Sunday, December 30, 2012

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for...

A sermon on Luke 2:21-35
Do you ever find it hard to believe something somebody has said to you? I'm pretty young and probably pretty naïve about the world, but even I sometimes have a hard time taking somebody at face value. For example, my fiance and I are trying to buy a house. There's a lot of trust that goes into this transaction, from trusting the sellers not to hide if your house is the site of an ancient burial ground to trusting your bank or mortgage lender not to take your money and run for the hills. It's an exercise in faith building, and I think it's pretty normal to be unsure and have questions, especially when all you have is the word of somebody you don't know. Faith is a lot like buying a house or taking a job; you don't know exactly what you're getting into but you hope you can trust the word of the people who say they want to help you. You cling to the hope that their word is true, but it's not easy, and faith isn't easy either.

The lesson for today is a great one, but also a tough one, mostly because I can't help thinking “Simeon and Anna, you lucky jerks!” We start out with Mary and Joseph taking the 40 day old baby Jesus to the synagogue to offer sacrifice to the Lord, as was proper for them to do for a first born son. While they're there, they run into an old man named Simeon, who some time ago had heard a word from God that the Messiah would come, and that Simeon would lay his own eyes on Israel's salvation. And so, as the text says, “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple . . . took him in his arms, and praised God, saying, 'Master, now you are dismissing you servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.'” And then after that, an old widow who spent all her time worshipping at the temple comes up and starts talking about the child and the redemption of Israel. These two devout people got to hold the incarnation of God in their arms; they got to see their own salvation. As I said, lucky people... This is not really an opportunity available to us.

This makes me think of a scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, where Indiana has to step across an invisible bridge and hope to God there's solid ground beneath his feet. That's kind of how life is. Some things you can at least foresee, like finishing a degree, getting married, or starting a family, but often that's often not the case. Certainly the parents in Newtown didn't anticipate what happened a couple weeks ago. Nobody did. We can't foresee an illness on the horizon, or an accident, or a job loss... you know your life. What kinds of things have popped out at you lately? It can be pretty hard to trust that God is there, and that God is working in the midst of such things.

In fact, sometimes it's hard, in the face of such evil, tragedy, death and sickness, to trust that God ever came at all. That God even exists. That anything will ever change. The whole story of Jesus is pretty fantastical. We start out with an angel from God announcing to a virgin that she's about to give birth, and then we move on to a fanciful and dramatic birth story that involves angels and shepherds, and magi following a star, and then to top things off we're told that this baby isn't just a baby but God, and that God is now walking around on earth. And later we'll be told that this God/man has been crucified and died, and then that he has defeated the one thing no mortal can escape: death. And we're told to just keep believing that in the face of the deaths of children, in the face of political corruption and war and starvation and cancer and... how can we? How can you?

I think there's a myth about prophets and those who testified about Christ, that they never doubted. We even have a bad attitude about the ones that do doubt. We laughingly call a skeptic a “doubting Thomas.” We assume that because Simeon and Anna were described as faithful and devout that they kept a constant vigil, that they never questioned the word which came to them, and that they never had dark moments where the pain of living in an occupied country, where the pain of being poor, of being widowed, of being lonely, or rejected seeped into them and caused them to wail in despair. We assume that they were rewarded with seeing God because of their unwavering belief. We assume that if we look at the tragedy around us and despair utterly, that we have lost our faith, that we have sinned by doubting. But the thing is, this story doesn't say that.

Blessed be Simeon and Anna, for their eyes did see the child Christ. But they never witnessed the angels appearing to Mary or the Shepherds. They never saw the child grow up. They never saw him preach, or heal, or raise the dead. They never saw him wrap so many rejected people in love and kindness, and they most certainly never saw him die and rise again. What they had was a word from the Spirit that salvation would come, and a baby: a tiny glimpse at a plan for redemption which began generations before, and which is still being completed today. And it was enough. It wasn't everything, and their trust wasn't perfect, but it was enough.

Faith isn't about never questioning. I would be remiss as a pastor and theologian if I never asked God why something had happened in absolute rage and grief. I wouldn't be human if I had never asked God why I hadn't heard his voice, or if he was even there at all. Difficulty trusting is human, and doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is certainty. Faith is about hearing a word and trusting the character of the speaker enough to keep believing in the face of uncertainty. It's about seeing a thread of light, of human warmth and compassion in the midst of the most horrific tragedy, and clinging to that as if it were the only thing keeping you from drowning in darkness. Faith is not about knowing where the ground is, but taking that next step anyway, because otherwise despair will chase you, and devour you.

What faith is about is looking long and hard for the ways in which God is revealed. And God is revealed to you. The character of God is revealed throughout the Bible, and through the ways we experience God in our daily lives. That experience looks and feels like a lot of different things: in the midst of tragedy, there is a gentle word from a neighbor, or the embrace of a community. In the midst of loneliness, there is imagination and creativity and vocation to reassure you. In the face of loss, there is hope for the resurrection. God enters into your life in many ways, perhaps more subtle than Jesus entered into Simeon and Anna's, but God does enter. Like them, you have been given a word by the Holy Spirit, and like them, God is being revealed to you in bread and wine, and laughter, and comfort, and in surprising and exciting ways. The beauty of Christmas is the radical declaration that Jesus is here among you, walking with you, carrying your burdens when they're too much and comforting you when you hurt. It isn't always easy to trust that it's happening, or that it will happen, but our God is a God of promise. The word has come; God is with you. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

In our darkest night...

Where do we begin to address what happened in Newtown, CT last week? Where does the Gospel break into our lives when we ache for the pain of parents who sent their children to school one day, and who will never see them again, and for spouses, friends, and relatives of teachers who sacrificed themselves to save their students? This is a terrible tragedy, and one that has spurred on discussions, some sensitive, some not, about public policy such as gun control, access mental health services, school security, and more. Where can Christians go to find peace in such situations, and how can we share peace with those who are grieving so bitterly?

I can't answer that. But what is clear to me is that we have need. We have desperate need of something to heal us in the depths of despair. We have desperate need of something to bring us peace in times of discord. We have need of a voice to call us into compassion rather than selfishness. We have need of love, of understanding, of hope in the darkest of times. There is no good answer to tragedies like this, and there is no good reassurance when, even if you believe in the resurrection of the dead, your heart is split open because of a loss that can never be filled in this lifetime.

We have need. And right now, I think all I personally have is prayer. A prayer for peace, a prayer for healing, a prayer for God to reveal God's self in the midst of this unthinkable catastrophe. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, so night will be no more. Amen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christian Freedom

To make a long story short, I was scheduled to fly to South Africa on Sunday from Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Anybody who has turned on the weather this week knows that the Twin Cities got 15 inches of snow, which happened to be worsening right about the time my plane was scheduled to go out. So rather than losing 5 vacation days, I waited until the roads were clear enough and headed back to my internship site (about a 3 hour drive--took me 4.5!). As I was driving through open fields blanketed in fluffy, white snow, I was listening to a compilation CD I created using music from a few of my favorite Christmas albums, including several from St. Olaf's Christmasfest a few years ago. One song, which I have always loved, is based on Psalm 100. Here are some of the lyrics:

"Make a joyful noise unto God
Sing and dance, be merry!
Celebrate the birth of our Savior!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia,
Alleluia, alleluia,
Jesus the Lord is born
And he died to save us
Alleluia, to set us free. Alleluia!
We are the sheep meaning God is our shepherd
Alleluia, alleluia, and we are free!"

The first time I heard this piece, I was seated in the big recreation center where Fest is always held, and remember gaping openmouthed with tears streaming down my face at that last line. It's really the fundamental statement of our faith as Christians. No longer are we enslaved, in Egypt, to Babylon, to Rome, to sin, to death--we are free because of the Incarnation of our Lord.

There's a lot of misconception about what freedom looks like. We think of freedom as the ability to do whatever we want, and any rules imposed on us from the outside qualify as tyranny. But of course, rules are imposed on us all the time. We can't go around beating people up or stealing, because it may be an exercise of our 'freedom' to do so, but it also violates the freedom of another person. I think often religion, especially Christianity, gets a bad rap because of the rules. We start off with 10 commandments, and it just gets more complicated from there. There are certainly legalists out there who do their part in scaring people away from this approach to faith.

We were created for relationship. That's one of my fundamental presuppositions of my faith. We were created by God, for God and for one another, to be in relationship, and to love one another and nurture one another and creation. Sin is a force which by its nature destroys relationships. Because of that, we may think that what we are doing is exercising our freedom, but what we are actually doing is demonstrating how enslaved we really are. Sins are sins because they harm; us, each other, or creation. If our freedom inclines us to hurt others, we are not free to do what we were intended to do, but enslaved to that which harms.

I love this song because it hits directly on that point. We are free not despite the Shepherd but because of the Shepherd. Because of that guidance, we recognize the danger of following a different path, which leads us to hurt and kill and die. Because of that guidance, we know we are loved and protected, ultimately and infinitely. We, in our most perfect state, as we were created to be, can be known, because of God watching us, shaping us, and cleansing us. I never want to preach about the rules, because you can become enslaved to rules too; but it seems to me that an important question to ask about all our actions is 'who is this serving?' True freedom comes in serving that which is love embodied.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Feeding the Lions: A Reflection on Daniel 6:6-27

After the Babylonians had taken Judah (the southern part of Israel) captive, some Hebrews served in the king's house because they were skilled or of good families. Daniel was one such servant, and he served Darius faithfully, and Darius respected him greatly. Other people in the government became jealous of the respect Daniel garnered from the king and tricked Darius into writing an edict which would could not be repealed to get Daniel out of the way. They convinced the king that he alone should be worshipped (not uncommon for royalty at the time), and when Daniel was caught faithfully praying to the Lord, he was tossed into a den of lions as punishment. Despite being there overnight, God protected Daniel from the lions. The next morning, King Darius went to see how poor Daniel had fared and found him alive and well. Angry that he had been tricked, he had Daniel pulled out of the pit and the satraps who devised the scheme tossed in instead. They did not fare so well as Daniel. Darius then released another edict, because he had seen how the God of the Hebrews had delivered Daniel, saying, “in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.” (Daniel 6:26-27)

This text was selected as the narrative lectionary text for the first week of advent. It seems like an odd choice. After all, what does this story have to do with Jesus? It's about lions and satraps and Hebrews (oh my), not about a baby or waiting or any of the other things we associate with advent, right? However, I think this story hits straight at the heart of where we live: in a world full of lions and the people who toss us to them. What's eating you these days?

A friend of mine has been going through a rough year. He lost his father, his son is unwell and he's been tossed into internship same as the rest of us. His son suffers from depression, and if you've ever watched somebody you love struggle with depression, you know the pain involved in loving somebody so deeply and being unable to help them. It's consuming without the added stresses of trying to figure out your identity as a pastor and adjust to other losses and changes. His story isn't a unique one, though. No matter what our lives look like on the outside, sometimes it just feels like we're being thrown into a den with carnivorous beasts that haven't eaten in a couple weeks. Sometimes it feels like your faith makes it even worse because you're so faithful, darn it, why is this happening to you? Why doesn't God do something about this? It just doesn't seem fair to be devoured this way. Like the satraps who wanted to entrap Daniel and get him eaten, the evil things in this world delight in the destruction of our hope.

Daniel must have been so scared down there, watching these lions circle, licking their chops and staring at him with golden eyes glowing eerily in the dark. And yet in the midst of that fear and uncertainty, God was in the pit, standing defensively between Daniel and danger. I'm sure that didn't make those ominous eyes and glinting teeth seem any less sharp, but he wasn't devoured by them, and neither are we. God is standing between us and all the things we fear: illness, loss of job, divorce, etc, gathering us up and taking us into God's loving, protective arms. This is a God whose cardinal role is to deliver us from that which stalks and threatens us, even including the final word of death.

The name Immanuel means “God with us.” Advent is about the kind of hopeful waiting expectant parents feel before the birth of their child, except that we aren't waiting for an ordinary baby that will come at an indeterminate time; we're waiting on God with us, who has already been made manifest here, and who has promised to come again. Daniel is a story fundamentally about rescue, and it nicely sums up the story of God and humans—danger is everywhere, but God is a living God, one who “rescues and saves.” Christ has done it before, and continues to do it until the lion lays with the lamb. No matter what is lurking around you, know that God is with you, and in this upcoming advent season, remember we're not just waiting for a baby; we're waiting in the hope of the final and complete deliverance from all sin and death.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What are you waiting for?

This is a short sermon written for the first Sunday of Advent, based on the text Luke 21:25-36. I wanted to raise a provocative question and play with different ways of hearing the question: WHAT are you waiting for? What are you personally waiting for? What are you waiting for to get moving? I know it can be a bit taboo to preach discipleship, especially in progressive circles (God forbid there should be any requirements on us), but the Spirit moved me in this direction and it was pretty well received

It's that time of the year again! Advent is here, Christmas is coming, and again we enter into a time of anticipation. We are waiting not just for vacation days and presents and family and food, but for the celebration that reminds us who we are—a people who follow Jesus. Advent is about remembering the anticipation of the Savior which the Hebrew people hoped for for so long, but also anticipating Christ's return. Anybody who has a child, niece, or younger sibling knows the anticipation that goes along with pregnancy. Maybe you have waited for a baby to coo at, or for the end of a school year or graduation. We've all waited for the weekend. What are you waiting for?

The gospel text for today speaks of a fig tree, saying: “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Well, the world is kind of a disaster right now. There's political unrest in Syria and Israel, and government corruption is rampant here and abroad. People are dying of curable diseases because they can't afford the medicine, and of starvation for lack of food. But we haven't seen the leaves, yet, have we? We haven't seen “the heavens shaken” as verse 26 declares, so are we supposed to sit and twiddle our thumbs while we wait for Jesus to return? Things stink now, but Jesus will return and fix it all, end of story. Right?

Unfortunately, I don't think so. Theologians have a concept called the now-and-not-yet paradox. What it means is that Christ is already here, but also coming. He declares again and again that “the kingdom of God is at hand” but then practically in the same breath says: “the kingdom of God is coming.” So is it here or is it coming? The answer is, of course, “Yes.” To carry the fig tree metaphor further, let's think about the process of photosynthesis. Just because the tree isn't producing leaves and fruit doesn't mean that it's not working. It's very much alive, soaking up nutrients from the soil, benefiting from sunlight, drinking water, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, and producing chemicals that will aid in its eventual blooming. The tree is just as there and living in the winter as in the summer. Isn't Christ also here, even if we can't see him? So what exactly are you waiting for?

Are you waiting for things to get worse? Or better? Are you waiting for parting clouds and chariots of fire? For angels or demons? What are you waiting for? A revolution has already taken place, one in which the supreme creator of all life became as humble as a helpless baby. God gave a promise to Abraham and to us, and God responded to that promise by sending Jesus. Jesus who came and stirred things up, preaching the word of God's love. Jesus who came and healed the blind and sick, who cast out demons, who calmed seas and turned water into wine. Jesus who, though the highest king in the universe, died the death of a criminal, and Jesus who defied the powers of death that no human can outrun, and rose from the grave. The heavens have already been shaken by the event that we remember in this season, haven't they? So why aren't we acting like he's already here putting things in order? Why aren't we working right beside him?

What are you waiting for? If all you're waiting for is a day of presents and candy, you know what you need to do. Create your count-down calendar, buy the presents, and wrap them, bake the cookies, and prep the turkey. We put a ton of energy, time, and money into preparing for a single day. Is that what our faith is about? But if our waiting is about the anticipation of this world-shaking power returning and righting things once and for all, why aren't we putting as much time and energy into that event as we do into our Christmas plans and vacations and graduations and birthdays?

Jesus is coming! But Jesus is also HERE! This is great news. And even better news is that in your baptism, you've been trusted with an incredible mission; the same mission that Jesus had when he healed and taught and died and rose. You--you personally, have been called to live in this now-but-not-yet paradox, and to wait with anticipation while also meticulously tending to all the duties necessary for that which is coming, and also already at hand. There are poor now. Give them food and shelter. There are sick now—give them medicine and prayer. There are grieving now—give them comfort. Remember who we are and why we're here. Our faith isn't about presents and snow and Santa. It's about our mission now and the entire year, and our whole lives. Jesus is here, and so are you--so what are you waiting for?