Monday, November 28, 2011

Sermon: "Happy New Church Year - We're All Dead"

"Happy New Church Year - We're All Dead"

Preached at Bethlehem Lutheran Church
Fairport, New York
27 November 2011
The First Sunday of Advent

Day Texts: Isaiah 64.1-9
Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1.3-9
Mark 13.24-37

"And death is at your doorstep
And it will steal your innocence
But it will not steal your substance

But you are not alone in this
And you are not alone in this
As brothers we will stand and we'll hold your hand
Hold your hand..."
-Mumford and Sons, "Timshel"


-"Oh that you would rip open the heavens..." For life is hard. Israel feels abandoned. Jesus skipped town. The world is broken by our sin. We’re all screwed.

- Happy New Church Year!

-That’s basically where our lectionary texts drop us as we come once more to Advent. And that’s what I love about the faith of Israel and the Church. No punches pulled. No holds barred. No excuses. If there is one thing our tradition has handed on, it’s the gift of getting real with God. Especially when God seems to have foreclosed on God’s promises.

-Take our Old Testament texts. In both Isaiah and the Psalm, Israel has strong with her God. See, God had promised the Jews that he would deliver them from slavery and sin and make them a light to the nations. A messiah may have been promised. And yet, after Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Christians, and the Third Reich, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still waiting for God to make good on his word.

-So when the prophet demands to know “how long will you hide your face from us, O God?” this is not a polite theological inquiry. And when the people lament, “we all fade like the leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away,” we hear, not lip service to some doctrine of confession, but the anguished cry of a people who have suffered, and continue to suffer. Who long to know that God is still with them. Still for them.

-And then, our Gospel. Christ promises that one day, He will return to set all things right. But does he have to do it so…apocalyptically? A darkened sun and stars. Judgement and destruction. Language that seems to vaguely allude to some sort of rapture. Oh, and of course, NO ONE – not even Jesus – knows WHEN this will happen. So while Jesus did do the whole “coming-and-dying-for-our-sins-and- then-resurrecting-thing,” it’s hard not feel a little…stood up. Left alone with only another article in the Apostles’ Creed to show for it. If I said, "honey, I'll do the dishes but not even I know the day or hour," I have the feeling it just wouldn't fly.

-At the end of the day, our situation doesn’t feel much different than Israel. Still waiting. Still wondering. Still suffering. Still struggling to keep watch and stay awake.

-And if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard to stay awake. Hard to hold on to the promises of God in the midst of a world that doesn’t feel much different than the chaos and confusion named in the longings and lamentations of scripture. We may not be in slavery to foreign powers or face martyrdom by being served as lion chow in Frontier Field. But I know as I think what it means to baptize my son Matthias today, it's been really hard for me to hold on faithfully to God’s promises. They just don’t seem to hold a candle next to the deep darkness of a reality where God can feel so absent.

-Because our world indeed feels shrouded in deep darkness. We sin, we fail, we hurt ourselves and others as easily and as frequently as we draw breath. We see loved ones claimed by cancer, crippled by car crashes, stricken by strokes, withered away by age and dementia. We raise children the best we can, trusting in God’s claim on their lives, only to see them counting down the days until Confirmation is over so they can get the hell out of church. We continue to show up in the pews and in the pulpit, hoping God will show His face. Even though, deep in our hearts, we feel only emptiness, weariness. And disappointment.

-And, when it feels like God is too long overdue in doing God’s redemption thing, it’s tempting to take matters into our own hands. We get tired of suffering. Tired of waiting. And so we step in to fill in the gaps left by God’s felt absence. Maybe our drug of choice is getting all churchy and theological (guilty!). Coming up with nice answers and systems and church growth programs so we can feel successful or right or relevant. Or maybe it’s replacing the Black Friday of the cross with the Black Friday of November 25th, turning up at 6am…er, midnight…er, 10pm the night before, making sure we get our hands on the right gift, so we can guarantee a good holiday season.

-Or maybe we get political, and find something to occupy. Or someone who promises a better hope, a change we can not only believe in, but touch and see. Or maybe, we simply shut down. Withdraw. Pretend nothing is wrong. We stop caring, because we no longer have the energy to sustain our hope. Or, to fuel our outrage. We abandon the promises for proxies; the protest psalms for Playstation.

-No matter what your poison, we find some way to do something so that we can avoid or medicate the pain of disappointment. And in so doing, we extinguish the fire that burned in the bones of the prophets. We forfeit the rush of life that can only come in coming close to death. We sacrifice wisdom and grace, and the wonder at the reality of God’s promises that is given to us. Wonder and wisdom that come, not when we avoid or flee. But when we are willing, like Israel, to stare God down. Look death in the eye. Get real. With God. Get real about our world. Get real with each other.

-Because you see, when we stop running away from the pain – stop trying to control or contain or clean up the chaos - when we take up the gift of relationship God has given us, which includes the permission, even the necessity, of naming that pain, and holding God to God’s promises – when we allow ourselves to suffer, it is then, especially and only then, that we discover the true reality, the deeper magic, of God’s promised faithfulness and companionship.

-Because we don’t believe in a God who makes promises from a Santa Claus throne at Eastview Mall. We don’t follow a God who asks us to make the world perfect and just before His Son will deign to return. We don’t baptize children in the name of a God who demands that we fix all the damage our sins cause before we can enjoy God’s love and claim on our lives.

-No, the God in whose name we baptize is the God of Jesus Christ. The Crucified God. The God who does not flee from death. Does not flinch in the face of our sin. Does not rush towards a quick fix. This is the God who became Incarnate not in a palace, but in a stable on a pile of dung. This is the God of the original Black Friday, the God who suffers and dies, the God nailed to the cross. The God who descends into hell. The God who fulfills God’s promises, not in some far-off utopian future, but constantly, here and now, in our midst. And especially, in the midst of our failures. Our sins. In the midst of our doubt, our dirtiness, our desperation, our darkness, our death, and our despair.

-This is the God who saves us, not by taking away the difficulties of the world, but by showing up in the very midst of the world’s brokenness. This is the potter who takes delights in shining light through the cracks of His imperfect creations. This is the lover who embraces us in our ugliness, kisses us tenderly, looks us in the eye, and sees only beauty. This is the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.

-Which is not to say that this God magically makes the sufferings of life disappear, or easier to endure. But then, this God never promised ease and comfort. We do not baptize our children so they will merely be nice and clean. St. Paul tells us that, instead, they are baptized into death – Christ’s death. When Matthias goes into the waters today, we watch him die. It’s why one Brazilian bishop says not, “I baptize you,” but, “I kill you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!” God knows our propensity to avoid the truth that all real tranformation begins with death. And so, our Christian lives, like our church year, must begin on Calvary, with Jesus.

-But when Matthias emerges from the waters today, he will also be radiantly alive. He will be clothed in the gifts and the power and the beauty of Christ. He will be given new eyes in the Spirit. Eyes that no longer seek to blind themselves to the realities of sin and death in the world. Eyes that are no longer deceived by the empty promises of Wall St or Eastview or our own human pride. Eyes that instead see Christ, broken, suffering, and present with us, in the midst of the hells of our lives. Eyes, only for the One who is real in our suffering, and so, enables us to be real about the suffering of our own lives.

-In light of this God, perhaps one of the most profound ways we can live out the promises we make (Matthias) in baptism today is not by trying to save (him) from suffering. Maybe, instead, we can give the gift of being real about it. Of crying out with him. Of hurting, and lamenting, and doubting, and struggling with him when he struggles, doubts, hurts and laments. The gift of challenging ourselves to embrace God’s promised presence for ourselves, seeing the world with our own new eyes, living bold and risky lives of faith along the edges of the darkness where grace delights to dance and dwell. Unafraid of death, because, let's face it - we're all already dead.

-And when we do so, when we are present with, and grieve with, and suffer with, and wait with, each other, we are not only honoring our baptismal vows. We are holding the Christ-light for one another in the midst of the darkness. We make it possible to see the Crucified God, present with us, transforming us, in the midst of our hells. We enable one another to see God’s faithfulness, God’s making a way, where no way seemed probable or possible. We become ourselves the body of Christ, the living embodiment of the promises fulfilled, a witness to God’s faithfulness. For each other. And for the suffering, watching, waiting world.

-God, in Christ, is faithful to God’s promises. God, in Christ, has not abandoned us. But God, in Christ, fulfills His promises in ways we never expect. Not only in blessing us. Not merely in successes and in celebration. But also, most especially, in being present in the midst of out most painful losses, our most tragic failures. God in Christ, using our sufferings to transform us into people who can then be present to the sufferings of others. Walking with us through the darkness of hell, so that we as Christ’s body can walk with one another.

-This is the God of Advent. The God of Israel, and the God of the Church. The God of the cross. The God who is Jesus Christ. God for us. God with us.

-Happy New Church Year. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Poem for Christ the King Sunday

"Coming Out, or, A Rhapsodaisical Break-Up Allegory"

Once, I was the perfectly free master of all
and I loved the queen of liberty whose torch
gave light unto my feet, and I was her
concubine. I made her dreams my dreams,
her people were my people, and our union
brought wealth and wonder to all nations.

But one night, feeling allegorical, I awoke
from slumbering in her bed, only to realize
that I had never really loved her, only
lusted. That my heart belonged to another,
betrothed before we were born, and that
he was the king, the one who ruled the waters.
I touched lightly the shoulder of my lover.

"I'm leaving you, lady," I whispered. "There
is no hiding it any longer; I must come out of
this closet of sleep, and acknowledge the hard
truth: his claim on me is binding; yours, merely
convenience born of boredom and of fear."
Her eyes leered lazily from under her crown
as she sneered, "why, lover, that's just not
natural, not the way things work in this world -

don't you know that your freedom and power
come from my protection, my affection?
Go back to sleep, and I'll overlook this impulse
that the devil must have planted." But I had heard
such nonsense before, and so protested, "No."
"No?" She wheezed. "No? Do you not know who it is
you plan to make your enemy? For...for HIS sake?"
If you follow the king of waters, what will you do?

You will give up my protection! When they come
asking for your allegiance and your submission
you will not be permitted to take up arms,
nor will he allow you to use deceit, flattery,
or the quick fix to keep things from getting ugly!
In short, helpless you'll be! Weak, exposed,
a prime target for suffering and death -
and all the good we've done together, all that

freedom, will disappear - you will be nothing. Stop
being childish, child. Let us return to dreaming
together." But this was not every other time;
there was no prize she could dangle, no profit
she could promise, no truth she could manufacture
to sway the desire of my heart. And so, gathering
what courage I could muster before the iron boots
of her scorn, I again breathed the intolerable "no.

No, O lady of liberty, No and no again!
For now let me question thee - answer if you can!
If I am your enemy, will you forgive me?
Can you take the lies I have told, and from them
make truth? The death we have visited upon
this world - can you promise something new,
not just novel? The suffering of the poor, our
adopted children - can you learn to love to learn
from them, from the voices of those who most
have nothing? Could we possibly stand together
to be empty, broken, to admit to all those who serve us
that they are the masters, we, their jesters and their slaves?
Lady, can you do this? Because he can, and now I know

that from birth, my true feelings and only attraction
have been for this man, and not for thee, lady."
I formed goodbye upon my lips, but before
the benediction escaped, her fist silenced prayer.
I had gone too far, and to her, was too far gone.
She had known it long before, and long ago, love
had been withheld. And so, blood trickling from my lips,
I arose, naked, trembling with fear and also with freedom,
I left her to find the king. And it had to be so:
for with her, even entertaining a different dream
was already enough to wed me to another.

Once, I was the perfectly free master of all,
now, the servant of all things living.
Now I am free, and am called beloved.
Now I am not free, but am called beloved.

A Collect for Christ the King Sunday

A Collect for Christ the King Sunday

King of Kings, Prince of Peace,
The edicts and decrees of the world’s would-be rulers surround us,
From the tops of towers,
The halls of power,
The broadcasts of satellites,
The reality of violence,
The starvation of children,
The whispers of the human heart;
Grant us the wisdom to discern usurpers to your throne
And give us the courage to take up our crosses,
Follow your ways of peace, mercy, justice and love,
And to give allegiance to you, and you alone.
In the name of the one who rules by sharing glory,
Who shows authority by suffering,
And whose kingdom is love,
Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Lord,

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sermon: Against Stewardship Sunday, or, On Not E-Trading the Gospel

"Against Stewardship Sunday, or, On Not E-Trading the Gospel"

Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Denver, Colorado
13 November 2011
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Texts: Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18
Psalm 90
1 Thessalonians 5.1-11
Matthew 25.14-30

"Everything else seems beyond us,
we aren’t ready for it, nothing that was said
is true for us, caught naked in the argument,
the counterpoint, trying to sightread
what our fingers can’t keep up with, learn by heart
what we can’t even read. And yet
it is this we were born to. We aren’t virtuosi
or child prodigies, there are no prodigies
in this realm, only a half-blind, stubborn
cleaving to the timbre, the tones of what we are,
even when all the texts describe it differently.

And we’re not performers, like Liszt, competing
against the world for speed and brilliance
(the 79-year-old pianist said, when I asked her
What makes a virtuoso?—Competitiveness.)
The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamour cast
by performance, the more I know its poverty beside
the truths we are salvaging from
the splitting-open of our lives."
-from "Transcendental Etude" by Adrienne Rich

-If you’re like me, then you’re really thankful that today is not Stewardship Sunday! While filling out my six-month Vicar evaluation, when I came to the section to discuss "stewardship," it was with great glee that I wrote: "House does not have a stewardship campaign or committee."

-For those of you who grew up without this lovely slice of Christian Americana, Stewardship Sunday is the day when they read a parable like today’s, the “parable of the talents.” The talents of course are not, as in the Greek, gigantic sums of money that would boggle the minds of the original audience. No, on Stewardship Sunday, they would, of course, be the “talents” and gifts that you possess: time, skills, and of course, cash. And if you want to be a good little churchmouse, then you’ll pay attention to the first two slaves in the story, who took their talents and invested them. And gave them back. With interest.

-And you would, of course, not want to be like third slave, who just buried his gift in the ground – “hid his light under a bushel, no!” – and did nothing with them. You’re supposed to give your “talents” because you’re supposed to just be "so thankful that Jesus has given so much to you.” And so you cannot help but want to give back. And there’s some good truth in that. Yet, tacitly, the message is also that if you don’t give, you’re somehow ungrateful. Or lazy. Or certainly, “not really a good committed church member.”

-Now I’ll reckon that if you’re here at House, you’re probably not too concerned about being “good church member.” So maybe you’ll share my indignation when I say how manipulative of a reading of this parable I find Stewardship Sunday to be. See, this kind of stewardship reading, it doesn’t make me want to go out and give abundantly, just because everyone else, is making like the first two slaves. This reading makes me feel like that third slave in the story. Cautious. Guilt-ridden. Used. Suspicious. Definitely afraid.

-See as someone who struggles with fear, who often wants to bury my gifts in the ground, what troubles be about this parable is not stewardship per se. Rather, I wonder: why does that third slave feel so afraid? He tells the Master when he returns, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow…and so I was afraid.” Afraid. It’s not that he’s lazy. Not that he doesn’t care about his gift, or his community, or even his Master. I mean, he kept the money safe! He gives exactly what he was given right back to the Master! No, it says the guy’s afraid. Which makes me wonder: where does that fear come from?

-I wonder if his fear - as well as his suspicion - has to do with those first two slaves. The ones making a killing sitting in front of their laptops buying Apple stock and e-trading biotech mutual funds. I wonder if he saw them sitting atop their swelling piles of talents. Began comparing them to his single, meager talent. Saw the Master reward them for making him rich off their accumulated interest – a practice, by the way, thoroughly forbidden for the Jews in Jesus’ audience. I wonder if the slave arrived at this pyramid-scheming Bernie Madoff of a god, because, comparing himself to his fellow slaves, rather than trusting his instincts and sticking to his guns, instead found himself enthralled, and further enslaved, to the corruptions of his culture.

-In my experience, I’m often afraid – and also get most of my distorted pictures of God – because I’m comparing my self and my failures with the successes and imagined perfections of the people around me. I’ll see people who are really “living the Christian life.” Who are really prosperous, or happy. Who receive recognition and respect. Who are really radical, or progressive, or intelligent, or holy, or even rebellious. And I idealize them. It seems like they’ve been given five talents – five times as many as me – and that they’re getting back even more! They lead lives that make mine look paltry and embarrassing by comparison. They seem like they are living an abundant life. And mine, certainly, is not. Or, at least, I think it’s not.

-And then, on top of all that, I start to think about God. Maybe God is the type of God that wants me to be like them. And not like me. Wants me to be really invested, really busy, really successful, really active or activist, wants me to keep adding more commitments to my schedule. Or belong to a certain political party. Or sub-culture or counter-culture. Or maybe its about being progressive enough. Or accepting enough. Or even, to do something I know with all my heart is wrong.

-Pick your poison. But then, the rub: I start to think that maybe these are things God is expecting, even requiring me to do, if She is going to accept me. If God is going to view my life as a worthwhile investment, worth the time She took in creating me. My picture of God becomes distorted. Because I let the people around me, or the culture of comparison and propserity, or the fear in my own head, tell me who God is. And who I am in God. Equating “how much I do” with the “who I am” in the eyes of the Master. And so, like that slave, I too want to say, “yes, that God is shrewd and ruthless Master.”

-See, when I hear this parable of the fearful slave, I don’t see a vision of God’s dreams for his people. I see, rather, a reflection of the nightmare that results when we get lulled to sleep by the empty promises of a fallen world. The paralysis that results from comparison and competition. The hell of believing that God is not for us, but against us. And that's when I begin to get afraid.

-But see, this is where I think St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians we read today comes in handy. Because Paul urges us to “keep awake! Keep awake and remain sober!” And I think this is less advice on how to avoid having a hangover in church Sunday morning – or evening, as may be the case - and more an urging to resist becoming intoxicated by the deceptions of the world. And, by the problematic comparisons by which we read the others and ourselves. Advice, about not conforming ourselves to what people tell us we should be doing, or what they think God should look like based on their own successes or addictions. About how to see clearly in the rays of a different light.

-Maybe we need to stay awake, so we can recognize the true God, when that God comes to finds us. Because did you catch what Paul says next? “God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation in Christ Jesus.” Paul doesn’t say keep awake so you can “look at what I Paul am doing.” (At least not here!) He doesn’t say, keep awake and follow the Protestant Work Ethic. He says, “keep awake, and look at JESUS CHRIST.” And then, “encourage and build up one another.” Jesus is where we look the see the face of the invisible God. Jesus is where we look to see God’s will for our life. Because any other God, except this God, is terrifying. Will lead us to start erecting these ladders of success and these rat-races of achievement. Will lead us into competition and prosperity thinking. Rather than mutual encouragement. Collaboration. New creation. Freedom.

-And, what’s more, as we compare ourselves, not to the world's corruptions, but to the cross-torn face of the Incarnation of Love and Grace itself, we see something else too. We see our own faces looking back. Not condemned. But transfigured, with an eternal beauty and splendor. Our beauty, the beauty which God sees in us, is such a magnificence, such a marvelous light, that it is God, and not us, who is willing to invest all of God’s talents and efforts, to make us God’s own. Christ buried the talent of his own life in the ground, that all his riches might be taken and given to us, we who are most invested in the five-talent world of the other slaves. That we who are enslaved to the ugliness of sin, might be made beautiful, free, abundantly alive. In the words of St. Iranaeus, “God became as we are, that we might become as God is.”

-By unmasking the truth about the world’s lies, the parable reveals all golden ages as gilded cages, all ideals as idols. But the parable is also a gift in that it prepares us to hear the liberating news of the Gospel. That God is for us. That God’s economy is an economy of mercy and freedom. That it’s really less about our stewardship, and more about God’s stewardship of US.

-The Good News, that when we gaze into the bloody, sunken eyes of the Crucified One, we discover we are not only precious in God’s sight, but that God does not play dice with the good gifts he has given the world through us. God does not ask us to speculate or eTrade with the gift of our lives. God gives freely – gives us freely! - that we might also give freely to all. Invites to take up the gift that we are, to take up the very image and beauty of God that has been fashioned in us, and to boldly, creatively, fearlessly let the light of that splendor shine before the world. Not for the sake of gaining more talents or rewards. But for the sake of our brothers and sisters, and for the witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

-Because God did not create crap. Because God does not place a price tag on Her children. Because God thinks we are far too good of gifts not to share us freely with others.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Collect for Reformation Sunday

A Collect for Reformation Sunday

God of Liberating Truth,
Who refuses to let us justify ourselves
by any self-delusion we can invent
or by any empty promise of our rat-race world;
Take our lies, our deceptions,
And all other idols we make or merit
And nail them to the door of your grace;
That we may know your Gospel of Freedom,
And experience Love’s reformation in our hearts.
In the name of the One who is the Way,
The Truth and the Life,
Jesus Christ Our Savior,