Monday, November 28, 2011

The First Sunday of Advent, Year B - November 27, 2011 (Isaiah 64:1-9, Matthew 13:24-37)

Let me tell you a story of failed expectations. It is a story of failed expectations on a grand scale, of monumental proportions—not small-claims disappointments like the Christmas wish list item that didn’t get fulfilled or the Thanksgiving turkey that got burned in the oven. These are failed expectations that affect every outlook on life and infect every possible view of the future.

The year is sometime in the 5th century, B.C., and it is the story of the people Israel’s return from two generations in exile to their Promised Land and their beloved holy city, Jerusalem. For approximately fifty years the people of Israel had been forced to live far outside of Jerusalem with its awesome and ornate Temple in the heathen city of Babylon. As they struggled, day by day and week by long week, to live there as a displaced people, with only their stories and what they could remember of their traditions to keep their faith and community alive, they longed for the day they might return. They hoped and prayed for the day when God would actually do something profound and unbelievable that would enable them to move back there, resettle their old olive groves and re-farm their old sheep pastures and, most of all, rebuild their old Temple in Jerusalem.

And just when it looked as if they would always be a people separated from that homeland, just when it looked like they might get assimilated into the great melting pot that was Babylon and forever disappear as a distinct people from the face of the earth, that profound and unbelievable thing happened! Cyrus, the King of Persia, and then his successor, Darius, conquered the Babylonian Empire and—unpredictably—practically pave the way for Israel’s people to return home. It was a miracle!

Yet, when the people of Israel finally get there—after crossing the wide wilderness—and start to re-settle those olive groves and, most importantly, re-build that Temple, disappointment settles in big-time. All kinds of factions form within their own people and begin to pull them apart. Families and houses quarrel with one another. Competing visions of the future of their people rise up amongst them, and no one can seem to agree on which direction their reborn nation should take. Selfishness and greed take over and, before they realize it, their hopes for a grand restoration are dashed to the ground. They are face-to-face with their utter inability to control their destiny, their incapacity to put back together what was broken, their powerlessness to form something beautiful—anything!—out of the wreck around them. These are failed expectations on a grand scale. Such high hopes had become such shocking loss and disorientation.

Israel's return from exile
And that utter frustration is precisely what gives voice to our Scripture from Isaiah this morning: Standing before their priest at the Temple they cry out to God above,“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, that the mountains would quake at your presence!” In the case of ancient Israel, mountains were a metaphor for everything that was beyond their control, everything ominous and oppressive and overbearing. Israel looks around and sees nothing but its own failures. They look at their neighbor and see little but his own ineffectiveness and stubbornness. What’s more, they look inside and see little but their own sinfulness: “We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” The translation of the Hebrew there is perhaps a little too lenient. A better translation is “soiled underpants.”  “Our good deeds” the people of God realize, “are like poopy diapers.”

In other words, the mountains are everywhere—both within and without—and they have led to failed expectations. At this point, only looking above, to God Almighty, will bring any hope. The mountains will only quake now if God decides to do something. Their expectations of grand restoration—living as the people they had been created and redeemed to be—will only be fulfilled if God decides to take action, if God tears open the heavens and comes down to get directly involved.

We don’t have to look too hard to know that we still live in a world with plenty of failed expectations. We don’t need ancient Israel and its poopy diapers from 2500 years ago to remind us of the disappointment in our human condition. Whether it’s the European debt crisis and the potential break-up of the Euro currency, or the tents of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or the ongoing protests in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, or the hyper-partisanship of U.S. politics at the moment, one gets the sense that there is a palpable, if not increasing, level of frustration and disorientation with the way things are.

And, despite the voices of optimism about the humancondition that ring out every once in a while (especially at this time of year), we then realize the other facts of the state of our race: there are, for example, still something around 3 million children who die every year from issues related to hunger or food stress that we could prevent. There are still going to be 70,000 new AIDS orphans this year, added to the roughly 20 million that already eke out their sad living. While millions of people worldwide find themselves throwing elbows in order to have access to clean water, holidayshoppers here will throw elbows to get discounted electronic goods. Thumb through the newspapers, catch some of the news, listen to the cry of the victim and it’s there: heaps of failed expectations. Mountains of worry and disaster and sorrow.

Advent is, perhaps more than anything else, a time for blunt honesty. We often think of it primarily as a time to get ready for Christmas, when we’re asked in ways subtle and strong to reflect on the inherent goodness of humankind and the determination of the human spirit. But, really, like ancient Israel, we need to be brought face-to-face with our failed expectations, our utter inability to control our destiny, our incapacity to put back together what has been broken. We need to look both around and within and come to terms with the mountains that loom large on every horizon. It helps to join our voices with those that cried out so long ago: “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Because when we do, we realize that if there is a way out of this mess it will not come from inside of us. We cannot even put our hope, as many often do, in the generation that comes after us. Despite the vigor and idealism we see in their eyes, their diapers will be just as poopy as ours are (trust me, I live with two of them in my house). In fact, the prayer of the day for this first Sunday of a new church year does manage to phrase it with appropriate Advent bluntness: “awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins.” It is a plea that our eyes actually be opened to what we read in the newspapers, and what we hear on the nightly news, and what we understand from the cry of the victim, and to pay attention to what those things say about us—that we are creatures of failed expectations. It is a petition through which we acknowledge that things cannot continue on like this forever. This is not the way God wants the world—it is not how we want the world, either—and that we await a change.

Thankfully, however, we await the act of a God who is all too acquainted with failed expectations. We must not forget that our salvation from amongst all of these mountains comes from a God who has chosen to work already once before with the stuff of utter disappointment. As ancient Israel also had to admit: God is a potter, and therefore he works with mud.

For a brief moment yesterday I watched the Epiphany quilters piece together another quilt in the fellowship hall. They worked in silence—no Christmas music playing in the background for them—steadily piecing together the portions of cloth to form a piece both of beauty and function. On a day when they could have been getting good deals in the stores, they were working with scraps of cloth so that people on the other side of the world might have warmth or shelter. And the thought occurred to me: if God is a potter who forms things out of muddy people like you and me, then God is also a quilter who works with scraps and leftovers, the remnants who feel, quite honestly, destined for the garbage bin.

The beauty God comes to fashion is made, then, from the most tattered parts of the human experience. For the last time God opened the heavens and came down he was born into a cattle feedbox. In his ministry, he surrounded himself with relative disappointments, people who never could quite get it together, who deserted him in his hour of greatest need. The culmination of his ministry was not on a throne or in a palace or even valedictorian of his rabbinical class, but rather on a cross, arms spread open in agony and with parched lips breathing words of loneliness and rejection. And he entrusts this legacy to the hodge-podge likes of you and me. His Spirit enriches even us with gifts of every kind.  He nourishes us with a meal that, on the surface, does not look all that extravagant, but which changes us out of our poopy diapers each and every time. This is how God has opened the heavens once already and come to us. And we have his word that he will come again.

Michaelangelo, "The Last Judgment"
And so, just as our Advent began with blunt honesty about our human condition, it also begins with a promise of wonderful hope about God’s desire to do something about it. It begins not only with a story of our failed expectations, but of a story with great promise: Jesus says, “heaven and earth may fall apart altogether—but my words will never pass away.” As they stood there before the disappointing rubble of Jerusalem, its faded glory a mere reflection of what it once was, the ancient Israelites essentially wanted God to resort to his old ways of working. Some of them were so dumbstruck by their disappointment that they were unable to see the new way that God was calling them to be his people in the world, a people whose faith would not be centered completely in that Temple and its religion, but in the hearts and lives of God’s people everywhere.  As we wait for God to come down once more, as we wait for the return of our Lord, we should remember ancient Israel’s lesson: we are still God’s people, called to be that tapestry of warmth and shelter—salvation and resurrection—he is stitching in the world.  We have the Spirit's gifts.  We have been washed and fed.  We know the mountains loom, but God calls us to work through these failed expectations to trust more on him and that, because one day—rest assured—he will put that final stitch in this amazing quilt.

In the parable Jesus tells to his disciples and everyone else about his own promise to come again, the chief error of those slaves who are caught off-guard is not their lack of knowledge about the end times or when it will occur…or their incorrect doctrines about God…or even in their evildoing. Jesus warns them chiefly against falling asleep, against not using the gifts that have been given to them in the tasks that he had commanded.

At a time of the year when it is so easy to fall back into routine, when the Christmas Muzak heard in the background of every department store serves to lull us into the sentimentality of this holiday season and deafen us to our filthiness, let us not fall asleep on our job of being God’s people in the world, of God’s people amidst even these failed expectations. And let us neither stand dumbstruck at what we’ve become. Let us, instead, sobered by the threatening dangers of our sins, place our hope on him whose words will never pass away, on God the potter who works with mud—or a quilter who works with scraps—on the promise of a day and age coming soon when the scraps of all our lives will finally be knit together into a holy fabric that spans eternity…all according to God’s wonderful expectation.

Now that is a view of the future for which we can be hopeful.  Get to working!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints Sunday, Year A - November 6, 2011 (1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12)

Based on what we hear from this morning’s Scriptures, we may say that to be a saint in this world is largely to be misunderstood. To live the life of a saint—that is, to undertake the road of grace that God lays down freely for us in Jesus—is to live the life of someone who is, to some degree, at odds with the world. It is to be someone who is constantly going to have some explaining to do, always having to offer up, in both words and actions, a different view of things.

I liken this to knowing the proper lyrics to a song that is on the radio. In the days before Google, which allows you to simply check the Internet for the proper words to a song you liked, you were reduced to just listening to a song over and over again to try to figure out what the singer was saying. This has produced some hilarious misunderstandings. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I found out that the Steve Miller Band’s song, “Big Ol’ Jet Airliner” was not, in fact, actually a hymn to my home state, “Good Ol’ North Carolina.”  And my family still gives my father a hard time about the Christmas morning we found him unloading presents from the trunk of his car, merrily singing, “Feliz La-De-Dah.”  And our esteemed Director of Music, Kevin Barger, apparently thinks that the old favorite hymn, “Lead On, O King Eternal,” has always sounded more like, “Lead On, O Kinky Turtle.”  One musician, Seal, intentionally does not include the lyrics of his songs in his albums just so that people can come up with their own understanding of whatever he’s singing, blissfully ignorant of what the words really are. The words to songs and stories, unless explicitly laid out, are often easy to get wrong.

That is the essence of what is happening between John the evangelist and his community in a letter he writes just around the turn of the first century after Christ’s birth. He is trying to get the lyrics straight and clear up a growing misunderstanding. By this point, only a few decades have passed, perhaps, since Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, and yet there is already some disagreement among his closest followers as to what Jesus’ life on earth meant.

All Saints icon
The particular details of this controversy are not known to us anymore, but it apparently was so critical to the understanding of the Christian faith that John found he needed to make some things very clear. Bottom line was the factions of people who disagreed with John in the early church wanted to deny that Christ came in the flesh. That is, their understanding of God was such that they had no place for Jesus’ wanting to be involved in anything messy, like birth—or death, for that matter—and the daily ups and downs of human life.

And John was adamant: Jesus was real. His birth was real, his ministry among the sick and marginalized was real, and his death and resurrection—also extremely real—had really claimed God’s people from a life of sin death. This reclaiming that Jesus had done, made meaningful for each believer through the sacrament of Baptism, was so real one could say a new life had begun for believers on the other side of that water, right here and now. Claimed as God’s child by Jesus’ sacrifice, the believer’s life was now synched to a hope that was not fully tangible. Creatures made of flesh, themselves, they had been saved from a future of death and decay. With their lives and with their faith, they pointed forward to a new reality in the future that had not yet been revealed. Their eyes were set on the faithfulness of God even after their own death, and the promise of their own eventual purity, just as he is pure.

Those were the true lyrics of the faith, but they could be misunderstood. As God’s children, they would have some explaining to do on occasion. That is, they were going to need to be prepared to offer up, in both their words and actions, this real version of things—a view where God’s love in Jesus is turning things around. “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him,” John states, emphasizing the point that just as Jesus was and still is misunderstood, so can his followers expect to be misunderstood as they continue in his way. If some people in their community did not understand why John and his supporters behaved as though their lives—messy though they were—had been claimed for something better, it was no wonder. Jesus had been nailed to the cross for saying such things, too.

The British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis does an excellent job of portraying this aspect of Jesus’ nature and ministry in his series of children’s novels, The Chronicles of Narnia (which are really for adults, too). Those who are familiar with the fictitious kingdom of Narnia the characters who live there know that the Christ-figure in these stories is depicted as a giant lion named Aslan who is described as fierce and terrible but also beautiful and just. Aslan is often lurking in the shadows and mysteriously present just when someone is in need.

To us it may seem strange to depict Christ as a lion, but it was a very deliberate and genius choice on Lewis’ part. Lions are very fearsome. Everyone would identify them as both frightening and easy to misjudge because they have a mind of their own.  In the C.S. Lewis’ books, Aslan the lion is often misunderstood, especially by those who’ve never met him and gotten to know him. Those in the stories who live outside of Aslan’s domain cannot comprehend how a lion can be loving or gracious. They only hear stories about him. His enemies often twist those stories and perceive him to be a demon, or a dreadful beast who haunts his victims in terror and who must be subdued. Yet those who are befriended by Aslan quickly learn that, while strong and fierce and all-knowing, he is, at heart, a good and compassionate lion.

There is a sense in which Jesus is always perceived and received in a similar way by this world. Stories about him will be twisted.  The truth will be altered.  His fearless command over our lives will be resisted and doubted.  And so if those who believe in him that their faith and their actions are often misunderstood, that the way of life he lays before them often makes little sense, they only have to look his life to see why.

Gustave Dore, Jesus Preaching on the Mount (1860)
And although we certainly can, we need look no further than Jesus’ first recorded sermon where he rattling off a list of qualities and situations that no one in her right mind would call “blessed.” The poor in spirit. Those who mourn. The meek, the merciful, those who make peace. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, as well as those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Right there in the first words off his tongue, Jesus begins lifting up those who are often misunderstood, as if he is giving an example of what life in his kingdom will be like. Right off the bat, Jesus is taking those who are typically forced to reside at the edges of the world and its ideas of prosperity and happiness, and placing them at the center of his new kingdom. Things therefore are turned around from how we usually expect them and how the world often likes to keep them.

And there it is again: to live like this—to receive these particular blessings—will involve being misunderstood. It will involve responding to a call that not everyone else hears. It will entail living in a kingdom that, for some reason, not everyone else seems to acknowledge yet.

But here we must be careful, for there is but a short distance from being misunderstood to withdrawing from the world and rejecting it in hatred. It is a short trip from feeling constantly at odds with the world’s way of doing things and saying “to hell with it” altogether. And that is not the life of a saint. That is certainly not the life of Jesus. Jesus, you see, does not come, as John says in an earlier writing, to condemn the world, but to save it. Likewise, a saint learns to sees the world as an imperfect place, but nevertheless a place that God loves and a place that God has filled with surprising amounts of joy. A child of God, which what John calls saints, may become frustrated and even angered by the injustices and the mixed up priorities of the world, but a child of God finds ever new ways of loving and working to change the world, even if it is in the lives of just a few people around them.

Come to think of it, a saint sees the world almost like a large-scale version of themselves: full of sin, doubt, turmoil, disappointment, but nevertheless cleansed and claimed by a God who, as John would remind us, deals in messiness quite willingly. Yes, what John the evangelist was trying to make clear to his community two thousand years ago goes for us today: God likes messes. It seems so unnatural that a God who is so holy and perfect—a lion so fierce and fearsome—would choose for companions those who are so fundamentally flawed. It seems so preposterous that a God who is so powerful and wise would choose to make himself known to people who are so prone to weakness and doubt. But he does.  Those are the beautiful lyrics of grace.

Powaski Cemetery, Warsaw

On this All Saints Sunday, as we ponder especially the lives of those children of God who have died in the past year and how they may have been, at times, misunderstood for their faith, let us give thanks for the lives and faith of all saints that point us to the kingdom to come.  But, first and foremost, let us give thanks for a God who gladly deals with things when they get messy, a mighty God who revels in things like forgiveness and mercy and turning things around. Let us lift our voices and our lives in praise of a God who, in Christ, is real and really fond of reaching out to the sick and the suffering, really fond of turning over the gracious life of God even to the most hopeless of cases.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Those are the words to this eternal song, and those who have felt this grace, those who have been turned around and have been taught the right lyrics time and time again—in the water, at the table—can’t help but move in that new direction, and can’t but help trying to get the rest of the world to join in the song with them. 
Even when—Kevin, it’s “King Eternal”—it involves being misunderstood.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.