Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Day - November 25, 2010 (Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and John 6:25-35)

A few years ago, self-described agnostic and humorist A.J. Jacobs spent a year trying to take the Bible literally and then wrote a book about it. Jacobs, the editor-at-large for Esquire magazine and author of three New York Times bestsellers, grew up in a Jewish household that was only nominally religious. He claims that he had always been drawn to his culture’s Holy Scriptures, and wondered if taking it word-for-word could help him reach some of his own conclusions about religion and maybe even his own faith. The following is a portion from his entry on Day 84, where Jacobs explains his attempts to keep Deuteronomy 8:10, an injunction in the Hebrew Bible to give thanks.

Jacobs writes:

“In Deuteronomy, the Bible says that we should thank the Lord when we’ve eaten our fill—grace after meals, it’s called. Christians moved the grace to the beginning of the meal, pre-appetizer.

To be safe, I’m praying both before and after.

Today, before taking my lunch of hummus and pita bread, I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and say in a hushed tone: ‘I’d like to thank God for the land he provided so that this food might be grown.’

Technically, that’s enough. That fulfills the Bible’s commandment. But while in thanksgiving mode, I decide to spread the gratitude around: ‘I’d like to thank the famer who grew the chick-peas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chick-peas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone’s deli and told me ‘Lots of love.’ Thank you.’

Now that I type it, it sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle Eastern spread. But saying it feels good. Here’s the thing: I’m still having trouble conceptualizing an infinite being, so I’m working on the questionable theory that a large quantity is at least closer to infinity. Hence the overabundance of ‘thank yous.’ Sometimes I get on a roll, thanking people for a couple of minutes straight—the people who designed the packaging and the guys who loaded the cartons onto the conveyor belt. My wife, Julie, has usually started in on her food by this point.

The prayers are helpful. They remind me that the food didn’t spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling into my maw like it’s a nutrition pill. And they remind me that I’m lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium” Jacobs, A.J., “By the Book: An Experiment in Biblical Living” in The Christian Century.  Vol 124, no. 21, October 16, 2007  pp26).

Getting us out of our self-obsessed cranium: words of thanksgiving wisdom from a person who isn’t even convinced there is a God. It is a simple concept, really—opening ourselves up to “spread the gratitude around”—but one that is somehow difficult to remember and do. Perhaps that’s one reason why God essentially commanded his people Israel to perform acts of thanksgiving: so they would be reminded that they didn’t just spontaneously generate in the Sinai desert. In fact, they were once slaves whom God delivered to a life of freedom. In fact, they were once slaves who longed for a taste of plenty.

Our Old Testament reading for this national day of Thanksgiving is from that same book of Deuteronomy. We hear how God directs his people upon their arrival in that land of freedom and plenty to take some of the first fruits of the harvest from that land and put it in baskets and offer it to the priests for a group celebration. That is, before they partake of any of their hard-earned harvests themselves, and before they store up for any lean years that may lie in the future, the Israelites are told to set aside those precious first fruits—those cucumbers and those melons and those sheaves of wheat that have sounded so delicious after 40 years of manna—not for individual consumption, but as an offering to the Lord and to each other, together with the foreigners in their midst. What they are to say to the priests who receive their offering of first-fruits is key to this whole ritual of thanksgiving. God gives them the words; they don’t even have to worry about making up their prayers pre-appetizer.

And what exactly do they say at this annual Feast of Weeks, as it came to be called? Put simply, they recite their story. They say—and I paraphrase—‘God, we finally made it to this great place, here to the freedom and the plenty. We did not get here on our own strength. You brought us out of Egypt with your own deeds of power. And you have been the guide of this great journey and the giver of this great land. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ One may think that a pre-scripted “thank you” is not genuine, but as Jacobs and the Israelites were sure to learn, a “thank-you,” no matter how it comes, intends to get us out of our own self-obsessed craniums and connect us, not simply to the world around us, but to the One who surrounds us with plenty.

It is a fitting model for us on a national day of thanksgiving. A disproportionate share of the world’s resources pour into the United States each year. And our country continues to receive and resettle a large portion of the world’s refugees and immigrants.

America is not the Land of Canaan, and our system of government does not rely on divine mandates, but as people of faith within this country, we can frame our thanksgivings in the pattern of those forefathers and foremothers in faith. We can remember that our God is a God of abundance, who connects us through his providence in ways that we don’t often recognize when we’re just shoving this plenty into our maws.

Furthermore, we have received our blessings not merely because of our ingenuity and resourcefulness, but on account of the blessings God has given to the entire world to share and steward. As people who learn to spread the gratitude around, we can be challenged to give to God our first fruits of time, talent, and treasure, knowing that God has provided for us this far and certainly intends to take care of us hereafter. We are people who open up our mouths to give thanks and our hands to give back and share so that the world may know that gifts of God are not scarce.

That is what is so revolutionary about this command from Deuteronomy: that is, the giving of first fruits, not what is leftover in the granary and orchard floor. Together with the re-telling of their story, this ritual was not just a thanksgiving for the past, but also a pledge to look into the future and see it as hopeful, continually blessed. The act of taking that first batch of crops which finally came up from the soil, after long weeks of planting and farming, and dedicating it to God for the good of the community suggested a confidence that God would surely provide additional batches which could be enjoyed and consumed and saved. By remembering and thanking in this manner, we, as members of the overall most affluent country, can help transform the world to think this way. With even the foreigners and strangers in our midst, as well as the families whose ancestors may date back to the Pilgrims, we give thanks to a Creator who does want us not only to be able to acknowledge our inherent connectedness, but also to know his guidance of us through the years.

But lest we forget that there really is enough to around, and lest we forget that all land is really intended for the good of everyone…

And lest we forget that God looks upon us as redeemed people of one skin and blood…

And lest our fighting and our quarrelling and our hoarding consume us and drown out the voices of praise and thanksgiving...

Then may God then remind us again that He has gone one step even farther than we’d imagine and given humankind the greatest gift yet—the life of his own Son. God has not left himself out of this cycle of giving and receiving nor withheld himself from the grinding dead-end of hoarding and wasting. On the cross, God has lived our forgetfulness, himself, and in Jesus Christ suffers the full portion of our greed and selfishness, and yet still provides us with forgiveness and love.

Before the priests, the ancient Israelites offered their first fruits of grain and grape in the hope that God’s future they would never go hungry. At our table of sacrifice, we receive the bread of life and cup of salvation, with the promise that we will never go hungry and never thirst for that which we truly need. He has been our help in ages past and will our hope for years to come.

We receive this life from our great Giver—the first fruits of the resurrection—and we remember our story, which leads from our sin…to the table…to the cross…to eternal life. We remember our story as beloved children of the Most High—“it is he who has made us, and we are his” (Psalm 100:3) —and let loose with our overabundance of “thank you’s!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28C] - November 14, 2010 (Luke 21:5-19)

I confess I still have not changed the digital clock in my car to Eastern Standard Time. Each time I get in and glance at the dashboard I do a little double-take, but I’m usually too much in a hurry to root through my glove compartment, find the owner’s manual, and figure out the correct instructions for pressing the specific radio buttons that will move the time forwards or backwards. I suppose I’ve become somewhat spoiled in this twice-yearly time-toggle because almost all my other timepieces update themselves. The clock on my computer, for example, and the clock on my cell phone—the two places I check the time most regularly—are synched to some satellite up in the heavens that sends a signal without my knowing. The one beside my bed is easy to change—and I must change it—for it contains my alarm, but the car clock is stuck in Eastern Daylight for no other reasons than laziness and forgetfulness.

However, I have noticed this week that looking at those misleading dashboard digits makes me pay a little more attention to time and to its passage—even if it is for just a few seconds—before my mind wanders elsewhere. I am a little perplexed, for example, that we are still calling this “Standard” time, even though it is accounts for less than five months of the year. I wonder if I’m actually getting done in each day now that the extra hour of sunlight has shifted to the morning, or has my productivity changed at all? While I clearly don’t need the car clock to give me the correct time, I admit that I don’t exactly ignore what it tells me, either.

Time and its passage are no doubt on the minds of Jesus and his disciples, too, as they wander through the crowds on the streets of Jerusalem—crowds that are a little larger than usual due to the upcoming Passover festival. Things, in fact, are getting tense, down to the wire. Groups like the Sadducees, the elders, and the chief priests, who all vie for control within the Jewish religious establishment, have been stepping up their challenges to Jesus and his disciples. The Roman army’s presence is felt more keenly here in the capital city, and the ritual surrounding the temple has become corrupt. In Jerusalem, home of the mighty temple, the disciples encounter a confusing compilation of politics and religion and power and money that no doubt lead them to question the times. Jesus has just been hailed as the new king. What is about to happen? For what has Jesus led us here? When exactly will God bring his kingdom to fulfillment?

Their questions in this morning’s gospel passage come as a result of Jesus’ comments about the temple. He claims it will be thrown down: "Not a stone will be left upon another.” Such a thought would have been difficult to fathom, I’m sure. The temple that Herod the Great had constructed and renovated was enormous and fantastically ornate. Wealthy people and nobles had decorated and furnished it with all types of liturgical trappings dedicated to the glory of God…new hymnal dedications, altar supplies, Christmas poinsettias…it was magnificent. The temple embodied, in the mindset of many, the epitome of God’s splendor, as well as humankind’s dedication to that splendor. It was constructed to look permanent and to be permanent, just as God’s presence and power was permanent.

And so, for Jesus to assert that it would fall and soon be indistinguishable from a pile of rubble was quite a statement. It suggested that God had other plans far beyond this building of stone, that God had designs elsewhere…but where? Such an assertion also meant that the world as the disciples knew it then, in all of its complexity and certainty, was not to remain. Somehow this temple was not going to represent God’s finest hour, or even the finest hour of God’s people. And so, then, the natural worries about when it all will happen: “How do we switch our clocks, Lord Jesus, to this new Standard Time?”

If only the answer to such a question were located in our glove compartment, buried, as it were, in the pages of the owner’s manual! For centuries Jesus’ words about the next epoch in God’s reign have confounded the faithful. Certain Christian groups have for years studied on these chapters and others like them in order to divine the end of the world and when it will occur. They’ve even instigated certain world events (the Crusades come to mind) in an attempt to tip God’s hand.

Yet, as Jesus reminds his disciples—as Jesus reminds his disciples twenty-one centuries later—God’s time, kairos, does not work like that. God’s time is not like chronos, the type measured minute-by-minute, chronologically, by some satellite in the heavens or the watch on your wrist. Kairos is altogether different and is more like the kind of time that guides two people who are falling in love to know the right moment at which to say“I love you” for the first time. You cannot and should not try to predict God’s kairos, God’s perfect timing. You cannot and should not pin it down, measure it, or pour it into an hourglass. God’s time is not like clock time, and although in the coming days many will try to convince us, Jesus says, with fancy calculations that they have figured out the precise hour when God will bring all things to their conclusion, those people will be wrong. The flow of time and the consummation of history are ultimately in God’s hands, never ours.

Even if this fact doesn’t require us to change our clocks, so to speak, it does call for a certain change in mindset. For one, we are not to have fear. Nations will rise against nation, and there will be volcano eruptions during the president’s visit to Indonesia, and there will be earthquakes in Haiti followed by plagues of cholera, and it will seem at times like the earth is shaking on its very foundations, but don’t be led into terror, Jesus says.

But even more fearsome than cataclysmic world events will be the suffering that lies ahead for Jesus’ followers. As people of faith attempt to live out his words in a world that is hurting, misunderstanding and persecution will ensue. Some folks may even be hauled in front of tribunals and courts and thrown in prison. Some will be rejected by family members, but none of this, Jesus implores, should be a cause for anxiety. Rather, it is a cause for giving testimony. Such events will give the faithful a chance to point to God as the real source of security. Times of suffering and persecution provide the opportunity to become not a wall of resistance or a door to be locked but a window to God’s grace.

That is the change in mindset: that when the world starts to hate, the Christian sees the chance to speak love. When the world frets and threatens, the follower of Jesus practices courage and compassion. In moments of anguish and conflict, Jesus will provide you with what you’ll need to say, if anything at all. “Not a hair on your head will perish,” he says (a comment which carries more meaning for some people than others!) “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” That is, we will learn that the life lived in Christ is the life that cannot ever be taken away.

Some of these apocalyptic words of Jesus may strike us as too foreign, too “chicken little.” I suspect many modern minds don’t really know what to make of them. Yet, at the same time, I think we all can recognize the conflict or tension at the heart of the Christian faith to which they allude; that is, followers of Christ learn to be and interact with one another in a way somehow different from the rest of the world. We have been claimed by grace and we live by the Holy Spirit. We know by faith that God’s new beginning began at the cross of Jesus and that our lives point to a time beyond us…that kairos time beyond the destruction not just of the temple, but of all vain things human construct.

Followers of Jesus know that they living within this tension where we know God is victorious, and we know death has been conquered, and we know that loves wins in the end, but that it is not always evident by what we see and what we experience. There will always be, therefore, a temptation to withdraw from the world, or to predict the day all the evil will burn, or to threaten with violent words and actions those who don’t seem to be on our side. However, the mindset we are to take within this tension will take its lead from Jesus who did not withdraw from others, but who engaged the world in love. It will be an opportunity to testify, to be a part of the wondrous effort that changes the world to live on God’s good time.

That kind of stuff is so easy for a pastor to say, though. Obscenely easy. It’s comfortable and cozy here from up in this pulpit as I coach you to be calm in the face of trial and loving in the threat of danger, to view your persecutions out there your workplaces, in your schools, in our mission field, as an opportunity to testify. The students who attended Middle School Bible study this week reminded me of that. Our topic was cheating in class. We got into a pretty lively discussion about it, and I dare say that I would never want to face one of them in a debate tournament! They’re extremely bright and quick on their feet.

After a while, however, the discussion took a very serious turn when we began to talk about what it would take to change the culture of cheating that they confront in school today. The students in the Bible study informed us in no uncertain terms that in taking a stand for personal integrity, for example, they’d be up against the whole social scene at school, a scene that favors certain in-groups with power and status. I heard their fear of being hauled before a tribunal of their peers, laughed at, mocked, shunned for following rules. And yet, I know that they can handle it. I know that they already take on injustice and dishonesty—I know that they have learned the language to name them and confront them—I know that they are honing those responses of love and faith in the midst of suffering because I see glimpses of it in our life together here.

I find comfort in thinking that’s how Jesus speaks to us in this passage. He speaks to us, you see, from far beyond the trials of youth and adolescence, far beyond the trials of betrayal and denial by friends. He speaks to us from beyond the hospital bed, beyond the tears of sorrow and grief. Jesus speaks to us from beyond the cross. He speaks to us from the promise of an empty grave, that time when, once and for all, the whole of creation will be synched up to God’s great timing in the heavens—great glory, hallelujah!—and for that we wait and we testify in hope.

The incorrect time on my car clock is slowly getting annoying, but I must say it has at least one helpful effect. Even if only for a second or two, it makes me think that it’s later than it really is. As a result, I press on to my destination even quicker. There is a slight spring in my step, an urgency to my mission. I press on, a bit more firmly, my eye set on a time in the future.

That’s good practice, I suppose for these last days, when it is probably later than we realize. We keep pressing on. We keep on keeping on. And by our endurance we will gain our souls.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.