Monday, December 18, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid (Don't Choose Fear) - Advent 3

John 1:6-8; 21-28
Advent 3

The religious leaders of the temple
seem a little worried by this odd man in the
woods talking about repentance and forgiveness.
So they send some of their own, probably lower
ranking people, out to question John.
Some might say to harass him.

They pull him aside in the middle of what he’s doing
in front of everyone and they ask him things like:
“who are you? Show us your ID,
who told you you could do this?
do you have a permit ?”

Problem was John was using the words of the church,
but he was not of the church or in the church,
and he was obviously appealing to masses of people.
These are things that make people in authority nervous.

And he was saying things  like Make Straight the Way of the Lord.
 It probably felt like he was challenging them.
And maybe he was. Just his existence was a challenge to them.

Not even one chapter into the book
and it’s obvious that long-haired
counter-cultural hippy heroes of our story
are on a collision course with the authorities.

And  in the environment that he was in, and with what he was doing,
and knowing  the powers that be at that time.
that usually meant death.
John had surely seen this before with others.

So I wonder if John the Baptist was afraid.
We don’t see any sign of it in the story here,
but it stands to reason that he would be.
He was human and humans have fear.

We try tend to think that humans that do brave
and courageous things as being super-heroes,
having no second guesses, no doubts, no apprehension,
Like they have blinders on to danger and consequences.
especially our biblical heroes.
We imagine these people as “special people”
like they have been given a special gift to ignore danger.

And when we do that, then we tell ourselves
that we could never do what they do,
we should leave the work of God to those
who are super- human.

But I think that, like most people, John the Baptist
was afraid at times.
Maybe in the middle of the night,
he would lie awake and imagine what would happen
if the authorities thought his message went too far,
if he pushed the wrong buttons.
He probably wondered at times if he was
doing the right thing, or would another message
or method have been better,

We’ve heard about fear from other courageous
Malala Yousefzai
people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela or
Malala You-saf-zai, the Pakistani girl
who was shot by the Taliban
for continuing her education.
She said she was afraid all the time knowing that it was against the law
for girls to be educated and seeing  what the religious leaders would do
to families who educated their children.
She said at 11, she was wondering if she should sleep with a
knife under her pillow.
But she said that she did not choose fear.

When we hear the phrase in the scriptures
and from Jesus “Do not be afraid”
it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t feel fear.
That is impossible. We all have fear.
It doesn’t mean that the gospel will somehow make us
super human and we won’t have doubts,
or that if we are afraid we lack faith.

What “do not be afraid” means is that
we should not choose fear,
we should not give into our fear,
we should not lead with our fear,
or let fear make our decisions for us.

Fear makes us do things that we otherwise wouldn’t do.
It makes us close ourselves off to others,
it makes us stingy, it makes it hard for us to learn new things,
it makes us uncreative, it makes us violent.
Fear makes us act contrary to
how the gospel of Jesus calls us to act.

Scientists call the part of our brain that
reacts to fear the reptile brain.
When we give into our fear, we’re give into automatic reactions
that are focused on self-preservation.
Our reactions are to lash out,
dominate or be dominated, to just focus on survival.
Fight or flight.

Some would say that we in this country have chosen fear,
especially since 9-11.
We want only to preserve what we have.
So we jump at everything and everyone,
we fear immigrants and refugees, protestors, police,
Terrorism, home invaders, thieves, sexual predators,
people o f color, white people,
Russia, North Korea, China, the Middle East, Mexico
we can’t decide who our enemy is, so everyone is our enemy.
We worry about bombs and wars,
so we make more bombs and wars,
we worry about the economy, stock market crashes, we worry about jobs,
so we only go for sure bets that worked decades ago.
and infringements on our freedom, loss of our way of life,
so we make more rules that infringe on our freedoms.

Some of those fears may be legitimate
and real and some of them are not.
But they seem to be consuming our lives.
We are not the stereotypical brave and bold Americans,
we are a nation of people who are afraid of everything.

And when we allow fear to guide us
to make our decisions for us,
then we end up losing our capacity to do
anything more than survive,
we lose our ability to serve our mission
to come together on decisions,
to work for what’s best for everyone,
everything is done with suspicion,
with an objective to dominate instead of cooperate.
We become our own worst enemy.
  
We can see this in churches,
As congregations continue to get smaller,
Many churches have given into their fears,
they worry about losing one member,
about losing money, so they focus
on their own self-preservation,
They cease to be able to act to take risks and chances,
they fear any kind of change,
and they start to blame anything that is different,
or challenges the norm.
Their only mission is their own survival.
And because they’re acting with fear, more people leave.
Fearful leaders become their own worst enemy.

This  pattern is the same for individuals, groups, and whole nations

And there are forces in this world that would love for us
to be in fear all the time, and would love for us to react in fear.
It keeps us from unity, from compassion, generosity and understanding.
It makes us easy to control and manage.
We end up destroying ourselves.

And the way that we counteract this fear,
is to focus on our larger mission.
To focus on something that is larger than our own survival
and our own self.

So John may well have been feeling fear,
and anxiety when the religious authorities came to question him.
He could have taken that as a cue to stop what he was doing,
or take a safer route, to change his message,
or to just focus on a select group of disciples.
He could have been suspicious of everyone and protected
himself at all costs, at the loss of what he was supposed to do.

Or he could have lashed out with violence
and inspired the large group of people he was with to do the same.
But he didn’t do any of those things, he didn’t choose fear for himself,
He chose his mission.

We see this in the answer to the Priests and Levites question
He said, “I am not the Messiah”.
His mission wasn’t about him, it was about getting ready for another,
He was not focused on himself, on his self-preservation
or on giving himself honor or recognition.
He pointed to another, something bigger than himself,
something that he was humbled before.
Someone who he was not worthy to untie his sandal.
His mission in life was not himself,
his mission was what he came to do.
And that is the way we can overcome fear.

Focusing on the larger thing can give us perspective,
so we don’t  chiefly focus on what we have to lose.
We know that whatever we do lose, our gains will be greater.
We can push our fear aside and press on.

And that is why we are here .
There is so much to be afraid of in this world today.
Some of it real, some of it exaggerated.
But we are here to remember that we serve something
bigger than our fears.
We might feel, doubts, anxiety for what may come in the future,
but we don’t let that rule us.
We don’t let that change us or
decide our actions for us.
We do not choose fear.

We choose the way of Jesus
over the way of fear and hate.
We have a mission to be Christ in the world together.

Do not be afraid.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid (of Yourself) - Advent 2

Mark 1:1-8
December 10, 2017
Advent 2

So there was a man who seemed a little weird,
He  dressed funny and ate bugs
he yelled at people and told them they needed
to admit their sins and change their ways,
and after they did that,
St. John the Baptist
Jen Norton
he would dunk their heads in the river.

And it says that people came from
all over the Judean countryside
went out to the river to participate in it.
Like it was Walmart on Black Friday or something.
What was the attraction?

Now ritual washing was something that every
culture had, but it was more
kind of a task that Jews and Pagans
had to do before going to worship.
So that in itself was not too exciting.

And John’s ritual washing was unique
washing was combined
with a confessing your sins and changing your ways.
Which doesn’t sound like it would be popular either.

But I think all combined, what John the Baptist
was doing was something very exciting.
He was saying that something earth shattering
was on its way and this was the way to get ready for it.

Jesus was going to be doing amazing things in the world,
shaking things up and making things new,
and the first step they had to take was
ready their lives to receive it.

And the message is the same for us today.
Get yourself ready to receive the good news.
Examine yourself, be honest with God, Repent!

Now, humans in general are all very
excited about other people changing their ways,
but not at all eager to take account
our own wrongdoings and to change our ways.

Even those of us who are seasoned Christians and
well versed in the concept of repentance
would rather forget the whole thing most days,
because we know that the outside world is pretty scary,
but the world inside us can be absolutely horrifying.

We scare ourselves because we know our selves all too well.
Who knows us better than we know ourselves?
Who knows better the people we’ve hurt,
the things we’ve let go, the laziness and apathy we  feel?
The anger and hostility, the violence in our heads,
the terrible things we’ve thought about other people
the horrible things we’ve said without thinking?
Who knows more about the temptations we have?

But as scary as we can be to ourselves,
as Christians we look inside, we are honest.
Because any work of Jesus includes
a good amount of introspection and truth telling
to ourselves and to God.

Now I wanted to avoid saying that the work
of a Christian “starts with” looking at ourselves,
because self-examination never ends,
and we could easily get stuck in self-examination
and self-absorption and become nothing but a self-help religion
who’s only work is to be nice and pure,
and never move onto the equally hard work of the Gospel.
Like spreading good news, helping the poor,
doing justice and serving others.
Plenty of Christians have fallen into that trap.


And  plenty of Christians have also fallen into the
trap of pointing a finger at everyone else
of thinking that all the problems  in the world
are someone else’s and that it’s always
the rest of the world that needs to change
for God’s will to be done.

But John the Baptist called on people to repent
For their own actions and faults
 To understand their own sins and problems.
To recognize the ways that they were not aligned
with God’s way and wills and  to smooth
those paths and take down those mountains
and get ready for Jesus’s transformation.

And now, while we are waiting for Jesus second Advent,
the call is the same: Repent.
You can’t repent for anyone else,
and no one else can repent for you.
John the Baptist still wants us to learn
how to change, to be flexible, pliable,
and to know that we’re forgiven
so that we can be ready for the transforming
Gospel that Jesus brings.

This is part of the work
that we do while we wait for Jesus to come again.
We cannot talk about sin until we realize our own sin.
We cannot think that peace will come
until we realize the violence in us.
We cannot confront racism until we
understand the racism in our own hearts.
We cannot hope to help the hungry
until we realize our own greed.
We cannot hope for justice until we know
 that we benefit from what is unjust.
We cannot hope to help the outcast,
until we recognize our own privilege.
  
No one wants to do this. This is difficult and scary.
no one is excited about repenting.
But we might be excited about what the future will bring.
We might just be looking forward to what Jesus
will be bringing  to us:
baptism by the Holy Spirit for new life,
and the anointing for ministry
to join Jesus in his mission.

So we listen to the crazy baptizer in the wilderness,
we look at ourselves, humble ourselves,
accept the forgiveness of baptism, and repent.

Do not be afraid.
Jesus is with us.

Prepare the way of the Lord.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid - Advent 1

Mark 13:24-37
Advent 1
December 3, 2017

This chapter in Mark is called a little apocalypse.
Every first Sunday in Advent, we read these little apocalypses.
Just in time for Christmas, it may seem contrary
to the spirit of Christmas that popular culture tries to evoke.

The Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh 1889
Each of the synoptic gospels
(Matthew, Mark & Luke)
have these little apocalypse.
They all talk about things that we fear.
Terrible suffering, wars, hatred, persecution,
vitriol from family, natural disasters
and then, after that 
things don’t get much better,
the sun will be darkened,
the moon will not give out light
the stars will fall, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken
Very dark indeed.

Each one of these passages talk about signs
to watch out for to know that this is coming.
They don’t specifically enumerate the signs,
but they say you’ll know it when you see it.
And you shouldn’t miss them,  so you should keep watching.
If you’re keeping alert, it should be obvious,
like every year when you see the leaves on a tree come out,
you know summers about to come,
the events that we see in the world will tells us
that this scary stuff is about to happen.

Now I know we sophisticated Christians
like to poo-poo all those  Left-Behind rapture Christians
who have been telling everyone since the 1920’s that
the this is the year. In the past, I’ve tried to relativize everything
and say that things have been worse.
And things probably have been worse,
but doesn’t it feel like something is happening now?
Something not good.
And not just in our country, but everywhere?

Neo Nazis have become almost main stream,
hate of all sorts seems to be acceptable.
The climate is becoming more and more erratic
It seems very possible that our coastal cities
might be permanently underwater one day soon.

It seemed like every week this fall there
was one another disaster after another,
either a natural disaster or human made disaster,
People have been terrorizing the country with guns
and all sorts of other  creative methods of
violence meant to wield fear and power.
And we’ve got immature, erratic leaders
who are playing chicken with nuclear weapons.

I mean we’re living in a time when left is right,
and up is down. There is no real truth any more,
just what I think and what you think.
Something’s going on.

For so many people today, a mini apocalypse has already
happened, with unbearable wide-spread
poverty and the hopelessness that comes with it
so much that many have checked out
through addiction to drugs or alcohol
and an enormous rate of suicide.
For many of them, the situation is already
unbearable, it’s completely out of their control,
and it’s just seems bound to get worse
since our governments don’t seem to
care about anyone but themselves.

Many of us can, of course, just decide to turn away
and ignore what we see.
The view out my back window is nice,
I could just look at that and drink my morning
coffee, and tell myself that everything is fine.

But Jesus has asked us to be awake
be aware and to look at the signs.
But the signs fill me with a dread when I do think about it.
A despair at the present and fear of the future.
Even if it’s not the end of all creation,
it certainly feels like the end of what we’ve
known and come to expect out of this world.

There is  much to be afraid of.
But  our theme for this Advent is  “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus says “Do not be afraid” more than anything else. 
The phrase,  or phrases like it, are in the bible 365 times
once for every day of the year, if you like neat packages like that.

So Jesus leaves us with stories of suffering,
tells us to notice all the scary stuff around us,
and still persistently tells us not to be afraid?
Maybe the two things don’t seem to add up.

But all of these little apocalypses end the same way,
there is fear, there is suffering, and then there is Jesus.
The suffering and fear are just a preamble to God’s presence with us.
They are an assurance to us that God is near us.

When the sun is darkened and the stars are falling,
and things seem to be getting seriously worse for all involved,
that is the time that the son of man will come in his greatest glory,
and really feel and know God’s presence.

Just like many of us have felt the presence of God the most
during the worst times of our lives.

Now some look with dread on the prospect
of Jesus second coming, but what if we didn’t
think of that with fear, but with joy?

Our expectations about Jesus second Advent
should be shaped by what we know about Jesus first Advent.
When he came to us as a child, lived and suffered with us,
and finally poured out his love for all creation on the cross
when the sun was darkened and the powers in heaven were shaken,
when God took the worst of creation and gave us the best.
The coming of Christ is a welcome presence,
the arrival of our dearest friend.

No one knows the time or the hour,
It might be a surprise, but we should be
waiting in anticipation not in dread.
When terrible things happen in this world,
we will mourn, we will get angry, we will do our best to help
the situation, but we can also ask and notice what God is doing,
how God is using the situation, what new life God is creating out of the old.

Christ was with us then, Christ is with us now, and Christ will come again.
In our greatest hours of suffering and fear Christ will be there.
Fear not.

We know that even in the worst of times,
God ‘s power will prevail, somehow some way,
the end of the story will be better than the beginning
or the middle and that ending will never end.
Do not worry.

The season of Advent is a time for us
to wait for Christmas –
the remembrance that Jesus was born and God came to us –
but it’s also a time of hoping for the time when our deepest prayers
for this world will be answered.

When the sun is darkened, and the moon doesn’t give light
and the stars fall from the heavens and all seems lost,
we know that God will be nearest to us then.

Do not be afraid.

Monday, November 27, 2017

What is Important to the King

Matt 25:31-46
November 26, 2017
Christ the King

King Midas is a story about a King who loves gold,
He was already rich beyond anyone else, but he wishes
that everything he touched would turn to gold.
He gets his wish, but he finds that this is not a good thing.
Everything he touched did turn to gold: flowers, furniture,
he couldn't sleep because his bed was gold,
he couldn't eat because his food turned to gold.
Then he touched his daughter and she turned into solid gold.
He got what he wanted, but he was miserable.

Salvator Mundi
Leonardo Da Vinci
Shakespeare’s Richard the Third
is the story about a King
who as a prince stopped at nothing to get to be King.
He puts his relatives in jail,
has some killed, and tells lies about others.
He finally becomes King,
but he is so frightened and suspicious because of
everything he did that he eventually
kills one of his brothers and his wife.
His kingdom rebels against him and
and on the night before a great battle,
the ghosts of everyone who
he has killed come to visit Richard.
They tell him that he will die.
And the next day, Richard is killed in a battle against his own brother.

King David was the great King of Israel,
the chosen one, the anointed one.
He has everything he wants,
wealth luxury, many wives,
many concubines, even the power of God behind him,
but one day he sees one of his subjects,
Bathsheba bathing on a roof top.
Even though she is married and he has eight wives of his own,
he decides that he wants her.  
She concedes, because you don’t refuse the king,
and she becomes pregnant with his child.
So David sends her husband into a dangerous battle and he is killed.
God is not pleased with David for this, and David’s relationships
with his children are cursed for the rest of his life.

These are just three stories about Kings
There are many more stories about Kings who have many things,
but choose to use their power for their own ends
to fill their own wants and egos.
And that story rings true even today.

The stories of sexual assault in the news
are stories of powerful and wealthy men who have
most everything they want,
but use their positions to intimidate and coerce
younger and less powerful people.

And it seems like many of our current world’s leaders
seem to want absolute loyalty from everyone
and will use intimidation and violence
against their own people to get it.

And our own leaders in this country spend their
and power and collateral just trying to make
corporations bigger, and ensure that banks have more money,
and making themselves more comfortable
at the expense of the average American.

And our own president’s main objective seems to be
to use his considerable power and air time
to just to build himself up and defend his ego.

The story seems to go that those who have the most power
want more of it and the only thing that satisfies them
is more than what they had the day before.

Today is Christ the King Sunday,
where we remember that Christ is our king,
our ultimate leader, and the real leader of the world.
And in the parable we hear, we see what Christ
uses his considerable power for.

So, today we hear Jesus last parable.
The final one before he is arrested and killed.
This is what he leaves his disciples with.

Jesus says that at the end, that the Son of Man
will come in glory, just as you would imagine
the king of the whole world coming:
On a throne with the angels surrounding him,
draped around in glory and splendor.

And at that moment, he judges all the nations of the world.
But what does he use his power for?
And what is the basis for his judgment?
It’s not how much money they provided for him,
or did they worship him or bow down to him
and make him feel good about himself
or did they honor him give him enough loyalty.

No, his question for them is
“How did you treat the least of those among you?”
This is what is important to the king.
This is what is important to Jesus. 

Did you give the hungry something to eat?
Did you give the thirsty something to drink?
Did you welcome the stranger? Clothe the naked?
Take care of the sick? Visit the prisoner?
This is the basis for the judgment of the world.
This is what is important to the king.
Not whether you bowed down before him
with the proper reverence and ceremonies,
not that you gave him what he wanted and made
his friends happy and rich.

What is most important is that you used your power to
take care of the  least powerful in your nation.
  
So the parable says at the time of this judgment
“All the nations will be gathered before him,
and he will separate people one from another
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”

They translate that word there as people, but people is “laos”
or “anthropos” but the greek word that’s there is “autos” 
which is just the pronoun “them”
which more likely refers to the “nations”.
“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them,
the nations, one from another.”
Most people who study this stuff believe
that the intent of the parable was that the nations
would be divided like sheep and goats.

This is not a parable about individuals, but about nations.
This is not a parable about our personal piety and mercy
This is parable about politics and empires.
That one little translation choice makes a big difference.
So how is the nation we live in doing?
What is important to our leaders?

Because in the end, we will not be judged on  stock market rates,
or the strength of our military,
the amount of fortune 500 companies we have,
or even our unemployment rates
all of which our leaders seem to be most interested in.

We will be judged on how we treated
the least powerful in our empire.
So have we fed the hungry?
17.4 million households in the US suffer from hunger.
And food stamps are being cut.
Have we given the thirsty something to drink?
After three years, the people of Flint, Michigan
still cannot drink their water and there is no movement to fix it.
Have we welcomed the stranger?
There is a rising fear and hatred of immigrants in our country.
And much of the country seems to be intent on
building a wall to separate us from our neighbors.
Are we taking care of the sick?
62 percent of bankruptcies in this country are due to
medical bills and healthcare for the poor is being cut.
Are we reaching out to the prisoner?
Because the US represents only 4.4 percent of the world’s population
but we have 22 percent of the world’s prison population.
This is just a short list.

How would our nation do?
Did the United States recognize Jesus in the least of these?
The richest most powerful nation in the world?
Would we be with the sheep or with the goats?

With 75 percent of Americans still identifying as Christian,
and with most of our leaders identifying as Christian,
we should be doing better, because this is what is important to Jesus.
This is what is important to God.
This is what is important to the king.

It’s not about saying “Merry Christmas”
it’s not about giving religious privileges to Christians.
It’s not about sexual morality or policing women’s healthcare
or whatever passes as Christian public policy these days.
What’s most important is how we treat the least of these.

Now this might seem like all bad news,
That we’ll all be cast into the eternal fire.
But we remember that this is a parable not an allegory. 
This parable is not here to make us feel guilty because
we personally didn’t do enough for one person.
This parable is here show us
what is the ultimate concern for our savior and ruler.
And to tell us that empires and nations who don’t care
for the least powerful, will not stand in the end.
So it might be bad news to those who love their wealth and power
and have no interest in sharing it.
But I assure you, this is good news for those of us
 who feel chewed up by the system, and unable
to sustain ourselves and keep our heads above water.
And this is good news to all of us who ache and hunger for justice.
And who see our brother and sister suffer and hurt for them.
Because they will not suffer in vein.

It might not look so good for us now,
It might look like we’ve failed the test
between the sheep and the goats.
But Christ is King and he wants to see all the  nations
care for all their people and if that’s what the king wants
that’s what the king will get.
It may look like we’re going in the wrong direction right now,
 but God is in process to create a world
where greed and apathy have no place.
Where violence and hatred are only memories.

We live in a world that God created
and in the end, the world will not sustain nations
who do not care for the least among them.
We will be changed, God’s way will be our way.

The good news of this parable is that we have a King who cares.
We have a savior who’s concern is for us all.
God doesn’t see people just as tools that the more
powerful can extract labor and resources from until we’re used up.
To Christ the king, we are not just subjects or peasants.

From the most powerful to the least,
we are all the King’s children.