare up. 

We did away with formal slavery, but we have found informal ways to keep people down.  Build more prisons.  Threaten to deport them.  Keep the fear level high among the least powerful.  But if, just if, we acknowledge what is going on, then there is hope to get past this after – what? – four hundred years of saying some people are born better than others.

  Let those who would sit down at the table also be willing to bring something to it and, as is only right, to be willing to share.  Peace and reconciliation does not begin with brushing things aside, but by taking one another seriously, listening before we speak, apologizing where we have been wrong, holding on where we have been right; by trusting God and not letting go of one another nor of him. 

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.[3]

That is the only way forward, and it will not happen overnight, or even by Inauguration Day.  But it must be done, and no one can be exempt.

[1] John Thompson, The Journals of Captain John Smith: A Jamestown Biography, ISBN 1426200552, 2007, p. 139
[2] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address.
[3] Ibid.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

“Inheritance” - November 6, 2016

Ephesians 1:11-23

            I want to thank the congregation for the pastor’s appreciation reception last week, for the beautiful scrapbook of kind words that was put together and for the warm spirit which I feel here and which extends to so many people.  I am fortunate to follow a long series of pastors here at First Church whom I admire and who both inspire and at times keep me in awe.  Anybody, in any setting, follows people who have left some kind of legacy.  In the case of preachers, we usually know one another, if not personally then at least by reputation.  Sometimes, though, we learn things unexpectedly about somebody’s ministry that enriches that understanding. 

For instance, I have great admiration for Mindy McKonly, and it only increased this week when some junk mail arrived in my box addressed to her from “Cat Lovers against the Bomb”, who identify themselves as “feline-loving progressives”.  Even a dog-person like me just has to appreciate that.

            It also puts me in mind that there are always going to be echoes of someone’s presence or influence that will linger long after the world’s awareness of them, and that the positive legacy that people of faith pass on is part of what we leave not only for the world, but that we hand over to God’s own use and keeping.  Those are “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” [Ephesians 1:18].  What we do with what God gives us and with God’s ongoing help is a demonstration of “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.[Ephesians 1:19]

            In just a moment we will light candles honoring and remembering people whose influence for good is still strong among us.  Some of them are famous and their works well-known.  Three such people found their way onto our list this morning and we will light candles in their memory right now:

                      Francis Xavier Cabrini,
Mother Theresa,
Shimon Peres.

There are others whose influence is less famous but no less real – and here I speak of people I have known, or have known a bit about, so forgive me if I don’t mention everyone.

  • Frank Banashek, who had a love-hate relationship with the grass growing in his yard.
  • Phil Bolinger, who passed along his deep and lasting faith in Christ, and whose appreciation of scripture lives on in his Sunday School class.
  • Jean Galeone, whose love of music lives in her students and in the Afternoon Music Club.
  • Edward Hook, who loved his family deeply and traveled regularly great distances to show it.
  • Jerry Knepp, who had the driest of humor, and never used it at anyone’s expense.
  • Betty Moore, who kept the church office organized for many years, and whose life of prayer was very strong, continuing in the prayer shawl ministry on Monday nights.
  • Millie Vircsik, whose kindness in babysitting long ago made it possible for this church to have a strong music ministry today.
  • Harold Wheeler, who preached the gospel across northeastern Pennsylvania for decades, and who left this world happy because he had seen all of his grandchildren over Christmas.
  • Terry Yeager, who in her daily work helped usher in the computer age, but even more than that showed how, having handed two husbands and a son into God’s hands, herself went to meet him calmly and in faith. 

Others are on our hearts and minds, too, and I encourage everyone who knew them to consider, as a prayer in our funeral service says, “that of them that lives and grows in each of us”, and to say a good word about them to someone today.

            Even more, I call us all to consider what there is of each of ourselves, what God-given and divinely-nurtured grace, that lives and grows in the people around us or what special and precious gift God is giving the world at large through our lives, whoever we are, here and now, and to see it as one of the ways that God uses to draw earth closer to heaven and his children closer to his own heart.

"I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power." [Ephesians 1:17-19]