Sunday, November 28, 2004
Well, the paraments have been changed to blue, we’re singing Advent hymns, we’ve got the Haugen liturgy, so… it must be Advent, those four weeks leading up to Christmas, the time when we wonder what exactly Advent is, and what it has to do with Christmas.
You see, Advent is one of those church holidays that, unlike Easter or Christmas, isn’t highly hyped by the culture around us. Which means that we don’t get commercials for Advent shopping, we don’t have any Advent-themed toys or decorations, and we don’t have traditional Advent baking. So, generally speaking, we tend not to be all that clear on what exactly Advent is all about.
Well, Advent is about waiting. It’s about the time before something happens. And in our case, Advent is about waiting for Christmas. During Advent we get ready to celebrate baby Jesus being born in a crummy stable in Bethlehem. We celebrate God’s gift to the world – Emmanuel – God-with-us. We celebrate, in the midst of the darkness of winter and in the midst of the chaos of our lives, that God has brought light into that darkness. We look at what God did two thousand years ago and we celebrate it.
But Advent is not just about looking to the past. Although that’s usually how we look at it, Advent is also about looking to the future. Advent is one of those times in the church year, along with Lent, when we’re a little bit schizophrenic. We honour what has happened in the past, but we also look to what it going to happen in the future. And in Advent what we look forward to is Jesus Christ coming – again. Jesus Christ coming a second time.
In the Bible we hear about this time in a number of different ways – the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgement. In Isaiah, we hear that “in days to come. . . the Lord shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” In Romans, we hear that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” And in Matthew, we hear that “therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming.”
Advent is about waiting for this great and wonderful day, when Christ will come again, and the world will be changed.
But HOW do we wait? This is all big stuff, after all. This is huge. We don’t just sit around twiddling our thumbs, there is some significance to our waiting. Some tension. How do we wait? What is our mood?
Well, we should probably be happy. After all, according to Isaiah, some pretty cool things are going to happen – war will end, people will learn ways of creating rather than destroying, peace will be a reality.
But then we have Matthew’s reading for today and our happiness is gone and instead we are left with ANXIETY. For one thing, we don’t know WHEN this day is going to happen. Jesus describes it as a thief in the night, and says that even he himself doesn’t know when this is going to be. So there’s a little anxiety around that.
And then there’s the question of WHAT exactly is going to happen. Some people are going to be taken and some are going to be left, but we don’t know WHO. We don’t even know what’s going to happen to those who are taken and those who are left. If you’ve noticed, Jesus doesn’t actually tell us what happens to each group, so we don’t even know if we want to be one of the ones taken or one of the ones left.
All of our anxiety over this coming day comes because we don’t know what is going to happen to US.
My husband and I flew to the States last week for American Thanksgiving, and let me tell you, just getting there was a mess. First off, we get to the airport, ninety minutes early, like good travellers, and there is a HUGE line at the check-in counter. So the minute we arrived, we were a little nervous. But, we made it through the line okay, it took us half an hour, and we get up to the counter, and the airline people can’t find my booking! Okay, so our anxiety level goes up a little. We know we have the booking number, and they’re fairly convinced that I’m in there, but they just can’t find the booking itself. But, twenty minutes later, they find it, and we’re on our way to security.
Well, we get over to the security line, and it turns out that it winds all the way through the security area, out the door and halfway through the terminal! Oh, man, talk about anxiety. At this point, we’re pretty worried about making the flight, we’re wondering if we should call the people meeting us to tell them we’ll be on the next plane, we’re anxious. But, another thirty minutes and we’ve made it up to the x-ray machine. So, if you’ve been keeping track, that’s eighty minutes gone out of our ninety minute window, and we know the plane is already boarding. But that’s okay, we’ll whip through security and get there one time.
But, what do you know, I’ve been “selected for a random security screening!” Woo hoo! Obviously, there’s nothing you can do about that, so, I take off my shoes and they pat me down and then we’re running down the hallway towards the plane. It’s a classic movie moment – we burst onto the plane, they shut the doors behind, we grab out seats, and take off. We made it, but it was an anxious ninety minutes. When is the plane going to leave, will we be on it, will we be left behind?
But here’s the thing, here’s what we should have remembered while we were standing in lines and running from place to place, our hearts racing the whole time. We had tickets. We were checked in. The plane wasn’t going to leave without us, they knew we were coming, and they would wait. We didn’t need to be anxious about the waiting or about the uncertainty as long as we had our boarding passes.
Well, when it comes to ADVENT and waiting for Christ to come again. . . we don’t need to be anxious because we have our tickets and we are checked in. You see, when you were baptized, you received, in the form of a cross on your forehear, your boarding pass for the flight. Jesus himself checked you in and picked your seat. The Holy Spirit is the one ushering you through the security gate. And because of that, because of your cross-shaped boarding pass, you can be SURE that you will get on the plane. You may spend your waiting time stuck behind obstacles or standing in line. You may spend it running down the hallway from one place to the next, BUT
You will be not be forgotten, or abandoned, or left behind. When the DAY comes - the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgement, the Day of Christ – you will be with Christ and Christ with you. So enjoy these next four weeks, enjoy the time between now and Christmas, enjoy the waiting that’s going on. The Lord is coming, and all things are good. And so we say, in joyful anticipation, Come Lord Jesus, Come. Amen
Sunday, November 21, 2004
So I think it helps us to conceive of God in different ways when we worship in different settings. This morning, for instance, my worship took place as I was standing at the window watching a Great Blue Heron against the backdrop of the sunrise over Lake Washington. It wasn't a conscious worship, but thinking about it in connection with God connects me with God in a way that worshipping in a building with four walls and no windows can't.
So, yeah, church is important, blah, blah, blah, but it's not the only way to be with God on a Sunday morning. After all, Christians proclaim God as Emmanuel - God-with-us - and more importantly as God-come-down-to-be-with-us. Which means that God is with us where we are, whether we're in church or not. Worship is simply a matter of being aware of it and thanking God for it.
Sunday, November 14, 2004
"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents" and people will be arrested and persecuted, and people will come claiming to speak in the name of Jesus talking about the end of the world, and the great Temple in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of the Holy Name of God, beautiful in all its glory, will be levelled to the ground.
Well, aside from the last bit about the Temple, it sure sounds like Jesus is talking about our time, doesn’t it? We certainly live in a time that is full of wars and famines and plagues and false prophets. Everywhere we turn, we see disaster on the news, around the world. There are televangelists, book series, and made-for-TV movies that all focus on the approaching end of the world. We even experience disaster in our own lives - we watch our bank accounts growing smaller and smaller; our families growing farther and farther apart. We hear these words of Jesus, and we wonder if maybe they’re not right. Maybe the world really is coming to an end.
Well, the fracturing of our world into chaos is not new. It is not recent. The world has always been an unsettling, hope-destroying place full of wars, violence, death, and despair. Although we might like to reminisce about the good old days, we know that there really weren’t any good old days. Hindsight always erases the troubles and paints golden pictures of our youth, but the fact is that life is much the same as it has always been. This past week we marked Remembrance Day, a time when we remember the horror of World War I. Well, that was no golden age - that was a time as full of brutality as ours. And as we continue to go back through history, we see that there have always been wars and earthquakes and various dreadful portents. Five hundred years go, during Martin Luther’s time, Germany witnessed a horrifying peasant rebellion, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and Luther was convinced that his time was the end of the world. Almost two thousand years ago, a few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, during the time when the Gospel of Luke was written, people saw the war and disasters around them, they saw the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and they, too, were convinced the world was going to end.
And what is the natural reaction of them, and of us, and of all people who feel that their world is ending? What do we feel when faced with the news that tell us that the world outside our doorstep is one of chaos and lawlessness? Anxiety. Panic. Fear.
We feel fear. We fear the loss of our things, of our families, of our very lives. We fear, and in our fear, we seek safety. We try and prepare for what is to come. We listen to the latest gurus talk about "emergency preparedness." We put money away into a savings account to prepare for financial disaster. We reinforce the locks on our doors. We "prepare our defence in advance."
And what does Jesus have to say to all of that? Well, he tells us "not to prepare your defence in advance." He tells us not to go after those who would lead us astray with false advice. He tells us that yes, the world is fracturing, and yes, terrible things will happen, and he tells us not to put our trust in the things of this world, or in the leaders of this world. But what he says that’s most important for us, what he says that we should remember above everything else is this: Do not be terrified because not a hair of your head will perish. It’s a crazy thing to say in the midst of all that is going on - it flies in the face of all reason and evolutionary sense of preservation and all evidence we have that tells us otherwise, but Jesus says it anyway. Do not be terrified because not a hair of your head will perish.
So why did Jesus say that? Why did Luke write it down? How can we believe such an audacious claim? Because, for some reason, it seems that we do. Luther, in the midst of the end of world, decided to plant an apple tree for his children and future grandchildren to enjoy. We continue to get up in the morning, and make plans for the future, and do our best to make the world a better place. Why?
It is because we know that God is responding to the crises in the world in a way that is changing the world forever. Despite our ongoing attempts to drag it down, God is continuing the work of creation that God began so many uncountable years ago, and God is continuing to bring good things into the world. The prophet Malachi, whose words we heard this morning, said it so beautifully when he said that "the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings." What an image we have been given - the sun, high and bright in the sky, bathing the land with warmth and healing and life. The work of God is not complete, it is ongoing and it is a work of life, not death. Of peace, not war. Of creation and preservation, not destruction.
It is a work that we have seen culminated in the death and resurrection of that other sun - the Son of God. You see, contained within the crucifixion and resurrection event of Jesus Christ, we see the redemption of the world. Jesus Christ was, as we say, the firstborn of God, the forerunner, the first to experience the resurrection out of the ashes of death, the first to receive new life in the Kingdom of God. And because we have seen in Jesus Christ that God can and does carry out this amazing work of creation, we can be assured that God can and does also carry out this amazing work among us.
So what does this new work look like? What does this new creation look like? Well, it is the embodiment of the resurrected Christ. What I mean is, it is a place where love overcomes hate, where love transforms prejudice and bigotry and hatred by loving the one who is prejudiced and bigoted and full of hate. It is a place where life is not overcome by death, where even though we may die, we know that it is not the end of us, because we know that there is new life in God. It is a place where peace ends war, where reconciliation and compassion and understanding bring an end to conflict, rather than violence and force. Most importantly, it is a place where there is nothing to fear, where anxiety and panic dissolve because the reasons for them have dissolved as well. It is, in short the Kingdom of God.
And how long do we have to wait for this new Kingdom of God to come? Well, interestingly enough, we find the answer in the Gospel of Luke. In Chapter 17, it says, "Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, Look, here it is! or There it is! For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." You see, God’s new creative work has already been started in the resurrection, and it is continuing today. Although it is difficult to see, and although the events of the world might lead us to believe otherwise, God is continuing, right now, to work new life within the world and within you. We do not need to be terrified because there is nothing to fear. The sun of righteousness has indeed risen, and the healing of its wings is working over you right now.
And so we praise God, in the midst of the fractured chaos of the world, just as our Psalmist for today did. Witnesses to the new life that God is bringing to the world, we shout with joy to the Lord, we lift up our voices, rejoice, and sing. The rivers clap their hands, and the hills ring out with joy before the Lord and we "shout to the Lord a new song, for the Lord has done marvellous things." Thanks be to God. Amen.
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Well, today is All Saint’s Day, and so, appropriately, here we have Jesus’ instructions to the saints: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you." [Luke 6:27-31]
Feeling overwhelmed yet? I am. These are extraordinarily powerful words, and like all powerful words, they carry with them a great deal of tension. They contain within them the capacity for great good and for great evil, depending on how they’re used. These words have been used to lift people up and to put them down. They’ve been used to free people and to oppress them. Depending on how they’ve been interpreted, they’ve been used to give people new life and they’ve been used to kill them. That’s why they’re so powerful, and that’s why we can’t just hear them without really exploring what they mean and how they’ve been interpreted
The interpretation that we’re used to hearing when it comes to these words, the most obvious one, is that Jesus’ words about loving your enemy and doing good to those who hate you mean that we should shun payback. In other words, we need to leave revenge, retribution, vengeance, and all those things that incorporate the idea of "an eye for an eye" behind. We need to leave the whole concept of payback to God. It’s not our domain, it’s not for us to carry out. Period. So if somebody says something nasty about you, Jesus’ words forbid us from saying something nasty about them. If you’re standing on the bus and somebody bumps into you or steals your seat, Jesus is telling us that we don’t get to hipcheck them back, or stand in their way as they’re trying to get off the bus, or even mutter mean things under our breath. If you’re driving in traffic and somebody cuts in front of you, Jesus’ instruction to the saints means that we don’t get to cut them off, or tailgate them, or block them from getting back into our lane a second time. Forget it - no dice. We don’t get to behave that way if we’re saints in the kingdom of God. Jesus is telling us to be forgiving, Jesus is telling us to get out of their way, Jesus is even telling us to be gracious enough to invite them to take place ahead of us. Jesus’ instructions to us are clear.
Or are they? You see, there is an assumption being made when people say things like what I’ve said just now. There is a deadly assumption being made when we interpret Jesus’ words to mean that we must automatically forgive, forget, and even allow people to do things that may be hurting us. And the assumption is this - that the people who are doing all the forgiving, forgetting, and allowing are people who have the power to stand up for themselves. When we tell people to turn their backs on revenge and payback, we are assuming that they have a choice in the matter - that they have the power to exact revenge and payback and that now they should choose not to use that power.
But, you see, the truth of the world is that there are people in it who don’t have that kind of power. There are people in the world who don’t have any kind of power at all, and when they are told to love their enemies, and turn the other cheek, and do good to those who hate them, that is a death sentence. I said that there was tension that came with this text, and that it contained the power to do great evil, and here it is. When people are made powerless, when their power has been taken away from them and there’s nothing they can do about it, then these words bring oppression, not freedom. Here’s what I mean:
- These words have been used to keep slaves obedient. "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also." If your master hits you, well, be a good Christian and take what’s coming.
- These words have been used to encourage pacifism during genocide. "Pray for those who abuse you." This week is Holocaust Education Week, and it is a sad truth of the church that during the Holocaust in Germany, the Christian churches used these words to avoid confronting the evil powers of Nazism, and millions of Jews were shipped off to concentration camps and killed.
- These words have been used to keep victims of abuse from speaking out or confronting their abusers. "Bless those who curse you." Try and say something nice when they yell, don’t provoke them, just smile and don’t talk about the problem.
But let me tell you, flat out, that this is NOT how Jesus meant for these words to be used. God would NEVER want God’s words to be used to justify oppression, or to put people down, or to let them be treated as any less than the children of God that they are. The overwhelming evidence from the Bible shows us again and again that God sides with the oppressed.
- From the slaves in Egypt
- to the widows and orphans during the time of the prophets
- to the lepers and prostitutes in Jesus’ time
- to the persecuted Gentiles during the time of the apostles,
God has always sided with the oppressed against their oppressors. And that is the context, the only context, with which we are to interpret Jesus’ words to us.
So what, then, does Jesus mean when he tells the saints that "if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt?" Well, we’re in the Gospel of Luke, but if you read the same thing in the Gospel of Matthew, you’ll hear something a little bit different. In Matthew, Jesus says, "if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." In that little adjective ‘right,’ we find all the difference between allowing one’s self to be hit and claiming the truth of Jesus’ message. You see, during Jesus’ time, it was common for masters to hit their servants and for soldiers to hit their prisoners. But there were certain rules about how that happened. And the acceptable way that someone in a position of power would hit someone underneath their power would be with the back of their right hand on the right cheek of the person facing them. This way of hitting clearly conveyed who was in charge and who wasn’t. But the flip side of that, the side which is relevant for us now, was that it was unacceptable for a superior to hit an inferior with the palm of their hand, or with a fist, on the left side of the person facing them. For whatever reason, that kind of strike was considered shameful for the person doing the hitting. It made them "less of a man," so to speak. It made them less of a person in the eyes of the world.
Which means that when Jesus said, "if anyone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other also," he wasn’t saying, "let them hit you again." He was saying, "don’t let them treat you like an inferior again. Shame them into seeing what they’ve done. Confront them with the truth that they are less of a person because of what they’re doing to you, not more. Expose their abuse of power for being exactly that."
The same reasoning is behind Jesus’s instruction to give someone your shirt when they demand your cloak. You see, the reason for taking another person’s cloak was as collateral for a loan. If someone borrowed money, they had to give their cloak as collateral since they couldn’t live without it. It kept them from freezing to death at night. So it was an abuse to take someone’s cloak and keep it overnight. And the way to highlight that abuse was, in Jesus’ words, "to give them your shirt also." If you give someone your shirt, well... you’re naked. Not only are you most definitely going to die from exposure, but as you walk naked through the town square and in front of the city gates, people are going to start asking, "Why are you naked? Who took your shirt? Who took your cloak? Who abused you in such a way?" And so the person who has taken your coat is, once again, publicly exposed and forced to deal with their guilt and abuse of power.
You see, Jesus never hesitated to expose oppression or abuse. He flat out confronted the Pharisees when they rejected the lepers and prostitutes. He called them hypocrites and a brood of vipers and named their sin for what it was, an abuse of authority of one group over another. Jesus was not subtle or discreet about stopping oppression when he saw it. I mean, for goodness’ sake, he struck Paul blind in the middle of the road to Damascus in order to show him that his murder of Christians was wrong.
Jesus also never advocated forgiveness without ignoring or minimizing what the sinner had done. In Luke, chapter 17, Jesus says, "if another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive." Jesus doesn’t tell us to overlook the sin, or to explain it away, or to make it any less. Jesus tells us to rebuke the offender - and to offer forgiveness only when there is repentance. Not before. It seems contrary to what we know about Jesus that he would say this, but there it is.
But Jesus said all these things, not because he was out to get sinners, not because he was trying to crush the oppressors, but because he loved them, because he was trying to save them. The thing is that abuse and oppression don’t hurt just the abused and the oppressed. They also hurt the people perpetrating the violence and hate. People who abuse their power over others aren’t healthy, or whole, or happy. Their violence is killing them just as it is killing their victims, and Jesus doesn’t want that either. But the only way to stop that from happening is to be open about what is happening, not to deny it or minimize it or ignore it.
But let’s be honest. That’s hard. It is incredibly difficult to expose abuse and oppression. The reason that the churches in Germany were silent about the oppression of the Jews wasn’t because they didn’t feel like speaking up. It was because there were risks to speaking up. They had to be open to the ugliness around them - not an easy thing to be. They had to be prepared that the Nazis would turn on them next. They had to risk church members leaving because of what they said. It is difficult to turn the other cheek, and give away your shirt, and publicly expose these offenses for what they are.
But it can be done, and it is being done all around the world, because God is onside. It can and does happen because God gives us the power of the Holy Spirit, which is, according to our Ephesians reading today, "a spirit of wisdom and revelation." The Holy Spirit enables us to identify and expose oppression and abuse for what it is. It gives us the authority
- to say that the murder of millions in the Sudan is genocide;
- to say that the abuse of the prisoners in Iraq is torture;
- to say that forcing new immigrant workers in Canada to work more than 60 hours a week on less than minimum wage pay is slavery;
- to say that when family members who are rough with their loved ones it’s abuse.
There are risks to talking about abuse, but there are rewards, too.
And the reward is that by being honest about sin and violence, we are paving the way so that God can begin to work in people’s hearts and free them from their sin. Being open and honest about oppression, confronting the oppressor with their sin, is the way that we actually follow what Jesus said, and "do good to those who hate [us]" and "love [our] enemies." The best thing for those who resort to oppression and violence is to come face to face with their own sin so that they can turn to God for healing and forgiveness. The reward of turning the other cheek and exposing sin is that it brings us all one step closer to being whole together in God.
Because the ultimate reality and our ultimate hope is that God, through Jesus Christ, has made change and peace possible. You see, God’s love for us, and Jesus’ instructions to the saints, are meant to free us from the bonds of oppression, both us as oppressors and us as oppressed. They are not meant to keep us in chains and slavery, just as they are not meant to crush those enslaved to committing violence. God’s intention is to gather us all together, both saints and sinners, and to make us whole again in God’s kingdom. That is our great prayer and our great hope, and so we say, together with the psalmist, "Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful." Amen.