Monday, December 2, 2019

Hope


Isaiah 2:1-5
December 1, 2019
Advent 1 – Hope

The dictionary defines Hope like this:
“to cherish a desire with anticipation
for example, ‘she hopes to be invited to the party”
That’s true and we know what they’re talking about,
but hope is more than that isn’t it?

To live with hope is to be optimistic,
but it’s more than that too.
Martin Luther said, “everything that is done
in the world is done by hope.”
Even when the present seems desperate,
to live with hope in the future is to live with trust,
to live with faith.
Hope is faith that God will not abandon us
and that the future will be better.
The prophet Isaiah had that faith in God and
hope for the future.

The book of Isaiah is long. 66 chapters.
It’s ascribed to Isaiah the son of Amoz who lived in the 8th century,
but most scholars believe that it’s written by several people,
and they divide it into three different sections,
First Isaiah are books 1-39 written in the 700’s BC
before the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of the Israelites.
Second Isaiah, books 40-55 in the 500’s during the exile of the Israelites
and Third Isaiah , books 56-66 were written after
the Israelites return from exile in the 400’s BC.

All our readings this Advent are from the first Isaiah
The time before the invasion of the Babylonians,
Swords into PloughsharesMichael Cook
This is a time when Isaiah and
other people could feel that things were going wrong,
were heading in the wrong direction
and were not going according to God’s will and vision,
and Isaiah was giving a warning to the country of Israel.

Chapter one starts out with this kind of warning:

4 Ah, sinful nation,
    people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
    children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
    who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
    who are utterly estranged!

he goes on:

22 Your silver has become impure
    your wine is mixed with water.
23 Your princes are rebels
    and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
    and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
    and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

Isaiah sees a country of people
focused on its own gain.
Leaders using the power they have to
serve themselves and get rich rather
than to lift up and support the most vulnerable.

Not the country that God had established,
not the city on a hill for others to look to and imitate,
But just another corrupt country that has put
God’s will and those in need
at the bottom of the priority list.

Maybe we can appreciate Isaiah’s
observations today in this country.
The hopes for our nation have been high.
Once we saw ourselves as the one to emulate,
we were an example for others.
But things do not seem to be heading in
a good direction these days.

Just like Isaiah said,
people are weighed down with inequity,
everyone does seem to love a bribe
criminals and thieves are the honored ones,
Everyone is just out for what they can get,
and the widows and the orphans --
and all the most vulnerable are still not cared for.

I think we can feel Isaiah’s sense of foreboding.
This model is not sustainable in the long run.
It feels like we’re on the edge of a precipice,
something that will be very unpleasant for all of us.

Isaiah warns that these ways will only lead to destruction
to the dissolution of everything they knew
he uses phrases like:
humanity will be brought low, doom will follow.
Everyone will feel God’s disappointment.
There would be no doubt in this.

But in the midst of these visions of destruction,
are also visions of a new city and a new reality.
Which is what we hear throughout Advent.
Unpleasantness that the country faces will not
be permanent, it won’t last forever.
In their desperation and doom, the people
will understand where they went wrong.
They will discard all the things that were useless,
after the time of trial and destruction,
They will go back to God and God’s ways

In the end, God will not abandon us, and these difficult times
will be followed by a fulfillment, something better.
Death followed by resurrection.
  
In this reading for the First Sunday in Advent it says,
“here is the word that Isaiah, son of Amoz saw”.
We hear about a vision, a vision of tomorrow,
promise, a vision of hope.

In that vision, people are flooding to the house of God
not just the steady faithful, but all people are going
to find wisdom and to learn the ways of God.
This is not just a dream of church growth,
or to make this a Christian nation.
This is a vision of something much more encompassing,
much more important, people are coming
to learn God’s word and God’s ways
because the ways of the world that we have been
following didn’t work before.
The world is working together
to live out the way and the vision of God.

And the sign of this transformation would be this:
“They will turn their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.”

We’ve heard this phrase so often
it appears in Isaiah and Micah
it might be cliché now,
but think of how astounding that would be:

The whole world would find no need for weapons.
Our children would not need to know a thing
about war or self defense, or violence
or school shootings, or active shooter drills,
or stranger danger, or nuclear bombs, or wounded veterans,
or chemical weapons, or refugees.

So much so, that they would look at guns and
bombs and say, “what do we need these useless things for?
Let’s melt them down and turn them into something productive.”
This is an amazing vision, better than our current reality.
That is the hope that Isaiah envisions for all people.

And the whole book of Isaiah tells us that that hope
will be heralded through the gift of a child.
The shoot that comes off of Jesse’s tree
Emmanuel, God is with us, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of peace.
The Messiah.

This is our hope.
This is what we long for,
this is what we pray for,
The one that will deliver us into a new life.

This is we believe has already come in
the life and cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ,
And is still being formed in us
still being born in us every day
The hope that we are working to recreate in this world,
the hope that we see glimpses of
and keeps us going.
Christ resurrecting in us.

That is the word of God that Isaiah saw.
When all will be made new again.
The hope of a world recreated in God’s
image and according to God’s will.
The hope of the one that was,
and is, and is still to come.
The hope of the Messiah.


Monday, November 25, 2019

Giving Thanks


John 6: 24-35
Thanksgiving
11-24-19

After Jesus fed 5000 people,
The Angelus
Jean Francois Millet
they tried to make him king.
So he hid himself somewhere
but some of the people that were there
have come to find him again.

These are not the hungry or the sick,
These are more the curious.
The ones who come by afterwards
that go backstage after the show
like autograph hunters.
They’ve come to get a little more from Jesus.

Jesus actually seems a little skeptical
about their motivations for following him.
Jesus accuses them of  just looking for more bread
they like what they ate.

They want one more sign, one more
miracle, one more piece of bread
then they will know, then they will be satisfied.
they even ask Jesus how they can do the trick themselves.

But Jesus tells them not to waste their time
looking for that perishable food,
He says , don’t keep trying to find the food that
just goes stale in the end.

Jesus knew about them,
just as he knows about us.
We spend a lot of our time focusing
on perishable things.

Like this crowd, most of us have
looked for something some time in our lives
and not quite known what it is.
Many of us have grasped on to the
next thing or the simplest thing, thinking that was the answer.
Most of humanity has felt this at one time or another.

And in this world of quick fixes
and instant gratification
and the world tries to offer up satisfaction
in endless temporary and perishable ways.

It’s easy thing to point to obvious things like addictions
like drugs or alcohol, or even food or sex.
Those are certainly ways that we get
temporary satisfaction, but in the end
we keep on having to go back for more.
Those are the easy ones to point out.

But how much time do we spend on
The temporary things, the car, the house,
the natural diet, the artisanal coffee,
even the church building or
the perfect worship experience.
Just to realize those don’t fully satisfy?

Even that giant Thanksgiving meal that we’re
in the midst of planning and preparing now.
Most of us will eat more than we need to,
and we’ll be full for a while.
But we start to pick at things in the next hour.
Hunger will return, again and again.
It’s never goes away forever.

We are hungry people.
Physically and spiritually.
We’re always looking to fill some kind of void.
  
Advertisers maybe know best about that
void, and they tell us that whatever
they have to sell will fill it.

The phone or the car or the drink is
not just a good product it’s an emotion,
a feeling, a memory it will fulfill your deep needs.
 At least for now.

The ad slogans for fulfillment are all around us.
Olive Garden “When you’re here, your family.”
Hershey’s Chocolate is “Heartwarming the World”
And, my all-time favorite, “At Kroger, We’re Family”

These are not my experience of any of these places or products.
I have eaten both Olive Garden food and Hershey bars alone
followed by a sense of regret and self-loathing.

And I have recently left Kroger’s, so upset at the callousness
which the check-out person has treated me
that I was considering returning all the groceries I’ve bought in protest.
So maybe it is like family.

But Even if the waitresses or the store clerks are pleasant
and welcoming, even if the chocolate is delicious
and somehow brings people closer together
it’s a fleeting encounter.

But those advertisers know what people long for.
They are trying to sell community, friendship, psudeo-family
deep and lasting joy and a sense of inner peace.

Advertisers know that they only have the bread that perishes,
But they know that people are searching for something
they know that many people feel a void
they can’t put their finger on,
they want something that lasts longer than
chicken Parmesan, or chocolate bars or eggs and milk.
  
And they know people will go to look to fill
that void in lots of different places and things.
Because it’s easier for us to try and
find the permanent in the temporary.
I would even say that if we only look to
other people we will feel unsatisfied in the end.
It’s easier to keep going back for the food that perishes.

The crowd asks Jesus where they can find
that food that doesn’t perish and Jesus tells them.

Jesus says “I am the Bread of Life.
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry”
Jesus is the food that never perishes.

Now I don’t believe in magic, even when it comes to belief in Jesus.
I don’t believe that just saying you believe
or just saying some prayers or reading the bible
instantly changes your life and fills a void.
I’ve seen too many Christians who are still looking for something
and not finding it.
I don’t even believe that just joining a church is
and automatic life-changer either.

But the true bread that Jesus told us about
can be found through all these things.
Because worship, and believing Jesus, and reading scripture
and prayer, can all strengthen our faith.
And faith is the true bread.

Trusting in Jesus, trusting in God.
Trust in the creator of everything
the one that is the source of our lives
and all that is, is on our side, is for us, is with us.
Trusting in the love of God that surrounds us.
Faith in the one who provides all the bread.
That is what will keep feeding us, and keep us full.

Thanksgiving is not about special food,
it’s not about football,  and dare I say,
it’s not even about family.
Even if we have none of those things, we can still rejoice.
Thanksgiving is about giving thanks.
Acknowledging the source of
everything that is and was and will be.

It’s about thanking the one who created the mountains
and the trees and the oceans,
but also knows how many hairs are on your head.
It’s about thanking the God that creates abundance,
and wants us all to thrive and flourish and love and share with others.

For Christians it is about thanking God for the truth,
shown to us in Jesus.
That is the bread that feeds forever.
The bread of love, commitment, forgiveness,
support, healing, and new life.

And we find that truth is through the
the community that gathers around the table.
The place that shares Christ’s body and blood.

That is where we find the bread of life
the true bread, broken and given for us.
The food that never perishes,
the food that endures forever.


Monday, November 11, 2019

God of the Living


Luke 20:27-38
November 10, 2019
Jesus and the Sadducees
James Tissot

So Jesus is doing something that he doesn’t usually do.
He’s arguing with the Sadducees.
In Luke, Jesus argues all the time,
He’s been doing it since he was 10 or so
and went off by himself to the 
synagogue in Jerusalem.
Usually he does it with the Pharisees.
But this is the first time he’s 
arguing with Sadducees,
they are just defined here by what they don’t believe in,
and that is the resurrection.

The Sadducees only believed in the Torah.
The first five books of the bible
while others accepted the psalms and the prophets.
The Sadducees just believe that God kept covenants
in the here and now, just in this earthly realm.
Others believed God’s promises were for here and now,
and the future, and beyond the boundaries of this world.

Jesus has been talking about resurrection and
new life God quite a lot lately.
He’s telling them about the forgiveness of God
and the wonder and grace of God’s kingdom.
This is going against the Sadducees understanding
and they’d like to prove Jesus wrong,
so they’re trying to trick Jesus and show him  
how silly and unworkable the idea is.

The hypothetical situation they use is actually a law in Leviticus.
If a woman’s husband dies and they didn’t have any children,
then she is supposed to marry the man’s brother,
I guess in another effort to have children
in the original husband’s lineage.

So they present this hypothetical woman who couldn’t have
children and she gets passed on to the next brother
and he dies and then the next and the next.
Really a terrible situation for the woman if you think of it.

But their question to Jesus was, “If this resurrection was real,
then whose wife would she be? All the husbands would be there.”
To put it crassly, they’re asking “Who would she belong to?
Who will she keep house for?
She can’t keep the house of seven men.”
Because in the resurrection, to them,
obviously all the rules here still apply.
They’re trying to say,
“See how silly resurrection and eternal life Jesus is?
Eternal life would be an eternal mess.”

But Jesus doesn’t get trapped in their petty arguments.
When Jesus talks about the resurrection, Jesus is not talking
about spending eternity in a place
where all our laws and constraints
and prejudices and shortcomings and status are still in place.
Where one person still keeps house for another.
Jesus is talking about something completely new.
Jesus is talking about new life.
Jesus is talking about heaven.

These days, theologians in the mainstream denominations
like to temper our talk about heaven
We say, we don’t want to just be
“Pie in the sky, by and by”.
A real phrase used by real pastors in
real conversations.
  
This is a reaction against the last  couple thousand years of 
Christianity when we only  talked about heaven,
only talked about being saved,
we only talked about life after death.

Now, we like to focus on the here and now.
We like to focus on the fact that God is doing things
in this life not just the next.
These days we tend to focus on our work together,
and justice, peace, and reconciling relationship.

But it’s not just an either or thing.
God is doing this in this life and we also
have the promise of the next.

We can’t lose sight of that promise of eternal life with God
it’s central to Jesus message.
Salvation, justification, eternal righteousness,
all that is a promise it is a gift to us.
that no matter what happens in this life
we know we will be safe and whole with God.

This gift allows us to face even the worst trials in life with hope.
No matter how bad things get, even if our life ends,
we know there is still hope for our future.
With this gift we are comforted when a loved one dies
we know they are safe with God and out of pain.

But it’s not just a duplicate of this world.
For many people that would be no gift at all.
It’s something completely new.
  
Jesus promises a time where fears and doubts and pain
and sadness will be a thing of the past.
A place where God’s will is always done
Where no one is hungry, where there is no prejudice,
or racism, no injustice, no illness, no pain.

And this vision, this future that we hope for and imagine,
we use it today and add bits of it to our present.
The kingdom of God is like that.
It’s like the mustard seed which grows into
a great bush and takes over the whole field
It’s like that yeast which the woman folds into the flour
and it rises and rises.
Our job as Christians is to add bits of God’s future kingdom
into the here and now,
We put our anticipated future into our present

But that is lost on the Sadducees.
They only have the here and now.
They want to know:
“Who’s wife will this woman be in the resurrection?”

The problem with the Sadducees
is that they were thinking too small.
God was too small for them.
They underestimated God.
Jesus is talking about heaven, eternal life, paradise,
and they are worried about which man’s floor
this poor woman would be sweeping every day.
Jesus tells them, don’t be small -don’t think so small.

In God’s kingdom, this woman is not
given in marriage again and again,
Jesus says there is no marriage.
Which may make some of us happily
married people uncomfortable.
But today, as in times past, we still make
unfair judgments about people based on their marriages,
relationships, and children and lack thereof.

In Jesus understanding of God’s kingdom
this woman, and others like her,
is free of the constraints she’s lived with.
She is no longer stigmatized by her barrenness,
no longer defined by her ability or lack of ability to have children,
no longer identified by her series of fruitless weddings
no longer second class to others.

In God’s kingdom, this hypothetical woman does
what no one, except maybe Jesus, expects her to do:
She steps out into eternal life, on her own,
a full and complete child of God.

That future promise, exists for each of us.
It’s one of the most precious gifts that Jesus gives us.
And this future gift of God has the power to
change our world here and now.

Monday, October 28, 2019

All the Cookies


John 8:31-36
Reformation Sunday
October 27, 2019

Today is the day we celebrate the movement started by
Martin Luther, a 16th century monk, who nailed (or mailed)
his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in Germany
and started Lutheran Church.

But what were these 95 Theses about?
What was the Reformation about?
I’ve explained it using this metaphor before,
but I think it’s worth repeating.

Do you like cookies?
Who doesn’t like cookies?
Did your mom ever give you a cookie when you did something good?
Parents do that: “You’ve been good. Here, have a cookie.”
Positive reinforcement.
And then, I guess it works the other way:
“You’ve been bad? No cookies for you.”
Maybe it’s not always cookies, maybe it’s video games or TV
or money or cell phones, sometimes it’s even affection,
interaction, attention, but the same thought is there.

“You’ve been good. Here, have a cookie.”
“You’ve been bad? No cookies for you.”

This cookie system works some of the time,
It’s one dimension of parenting.
Children and even adults can learn rules from it
But when it comes to relationships between people
the cookie system falls short .

If our relationships
were always only built on a strict system of cookies --
of rewards and punishments –  then where does that leave things?
Where does that leave our inner moral compass, our hearts?
Where is the trust, the compassion, the give and take of love,
Where is nurturing, spiritual development, the joy?

If it was all about rewards and punishments
then our relationships would only be about how many cookies we had.
PUT DOWN THE COOKIES

So why am I talking about cookies?
Why am I talking about cookies on the day that we celebrate
Martin Luther Nailing (or mailing) those 95 theses to
the door of the church at Wittenberg?
Because the Lutheran Reformation was all about cookies.
Let me explain.

At the time of the Reformation,
the Christian church believed that God completely
worked on the cookie system.

They thought was that God had a huge bag of cookies,
Which they called “God’s grace”
And God would give people a cookie when they did something
good to earn it and likewise,
God would take away cookies when people did something wrong.
If someone died with enough cookies,
then they could go to heaven.
But if they did not have enough cookies,
they went to all kinds of strange and horrible places
where there was wailing and gnashing of teeth.
God was only seen as the great big cookie
dispenser and TAKER in the sky.
In Martin Luther’s time,
this was basically the point of the church.
The leaders like priests and bishops and cardinals
were the powerful and important cookie dispensers.
They were there to determine  why what and who
would get a cookie.
Going to church got you a cookie,
taking communion got you a cookie,
giving confession got you a cookie,
praying got you a cookie,
helping someone got you a cookie,
and giving money to the church got you a lot of cookies.

Of course the powerful priests and bishops and other
cookie dispensers had tons of cookies and were bound to go
to heaven, because why not give yourself a bunch of cookies?
So they were happy.

But what Martin Luther saw was people
who were desperately afraid all the time.
They were afraid of the church. Afraid of God.
They were afraid that they wouldn’t
have enough cookies when they died.
They were afraid that their deceased relatives
didn’t have enough cookies and that they were
suffering in purgatory for thousands of years.
Martin himself, who was a monk,
who prayed and worshiped constantly,
who went to confession every day, who studied the bible all the time,
He was also living in fear that he didn’t have enough cookies.
  
The church was so focused on their cookies,
they didn’t care for the world around them.
They didn’t notice people suffering and hurting.
There was no room to notice God acting and the Spirit moving.
It effected people’s relationship with God.

Between God and God’s people there was a great chasm --
a great big pile of cookies -- that people just couldn’t get over.

Martin Luther looked at this situation and said
“This isn’t grace at all.”
This reward and punishment isn’t like God.
This isn’t Good News for the poor and oppressed.
This isn’t like Jesus he knew and read about in scriptures.
This isn’t the same one we know who ate
with sinners and thieves and tax collectors.
This isn’t the one we who told us not to worry because
we were more valuable to God than the birds or the lilies.
This isn’t’ the one we know who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
This isn’t the God who loved the world so much
that he gave his only son to it.

The God that Luther knew and read about in
scripture was the God of love
not a God who sat up in heaven, removed from the people,
keeping a check list of what they did right and what they did wrong and counting everyone’s cookies.

In scriptures, Luther read about a God who
loved us enough to live with us,
who was part of the sadness and pain and joys of this world,
He read about a God who gave his very life for us on the cross.
  
And he Luther read and read and read the verse
in Paul that we read today:
For there is no distinction,
since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;
they are now justified by his grace as a gift.

And then after a lot of contemplation, Luther got it.
There is no distinction. We’ve all fallen short of God’s plans for us.
No one deserves the cookies.
But God still gives us all the cookies - as a gift.

Grace isn’t about giving out cookies only when you’ve earned it.
Grace is about giving you a cookie when you don’t deserve it too.
Luther realized the real Good News
of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was
that God gave us all the cookies up front.

All the cookies.
It’s a gift to us, free and clear.
Given to us before we even started doing right and wrong,
To be opened when we need it.
When Jesus died on that cross, he gave us all the cookies. 

Martin Luther and the 95 Theses reminded us all
that God has given us  everything.
All God’s love, all God’s promises,
all God’s gifts, and eternal life with God.
And no matter what we do, no matter where we go,
no matter what happens to us, that is our gift.

Will some of us misuse the cookies? sure.
Will some of us forget we have the cookies
and just leave them wasting away in a cookie jar? Of course.
But it’s a chance that God is willing to take.
To make us free and reconciled to God.

No more worried hours wondering if we have enough.
No more wondering whether we have God’s love.
No more wondering if we’ve done enough.
No more worrying about our eternal life.

We are free now to get on with God’s work in the world.
Free to love one another, free to care for one another,
Free to help the poor, release the captives,
Free to share the Good News with the world.

And free to see God and to see God for what God actually is:
the resurrection, the light, the hope in times of trouble.
A wonderful, kind, nurturing parent who wants to engulf us with love.
The God of love.  Unconditional love. All the cookies.

God has made us free.
Free from the fear of God.
And if God has made us free,
then we are free indeed.