Sunday, November 30, 2014

November 30, 2014 - Advent 1 - Ambivalent Waiting

Generally speaking, I love Advent. I love getting the house decorated for Christmas, I love thinking about the presents I'm going to get for my family, I love planning for when I'm going to bake Christmas cookies. I like playing Advent and Christmas music, and putting up Christmas lights - although not a on a weekend like this - and taking the kids out to special events that only happen this time of year. I love Advent because I know that it's leading to Christmas Eve. Which I also love. The candles on Christmas Eve, getting together with family for a Christmas meal, watching the children open their presents from Santa - there is no time quite as special as Christmas. And so I love Advent. I love to just immerse myself in the waiting and the preparation and the anticipation, knowing that Christmas is coming at the end.

But Advent is not that easy. Advent - at least as it’s developed in the church over the past two thousand years - is not as simple as waiting for Christmas. Advent is also about waiting for Christ to come again - by which we mean the last day, the Day of Judgement, the day of the Lord, 'the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,' the end of everything as we know it. During the season of Advent, we Christians live with two timeframes. We have the immediate timeframe of the calendar year that starts in January and ends in Christmas. But we also live with God's timeframe, that starts in Creation and ends in ... what? Well, we don't quite know what God's Creation ends with, and that’s what makes the Godly timeframe of Advent so hard. It's difficult for us to imagine Creation ending, partly because it's something so large we can't grasp it in our heads, and partly because we can't really imagine what might possibly exist if there is no more existence as we know it.

And the texts today are not particularly helpful. The readings, like Advent itself, are ambivalent. I love that word - ambivalent. I used to think that it meant not caring - like, I'm ambivalent about which side of the bed I sleep on - I don't really care. But then I found out that ambivalent means two (ambi) powers (valent), and that it really means feeling powerfully attracted to and repelled by something at the same time. Being ambivalent about which side of the bed I sleep on doesn't mean I don't care, it means I have very powerful reactions towards both sides. (Which probably wouldn't be good for my husband.) And our Advent readings for today are ambivalent. They elicit two very different and very powerful reactions when we think of "the end." They make Advent, and all periods of waiting, very complicated.


This weekend I was at a conference in San Diego for the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. This conference happens every year, where 11,000 scholars who study religion and the Bible meet and present their current research. So it's a conference where 11,000 people get together who view the world through a religious lens - mostly Christians, but also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and the list goes on. And, as you might expect amongst all of these people who study religion, pretty much all of them are concerned with ethics. We are concerned with the ways we live in the world, and with issues of justice, and with how humans can make (or fail to make) the world a better place for everyone.

And at this conference, there were two issues that came up that seem to me to be directly related to Advent - to this ambivalent time of waiting for God. And these are both quite fresh in my mind, and I haven't had time yet to really work out what these two things mean for the church, so I hope you’ll forgive me if what I say doesn't quite come out clearly. I want to talk about the first issue today, and hopefully get to the second one next week.

The first issue that presented itself came through the President of the American Academy of Religion, Laurie Zoloft. Dr. Zoloft talked about climate change. Specifically, she talked about how climate change is a non-negotiable, and how it is happening right now, and how regardless of what we do right now, the future of this planet has been irreversibly changed by human consumption. There is no longer any hope that we can reverse or eliminate climate change. There is only hope that we can minimize some of its worst consequences. Dr. Zoloft quoted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's words, "Time is not on our side," and talked about the devastating effects of climate change that are already taking place, particularly in poorer countries and amongst more vulnerable populations. And Dr. Zoloft warned us that living the way we are currently doing will not only increase changes in the literal world as we know it, but is an unethical and immoral way of living. Living the way we are right now increases the suffering of people living today and increases the suffering of the generations to come - of our children and their children and their children. The world my grandchildren will live in - the world your great-great grandchildren will live in - will look nothing like the world we remember. When it comes to climate change, the end is coming. The end is very near, actually, if it is not already upon us.

So on the one hand, we have God’s promise to be with us always, we have the promise that the kingdom of heaven will come down to earth, and that God will redeem us and all of creation through Jesus Christ. And on the other hand, we have the scientific evidence that the climate is already changing, that global food production is threatened and will likely collapse entirely, that homes are being wiped out, and that our energy consumption is going to kill us. This makes us somewhat ambivalent about the end. (And we can’t preach that God will work a miracle and magically change the climate and everything will go back to the way it was - God has never worked that way.) So we look towards a future of life and a future of death simultaneously. We wait in ambivalence.

But what do we do? You see, the question is not so much which future we believe in, but rather what we ought to do in this time of waiting. The challenge of being a Christian, facing the irrefutable science of climate change, while living during this time of Advent - Christ has come, Christ will come again - is that of waiting. In light of this particular issue, and in light of all times of waiting where we know life will end, and where we yet are not ready to immediately lay down and die, how do we live in this ambivalent period of waiting? Well, Dr. Zoloft suggested that, first of all, we don't give up. That is, we don't ignore the warnings and continue to live as if everything is okay, or, on the flip side, as if nothing we do matters. What we do matters. Even if we can't change the outcome for the planet, what we do matters. Because how we live in this moment prepares us, and prepares those around us, to meet the end. How we live in the moment says something about us and about how we understand our relationship with the world and our relationship with God. And so Dr. Zoloft recommended that we act *as if* we make a difference. That we change our habits, that we look at our own practices, and that we start thinking outwardly. And what I understand Dr. Zoloft to be saying is that although we can't change the future - although we’ve missed the opportunity to stop climate change - we can change the present. We can change how we live now, and how we interact with our environment right now. We can, by changing our habits and looking towards our community and future generations, make a difference not only in the degree of climate change, but equally importantly, in our level of concern for one another and for those to come. 

Because it does matter. How you live right now matters. How you show that God loves the world, and that God loves those in the world, matters. How you live now shouldn't change depending on whether the end is tomorrow, or next year, or not for another five generations. God is not waiting to love the world in the future, God is not waiting to love us only at the end. God sent Jesus Christ to us because God loves the world now. In the present. And so it’s only today that confronts us. It's today where God comes to meet us, and it's today where we embody God's love for one another. We care for one another, and for whoever is to come, by curbing our consumption, reducing our waste, and caring for God’s creation, in whatever small or large ways we can. Today. 

Because we are a people living in Advent. Which means that we are looking to the future of both death and life, and that such a forward focus shapes how we act today. It shapes how we wait. And we wait securely in the promise that Jesus Christ was born as the embodiment of God on earth, and that we therefore live as if God’s presence in the world means something today, and that we are the new embodiments of God’s presence. We live as if what we do matters, not because we will change the timing of the master returning, but because we trust that God’s love is at work in the world, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

November 16, 2014 - Death, the church, and New Life

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90: 1-12
1 Thess 5:1-11
Matt 25:14-30

So this is a confusing parable, just like last week’s was, so I’m going to clarify something right off the bat and say that this is not a parable about money. It is not about trusting in the banking system, or about how to make wise financial investments. Jesus talks about giving five talents to a person, and what is important to know is that a talent was an extraordinary amount of money. It was the equivalent of two or three year’s worth of wages. So when the master gives his slave five talents, he is giving him ten or fifteen years worth of wages. The exaggeration and hyperbole in this parable is intentional, and is the clue that tells us not to take this parable literally. This story may be about investing, but it is not about money.

It is about what it means to be disciples who are entrusted with the message of Christ. The point of this parable is that God has entrusted us with something of great value, and expects us to do something with it. This thing of great value, these talents, these wages, is the kingdom of heaven. God entrusts us with the kingdom of heaven, which means that God is expecting us to proclaim the message of the Gospel. The message that - out of great love for us - our sins are forgiven and God continues to hold us in close relationship. The kingdom of heaven, the talents that God has given us, the message that we are supposed to tell people about, and that we are supposed to live out every day, is that God loves the people God has created. That God, through Christ, does not allow our sins to get in the way of God’s love and care for us.

But somewhere along the way, we got confused about this. Somewhere in the past two thousand years, Christians have gotten confused about what it is that God has given us. Christians have become the third slave, and we have come to believe that God is harsh and to be feared, and that we will have to account for ourselves when God comes again. Of course, it doesn’t help that we hear passages like our first reading in Zephaniah, which does indeed talk about God as a fearsome warrior who will bring wrath and devastation and distress. This passage of Zephaniah was written as Israel was under siege by occupying forces, and at a period when it looked like absolutely everything would be lost. Zephaniah and his people feared death - they lost sight of the goodness of God, and so all they could think about was their own fear. I know that you’ve all had times like that - times when you were so afraid that you couldn’t possibly imagine that God would bring new life to the situation. And if you had written down something at that point in your life, it would have sounded like this first reading. But what we forget when we hear this passage is that it does not represent the whole story. The book of Zephaniah actually ends with what we know to be true about God - that God does not actually leave God’s people in ruin and destruction. The end of the book says, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  ... The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; ... says the Lord.”

But, in our fear, we forget this message. And right now, we’re afraid. The church is afraid. There is a lot of talk right now about declining membership in churches, and about the declining numbers of clergy, and about congregations dying and closing. Churches, like this one, that were once filled from front pew to back, with Sunday school rooms packed with noisy children, where grandparents, parents, and children all went to church together, these churches are disappearing. And when we look around and see empty pews, and no Sunday school, and aging members, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who don’t go to church on Sunday morning, we get afraid. We become afraid that God will hold us accountable for what has happened to the church - to these talents that God has given us - and that God is going to be unhappy. We become afraid that we are going to die and end up in the outer darkness.

And so what do we do? How do we act in this fear? Because it’s not a groundless fear. That is, the numbers don’t lie. I’m not going to give you stories about the amazing new programs that churches are doing elsewhere, or tell you about congregations that are buying up property to build new churches. These stories do exist, but the truth is that by and large, the numbers of people attending church are dropping. These amazing stories are the exception, not the rule. The religious landscape has shifted significantly in the past thirty years, not just for Christians, but for all religious institutions.

So what do we do in the face of this? How do we act? Historically, when people are afraid of dying, they hunker down. And that’s what’s happening these days. Congregations are struggling to save themselves, and we have done it by battening down the hatches, tightening our belts, and staying the course. Congregations who are afraid of dying typically tighten the budget, hold onto what they have, and hope to make it through alright. Yes, there are the occasional attempts to introduce new programs, or to bring in a new pastor who will (hopefully) attract a younger crowd, but these are small risks. These are still conservative moves in the broad scheme of things. These actions are still aimed at protecting the congregation as we know it. We do not, like the first and second slaves, take everything we have and trade it - gamble it, actually - in the hopes of getting even more back. As we all know, it is foolish to take everything you have and gamble it away in the hopes of getting more back. That is just too risky, and we won’t risk gambling away the life of the congregation. Instead, we act conservatively and try to protect what we have. We dig a hole in the the ground and hide to keep things safe.

There are two problems with this, though. And please know that I am not talking just about what is happening here at St. John. What is going on here is what is going on in hundreds, if not thousands, of other congregations - in the Lutheran church and in other denominations - throughout Canada and the United States. Congregations everywhere are struggling to survive and are fearful in the face of death. So please don’t think that you are alone in what is happening here. The two problems with this congregation’s approach, and with all of these other congregation’s approaches, speak to a bigger problem within the Christian church in general.

The first problem is that we Christians have somehow managed to confuse what it is that God has actually given us. I started by talking about the message that we have been given to proclaim - that God has entrusted us with sharing the gospel of God’s love for us. But just now, I was talking about the survival of the congregations and the church. You see, somewhere along the way, Christians started mixing up God’s message with the institution of the church. Particularly in the twentieth century, and now in the twenty-first century, we have come to think that the church - by which I mean the collection of congregations - is what we have been entrusted with. We have confused the buildings with the gospel. We have confused the excitement and energy of people gathered on Sunday morning to worship with the gospel. You see, the talent  - the thing of great worth that God has given us - is not this building, or this property, or the Lutheran Church, or what we would call the institutional church. The thing we have been entrusted with is the message, not the building. God has given us the gospel that God loves us. God did not give us the building, or the congregation, or the Lutheran church. And yet we have spent inordinate amounts of time and energy and resources trying to protect buildings and organizations. Yes, these buildings and organizations have helped us to share God’s message with others, but they are not the message itself. We are called to protect the message, not the buildings.

The second problem is that in our confusion over what God has actually given us, we have become afraid to risk anything. The point of today’s Gospel parable is that God is calling us to risk what God has given us. God is calling us to risk proclaiming the love of God to everyone we can - to trade it out in public. And risk sounds awfully scary and like a good way to lose what we have been given. The thing is, though, that because God is calling us to do this, it is not actually a risk. We are not actually gambling, because we are certain of the outcome. God has fixed the game, as it were. When we risk proclaiming the gospel - the true treasure we have been given, God has promised to give us a return on our investment. The first slave risked five talents, and got back double that. When we risk proclaiming God’s love, that love is received and returned double. Forgiveness and God’s love is proclaimed, and returned double. The master in the parable was angry because the last slave was worried about getting in trouble. He didn’t trust his master and so he buried what he had been given. We, too, have lost trust in God and started burying what we have been given. Mistaking the message for the buildings, and believing that God is calling us to protect and bury what we have been given, we have ended up burying the proclamation of God within the walls of the congregations.

You know, I struggle with the last verse of our gospel reading for today. “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I struggle with what kind of God would do this, because it is so contrary to what we know of God’s love. But one of the things that I can’t help thinking is that we are already in this outer darkness. I can’t help thinking that we, in what we call the mainline Protestant churches, are already sitting in the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing our teeth because we have lost everything. The congregations are dying and Christianity as an organized religion is, too. We buried the gospel when we tried to avoid risk and when we protected the church as we know it. And so we are here, weeping and gnashing our teeth.

But I will tell you something else. I also know that Jesus is in this outer darkness, and that Jesus died in this outer darkness. Jesus is out here with us, as we weep and gnash our teeth over the survival of the church and the loss of the gospel. Jesus died out here with us, and - more importantly - Jesus was raised to new life from out of this darkness.

I know this because this is also part of the message that God has entrusted to us. That, because God loves us, God brings us new life and raises us out of the darkness. This is why we do not need to be afraid, and this is why we can risk everything to proclaim the gospel, and this is why we can stop struggling to hold onto congregations or even denominations. Because even if we die, or rather, even when we die, we know that God brings new life. When we risk everything and die, then we are fully proclaiming the message that God has given us - love in the face of fear, light in the darkness and new life in death. When we risk everything and face the possibility of death, it is then that we are investing God’s treasure as we are meant to, and it is then that we see new life. Not the new life of a congregation, and maybe not even the new life of an institutional church, but the new life of the message that Christ proclaims to us, the words of our second reading from Paul, “For God has destined [you] not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who dies for us, so that whether [you] are awake or asleep [you] may live with him.” Thanks be to God. Amen. 

All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014 - Communion as the Reward of the Saints

Revelation 7.9-17
Psalm 34. 1-10, 22
1 John 3.1-3
Matthew 5. 1-12

Walter Mosimann, Kay Stuckart, Douglas Campbell, Rosalie Mutschall, Kay Barnes, Martha Lee, Wilma Olson, and Philip Sorg. These are the saints of this congregation who went to be with the Lord this year, and whom we remember today particularly in our prayers. 

If you were at the funeral services of any of them, you would have heard many details about their saintly lives, and about how they were committed Christians who always did good and never harmed a soul. You would have heard about all of their wonderful characteristics, and about the struggles that these saints had overcome, and about the great things they did in their life, and about how they are now experiencing their reward and rest in heaven, saints before the heavenly throne. And although I never met any of these saints, I’m certain that all of it is true. 

I’m also certain that’s not all there was to their lives. Because funeral sermons so rarely give us the whole truth. At funerals, we don’t hear about the big mistakes that the saints have made, or their biggest regrets. We don’t hear about who they hurt along the way, or about any of their failures or shortcomings. As the saying goes, we don’t speak ill of the dead.

And so what happens at funerals, and then what happens on days like today, All Saints’ Day, is that we hear about these wonderful, saintly lives, and then we leave feeling somewhat inadequate. We think about our own lives, and about how unsaintly they are. We think about our own mistakes, we mull over our own regrets, we think about our failures and shortcomings, and about the people we know (or suspect) we’ve hurt along the way. We often feel like we should be doing something, living more full Christian lives, helping the church more, the way these saints did. We feel guilty that we aren’t doing more to be better Christians, as these saints so clearly were. And the longer we live, the more funerals we attend, and the more we reflect on whether we have done enough with our lives. Whether our lives are equal to those of the saints, and whether we ought to have done more. There’s some irony there, actually. The older you get, the more funerals you attend, and the more you feel that you should be doing something as a good Christian, which all starts happening at the same time that you find yourself less and less able to do all of these things. Paul said that he had “run the good race,” but, unlike a typical race, which speeds up as you get closer to the end, in the race of life, we all find ourselves slowing down as the finish line draws closer and closer. And so, when we go to these funerals of the saints, and hear about their lives and about the saintly reward they have now earned, we wonder about whether we, too, have done enough, and are doing enough, to receive this reward.

Well, one of the most important Christian traditions at funerals is to reflect on baptism. We don’t do this because it offers some nice symmetry - at the end of life we return to the beginning. We do it because baptism is at the heart of the Christian life. In our first reading, from the Book of Revelation, we heard that the multitude gathered before the throne “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” And as much as I’d love to get into that powerful imagery that washing in red blood makes us white, the point of this verse for today is that this multitude are washed. They are washed in the blood of the Lamb, and what the writer of Revelation is saying, is that they have been baptized. This is a reference to baptism. The saints are gathered before the throne of God because they have been baptized.

Which is really important. Because as our second reading, the first letter from John, emphasizes, baptism is a once and for all thing that is not our thing to do, but God’s. The first letter from John says, “we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. ... Beloved, we are God’s children.” What we proclaim in baptism is that becoming a saint is not about what we do, it’s about who we are. And the particularly wonderful thing about Lutheran baptism, is that it happens to most of us when we are babies. We have absolutely no choice in the matter, and  so it is very clear that baptism is not something we have done - most of us just probably flailed around and maybe cried a bit, since babies don’t do much else. Infant baptism is a tangible reminder to us that our Christian lives as saints do not begin with doing. We are baptized. We are. There isn’t any doing in “are.” Our saintly lives begin with be-ing. We are. We be.

And when our saintly lives and reward depend on who we are, and not on what we do, the kind of lives we live become irrelevant. The things we have done, or not done, come to no account. Whatever big mistakes we have made, or regrets we have (because we all have them), whatever failures we have amassed, whatever injuries we have caused to others (because we have all done that), these are part of our saintly life. Because we are baptized (I don’t like to say that we “have been” baptized - it sounds like something that happened only in the past and has no relevance for today), because we are baptized we live in that state of baptism every day, and every day that we live is as one of the saints.

So where, then, is our reward? Do we really have to wait until we die? Is it not enough to have lived through the “great ordeal” of life - which, by the way, when Revelation mentions the “great ordeal” they are talking about life and about the tragedies and deaths of everyday life that we experience. So, where is our reward? 

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the Book of Revelation, and there are a lot of them, but one of them is that this book is talking about something that is going to happen in the future. But it’s actually talking about what is happening right now. Now, I’m not talking about any kind of apocalyptic conspiracy theory, “these are the times” that this magic book is talking about. No. The book of Revelation is speaking to people now, in that it is speaking to every reader through the ages, and through the centuries. Particularly, the book of Revelation is a book of comfort that tells us that no matter what you are going through now, no matter what ordeal you are going through now, your reward is also now. We see this particularly at the very end of Revelation, when the writer talks about the city of God with its heavenly temple coming down to earth to create the New Jerusalem. This is not something that is going to happen in the future. This is happening now. This is the writer’s proclamation that, in the midst of whatever grief or hunger or thirst for righteousness, or whatever persecution or ordeal you are experiencing, the Lamb of God is bringing the kingdom of heaven and its saintly reward down to you right now. There is more symmetry here - as we proclaim Christ lifted up on the cross and then ascending into heaven, we also proclaim the kingdom of heaven coming down to earth. The reward of the saints - your reward - is now.

So what, exactly, is this reward? 1 John says that our reward is that we will be like God. Matthew says that the reward is the relief of the things that oppress us, of the things that make our lives an ordeal. The reward is comfort in the midst of mourning, the gift of the earth to those who are meek, being filled with righteousness to those who have had to hunger and thirst for it. The reward is mercy to those who are merciful, and visions of God to those who are pure in heart. The reward is peace to those who are children of God. (And notice, please, how these are all things that people are and not things that they do.) Revelation says that the reward of the saints is that they will be sheltered from oppression, and, most importantly, that their reward is to stand in the city of God and to worship in the heavenly temple.

And what is this worship, exactly? Look to the front of the church. What do you see? Closest to you is the baptismal font, the heart of our faith, a reminder that you are a saint because of who you are and not because of what you do. Then you see the altar. You see the elements of communion, the place where you hear the grace of God through Christ proclaimed. If baptism is at the heart of our faith, communion is at the heart of our worship. Every Sunday when you come to worship, we celebrate communion - the Word of God in the bread and wine, the foretaste of the feast to come. Communion is the kingdom of heaven come down to earth for a brief few minutes. Communion is where all the saints are gathered, and where we are united with every Christian across time and space. If you could step outside of time and see every communion ever celebrated, past, present, and future, you would see “the multitude before the throne of the Lamb, praising God.”

Your reward, then, for being a saint, for being baptized, is to experience the comfort and fulfillment and mercy and peace of communion. Your reward is that you are freed from having to do anything at all but to come forward and receive. You do not have to do anything, just be. In the bread and wine, God gives you comfort and fulfillment and mercy and peace. Because communion is where you leave behind all of the things you have to do, and where you just be. 
And as you be, God grants you the forgiveness that God has granted all the saints and that God has granted to all of the saints of the congregation whose names I read earlier. Your comfort is here, righteousness is here, mercy is here, peace is here, Christ is here. For all the saints. For you. Thanks be to God. Amen.