Archive for December, 2007

When your fondest dreams of death and destruction don’t come true, then what?

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

When we last left John the Baptist, which was actually last week, when Linden reminded us about the locusts and wild honey he feasted on, John was ready for the coming Messiah who John said would separate the wheat from the chaff, and throw the chaff into the unquenchable fire.

It’s a week later for us, but in the story quite some time has gone by. John, who is now in prison, has been thinking Jesus is The One, but maybe he’s not so sure. So far, John’s expectations have been disappointed. There’s no unquenchable fire. Instead of all that death and destruction, all that judgement Jesus is doing things like healing and raising people from the dead, comforting the afflicted, telling people that God loves every last one of them. “Where did that come from?” John wants to know.

So John sends some of his own disciples to go find out what’s going on. He has, literally, stuck out his neck for the cause, but where’s the judgment? Where’s the death and destruction? Why is John sitting in a Roman prison, while Jesus, if he indeed is the one John was expecting, hasn’t put an end to Rome and all of its prisons? Jesus isn’t even baptizing anybody and hurling insults at them as he does.

So he sends the guys to ask. Maybe it’s a real question. Or maybe he’s trying to provoke Jesus a bit, get him to get on with what needs to be done, to show everyone that John was right after all. Or, at least, he could spring John from the dungeon before the executioner arrives.

Jesus welcomes the question. This is what you should tell John, he tells John’s disciples, “the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth are learning that God is on their side. Isn’t this what you were expecting?”

Jesus knew, of course, that John was expecting something quite different. But even though John had missed the point, Jesus still had good things to say about the Baptizer. John had given his all, including his life, it now appeared, to serve God.

He was, Jesus said, the last of his kind. No prophet of the past was going to surpass John. But that was the past. Something new was happening and it was happening in Jesus. “No one in history,” Jesus said, “surpasses John the Baptizer, but in the kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him.”

John was getting the people, getting us, ready for what was coming in Jesus, even though John misunderstood what it was. He had his expectations, but Jesus took him by surprise. Of course, John thought, Jesus would reveal himself as Messiah with death and destruction. Israel’s day would finally come, Caesar would tuck his tail and try to run from God’s wrath. Isn’t that the way kingdoms always work? Not for Jesus. “Tell John the blind see, the lame walk, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.”

Jesus and John had such different visions for God’s Kingdom, but Jesus still appreciated and honored John. I don’t know what it was, but maybe it had something to do with the fact they both had the same ends in mind, but Jesus was going to go there in a much different way, that included no winnowing forks or unquenchable fires.

John and Jesus were both looking for big changes in this world. They wanted to see God’s Kingdom established. They were both committed to the vision, and they both called men and women to make the same commitments to God’s realm that they had made.

Jesus believed, though, that you couldn’t get to a new ends without a new means. That’s why his concerns weren’t judgment and destruction, but healing and compassion. The best way to deal with empire was not to play its own game of violence and destruction, but to challenge it with love and sacrifice, words not really in John’s vocabulary. That’s why Jesus said the least in God’s kingdom would surpass John. As Jesus’ life unfolded people were going to see things about God that not even this greatest of all the prophets had been able to imagine.

And here is where we come in. Jesus came to build a movement, the God movement, as Clarence Jordan called it. You think about John in the wilderness preaching his hellfire and brimstone sermons, calling people to get themselves baptized, on God’s side before it was too late. There was, after all, that unquenchable fire waiting for more fuel.

Jesus wasn’t a hellfire and brimstone kind of guy, though he did have his moments where he wasn’t above warning people about the outer darkness, the weeping and wailing, and the gnashing of teeth. But that wasn’t his primary way of relating to people, maybe just something he picked up from John.

John was waiting for this cataclysmic moment when God’s Kingdom would be established with its requisite blood lust. Jesus was willing to spill his own blood, rather than the blood of others, so God’s Kingdom might come.

And I don’t think Jesus was so concerned about The One who would make this all happen, but the ones, people like Luke and Matthew, Mary and Martha, you and me who would bring kingdom come.

When we are called to follow Jesus it’s not simply about finding meaning in our lives, getting closer to God, finding healing for our addictions and obsessions, and forgiveness for our sins and our fears. All of those things are good things, but the gospel is a whole lot more. Following Jesus is about being part of the movement, giving ourselves over to what Jesus gave himself over to, the kingdom of God, which is about healing and resurrection and love. As I heard Jim Wallis say in a sermon a couple of weeks ago, the gospel may do lots of good things in our lives, but it doesn’t become the gospel until it is good news for the poor.

That’s the perspective Jesus had, and one we have to keep in mind. The church is about the movement. Too many people fail to realize that the issue is not so much what the church brings to them, but what they can help Jesus, through the church bring to this world. That’s the revolution Jesus saw, something so much greater than John ever imagined.

“Are you the one we are expecting,” they asked Jesus. “It depends on what you’re expecting,” was how Jesus replied. What are we expecting from Jesus? Maybe some of our expectations are wrong, or just as sad, maybe our expectations for Jesus and what he intends for our lives and this world are too low. Maybe we don’t really expect enough of him for it to make a real difference in our lives.

I think that’s what Advent is getting at. It’s a time of watching and waiting, but what are we watching and waiting for. Jesus is looking to call together a band of followers who are going to overturn the whole world, without even the hint of a winnowing fork in their hands.

Our challenge is to claim our place that is greater than the greatest of the prophets claimed, a place in God’s Realm where in the name of Jesus we put down the weapons, we reject the violence, and we throw our lot in with other followers of Jesus and build a new world.

Are you the one Jesus is expecting? Should he be waiting for someone else? Or did he get it right after all?

Baptism–An Act and Sign of What? On the Occasion of Linda Jackson’s Baptism

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

I’ve always wondered why some folks are comfortable taking Communion, yet are reticent to be baptized. Why do you think that is so? [Comments from the congregation]. To me, we make the same public confession, whether we take the bread and the drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper or enter the chilly waters of the church baptistry.

Communion may feel more ‘communal’ by virtue of the fact that our practice here is to come to the Table in groups. Baptism may feel more ‘individual’ here because we enter the waters more or less alone, excepting the pastor who does the baptizing. Or do we?

While there were crowds who went to the River Jordan to be baptized by John (Matthew 3:1-12), whole households who were baptized together (Acts 16:15, 33), and even thousands at a time who flocked to the Jesus movement in the days of the early church (Acts 2:41) –at PCC this has not been our experience. Usually, it has been one person at a time, over a space of months, or sometimes, regretfully, even years.

Like church membership here, baptism is a decision many deliberate over a long time before embracing. In this place, there is often integrity in that delay. I think of Beth Peachey, who now serves the Mennonite Central Committee in Guatemala. She could easily have been baptized with her teenage peers when it was the expected thing to do. Instead, she waited until her college years, after her own faith had matured to a point where baptism seemed like the next step. She was then baptized in her home church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

I think of Joshua Gall, who also waited to be baptized until he had passed his teenage years. He then asked Mary Meadows to baptize him, who had been his primary youth leader as a child. There is also Carrie Broadwell, who left the church for a season as a teenager during what she has often has called her ‘time in the wilderness’ (or something to that effect). Carrie returned to God and to the church during her college years, after hallmate, David Reese, asked her if she knew a good church in town. “Peace Community Church,” she replied without hesitation. “I think you’d like it,” she said.

“Do you go there?” David asked her.

There’s something to be said for recommending the church you don’t go to.

The gist of the story is that Carrie always credited David Reese for bringing her back into the fold, and David Reese always credited Carrie for helping him find this church. Behind them both were the providential movements of a Loving God.

It is not just young people who have braved the chilly waters of the PCC baptistry. I can’t forget some of our older members who felt the call to be baptized. One bore a deep fear of water and had never learned to swim. Yet, she overcame her fear in order to be baptized. It was that important to her.
Today, Linda joins this faithful procession of individuals and the many others who have cast their lot with Jesus in the baptismal waters of Peace Community Church.

Like celebrating Communion each month, baptism is a public declaration that, indeed, Jesus is Lord. Here in this land where freedom of religion is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, we must never forget that there are places on this planet where declaring Jesus as Lord in the public act of baptism leads to martyrdom, or being disowned by one’s family, or losing any chance of decent employment. Baptism is a direct challenge to religious and secular authorities and powers who seek our primary allegiance. Baptism is a bold statement that such allegiance belongs only to God.

Linda has described this process to me as “going 100%.” I think that is a good description of baptism. There is a profound surrender to God that is part of the journey to the baptismal waters.
While baptism is a very individual act, it is also a very communal act. Baptism is a public witness, a confession shared with other pilgrims and seekers of the Way. We are baptized into community–this is the context for our confession that ‘Jesus is Lord.’ We work out our salvation with others working out theirs, finding hope, strength, comfort, and challenge within the body of Christ.

I have been very intently watching the seasons change on my morning walks. This was the longest, most lingering autumn I’ve ever seen in my 55 years of life. Just as some trees lost all their leaves, others barely began changing colors, hovering between a lively green and a fiery red or striking yellow. In late November, the landscape of Morgan Street was a mixture of impending winter and nascent autumn.
As I absorbed the rich colors and the empty branches, side by side, I was so struck by the changing of the seasons as the rhythm of death and resurrection, built into the Song of the Universe. I was watching that song take place in all its beauty and barrenness. I was listening to it in my spirit.

Even as we enter the season of snow and lingering nights, we know that spring is around the corner. Everything ‘looks’ dead now, but it is not! The stark emptiness of winter is merely a preparation for the coming of spring. The cycle of death and resurrection is, indeed, written into the heart of all creation.
Baptism is a lot like this. It, too, enacts the rhythm of death and resurrection. In a brief moment, our whole self plunges into the watery depths and then rises up to new life. We yield to the Song of the Universe, and our bodies remember this moment for the rest of our lives. The act of baptism is ritual and symbol, but it is also high drama. We physically and visually identify with Jesus and share in his drama and his song.

Baptism is never the end of the journey. It is a new beginning among the many new beginnings that break forth in our spiritual lives. I don’t recall celebrating another baptism during Advent in our many years here, but it is extremely appropriate. During Advent we anticipate the coming of Jesus as an infant born in Bethlehem. In baptism, we identify with the continuing power of his story in our lives today.
Linda has spent a few years embedded in the life of this faith community before deciding to be baptized. She has become an integral part of this church. There are signs of her presence everywhere–in collecting cans, singing in the choir, suggesting that we keep bags near the Food Shelf so people who need items have a means to transport them. Linda’s home is a place of hospitality and welcome. Linda’s heart is as well.

We honor freedom of conscience here, which makes today all the more rich and powerful. Linda’s heart says to her, “It’s time.” And she opens herself to the work of the Spirit of the living God and says, “Here I am, Lord.”

Let us pray.

Contrary to a series that has sold more than $40,000,000 worth of books, videos, computer games, and other products, it might be a good thing to be left behind.

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

The passage we read today from Matthew’s Gospel is ground zero for adherents to the kind of theology promoted by the Left Behind books, and those preachers and others who make a big deal of the rapture. It’s not fair to say their whole theological system was built on Matthew 24:39 where we read about “two men working in the field–one taken, the other left behind, two women grinding at a mill–one taken, the other left behind,” but that system does rest heavily on this one verse.

But, it turns, out that there are a variety of ways to look at that passage. Did you know, for example, that the word ‘taken’ in this verse could also be translated ‘swept away?’ If this verse were translated this way, “two men working in the field–one swept away, the other left behind, two women grinding mill–one swept away, the other left behind,” suddenly being left behind is a good thing.

We get a hint that might be a reading worth considering, anyway, when we realize that the Noah story, to which this passage refers, talks about all those people who weren’t in the ark as being swept away by the waters. And Noah and his family end up being the people left behind. Is Jesus saying our fear isn’t what the popular theological fear is: being left behind, but rather we should fear being swept away? And if so, swept away by what?

What was happening in the days of Noah? The Noah story begins in Genesis 6:6 with these words, “God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil–evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry to have made the human race in the first place, it broke God’s heart. God said, “I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes and bugs, birds–the works. I’m sorry I made them.”

In the next verses we are given another beginning to the Noah story which reads, “As far as God was concerned, the Earth had become a sewer, there was violence everywhere. God took one look and saw how bad it was, everyone corrupt and corrupting–life itself corrupt to the core. God said to Noah, “It’s all over. It’s the end of the human race. The violence is everywhere, I’m making a clean sweep.”

It seems that everyone was swept away by evil and corruption and violence. Is that the warning Jesus is offering us here? Is Jesus cautioning us that there can be two men in the field, or two women at the mill and one swept away by the violence and corruption of this world, while the ones left are like Noah on the Ark, people not swept away by all the violence but are left behind looking for something better for this world, the new creation that Jesus talked about and gave his life for.

This verse may be key to some people’s left behind theology, but it’s not even key to this passage. Even if Jesus had a rapture theology, which some, of course, argue he did, this story is not primarily about the rapture. It’s about watching and waiting. It’s about not missing the signs of God’s work and God’s ways so we don’t get swept away by all those forces that are so opposed to the ways of God.

In Noah’s day, Jesus says, “everyone was carrying on as normal, having a good time right until the day Noah entered the ark.” They had missed the signs of God’s work and believed that violence and corruption and evil were a normal part of things. It’s kind of like what people say when they are convinced that peace can never come, that things can’t get better in this world because with human nature, being what it is, we can’t expect things to be any different.

Jesus isn’t calling us in this passage to look to human nature. He’s calling us to look to God’s nature. And God’s intention is for God’s desires to be lived out in this world. Jesus never imagined human nature would have the final say, but God’s nature would.

So he wants us to keep looking for the things of God in this world and not be swept away by what seems normal. We have lowered our standards for this world but God hasn’t. And the things of God are still here, we just need to keep watching and waiting, paying attention to the abnormal ways of God, the ways of love and mercy and peace and forgiveness and hospitality and welcome and faith.

It’s Advent. We are celebrating a most amazing story, the birth of Jesus. As the days and weeks go on, we’ll talk about the handful of shepherds who made their way to the barn where he was born. We’ll talk about the three or maybe it was a couple of more wise men who came to see him. But, the story is clear that most people missed it. They weren’t paying attention any more than the people in Noah’s day were.

The folk in Bethlehem weren’t expecting God to act in such a way because it just wasn’t normal. They had gotten real used to the violence of empire, and just assumed that was the way things would always be. They weren’t watching and waiting because they weren’t expecting anything else. They had been lulled to sleep by what was normal. The normal violence. The normal corruption. The normal evil. The normalcy of empire. They had been swept away, and just a few were left behind to wonder at the work of God that was unfolding in the cry of that baby.

We are doing a Bible Study on Monday nights on the Apocalypse. We have talked in the study about how apocalypse means unveiling or uncovering and much of apocalyptic literature is about the unveiling of violence and evil in this world. Someone asked a very insightful question the other night. Why are we just seeing the unveiling of such awful things in the apocalypse? Why not the unveiling of God’s goodness?

Well, Advent is some of that. Advent has a similar meaning to apocalypse. Advent is about appearing. Not like somebody or something showing up, but how something appears out of the darkness when the dawn breaks. It’s another kind of unveiling or uncovering. But as the Christmas story reminds us time after time, we have to let our eyes adjust to the light. Darkness is too much our norm, and we turn away from the light because it’s hard for our eyes to adjust, and we don’t see the things of God. But Jesus keeps telling us its worth it to open our eyes to the ways of God, or as he says it in other places to have eyes to see.

We all have lots of questions about the second coming of Jesus. That’s one of the reasons there is so much written and preached about things like the rapture. It’s a way for people to try to figure this all out. But it is really beyond our figuring, so all the prophecy seminars and Left Behind books in the world aren’t going to help. The gospels tell us it was a surprise when Jesus came the first time and it will be as much of a surprise the second.

Our call is to simply keep watching for the signs of God, to not get swept away by the norms of the culture, but to let it pass us up, to leave us behind to the ways of God.

Jesus says God is watching and waiting for the faithful who take God’s ways seriously, people who believe wholly in God, who love God, and look for God’s ways at work. They are the ones who don’t get swept away by the violence of war, and racism, and sexism, and nationalism, and greed. They are the faithful stewards that God is glad to put in positions of responsibility in God’s realm.

All right, so maybe I have gotten swept away myself by my reworking of this passage. Maybe being taken is meant to be something good in this passage and being left behind something bad. But even then, I would argue that we are taken up by something, the things of God, loving God with all our hearts, and souls, and minds, rather than left behind to the violence and corruption and evil that have become so normal to us.

I guess my bottom line argument is that there are more ways to look at this passage than what we find in the Left Behind books. As long as we are watching and paying attention and expecting God’s ways to prevail over the violence and corruption that we have come to regard as normal, then we are catching on to what Jesus is saying.

Advent is our reminder that the surprising ways of God are the new normal. God comes to us in such disarming and delightful ways. There is a revolution afoot, not one with weapons of mass destruction, but a revolution that begins in a manger. It’s a revolution that a Roman execution couldn’t defeat, nor the guards in front of an empty tomb prevent.

Are we watching and waiting for it? While others are swept away by violence and corruption and evil have we been left behind, stood our ground, for the purposes of the new normal of Bethlehem?