Archive for December, 2006

When God Shows Up, and We Do, Too

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

The Christmas story was part of my family tradition. I’d heard the Christmas story countless times, growing up in the church as I did. I’d been to many Christmas Eve services–-it was such a tradition in my life that I couldn’t imagine Christmas Eve without it. Taking communion, singing Silent Night, lighting candles–it was beautiful, it was touching, but for years it did not sweep me away with its allure and power. It did not leave me questioning the ways of the world, yearning for a new heaven and a new earth, or actively seeking God’s will in my daily life. I came to Christmas Eve Service, and I left. And I went on with my life as it was.

I’ll never forget the dizzying joy I felt at the tender age of 18 when I began to realize that God loved me, Mary Tuomi, with a deeply personal love. The generic love of God for the human race became the personal love of God for me. The story that belonged to countless generations over two thousand years became more than tender moments in the church year. It became my story as well.

Christmas has never been the same since. I’m not a very liturgical person–but when it comes to the Advent season, I revel in the opportunity to spend four weeks contemplating the mysteries of the Incarnation, God-become-flesh. A baby is born in a stable to an unwed mother! Angels, and shepherds, wise men and the dangerous King Herod. God’s high drama is on the loose!

Sometimes we question our significance. In the grand scheme of things, who are we? What are we? We are like a puff of smoke that vanishes; from dust we came and to dust we return. And yet, the God of the Universe visited planet earth in the form of one named Jesus. That same extraordinary Jesus lived an ordinary life. He put up with everything humanity had to dish out—the good, the bad, the ugly, the indifferent, and the infuriating. And he loves us. Loves us! Honestly, really, tenderly, deeply, fully, magnificently loves us. Personally, powerfully, profoundly loves us.

Can you take it in? Some days it is hard to love ourselves, what alone open ourselves to the love of God! That love seems unbelievable at times, doesn’t it? That’s the magnitude of grace–sheer grace. A gift unearned, simply offered. Have you ever received a Christmas gift from someone unexpected, someone you didn’t buy anything for? “Oh, you didn’t have to get that for me!” you protest. “Why did you get me a gift?” And the other person responds, “Just because.”

That’s God’s love. “Just because.”

One of the exercises my Spiritual Director has me doing is spending time just “showing up” before God. 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. I am explicitly to come with no agenda–no petitions, no praises, no nothing. Just me and God, time to refocus and just be together. As a pastor, it is amazing how easily prayer time can become functional time–time for others, time for sermon reflection, time for gratitude, even time for struggle. But to just show up–to bring nothing before the Lord but myself–it is humbling, it is illuminating, and it is good.

Today we light the candle of love. If you are longing for God, in love, to reach out to you and call your name–God is here, waiting for each one of us to “just show up” today. Let us linger in God’s presence, and see what surprises await us!

You would think with a name like John the Baptist you would be a little more enthusiastic about baptizing people.

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

Why did they do it? Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people came out to find John to be baptized, and when they got there all he did was say ugly things. “You brood of snakes, a little water isn’t going to make things any better for you.” “Who cares if you are children of Abraham? Not God!” “The deadwood among you is going to be cast into the fire.”

John’s was not a recipe for winning the prize for the most baptisms of 30 A.D., but he did. And he didn’t really seem to care. This crazy looking man told the people that what he was doing by dunking them in the Jordan River was nothing significant at all compared to what would happen when the Messiah came. “Now that’s really going to be baptism. I’m doing water but he’ll do fire,” he told the crowds.

So he called the people names and dissed what he was doing out there in the desert. But the story says his words filled people with strength and put heart into them.

In the midst of his rantings, John, the ambivalent Baptizer, managed to give people a new hope and a new vision. He challenged them to something that would not only recreate their lives, but recreate the world. And he promised them one was coming that would make it all possible. The people were able to sift the wheat from the chaff of John’s verbal assaults. And it brought joy to their lives.

They also learned that John was no self promoter. We know from the Christmas stories that his life and the life of Jesus were connected in one mission. But John knew that his part of the story would be nothing compared to the story of Jesus.

John was the one who prepared the way for Jesus. He was the warm-up act, the one who got the crowd ready for the headliner. He was giving all kinds of hints about what was coming when The Messiah would appear on the scene. If you have two coats, give one of them to somebody who doesn’t have one. If you’ve got extra food, give it to somebody who is hungry.

Tax collectors, the Baptizer said, should only collect what was fair, and soldiers should be content with their pay. That sounds all well and good, but did you know, like the people hearing John knew, that the only way tax collectors made money was by cheating people? And since Rome had soldiers all over the place, it couldn’t come close to paying them a living wage. So soldiers were allowed to use whatever means necessary to make extra income.

John was challenging the very structures of society. Rome couldn’t last if the tax men only collected what was fair, and soldiers lived only on their wages. And John was placing no limits on who people shared their coats and food with. And, again, this was just the warm up act. The Messiah, John said, was soon to appear and take it to further extremes.

So the people were hopeful. New possibilities were on the way. John was saying they could be a part of it. But they would have to understand this was not religion as usual, something that would prop up the establishment. This movement was going to bring the establishment to its knees. And John wasn’t the one who was going to lead the movement, someone else would.

The people listening to John found joy because they realized God hadn’t abandoned them, after all. God, indeed, was with them in one who was called Emmanuel, God-with-us, at his birth.

John did quickly fade out of the picture. Herod, of course, helped speed that up when he presented John’s head on a platter to Herodias’ daughter. But Herod had not idea what was coming next. Jesus was going to present a much deeper challenge than John the Baptizer.

The stories of John and Jesus are linked from the days of their miraculous births, until John baptized Jesus. But Jesus didn’t come off like John. Jesus didn’t spend his time shouting in the wilderness, and except for a few notable exceptions with the religious types, he didn’t do a lot of name calling.

Jesus knew, though, that John had been pointing people in the right direction. We could repent, change our lives, and give ourselves over to God in new ways. Jesus wandered the villages, cities, and wilderness of Israel proclaiming that God’s Realm was at hand. And instead of spending all his time getting worked up about it like John did, he began showing us what it was like.

And it does turn out that John was just offering a taste. Jesus went much further with it than even John expected. Loving your enemies. Doing good to those who do badly to you. Welcoming the outsiders in. Making peace rather than making war. Even John didn’t realize how hot the fires of the Spirit would burn within Jesus and what he would bring about in this world.

Every Christmas we live this contradiction of waiting for the One who has already come. We celebrate the birth of Jesus again and again, hoping and believing that it will finally take root. We wait for what has already come, because like those folk who found themselves in the wet arms of John, we know there is more. Christmas is about possibilities, but possibilities are disappointed as well as fulfilled.

We don’t want to keep living with the disappointment. So every year we revisit the manger and hear the voice of one thundering in the wilderness. And we keep coming back to the story because it’s not just an old story, but it is our story. That is not some baby in the manger, but somebody who saves us. And we are still waiting for salvation to finish its work in us.

The Baptizer keeps us from allowing the story to become a sappy Christmas movie. Another Herod, who kills all those children in an attempt to get this one child, also helps with that.

Jesus, nor John, were born into a world that is anything remotely like the idealized world our Christmas cards and pageants represent. It wasn’t all singing angels, friendly beasts, and joyous shepherds. It was also wrenching poverty, military occupation, religious and political oppression, racism, sexism, and greed. Those folk knew about dysfunctional families and psychological and emotional pain, even though they didn’t have the same words we do for them. The spiritual apathy of those days were no different than now. A lot of people must have seen the same star the Wisemen did, but they just didn’t care. It was in this world, the world we know, not the world of the live nativity scenes, that God came to be with us.

And Jesus keeps being born every year into that same world. It’s 2,000 years later, but there has been precious little progress. So we wait. But we wait with joy because John has told us one is coming who will set things right. And even more, we have been invited to share the task with him, to build a church together to bear witness to him, to make his presence and God’s Realm a reality.

The Baptizer knew the key was repentance, turning around, heading in a new direction. The Christmas story screams out for us to turn around, to start moving toward God and each other rather than away. No wonder Mary pondered all these things in her heart. What was this baby actually going to mean to the world? Was it possible he could really lead us into the paths of peace?

What’s in a Word

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

After six months of careful and prayerful deliberation in the year 2000, the congregation had narrowed down the search for a new church name from 25 to just three finalists. However, time was no object for Lisa Daughtry-Weiss when her inspiration hit. The day of the big church meeting to make a final decision, Lisa asked if she could submit a last minute contender to the field. Like the outfielder who dashes out of the shadows, racing to catch the fly ball, in came the name “Church of Reconciliation.”
As I remember that “Day of Decision” which we had collectively chosen to coincide with Pentecost, a lively conversation ensued. Two of the three other listed names were rather quickly dispensed with, and the discussion began revolving around the differences in nuance between the names, “Church of Reconciliation” and “Peace Community Church.”

As we talked about “peace,” or in Hebrew, shalom, the richness of the word engulfed us. There could truly be no shalom, no peace, without reconciliation. And yet shalom embraced a total well-being that moved beyond reconciliation to the fullness of life itself.

We looked behind us at the ministries God had already given the church. We anticipated the challenges and work that remained ahead of us. Within a couple hours, we reached consensus that the name of the church would become “Peace Community Church,” a name we felt would be a challenge to ‘live up to’ and ‘into.’

It was one of many shining moments in the history of this congregation. Six and a half years later, we can look back and be amazed and humbled by the work God has done within us and through us. We also look around at the neglect of shalom in our communities and world, and, like the prophets of old, we weep.

Every fiber of our planet cries out for shalom. It is stretched nearly to the breaking point. In Iraq, 100,000 people are fleeing the country each month, with the number of Iraqis living in other Arab countries standing at 1.8 million and growing each day. The crisis in Darfur is spreading to neighboring countries, with 6 million people facing the prospect of going without both food and protection. The Apostle Paul speaks of the whole creation groaning in travail (Romans 8:19-22). The whole earth cries out for shalom.

If reconciliation is at the heart of shalom, then the crises of our day demand that the world take bold steps toward reconciliation to disarm the powers of darkness-–reconciliation between the earth and her careless inhabitants; reconciliation between the warring voices within that paralyze and harm us; reconciliation between insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies, family members and neighbors. At the root of it all, we need reconciliation with the God of the Universe–not a god of death and mayhem, not a god of vengeance and violence, not a god of prosperity and feel-good spirituality, not a tribal god of nation or caste–but a God of Life, a God of Love, a God of Welcome, a God of Shalom.

Lest we think that a God of Welcome and Shalom is some happy-clappy god, the words of Malachi the prophet stop us in our tracks. To him, God’s Messenger comes like a refiner’s fire reshaping gold and silver. Gold does not melt until the temperature reaches over 2000 degrees Celsius. That’s hot! God’s Messenger comes like strong soap, the strongest to be found. Anyone who ever does laundry knows that the toughest stains require the most abrasive treatment. That’s intense! God’s Messenger comes like an axe, laid to the root of the tree. That’s elemental! These are no cosmetic changes. God’s Messenger comes to refine, cleanse, and purify; to expose and lay bare.

To Zechariah, God’s Messenger not only purifies but also brings deliverance, salvation, and mercy. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah prophesies, “Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace” (Luke 1:78-79, The Message).
I never imagined that naming ourselves Peace Community Church would become such a radical repudiation of the world order as it has become 6½ years later. Last week, Steve spoke about the new Left Behind video, in which the Tribulationists–the good guys, are pitted against the Global Peacekeepers–the forces of the antichrist. 63 million people gobble up The Left Behind book series. 63 million people are being taught that peacemakers are agents of the devil, not of God.

Yet, the peacemakers I know stand alongside those walking in the shadow of death, bringing light to those sitting in the darkness. The peacemakers I know proclaim a God of Life and Love, not a God of Death and Destruction. The peacemakers I know do crazy things like welcoming the outcast and supporting micro-enterprises in poor nations. The peacemakers I know stand alongside the most vulnerable in places like Iraq, Colombia, and Palestine at great risk to their own lives.

This, my friends, is incarnational theology. That is where the whole Advent journey points–to enfleshing the love of God in human form, to living the story of God’s redemptive love, to expressing God’s tender care for the dispossessed of the earth.

Recently, someone outside the church asked me and Steve, “Your church does so much in the wider community. How do you inspire the people in your congregation to be so active doing so much good? Is it the result of something particular that you do as pastors, or does the church naturally attract that kind of person because of its existing ministries?”

It was an interesting question. How would you answer that question?

As Steve and I reflected on this person’s observation and question, we felt like the answer could be “some of both.” People who have a certain kind of vision are drawn to the Church, and the Church also produces people with a certain vision through its preaching, teaching, outreach, and general ministry. In all of this, however, the secret is really found in offering a vision of the Reign of God and inviting people to grab hold of that vision. Once that vision gets inside of us, it’s hard to shake. It rattles around, burns like a fire in our bellies, gnaws at our hearts, and interrupts our distractions.

That vision impacts college students long after they leave Oberlin. Sometimes it affects vocational directions. It continually transforms our daily lives. This week, I invite you to sit with the question, Where is my vision of the Reign of God leading me this Advent season?

In these days of waiting and promise, I’m reminded of the famous confession of Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” As we seek that rest, may we also welcome the refiner’s fire and the axe that is laid to the root of the tree, for they, too, lead us into the pathways of peace. Amen.

Why do we spend so much time trying to figure out when Jesus is coming again when we haven’t figured out why he came the first time? How backwards is that?

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

Every year, when the new church year begins, the Gospel reading in the lectionary is about the second coming of Jesus. I wonder if the folk who put the lectionary together would have done that if they had known what a feeding frenzy the end times speculation would become.

Something like 60% of Americans, many of them non church going folk, believe the Bible has prophecies that detail the end times. The folk who developed the Left Behind series have sold more than $60,000,000 of books, movies, video games, and related merchandising. Christian radio and TV programs fill the airwaves with end times scenarios, and Christian bookstores devote a lot of shelf space to the topic.

To start the Christian year with readings like today’s from Luke’s gospel is, literally, risking getting the year off to a bad start. I imagine when the lectionary was put together the reason such readings were included at the beginning of the year was to help us do the preparation work Advent is about. The event Advent points to, the birth of Jesus, has already happened, but Christmas is more than commemoration. The second coming passages help us to think about the fulfillment of that birth story., that God is working with a plan. As great as the story is, it’s just the beginning. That baby didn’t stay in the manger.

The problem, though, is that I think all this speculation about the second coming of Jesus has done great harm to the church. Here are the some of the problems I have with it.

First of all, it’s bad interpretation of the Bible. It’s amazing the interpretive gymnastics people have to go through to get out of the Bible what something like the Left Behind books purport to be there. It’s no wonder there are so many seminars, lengthy books, and sermon series about the end times, it’s all pretty complex and takes lots of explanation. And these are often the people who take pride in the fact that they are reading the Bible literally rather than interpreting it. A classic in the literature is the grasshoppers you read about in the book of Ezekiel, which the end times folk say is an obvious reference to United Nations helicopters.

A more disturbing interpretive principle of the folk who focus on the end times is one that was outlined for me by one of its adherents around our dining room table. He said that the Gospels aren’t really for us. All that Jesus taught, he said, is really for the age that follows the rapture. Now, again, this is a person who takes considerable effort to make sure people realize he doesn’t interpret the Bible. He had a long explanation about all of this that I don’t have time to go into now, but if you come to sermon talk back time on Tuesday evening we can talk more about it there. Suffice it to say, it’s a stunning way to totally dismiss the life and teachings of Jesus.

There are lots of ways that people interpret the Bible. Some claim to be literalists, others might be into form criticism. People interpret the Bible through the lenses of Calvinism, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Anabaptist Theology, and a whole host of other theologies. There are Catholic interpretations of the Bible, Lutheran interpretations, Baptist interpretations, Pentecostal interpretations.

Many inside and outside the church, however, seem to think that this type of interpretation that leads to all this end times speculation is the correct one. But I, and a whole lot of others, argue that they aren’t even close.

My second complaint about popular end times theology and interpretation is that it has done serious damage to the church because it has been linked so closely with nationalism. And that is not just something that has happened in our own day.

In his book American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips traces the history of the end times movements in the history of the Church. During World War I, it was fairly common for British and other European churches to equate the battle with the Germans as fulfillment of end times prophecies. The allied forces were the forces of light battling the anti-Christ of Germany.

And one of the primary objectives of the British forces was to ‘complete the Crusades’ and reclaim Jerusalem from its Muslim inhabitants during that war. Many British and European preachers saw it as a fulfillment of all the Bible pointed to when the allied forces engaged the enemy in a winning battle near Medego, the place known in Europe and North America as Armageddon.

Churches all over England hung the Union Jack behind their altars during WW I, and called for God’s blessings on allied troops as they fought this holy war.

Kevin Phillips points out that when the war was over, church attendance began a precipitous decline in England. He sites as an important factor in that decline the blatant nationalism tethered with an end times theology that turned many from the church once they examined the horrors of that war and its justification as a part of God’s end times plan by so many churches.

History has, indeed, repeated itself in this country. Nationalism and end times theology go hand in hand in many churches in this country. I’ve noticed on the Christian TV stations that the U.S. flags have gotten bigger and bigger behind those preachers who have declared this current war the U.S. is fighting as a vital piece in the end times puzzle.

It’s no wonder to me that the church seems more and more irrelevant to more and more people in this country. Some of you may have seen the discussions on line or in the newspapers about the newest Left Behind video game where you score points by killing non Christians, and peacemakers are the allies of the anti-Christ.

This is an example of the most popular portrayal of Christianity in our culture. Instead of peacemakers being the blessed children of God, they are the enemy that must be destroyed. Instead of loving our enemies as Jesus taught us, we are supposed to kill them. If you wonder how they can do that, I would refer you back to that conversation where it was stated that the Gospels aren’t really meant for us. Why would anyone want anything to do with that kind of Christianity? I’d stay away from that.

There are other complaints. There’s the narcissism of the whole thing. Like so many before us, we can’t believe that something like the second coming of Jesus wouldn’t pertain directly to our own time and place. Isn’t it all about us, after all? All those scriptures that were written 2,000-3,000 years ago, pointing to the end times, have to be about us, don’t they? Which means, of course, that for those past 2,000-3,000 thousand years they didn’t have any meaning for folk living in those days.

There is also the fact that when things don’t work out with one scenario these end times prognosticators go right on to the next scenario without batting and eye. In WW I and II Germany was the home of the anti-Christ. Then it was the Soviet Union. Now it’s the Arab world. Do any of you here remember that little book, “88 Reason why the Rapture will happen in 1988?” Well, it didn’t happen, but the same people are telling us they have figured out the current signs indicating the end of the world.

Here, though, is my most serious complaint about all this end times stuff. It’s the wrong question. Instead of asking when Jesus is coming again, we need to ask why he came in the first place. Until we get that one down better, we don’t need to be asking the other.

When you aren’t paying attention to the Gospels here’s what you miss. You miss that Jesus launched a revolutionary movement that he never expected to be well received by the powers that be. Jesus would never have imagined any nation being a Christian nation, because if we get the message right no nation in its right mind would fail to vigorously oppose it. “They’ll arrest you, hunt you down, and drag you to court and jail. It will go from bad to worse, dog-eat-dog, everyone at your throat because you carry my name.”

But Jesus goes on to say ‘stand tall with your heads up high. Help is on the way,’ which is exactly the message of the Book of Revelation. This world is tough, there are earthquakes, hurricanes, national and personal disasters. The powers that be in this world want to be the powers that continue to be.

They can’t defeat Jesus, though, as hard at they try. And they try hard. But his is a different kind of power they are up against. He was born in a stable to a poor peasant girl. He went about Israel doing good, showing people the way of God’s Kingdom. He refused to meet their lethal violence with more violence. And he was raised from the dead. How are you going to conquer that? So hold your heads up high.

The story of Advent and Christmas that needs to stick with us is the most elemental part of the story. It’s not figuring out all the end times scenarios that matters but realizing that God is with us, ‘you shall call his name Emmanuel which means God with us.’

In the hard times in this world and the hard times of our lives, God is with us. Through the wars and hospital stays, God is with us. Through the economic collapses and the lost jobs, God is with us. Through the ethnic cleansing and family conflicts, God is with us.

The Apostle Paul said it best, “there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Hold your heads up high, help is on the way. ‘God is with us. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we shall not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried off into the midst of the sea.’ That’s what we need to know.

The issue isn’t when Jesus is coming again, but that he has been here. God can take care of the end of days. During Advent we are invited to prepare ourselves for the coming Jesus who has already come to us, who calls us to hold our heads up high no matter what life sends our way, because help is on the way.