30 November 2009

Can't Wait

Jeremiah 33: 14-16 & Luke 21: 25-36

First Sunday of Advent/ 29th November 2009

“I can’t wait ‘til Christmas.” It’s a phrase we begin to hear a lot this time of year; particularly from the lips of children, but not exclusively so. We probably love to hear it most from children because it reminds us, perhaps, of our own longings for that day of days, of that time before, of what seemed like endless waiting as a child for Christmas Day to arrive. I can remember saying it over and over again. It probably began when the Sears & Roebuck Wish Book catalog arrived bursting with colorful images of all the toys we hoped Santa Claus would bring us. By “we,” I mean my brother, Craig, and me who fought –and I mean fought – over who would get first crack at that catalog.

There’s probably no other time of year and no other holiday that generates this kind of forward-looking hope, this extraordinary sense of anticipation and expectation than Christmas. As we wait, in the meantime, as we mark off every day on our Advent calendars, every day as we countdown to that day is informed and shaped by the day to come. Our present is informed and shaped by the future coming of that day. We wait and wait until we get to the point that it seems like we can’t wait any longer, can no longer bear the excruciating delay of Christmas morning. You can feel it in the air at the Family Service of Christmas Eve. At times it seems like our children are about to burst with tension and excitement. Bring it now. Hurry up and get here.

There’s probably no other time of year when we’re more thoroughly eschatological than the weeks leading up to Christmas. This time of year is the perfect opportunity to get into a mind frame that informs the writers of scripture. Eschatology means, literally, the study of end things or end times. It’s really one of the most important concepts embedded in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, but easy to miss and difficult to understand. I’m not throwing this word around to be difficult or to over-intellectualize the Bible. It’s there, infusing everything. It’s a word we’ve talked about quite a bit on Thursday morning during Bible study over the last nine years. Every book in the New Testament has been influenced by the meaning of this word. Without grasping the sense of this word, this outlook, we miss a considerable part of the good news.

Eschatology and its related word apocalyptic (meaning revelation) has to do with our perceptions of time, or orientation toward time, of how we view the past, the present, and the future. By reference to “end” we can mean, “the end,” as in finished or caput, but it can also mean end, as in purpose, or when we talk about the Great Ends of the Church. Think of the opening question of the Westminster Catechism. “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Eschatology has a future orientation – and that’s why this time of year, our perspective in Advent leaning toward Christmas is thoroughly eschatological. It’s a focus upon what’s coming.

When I reflected earlier on our waiting for Christmas, I intentionally used plenty of eschatological words, like “waiting,” “longing,” “day of days,” “that day,” “arrive,” “forward-looking hope,” “anticipation,” “expectation,” “meantime,” “day to come,” “excruciating delay,” “bursting,” “tension,” “excitement.” There are plenty more. They all have to do with time, how we envision the future, of what we sense is coming – coming, that, too, is an eschatological word – and how our day-to-day living is informed by the future we know is coming and about to break in, appear, and change our lives. Change, too, is an eschatological word, like conversion, and being born-again, and the most significant eschatological term: resurrection. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1909-1945) said Advent is like sitting in a prison cell. One cannot do anything except hope, pray, and wait; deliverance must come from the outside, he was being eschatological. (1) He’s sitting, waiting in hope, waiting for liberation, breaking into time from outside of history.

You can hear it in our text from Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel.” Can you hear the orientation to time? “In those days and at that time,” the text says,” I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…” “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” Can you hear it? The focus is on the future, of a day that is on its way coming to meet us – not a product of the past, not coming out to us through the progress of history, not from yesterday, but from tomorrow, from the future. And not just any future, the new future, the new day, the salvation of God that will yield something new in the midst of time.

Our Luke text, not surprisingly, is also full of eschatological and apocalyptic imagery. It’s why both of these texts are chosen for the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is thoroughly eschatological. In fact, embedded in the Greek of Luke’s text is the word “advent” – coming. Something is coming. Someone is coming who will be and is the salvation of the world. Something is coming. Someone is coming who will put the world to right, who will establish justice, who will embody the love and mercy of God.

Now, this Luke text is not, obviously, a text that points to the coming birth of Jesus. It’s a reference to the coming of Christ in glory at the culmination of time. So why are we hearing this on the first Sunday of Advent when we really want to sing Christmas carols because we can’t wait for Christmas? Because Advent is more than remembering the “first coming” at Christmas, it’s more than remembering Jesus’ birth back when. And Advent is more than getting ready because Christmas is coming again, when it seems like we just did this only yesterday. This is not the focus of our hope during Advent. But, rather, purpose of this season is to intensify our expectation for God’s final fulfillment. It points to the future when all the things God promised in and through Jesus Christ will be fully realized, embodied and enfleshed in the world. The world Jesus promised is not here yet.

Advent means coming. It’s a rendering of the Greek word parousia, which is what we find here in Luke. In secular Greek, parousia means the coming of persons, or the happening of events, and literally means presence; but the language of the prophets and apostles has brought into the word the messianic dimension of hope. The expectation of the parousia is an advent hope. In the New Testament, it is used exclusively for Christ’s coming presence in glory. Some have translated parousia as Jesus “coming again” or “second coming.” But both are wrong, because they presuppose a temporary absence of Christ.

Christmas celebrates that Christ is born. Advent turns our attention that Christ is coming. Christ is and is still coming. Christ is born and still being born within us and within the world. This is the tension of the Christian life. We live in the now and the not-yet. This is Advent. It is dark. It’s full of unresolved tension. It’s why we sing Advent carols in minor keys. We’re called to be alert.

All this talk of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,…distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves,” is not some kind of ancient prophecy about the destruction of the world, something you might see in the new movie, “2012.” What we find here is evocative, fanciful language that should not be taken literally. It’s typical of apocalyptic literature; it’s full of symbols and metaphors. It’s a way of saying, pay attention to the signs. Be alert! For the “the Son of Man” is “coming in a cloud,” with power and great glory.” Be ready, for “your redemption is drawing near.” Be alert. Watch.

Wait for what? Do we wait forever and like the characters in Samuel Beckett’s (1906-1989) play, “Waiting for Godot,” who wait for someone to arrive who never shows? In a world consumed by war and pain, injustice and abject poverty, sorrow and death, haven’t we waited long enough? How long, O Lord, how long? How long?

Yet, for the writers of scripture, waiting is never in vain, because in the waiting we also experience the one who is coming toward us. “Peace to you,” begins the book of Revelation, “from him who is, and who was, and who is to come (1:4).” The God of the Bible is the one who is on the move and on the way to us. Theologian, Jürgen Moltmann says it well, “The God of hope is himself the coming God. When God comes in his glory, he will fill the universe with his radiance, everyone will see him, and he will swallow up death forever. This future is God’s mode of being in history. The power of the future is his power in time. His eternity is not timeless simultaneity; it is the power of his future over every historical time.” (2) God’s future is coming toward us all the time. Isaiah declared, “Arise, become light, for your light is coming and the glory of the Lord is rising upon you (Is. 60:1).” The proclamation of the near – the coming – the arriving kingdom of God makes human conversion to this future possible.”

What are you waiting for? For whom are you waiting?

The Christian posture is always leaning into the future. We don’t lean into the past; we don’t look backward with nostalgia, but forward in hope, with hope. Advent is a season in the church that calls us to pay attention – to the future, to the new thing God is doing in our midst, of Christ being birthed into our lives in new and profound ways. As the culture so easily becomes seduced by nostalgia this time of year, of Christmases past long ago, the church is called to look forward, to hope and wait – to sit in waiting, to wait because we can – until that day when the glory of God is revealed and in the face of Christ find all our hopes and longings, our dreams and our waiting find their meaning in him.

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Dated 21 November 1943, Tegel Prison, Berlin, Germany (New York: Macmillan 1972), 134.
2. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996),25-26.

14 November 2009

An Undivided Life

Joshua 24 & Matthew 6: 19-21; 24-34

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 15th November 2009

This past week we marked the twentieth anniversary of the toppling of the Berlin Wall, eventually leading to the reunification of a divided Germany. We have heard the stories of what it was like to live in a divided city, a divided country, of families, friends forever separated, of couples engaged to be married who were evermore divided as a result of that insidious wall. Seventh months after the wall came down I was in West Germany with my brother, Craig, and we drove through East Germany into the British sector of West Berlin. We made our way to the Brandenburg Gate and to the wall. We rented a hammer and chisel and broke off graffiti-sprayed pieces from the wall, which I still have. Dividing walls can come down – it’s difficult and risky and costly – but it’s possible. Other walls need to come down, like the so-called “security” wall snaking through Israel today (but that’s another sermon).

We were not born to live divided lives. Scripture has much to say about the enormous cost we pay when we live divided. The Joshua text invites us to “choose this day” whom we will serve. Will we serve God or something other than God. The issue of choice goes back to Genesis, when Adam and Eve chose self-interest over obedience to God, with a terrible price to pay. That’s a choice that wasn’t made once, but time and again and every time we make similar decisions; when our wills matter more than God’s will, we fall.

Choice runs through Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus loves to heighten the tension, particularly through the use of parables, in moments of conflict where we’re given two alternatives in which we have to choose. It’s the context behind Jesus’ warning that we can’t serve both God and wealth (mammon). He increases the tension here. It’s can’t be both/and, although that’s what we prefer. That’s impossible, Jesus says. Choose.

Now when Jesus invites us to choose he is not saying that wealth is bad. He’s not saying: God good; wealth bad. Wealth as wealth is not bad. Jesus is not saying that money is the root of all evil, because it isn’t. The problem comes when it’s an end in itself. An enormous amount of good can and is accomplished through money, particularly when wealthy people are generous with their resources. Then wealth is serving God, pressed into serving the Kingdom.

Whenever we hear Jesus preach about treasures, against serving wealth, about not to worry, we tend to receive these texts as a long list of negatives. Yes, Jesus is giving us a law here, a clear set of don’ts. “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth…store up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” “You cannot serve God and wealth.” “Do not worry.” But my guess is when you hear these verses you probably don’t hear them as good news, as the extraordinary declaration of God’s joy given to you. My guess is the first reaction is probably guilt and then maybe shame. Because…yes, I do have a lot of treasures and baubles and more treasures and baubles than I really need to make me happy and more than I can fit in my house or apartment and probably more than I can afford. And, yes, far too often I’m a servant of wealth than a servant of God, because I work to have more and more, a bigger house, a better car, to live in a better neighborhood with a better school system, to have a bigger portfolio and a bigger nest-egg that will hatch into the best retirement one could ever possibly imagine. And yes, we worry – man, do we worry – about everything, about not having enough, about the future, about all the “what if’s” that preoccupy our living and our sleeping – or that keep us from sleeping.

These are tough verses to hear. W. C. Fields (1880-1946) was once seen feverishly studying, reading through the Bible. Someone came up to him and ask, “W.C., what are you doing?” He said, “I’m look for loopholes.”

You see, Jesus gives these warnings because he knows what we’re like. He knows how materialist the human being can be. He knows how often we go astray. He knows how much we love money and our wealth – and all the comfort and security that go with it. Perhaps we love security more than our wealth, because when we are secure (especially financially secure), we think we’ll never have to worry again. But I know a lot of wealthy people who worry sick. Jesus is a brilliant psychoanalyst who pierces the human heart, the human psyche – who knows our drives better than we know them ourselves. Jesus knows what troubles us, what disturbs us, what robs us of life, what makes us sick, and troubled, and depressed. And he came, sent by the Living God to change this. As Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” (This is the verse we chose for the door hangers we distributed to our neighbors yesterday.) Jesus knows the waywardness of the human heart because the human heart is divided.

So, what is the cure to our divisiveness? What will yield reconciliation for our alienated hearts, for the estrangement that we know exists inside? What will make us whole? There’s one answer, one word, Jesus would say: God. This might sound overly simplistic. But it’s really this simple – and this difficult. Jesus gives us these laws to live by in love; laws that seek to heal the split and offer a better life, a truer life. St. Augustine (354-430) famously said, “My heart is restless, O Lord, until it rests in thee.” That’s what Jesus is getting at here in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in these verses that deal with treasures and wealth and worry.

Jesus wants us to see that we were created for God to be at the center of our lives. To be authentically human means to put God at the center of our lives. We were created for God – I’m not talking about belief in God, but life in God, with God, through God. That’s what we were created for and our heart of hearts knows it and longs for it. We were made for God. But there’s something in us – call it sin – that turns us away, that in fear puts the self at the center of all things. There’s something in us that is not satisfied with God and so we turn to other gods which are no God – and sometimes the god we worship the most is the god called Ego, or simply, I or Me.

Jesus comes with the good news that life is not about Ego, or I, or Me. It’s not about you and it’s not about me, but about something far more meaningful, profound, and expansive, beautiful and good. It’s about the kingdom of God and God’s justice.

Jesus calls us to be God-centered, theo-centric, focused on God. He’s not saying this to make our lives difficult (although that will happen), he’s not trying to take the joy out of our lives, he’s not trying to be a sourpuss. He’s offering this in love because he sees how much damage is done in our hearts and in the world when the focus is on anything other than God.

That’s why he calls us not to trust in our treasures because they will always disappoint, but to really trust in God. Put your trust and your energy in things that matter and will last, not in things that will rust and decay and be remembered no more. Put your heart in something worthy to be treasured – and what can be of more value than God and God’s kingdom?

That’s why he says we can’t serve two masters, even though we want to or think we can, because we will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. Love and hate, devotion and loathing are false alternatives for God’s people. Have one master, have one focus, put God first. You can put wealth first, it’s possible and plenty of people do it. But we will reap what we sow. We can live focused upon wealth, but this will inevitably put God in competition for our allegiance, we then run the risk of loving wealth and despising, if not hating God – if not in thought then certainly in action – because we will be serving something other God.

Serving wealth means we’re not serving God. Focusing on wealth, placing our trust it in and its treasures means we’re not trusting in God. This means that for all of us on any given day, if you think about it, we are always dangerously close to a-theism, it’s always there on the margins – believing and acting as if God doesn’t exist. And when we live that way we’ve lost the focus and the deepest desire of the human heart, which is for God. For the truth is, we’re all serving something, whether it’s the petty gods of our own creation, our ego, our careers, our security, or the Living God our creator. Either way, we’re all serving something or someone -- and we become the thing or the person we worship and serve. We’re always dabbling on the edge of idolatry. That’s why Jesus gives us this warning in love – he knows what makes us tick and what makes us sick, he knows what we need to make us whole.

There’s an enormous cost when we live divided lives, a price we cannot really afford to pay, causing so much suffering and pain in the world. When Jesus says, “Serve God,” he’s saying, “Here is the way to be made whole.” It’s all summed up in Jesus’ command: “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you.” And what are these things? Clothes, shelter, food – you know, all the things we worry about. This is not some kind of prosperity gospel message – just believe in God and you’ll get whatever you want. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Prosperity gospels are not really gospels at all because the focus is on prosperity and not God and that isn’t good news.

When people are fearful and worry and operate with an assumption of scarcity (that there’s not enough food, shelter, clothing, money, anything), we pull back, hold back, save, conserve – and do not share. Self-interest trumps sharing – I need to put “Me and my family” first. There’s a direct correlation between obsession with scarcity and an obsession with security (securing safety for ourselves because we can’t trust anyone else). “Compulsion toward security leaves no energy for imaging a different, more just world.” One fear leads to more worry leads to more fear, one thing leads to the other. Divisions begin to surface within and without. Over and over again in scripture, Jesus says, God says, “Do not worry.” Trust me.

Into the heart of all our fears and worry, Jesus says, you’re missing the point, you’ve forgotten what it’s all about, you’re striving for the wrong things, stop, calm down, remember what matters about all else: Strive first for the kingdom of God – strive for God’s justice. What a marvelous elixir for our worry-sick souls. Stop looking at yourself and direct your focus upon God. Strive for the kingdom of God – strive for God’s justice, when we do everything else we strive for will be put into perspective and we’ll know what matters and doesn’t matter. Jesus invites us to live our lives with a different set of assumptions: in God’s kingdom there’s more than enough, there’s always enough – and enough is as good as a feast.

Jesus was foolish enough to believe that when people put God first and strive after God’s justice and when God’s justice is present, there is always enough to go around. When we’re striving for God’s justice, then the hungry are fed. When we’re striving for justice, the homeless have a place to live. When we’re striving for justice, the naked are clothed. When we’re striving for justice – here in the church or in the world – there is more than enough, needs are met. Parker Palmer writes, “The divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice.” So is justice. Choose. Striving first after the Kingdom liberates because it puts all our other strivings into perspective, it focuses our attention, it heals the divisions in our heart; it has the capacity to make us whole. That’s the good news.

M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 12.

Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 17. Cf. the quote from the worship bulletin: “We are cursed with the blessing of consciousness and choice, a two-edged sword that both divides us and can help us become whole. But choosing wholeness, which sounds like a good thing, turns out to be risky business, make us vulnerable in ways we would prefer to avoid.”(9).

Photo: Construction of the Berlin Wall, 1961.

08 November 2009

The Heart of God

Isaiah 61

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 8th November 2009

I’ll get right to the heart of the matter this morning: it’s about mission. What it is; what it isn’t. What it looks like; what it doesn’t look like. Say the word and immediately we conjure up all kinds of definitions and associations. We hear “mission” and think, “out there,” “overseas,” foreign lands, distant shores. We think of mission outposts deep in the jungle of Africa or China, of missionaries who go around the world to preach the gospel in order to convert people to Christ. Mission is viewed as something that takes place “over there,” wherever “there” might be. Wherever it is, it’s assumed that it’s not here, but some place else.

This leads to another association. Somewhere we developed a dualist way of thinking. There’s the church and then there’s mission. There’s the worship and fellowship and organizational aspects of a church and then mission is seen as something in addition to everything else that a church might do. Mission is then seen as an addendum, something tacked on to everything else a church does, in addition to, on the side. It’s easy to see why mission is seen as a dispensable part of ministry – something done when everything else is tended to, financial support is given when there’s something left over at the end of the year’s budget or the first to go when faced with a budget deficit. It’s not surprising that some see mission in the church as a diversion. Why should we worry about people beyond our community or our state? We have enough people to support close to home.

Others think of mission as “charity,” financial gifts of good-will. Often done, let’s be honest, to assuage any guilt we might have for knowing just how rich and blessed we are.

So, I’ll get right to the heart of the matter. Mission is not something on the side, it’s not an option, it’s not a diversion, it’s certainly not charity or acts of good-will, and not what we do when we have time to spare or money left over at the end of the year.

Mission is the heart of God. Plain and simple. The heart of God is missional. Mission is what God desires and demands of God’s people. It what God hopes for, imagines, and wants to see realized through us in the world. We will be judged by how well we treated “the least of these (Matthew 25:40),” because there’s a special place in the heart of God for the least. Mission is at the heart of God because mission is what God does.

What does this mean? The literal meaning of the Latin, missio, means simply, “sent.” Mission is being sent, it’s an experience of sending. And if we think about it, the very Being of God is missional because God always seems to be in a sending mode. Yahweh is a sending God. Yahweh never leaves us in one place, but sends us to do something. If we think about it, there is no understanding of God found in the Bible that does not involve some kind of action, of movement, of sending. Even the name, Yahweh (Exodus 3:14), means, literally, “I am who I am; I was who I was; and I will be who I will be.” There’s movement, dynamism in the name. God is a missionary God.

If God is a sending God, that means we are a people sent with the missio Dei – the mission of God. That’s the understanding of the church we find in scripture. The church is essentially missionary: all that we do is mission. “It’s not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.” Mission is the movement, the sending of God to the world; the church, then, comes to see itself as an instrument for that mission. There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love. The focus is not on the church. The church does not send one out to do mission, as if mission belonged to the church. The church is not the sender, but the one sent. Mission is not contained within the church; the church is contained within the wider mission of God. That’s why for a church, mission can’t be secondary. So we come to see that “mission is not a ‘fringe activity of a strongly established Church, a pious cause that [may] be attended to when the home fires [are] first brightly burning….Missionary activity is not so much the work of the church as simply the Church at work.

Then what are we sent to do? It’s all there in Isaiah 61. We hear the voice of Isaiah who feels compels to act and understands himself as one acted upon by God. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me;” he says, “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed.” Hear that? Sent!

To do what? To give expression to the very heart of God. This is what is means to be a child of God, this is what it means to be human, this is what we were created to be and do: To proclaim good news to the oppressed and liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the Lord’s favor, the day of God’s judgment against all that resists, hinders, and undermines God’s vision of justice; to comfort those who mourn, allowing praise to well up from the people instead of wailing. To build up the ruins, the former places of devastation, and repair the homes of God’ people, the ruined cities, thus giving a place for people to live. How can we hear this and not think of our work with Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity? We learned this morning from Jayna Powell of Habitat that there are between 9,000 and 40,000 abandoned row houses in Baltimore City – places in ruins that need to be rebuilt so people will have a place to live.

Isaiah 61 calls us to welcome the stranger, the lonely, the fearful. To welcome and care for the immigrant – whether they’re legal or not. To provide for those in need. To share our wealth, our resources. To share. To give. Why? Because this is what justice looks like – this is putting the world to right through acts of reconciliation and healing, it’s providing hope and extending a future to people who cannot see past yesterday. All of this – and more – is contained in the biblical understanding of justice. And why is this important? Because, “I Yahweh love justice (Is. 61:8).” And the justice of God unsettles the world.

There’s a very close tie here between mission (being sent) and justice. A biblical view of justice does not mean “just deserts” or a system of retribution, of inflicting a punishment equal to the crime. When Yahweh says, “I love justice,” that’s not the kind of justice that God loves. Justice is mercy, healing, forgiveness, and love; it’s about reconciliation, wholeness. It means, in scripture, setting the world right, it means fighting and struggling and working for a world that reflects God’s will, God’s heart, God’s imagination. It’s about engaging in acts of liberation and restoration, of extending God’s welcome and inclusion to everyone who feels like an alien, out of place in the world or the church. For us to have the heart of God means these causes are at the heart of our lives and at the very center of the church, the foundational values of what defines a church of Jesus Christ.

Justice is mission; mission is justice. Justice and mission are at the very core of God’s being. Like mission, justice is never an option for the church. Some might think of justice as being too political, too controversial for the church. The good news of God is controversial and it’s political, always has and always will be – because it has to do with the critique of structures of power, the good news is addressed to people oppressed under demonic structures of power that rob people of their freedom, undermine their dignity, and withhold from them hope. It’s political because politics is concerned with the way people live in the polis, in the city. We sometimes forget that a biblical view of justice is also related to justification, a word we Protestants like to throw around a lot (justification by “grace through faith,” Ephesians 2:8). Justice, justification, even righteousness – they’re all related. Just as we are made right with God through Christ, the justice of God wants to put the world right.

Every week we say Jesus’ prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” But what is God’s will? God’s will is mission. The kingdom is justice. Mission and justice – it’s what we are to pray for, work for, fight, protest, march, struggle, and advocate for, even if its unsettling, so that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven.”

It’s not by accident that when Jesus stood in the synagogue in Nazareth at the very start of his ministry, standing there with everyone to hear him, he selected as his text, these words from Isaiah 61, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives… (Luke 4:18-19).” Hear it? Sent. Isaiah 61 is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It’s Jesus’ mission. It was what he was sent to do. As the Son of God, as God himself, his will, his heart is the will and heart of his Father. To see one is to see the other. The work, the mission of one is the work, the mission of the other. And the mission of the Holy Spirit (who is always being sent on behalf of Christ) is the work of the Father and of the Son and so sends us.

Mission is the heart of God: it’s to work tirelessly for the liberation of God’s people, to extend hope, release, and promise. Not as some idealized goal, but in concrete, risk-taking, seemingly foolish ways. This is what Jesus invites us to when we live in his kingdom and pray for the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).” “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5: 7).” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be children of God (Matthew 5: 9).”

That’s kingdom life – Christians are called to be “kingdom people,” not “church people.” Jesus never said, Come follow me and become part of a church, but to “strive first for the kingdom” (Mathew 6:33). “Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above concerns for justice, mercy, and truth. Church people think about how to get people into the church; Kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church change the world.” Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21).”

Today, we give thanks to God for all the ways we are being sent out into the world, of the sending capacity of Catonsville Presbyterian Church. Walk around the displays in fellowship hall and see the face of God in all that we do. Consider the extraordinary mission work of this church. So many would say it’s one of our greatest assets. We are church sent. This week Chris Roseland of the World Ministries office of the PCUSA in Louisville called me this week. He was looking over his reports and wondered how we came to give $16000 to the Good Shepherd Hospital in Kananga. I told him and he was impressed, but that I said, “That’s not all.” So I told him about how we rebuilt the pediatric ward at Lubondai hospital in the Congo, and paid for a new electric generator. Just think of the impact the mission tithe component in the Capital Campaign had upon so many people. We share meals with the hungry. Lee Van Koten volunteers two days a week at the International Seafarer’s Center in Baltimore harbor. Just this week I received a card from their chaplain, Reverend Mary Davisson, expressing appreciation for Lee’s work with the center. He is a blessing to their work and to the people they serve. Think of the Pastoral Counseling Center based in our Church House, the Santi School in Nepal ($8,000 of the $70,000 it cost to build the school came from CPC), our work with Habitat, IMA, on and on and on.

See all the ways as kingdom people, following Christ, we can see the promise of Isaiah 61 fulfilled, concretely, physically in the mission of this church, the beating heart of God.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, cited in David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005), 390.

Bosch, 390. “Mission has its origin in the heart of God. God is a fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission. It is impossible to penetrate deeper still; thee is mission because God loves people.”

Bosch, 372.

Howard Synder, Liberating the Church, cited in Bosch, 378.

02 November 2009

Removing Every Tear

Isaiah 25: 6-9 and Revelation 21: 1-6a
All Saints’ Day, 1st November 2009/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

I was recently asked, “Where have you suffered?” The question took me aback and knocked me off-guard. It was asked by someone whom I really didn’t know very well and so I was reluctant to respond from the heart. For this is a heart, a soul question.

I thought about it and answered: I have suffered most in my losses. In saying this, I can think of plenty of people I know whose losses have been significantly greater than mine. Comparatively-speaking, I guess, some might say my losses are manageable (and to a considerable extent they are). But they are nevertheless mine, as yours are yours.

In my life, I’ve had to say good-bye to far too many very dear family members and close friends. I was born almost three months to the day of my maternal grandfather’s death. My mother was carrying me when she said good-bye to her father. I entered into a household full of mourning and loss. Years later as a boy, I remember feeling the loss, especially around holidays. I became aware, very early, earlier than I should have, that life is precarious and that death is never far away. I’ve always had an existential bent; life is serious and important and fragile. I came aware of my own finitude at an early age. (This is probably why I tend to be pretty serious at times.). When I was in fifth grade I lost a classmate to cancer and then my fifth-grade math teacher died. I lost uncles to whom I was very close when I was in sixth grade. A mentor friend died when I was in high school, Jim Loebell. My mother, Grace, died at 59 in 1992, her mother, Ann, died in 2000. In the opening pages of my doctoral dissertation, there’s dedicatory page to all the people I lost along the way in the writing of the thesis. I’ve had a lot of personal loss. Add to the loss all the people I’ve come to know and love as a pastor for twenty years. On All Saints’ Day, I think of them and see their faces.

You have your memorial list. You have the names and faces of people who have gone on before you. The longer we live, the longer the list. Sometimes human grief is overwhelming. The tears just keep on flowing. “Time heals all wounds,” is a lie. For many the wounds are raw and real. Most folks work through their grief in healthy ways, but many don’t. Most folks find a way to carry on, but many don’t. Many suffer silently. They offer prayers to God with groans too deep for words. And the tears just keep on flowing.

We grieve for our losses. We grieve for our neighbor’s losses. We grieve for a world that is drenched with tears. That’s what we do in the church. We don’t advertise ourselves this way. We don’t have, “Come and grieve with us,” out on the Frederick Road sign. But this is what we do. Where else can people go with their grief, their sorrow? Where else can it be held by a community with love and care? If we’re not grieving in one way or the other, we’re probably not paying attention – to the tears of the world, to tears of our neighbors and friends and loved ones, of the silent tears of our hearts. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4).” Happy, exceedingly happy are those who mourn. Happy, blessed is the one who can grieve. In his translation of the New Testament from Greek into German, Martin Luther (1483-1546) translated “mourn” with Leidtragen, meaning “sorrow-bearing.” It’s an odd blessing until we realize that what Jesus was getting at was this: blessed is the one who bears the sorrows of the world and neighbor and self, because those who mourn have God’s ear – and they will be comforted.

In Isaiah 25, we heard God’s promise that there will come a day when all will be put to right. “On this mountain Yahweh will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled marrow of well-aged wines strained clear. And Yahweh will destroy on this mountain the shroud – the funeral pall – that is cast over all peoples….Then Yahweh will wipe away the tears from all faces….” That’s Isaiah’s vision for the time to come. It is a powerful, confident in the identity and purpose of God, a God who does not intend God’s people to suffer and mourn and cry, but to sit at a feast of rich food.

Centuries later the Holy Spirit gave a revelation to John on the Island of Patmos. In that vision he saw way into the future and like Isaiah received a glimpse into the future God will bring about, of a promise fulfilled. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more: mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away….Behold, Jesus says to John, “I am making all things new….I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end.” In other words all of time is wrapped up in him, the Resurrected One. In him all the peoples of the world will find their rest. In time, there will come a time when everything lost will be restored and made new again. In him, there is a hope that despite the pain and sorrow and suffering and loss of our lives, the pain and sorrow and suffering and loss never – never! – have the last word.

As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, as Christian, as a human being who has felt the sting of death, I wish I never had to do another funeral again. But I’ll tell you there is no greater privilege in being a minister than standing with a family in the throes of grief and loss, in the intimacy of those places – seeing things, hearing things, experiencing things most people will never see or hear or know. I know Dorothy Boulton shares this view. And there’s no greater joy than to stand in this pulpit or sit at a bedside and declare the gospel, to read from Revelation 21 with conviction and assurance and give witness to the power of the resurrection – because if it’s not true in those heart-wrenching moments then it isn’t true in any other moment. I don’t say this because you pay me to, because I’m a minister, but because experience yields conviction and conviction demands faithfulness. It’s what I’ve come to know in and through my suffering.

How can I say all of this? Only because of grace. The gospel is true. Something happens when we gather as a community around those we love with the love and support and grace of Christ. It’s what makes the church so unique. There’s no place like it. This is the place where we hold each other’s sorrow and grief. When we share our sorrows and our grief, Christ is present there. The cross stands at the heart of all that we do and there’s no getting around it. Christ’s message from the cross says to us: in your suffering you’re not alone. In your suffering you’ll find me. In your losses I am present because I am greater than death.

On this All Saints’ Day, we are reminded of our losses. It’s a heavy day, this is a heavy sermon, intentionally so. It’s sobering, but not meant to be grim, but to be real, honest. It’s an invitation for us as a church to share our sorrow, to carry one another along in our losses and grief. There’s an old Egyptian proverb that goes, “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a hard battle.” We are all broken. We all know loss. But we are given the gift of one another so that as a church – with saints above and saints below – we can share our sorrow and when we do we soon discover Christ’s presence among and within us. Christ showed us that we experience God’s grace in the broken places, in the sorrowful, tearful, crying places. Why does it have to be this way? I haven’t a clue, that’s the way it is. God’s grace is known the strongest in the weak and hurting and broken places – which is precisely the point of this Table and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and why he invites us to share this meal. Here we remember our loss of him, but how he was known to us in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35). But it has to be broken and then shared; then the meal takes on life, the life of Jesus who was broken for us and shared his life. It has to be broken and then shared; when lives break, when broken lives share, Jesus promises to be there too. An unwillingness to be broken and to share means we miss the Christ.

A friend of mine tells the story of a church with a lot of customs and traditions and they didn’t like anybody disrupting them. The church had an interim minister who was trying to shack things up a bit, but wasn’t being too successful. This church had the custom of putting a loaf of bread on a communion plate on the table every week. They don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, but they have a symbol of the sacrament. If you think that would be expensive or wasteful to have an unused loaf of bread on the Commmunion table every week, don’t worry. They use the same loaf. It is a large unsliced loaf of Italian bread covered with polyurethane. So they use the same bread over and over again. One Sunday the minster was leading people in Communion. He lifted the ceremonial loaf of bread, said, “Take eat, this is my body.” Then he cracked it open and ripped it apart.

There was a collective gasp in the congregation. Then it was absolutely silent as he continued to break the bread into large chunks to place on the Communion trays. It took a few minutes for people to realize the minister has switched the polyurethane bread with a real loaf. Afterward, someone said, “You really had us going there for a minutes. We thought you actually broke our Communion bread.”

The minister said, “If it isn’t broken, it can’t be shared.”

On this Sunday we acknowledge our losses, all the broken, hurting places in our lives and we share them, in and through this meal. As we do we will find the Risen Christ, because that’s where he is known to us, in our losses.

“O blest Communion, fellowship divine. We feebly struggle, they glory shine. Yet all are one in Thee for all are Thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963[1937]), 121. “For the emphasis lies on the bearing of sorrow. The disciple-community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it. And in this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity.” (121-122).

Sermon by William G. Carter, “If There Isn’t Enough to Go Around,” William G. Carter, ed. Speaking of Stewardship: Model Sermons on Money and Possessions (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1989), 117-118.

William W. How, “For all the Saints” (1864).

Photo: K E Kovacs, St. John's Cross at Dusk, Iona, Scotland (June, 2008).