Monday, December 17, 2018

You Brood of Vipers


Zephaniah 
Luke 3:7-18
December 16, 2018

I think Prophets were kind of like the news analysts of the time,
the op-ed writers of their era, or the political bloggers
They never addressed personal, individual problems
they always looked at the whole country or world
and told everyone where they went wrong
from the top down, and what the possible
consequences and sad fates were: They knew
doom and destruction would fall on everyone.

Although the prophets used ancient terms,
the analysis of their times sounds a lot like that of ours:
corrupt and greedy leaders, religious leaders who’ve lost their way,
the apathy and hopelessness of the people,
and a lack of compassion for the poor and outcast.

And then, like now, the prophets knew that the country
and the world  were not on a good path,
but everyone felt unable or unwilling to
do anything about the situation.

Zephaniah is not a big player in the prophet hit parade.
He’s called a minor prophet.
This book or letter is only three chapters long.
the first two chapters are the same kind of analysis
that we’re used to hearing from the prophets,
God is not happy with Israel who refuses to get their
act together, destruction will be coming in one form or another.
And then they will want God, but they’d grown so distant
from God, they won’t know how to find God.
The word Zephaniah means “ Yahweh hides.”

They say Zephaniah was written pre-exile period
meaning before the Jews were conquered
by Babylon and other countries.
In other words, it was a time when things were still hanging together,
but there was a sense that things  could fall apart at any time,
the fabric of the society they knew was crumbling.

But after this inevitable destruction and collapse,
Zephaniah goes on, there is hope, God doesn’t stay hidden forever.
The collapse will be followed will be followed by 
rebirth and resurrection, God will be there and the relationship with
God and God’s people will be restored
and things will be back on the right track.

As we heard in the part we read today,
Zion is God’s daughter, and God will renew her,
her fortunes will be restored and everything will be
better than it was before.

And the evidence that the time has come will be this:
All the oppressors will be dealt with,
the lame will be saved and the outcast will be brought home.

Things will come back together,
but they won’t come back together in the same way.
Things will be reassembled in God’s image
things will be done in God’s way.

This seems to be a theme in all the prophets, major and minor.
Falling apart, coming together,
and the new way will be closer to God’s way.
They always end with a hopeful analysis of the future.
And our second reading is hopeful to, Rejoice!
Paul writes to the Philippians.
And then we get to John the Baptist.

In case we wanted to get prematurely Christmassy,
and sentimental, we’ve got John the Baptist to keep us in line.
John the Baptist is saying basically the same thing
as Zephaniah and the prophets have been saying,
but in a much more colorful and engaging way.

“You brood of vipers, who told you
you could escape the wrath to come?”
He made a spectacle of himself and people paid attention.
No one will be able to escape the consequences.
Everyone was in the same boat. Rich and poor,
faithful and not faithful, we’re all children of snakes.

But even with John’s doom and gloom predictions,
like the op-ed analyst and prophets before him,
there is still hope at the end.

The people there asked him “What exactly should we do?”
Now, I’m not sure what they were expecting from John the Baptist,
but he was living like a wild man,
alone in the wilderness, eating bugs and
just whatever he could find on the ground.

Maybe they thought he would tell everyone
to drop out of normal life, wear a camel’s hair coat and
and eat locusts and twigs with him in the wilderness.

But no. John tells them:
“If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none.
If you have any extra food, share that too.”

He’s not telling them leave their lives and hide in the woods,
but to go back to their cities and villages and just behave differently,
to not use their position or job to take advantage of other people,
To treat others with kindness, and fairness and justice,
in other words, to be the change in the world.

Like Zephaniah, John is saying that after the wrath to come,
God will be reordering the world in this new way,
but in a little shift from Zephaniah and the prophets of old,
John is clarifying and saying that we have an 
opportunity to be part  of the reconstruction, 
part of the rebirth, part of the resurrection.
We are participants in the change that God has in store for the world.
We don’t even have to wait for the destruction and the wrath to come
we can start the reconstruction and rebirth now.

We aren’t merely recipients of God’s good will,
God will work through our hands and feet and mouths.
And we will be signs that the resurrection is happening.

We will have an active role in dealing with the oppressors,
saving the lame, and bringing the outcasts home again.
We are the agents and the sign of God’s new order in the world.
  
When we treat someone with kindness who doesn’t deserve it,
when we forgive, even when someone isn’t sorry,
when we treat all people with respect,
when we welcome the stranger,
when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
When we do those things that we can do right now,
We become part of the God’s restoration.

And all the stuff we do together,
Faith Mission, Play and Learn, the Food Pantry,
Habitat for Humanity, working with BREAD,
going to protests, writing our senators,
making quilts, making prayer shawls, making food for funerals,
when we pray for others, and share hope for the world,
whatever it is that we do to help build,
 and help share justice and peace and hope is
part of God’s plan to change this world,
and is a sign that God is already working.

Even when everything around us seems dark and evil,
the light of Christ in our own hearts can be our hope.

John Baptized with water, but there is another coming
who will baptize with fire. A fire to light us up and move us.
And that is why the word John had in the end was good news
for all us here and across the world.

You, Brood of Vipers!
You are part of the change coming to the world.

Our small, individual acts of kindness in the midst of hate,
of fairness and justice in the midst of corruption
of generosity in the midst of greed and the myth of scarcity
are all part of remaking our world in God’s image.

And those acts are a sign for us that God is with us and working.
You are signs that the world is about to turn.


Monday, December 10, 2018

Can You Stand It?


Advent 2
December 9
Malachi & Luke 3

Malachi is the last book of the Hebrew scriptures.
The book that comes right before the gospels.
We don’t know if Malachi is a proper name,
or if it just means “messenger”

Malachi warns the people about many of the same things that
the other prophets did: straying from God, corruption, greed,
political leaders who don’t care about the people,
and religious leaders selling out to political leaders.

Malachi says that God is coming into the world
and God will send a messenger first, 
who will get things straightened out.
This messenger, Malachi says, 
will not be sweet and mild,
this message will be painful and uncomfortable.
it will be like a refiners fire or a fuller’s soap.

When you get silver it’s combined 
with lead and other metals.
The refiner will heat it to a 
very high temperature, making it liquid
And then the bad metal rises to the top, then
the refiner would scrape off the impurities, 
or the dross, leaving the pure silver.  Ouch.

The fuller was the one who would clean the wool after it was sheared
from the sheep to prepare it for dying different colors.
Sheep aren’t clean animals, and they aren’t completely white,
so the soap was caustic. It was so caustic
that they made the fullers do their washing
outside of the city limits because of the smell. Ouch.

Refiner’s fire, fuller’s soap.
Not comfortable images, especially since
we’re the silver and the wool.

The messenger says, The Lord is coming,
God is coming into the world,
And the question Malachi asks is “can you stand it?”
Will you be able to take it when it happens?

I think when a lot of us think of the coming of Jesus
we like to think of a sense of well being, calm, joy and assurance,
especially around Christmas,
we get filled with images of sugar plums and sweet little babies.
But that is not the imagery we get today.
We get high heat and caustic soap.
We get John the Baptist yelling at us to repent
and change our ways.

Someone said that the coming of Jesus is like water.
The waters of baptism: now water is necessary, life giving,
beautiful, water, cooling, good, and pure.
But the problem really is, that the kingdom of this world is like pure sodium.
-- the pure metal sodium not table salt which is sodium chloride.
I had to look this up, and then I checked it with Violet, our resident Chemistry PHD. 
What happens when water meets sodium? Kaboom.

Our ways and God’s ways don’t always mix together well.
The prophets in the early days knew that
God’s coming wouldn’t mean instant peace and tranquility.
And so we get the gospels. Kaboom.

And they don’t open with a nice, sweet story of God’s reign coming
in peacefully, like a cool breeze washing over us on a summer’s day.
We get John the Baptist. Kaboom. Water meets sodium.

Actually, Luke begins the story of Jesus ministry
with a list of the  leaders that were contemporary with Jesus birth,
Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Traconitis, Lysanias, Annas Caiaphas.
History knows all of these reigns and leaderships to be
chaotic and corrupt. They will not last. By the word of God will.
Almost as if Luke is saying that their claims to authority are not ultimate.
John has been commissioned to prepare the way for a new kind of rule.
And we know people don’t give up their rule willingly.

Preparing God’s path towards peace means transforming the
world as we know it, valleys filled, mountains laid low,
crooked things made straight: it all sounds terrific, until we
remember that we all use those valleys, we live on those mountains,
we are part of what’s making the roads crooked.

Sin isn’t just a few isolated choices we make in our lives,
our lives are embroiled in sin,
we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
We work in it, we watch it happen,
we are consumers of it, we benefit from it,
we enjoy it regularly, it’s part of our wants and even our needs.
All those words up there are not outside of us,
they are a part of us, a part of the world that we like and love.

Preparing the way means letting go of
things that we have become accustomed to,
things that have made us what we are.

And that’s why the messenger of Jesus starts
with a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Because John the Baptist knows that
we are right at home in this world of sodium
and we need to let go of it.

And That is why the forgiveness of Jesus is so important
that is why the Grace of God is so vital to our life and our salvation.
Because we cannot extract ourselves completely
we need the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
  
So Christ is coming, but can we stand it?
Will we enjoy this change or will we latch on tightly to those
old ways, those temporary things that do not work in God’s kingdom?
Will we be able to stand the refiners fire,
can we take the fullers soap?
Will we be ready when the waters of baptism,
meet the sodium that is still in us? Kaboom?

Will we be able to hear the forgiveness that Jesus brings,
will be embrace the salvation that God is giving us?
  
Christ is coming, God is near, we can feel it,
The sweet breeze of forgiveness and salvation is just around the corner.

But first, the valleys will be filled, the mountains will be laid low.
the crooked will be made straight and the rough made smooth.
Then all flesh will see the salvation of God.

So repent and get ready, prepare the way
because the world is about to turn.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Beginning is Near


Advent 1
Jeremiah 33 & Luke 21:25-36
December 2, 2018

The prophet Jeremiah,
who wrote the first reading we heard,
lived about 500 years after king David.
There were many kings since David,
and most of them weren’t very good.

Starting with David’s son Solomon,
they began to lead the people away from
Yahweh to worshiping other gods.
And Jeremiah was called by Yahweh
to warn the people to change their ways.
The Beginning is Near
The Imaginary Foundation

Now Jeremiah is a whiny guy. 
He always seems pretty gloomy. A real downer.
He’s constantly railing against the people of the
southern kingdom of Judah.
He warns them about their worship of other gods
and their neglect of Yahweh,
about the greed and corruption of the leaders,
and the false prophets which are everywhere.

He warns the people of the consequence of following
charlatans promising quick results and ignoring the will of God.
He tells them that this way of life is not sustainable for them,
that destruction will surely follow, like it did decades earlier
for the people of the Northern Kingdom.

He was always telling them that they
needed to repent and change their ways
in order to continue as God’s people.
He warns them that unless they repented and changed,
they will be taken over by hostile forces. That God would
let the nation of Babylon win the battle they were fighting
against each other and they would be servants to King Nebuchadnezzar.
He was real wet blanket.

So, of course, instead of listening,
the people of Jerusalem think that the most expedient
solution is to shut Jeremiah up.
The typical story of prophets.
“He’s bringing down the morale of the troops” they said.
Just shoot the messenger instead of listening to the message.
They try to kill him, but when that doesn’t work,
they lock him up in prison.

So Jeremiah is locked up in prison,
and the country is embroiled in battles,
the country is pretty much leveled already,
the enemy is at the door,
and Jeremiah knows that they will lose.

It’s in these gloomy walls, with impending doom and
destruction all around him, suddenly,
Jeremiah turns into an optimist!
The warnings of doom are over,
and God has filled Jeremiah with hope.

After this inevitable destruction, the covenant will be fulfilled.
A righteous branch will spring up from the kingdom of David
which is now just a stump.

Even though the people didn’t hear the warnings and strayed
from Yahweh, God will not let these people go.
God won’t abandon them, God will still keep the old promises.

Now, things won’t go back to the way they were before,
back to the old days.  We can’t go back to yesterday.
That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.
It will be a new branch, a new day, new life.
Things will be changed, our suffering will have changed us. 
We will have learned, and repented.
And from that, new life will be able to form.

 And in every age, this is the promise that we wait for.
That out of the rubble of this age,
a new life, a better life, will be able to grow.
We know that with every end, there is a new beginning waiting.
We are assured that God won’t forget God’s promises to us.
That we won’t be abandoned,
even when we stubbornly lose our own way.

And we believe that branch, that promise was Jesus.
And new life has been revealed to us in him.

In the gospel reading, Jesus warns us again, though, that chaos is coming.
Distress among nations, people confused,
Foreboding and fear, the powers of heaven shaken.
It may feel like the end, but that is when our hope can start.
At the darkest times that is when the kingdom of God is nearest.
Look for the shoots on the fig tree.
Look for the new branch of Jesse.
Look for the places of hope and courage and light and life,
look for the signs that God is near.

We, the followers of Jesus are the whiny prophets of this age.
Habitually aware of the sin in ourselves and our world.
Uncomfortable with all the ways we live that are
contrary to God’s kingdom and vision.

These words on the wall show some of the things
in this world that stress today’s prophets out most.
Those things that seem utterly hopeless and insurmountable.
Things that plague our society and threaten to destroy us.
Like Jeremiah, we can feel the doom and gloom.
This is the time for warning, for alarm, for distress, and confusion.
Because this way of life is not sustainable forever.

But this is also the time to look for that shoot, that new branch,
Look for the peace makers, the helpers,
the ones who feed and house,
who act with courage,
the ones who speak works of righteousness and truth,
who work for justice,
who forgive and work for reconciliation

In the midst of inevitable doom and destruction,
these are the blooms on the fig tree.
That is God at work in the world.

We know when the end is at hand, the beginning is near.
We know then, that the world is about to turn.


Monday, November 26, 2018

The Truth is Out There


John 18: 33-37  
November 25, 2018 
Christ the King

What is truth?
I think that’s a legitimate question that Pilate asks.
Jesus says he came to testify to the truth
and Pilate wants to know what is truth?

I think, in the recent past, we have liked to think that
truth was absolute, that there were unchanging facts
that we could always rely on and depend on,
But more and more I think we’re finding that
truth is on a sliding scale, that it’s subjective.
Now opinions count as much as facts,
perception is truth, and lies can become
truth if they’re just repeated enough.
And if the right person says it,
scads of people will believe them, no matter what they say.

What is truth?
Two thousand years ago it seems like
truth had the same subjective feel to it,
For Pilate, who was stuck between
Ecco Home (Behold the Man)
Antonio Ciseri
religious factions and his own ambition,
who had long ago compromised his own
integrity to maintain his 
power and feed his ego,
Truth may have been whatever lie he told himself that moment.

We know from the historical 
record that Pilate
was a brutal man.
He was insensitive to Jewish customs.
He would antagonize the Jews 
with idols then kill them
when they would protest.
He would also kill for no reason at all.

Philo, the historian and philosopher wrote
about Pilate that he had
"vindictiveness and furious temper", and was
"naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness".

Pilate killed without much thought,
and yet Pilate spends the rest of this story
trying to release Jesus, 
offering him up to the crowds to ask for his release,
beating him then and sending him out,
thinking that might be enough for them,
asking Jesus to defend himself
so he could find a reason to release him.

The truth was that Pilate was governor,
the highest ranking person, with the most power,
and he had Jesus in custody in his palace,
and had every legal right and ability to do what he wished
to this nobody in front of him,
who was shackled, beaten and worn down.

And yet, somehow Jesus seemed to have
power over this powerful man.
That was the truth.

The famous preacher Barbara Brown Taylor
tells about being at a retreat once where the leader asked
them to think of someone who represented Christ in their lives.
When it came time to share their answer,
one woman stood up and said,
"I had to think hard about that one. I kept thinking,
‘Who is it who told me the truth about myself
so clearly that I wanted to kill them for it?"’

Jesus power is that he reflects Pilate back to himself.
Jesus innocence, his lack of defense,
shows Pilate the injustice of the system he leads
and his own cruelty at the head of it.
And Pilate tries to run away from his truth
by getting rid of Jesus, but Jesus won’t let him.

Jesus just doesn’t speak truth.
Jesus is truth.
Truth for ourselves, truth for our world.
Jesus life and death is testament to us.
It’s a mirror to the world.

Jesus own arrest, his questioning, and crucifixion
reveals the truth about us and our world,
The cruelty of the systems we’ve created,
the ruthlessness we accept in the name of law and order,
our willingness to condone violence,
our comfort with others misfortune,
Our ability to look the other when others are suffering.

The Gospel truth comforts the afflicted
and afflicts the comfortable.

Just the presence of Jesus has put a mirror up
to this powerful, powerful person,
who holds life and death in his own hands every day.
By the end of their interaction with each other,
it is evident that it’s not Jesus who is on trial here.
Pilate is on trial.
  
The power of Jesus is not in having armies
or weapons or muscles or the authority to kill at will.
Jesus power is in showing us the truth about ourselves.

Jesus is king of the truth.
The truth that has more power than lies.
The truth that is told in love, in hope of new life.
The truth that sets people free.

Even beaten, in shackles, humiliated, with a crown of thorns
on his head, Jesus is the most powerful one in that room,
because Jesus is truth.

Today, in our world it may seem like truth is losing out.
Politicians, advertisers, corporations, can make up
whatever lies they can come up with and sell it to us
as truth, anyone with a computer or phone can write
whatever they think and turn it into truth.
But we know that Christ is King.

When we say Christ is King
we are not saying that Christianity should be
the national religion,
Or that biblical laws should rule the courts,
or that the 10 commandment should be
put in every courthouse.

When we say that Christ is King,
we’re saying that God’s justice and truth
will not be bought, it will not be sold,
and it will not be compromised
for earthly power or money.

When we say that Christ is King,
we are saying that the truth -- God’s truth,
has power that cannot be taken away,
even if it is put in shackles,
even if the powerful try to hold it captive and beat it and
taunt it, and humiliate it and even eventually kill it,
it will not stay dead, God’s truth will rise again.

When we say that Christ is King,
we’re saying that God’s truth:
the truth of God’s compassion, forgiveness,
justice, grace, mercy, and love for all people,
which lies at the foundation of this world,
will win in the end.
And if it hasn’t won, then it is not the end.

In a world of lies, the truth will live.
That is what we mean, when we say
Christ is King.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Do Not Worry About Food


Matthew 6:25-33
November 18, 2018
Thanksgiving

Do not worry about what you’re going to eat.
What an appropriate thought to hear
just five days before Thanksgiving.
Because I think in most people’s lives
Horn of Plenty
Walter Curlee
right now is about the future of food.

What will we eat, where will we eat it?
What’s the best recipe for stuffing?
Should we get red potatoes or Yukon Gold?
Green bean casserole or no green bean casserole?
Do we have enough room in the oven?
Are you getting the good napkins?
How many pies will we need?
And whatever you do,
do not make that cranberry stuff you made last year.
Do not worry about what you will eat.

Now I used to think that Jesus meant
don’t worry about having enough food,
but I think he means this kind of thanksgiving worry
about how good our food is and how to make
things impressive for guests, because it’s linked
to worrying about what you wear or being fashionable.

There are many parts to this sermon on the mount
which goes on for three chapters in Matthew.
The part before this one talks about materialism,
an obvious kind, hoarding treasure on earth,
keeping too much wealth for yourself,
greed, we usually can easily identify this in other people.

But here Jesus talks about this other kind
of sneaky materialism. Worry.
It’s this materialism that doesn’t focus on
luxuries, but on necessities.
Do not worry about food,
what  you will eat or drink
or what you will wear.
Isn’t life more than food? More than clothing.

He’s not talking to people who are starving
and don’t have enough food.
That’s not the food worry he’s referring to.

He says the gentiles (or the privileged class at that time)
are the ones who spend time worrying about that stuff.
How nice their outfit is, or how impressive their
tables are going to be.

The obsessive focus on necessities.
If you look at the most popular cable channels
on TV, they’re all worried with necessities.
Food, clothing, shelter.

I mean humans have taken the basic needs of life
and made them into a contest.
Once we are fortunate enough
to have sufficient amounts of food to eat,
clothes to wear and places to live, then we start to
worry about it, we want more and better,
We want to protect what we have,
strategize for the future.
Enough just isn’t enough.

Worry is the beginning of a slew of bad outcomes,
it’s makes us keep more than we need,
it closes us off from others,
worry turns us in ourselves.
Worry tells us that enough is not enough.
And it will never be enough.

So it’s ironic that Thanksgiving makes us worry about
food so much, because Thanksgiving is about having gratitude
giving thanks (it’s right there in the name).
And gratitude is almost the opposite of worry.
Gratitude tells us that enough is enough.
There’s a Buddhist proverb that says
“enough is a feast.”

The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a celebration of enough.
The story goes that the first caravan of European immigrants
who came to America and settled in Virginia had a relatively
good harvest. This was after a year of tragedy though.
Lots of the people who came with them had
died on the trip over,
and more died after they got there from disease and starvation.
But in the fall of 1621, things were turning around, just a little.

The Native Americans in the area
had given them food when they first came and then
they had shown them how to grow corn and catch eel.
So they planted the corn and their first crop came out pretty good,
so they had enough to store for winter.
They were so thankful for this one successful harvest,
that they had a party.
And they invited their Native friends who helped them get there.
  
And the Native Americans liked the vibe of thanks and welcome
they were giving out, so they came over and celebrated with them,
joined their celebration and brought some deer.
The celebration lasted three days,

By some accounts they ate some kind of
fowl, venison, corn, eel, and shellfish.
Basically random stuff, whatever was around.
No special recipes, no fancy napkins.
Enough was a feast.

In the written account of this event,
one of the European immigrants wrote:
“And although it be not always so plentiful,
as it was at this time with us,
yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want,
that we wish them (the Native Americans) partakers of our plenty.”

They were so thankful for what they had at the
moment, that they wanted to share with their new friends.
For three days everyone was happy and got along,
but of course that camaraderie and sharing didn’t last.

When they could still taste their desperation and need,
The European immigrants were delightful.
But then once they had enough and were satisfied,
That materialism kicked in and then they started to worry.
They started obsessing over necessities.
Then they needed more.
They weren’t satisfied with gifts and sharing.
Enough was not enough.
  
They needed more than just today’s life sustaining meal.
They worried about that next meal and that next winter.
They wanted all the food, and then they wanted the land it grew on.
And then their friends became a threat
to tomorrow’s food and shelter.
The pilgrims who left Europe to shelter themselves from the
temptations of extravagances, had fallen victim to the
more sneaky kind of materialism.
Enough wasn’t enough.

And that’s kind of been the story of
our lives here in the new land.
Enough is never enough.

But Thanksgiving is still a worthy thing to celebrate.
A reminder of that time that enough was a feast
and they gave thanks to God for what was in front of them.

Gratitude, giving thanks, interrupts our worry.
You almost can’t do both at the same time.
It puts the focus on God and the gifts that
we have been given today, right now.
We cannot serve God and this worry of ours.
We will end up loving one and hating the other.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.

Let enough be enough.
Give thanks for the things you have today.
Don’t worry about tomorrow.
That kind of materialism leads to all kinds
of dangerous things.

Let’s be like the birds,
Let’s be like those pilgrims that first Thanksgiving
(not the second one)
Don’t worry about tomorrow.
Enjoy what you have been given today.
Tomorrow will have its own worries.
Let enough be enough.
Give God thanks for today.