Archive for November, 2010

The night was not silent, all was definitely not calm, and it wasn’t even close to bright. But, it was holy.

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Romans 13:11-14
November 28, 2010
Steve Hammond

I wouldn’t make a very good Buddhist. That acceptance and detachment stuff just doesn’t work for me. There are, of course, people who have told me that I don’t make a very good Christian either, but that’s a different sermon.

We’ve lit the first candle in the Advent wreath and begun a new church year. We’ve started singing and hearing our first Christmas and Advent hymns and carols. It is, for most of us, the most wonderful time of the year. But we have to be careful. It is easy to make the Christmas story all about the past rather than the future. Yet, the new year is always about hope, always about not settling for things as they are, but imagining what they can be.

It’s no secret we sentimentalize and romanticize the Christmas story. As the preacher Kate Huey says it, “How many of us really understand what it would be like to give birth in a stable, next to large animals?”

When we think about the Christmas story, we don’t usually think about the grinding poverty or the grinding military occupation that Jesus and so many others were and are born into. Despite what the favorite Christmas carol for many of us says, all was not calm, all was not bright, and it was far from silent. Animals in barns are noisy, especially when you’ve got shepherds tramping about. There were Roman troops patrolling the streets outside the stable trying to keep the drunks under control, and the freedom fighters from slitting their throats. The little town of Bethlehem was not still.

And has it occurred to you that the reason Jesus was born in a barn was because nobody in the inn would give up their place to a woman in labor? This is not your Hallmark Christmas. That night was made holy because God filled the chaos and the noise, the fear and the darkness, the selfishness with a new possibility for this world.

The only thing we have that is close to a Christmas story in John’s gospel is at the very beginning where it is written that “the light came into the world and the darkness could not overcome it.” And I think that is the heart of the Christmas story. That’s why there are so many lights during Advent and Christmas. Things were dark for a lot of people when Jesus was born, as they are dark for many people now. But the light has come into the world. We call it hope.

That’s why Advent isn’t about detachment and acceptance. For me it’s more like one of my favorite singers, Bruce Cockburn, says it, “you have to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.” Advent and Christmas call us not to a sentimentalized past, or an apathetic present, but to a promised future that we help make happen, rather than something that just happens to us.

Last Sunday at ECO we talked about the spiritual disciplines and traditions that are important to us at Christmas. The special decorations. The family gatherings. The Christmas Eve Service and the free for all on Christmas morning. All that stuff is wonderful. But what darkness are we going to continue to kick at or start kicking at this Advent? What darkness is going to encounter the light of Jesus Christ we bring to it? Hope doesn’t come because we light a candle in the Advent wreath and feel all hopeful. Hope comes because we drag it into the darkness, like God did on that first Christmas.

They, of course, didn’t celebrate Advent and Christmas when Paul and others were writing those letters and stories that we now call the New Testament. But Paul sure understood what Advent and Christmas are all about. “The night is about over, dawn is about to break. Be up and awake to what God is doing! God is putting the finishing touches on the salvation work that was begun when we first believed. We can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours.”

“The night is about over, the dawn is about to break.” Yesterday is over and the new day is about to come. Advent reminds us we are awaiting the new day, not just waiting. It’s time to wake up to what God is doing, and ready ourselves for the future that fills our present.

We don’t know how we get to the future. We just trust God to get us there. Another preacher, Mary Shore writes “we imagine today and tomorrow looking exactly like yesterday, and after days, months, and years of such scaled-back expectations, we are getting very sleepy.” Thankfully, she says, things come alonjg to wake us up like heart attacks and falling in love. Do you know what they both have in common? They stir us from our apathy. We know they are both going to shape our future, but we don’t know how.

We can’t manage heart attacks or love. But we can manage hope. We can bring hope. We can be hopeful people who put our hope in God. We can look at the story of Jesus born in the manger and imagine not simply what was, but what can be, what future we can help build, what light we can bring into this dark and hopeful world that Jesus was born into.

One of the traditional themes of Advent is the second coming of Jesus, living in that expectation that all things will be new. That pulls us way into the future. But that’s not the future we can manage as much as all those TV preachers try. David Bartlett puts it into context for us, and I think wakes us up a bit. “One day Jesus may appear in the clouds, suddenly, like a thief in the night. But before that – as Matthew reminds us – Jesus will appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned.” That’s what we are waiting for, and that is where we bring hope.

“Wake up,” Paul tells us. “And get dressed in Jesus Christ.” Put on his ways. Every day is the day to be looking for Jesus, to see how the promise of Bethlehem is going to unfold. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow. Live a caught-up life, not a put-off life, so that wherever you are….you are ready for God.”

You can’t bring hope into the darkness, light the hard way so many travel without being a little impatient, without making some noise and raising a ruckus. When Jesus was born there was a chorus of angels singing, and the shepherds couldn’t keep quiet. The story says the shepherds went running to find the baby and told everyone they saw what the angels had said to them. And after they left the manger it says that, as they returned to their flocks, “they let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!” They had seen hope in a manger.

There is a time, as the story also says, to, like Mary, ‘ponder all these things’ in our hearts. For hope does not come easy as she and Jesus learned. But Advent is not all pondering. It’s letting loose, it’s kicking at the darkness, it’s making hope happen, it’s settling for nothing less than what God settles for.

At that first Christmas, anyway, God was not a practicing Buddhist either. God did not stay detached, did not practice acceptance, but kicked some serious darkness butt. And so today, we lit that first candle, the candle of hope. And we are going to keep lighting the candles, not because all is calm and all is bright, but because hope is a holy thing.

It’s the end of the world, again; or what time is it, anyway?

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Isaiah 65, Luke 21
November 14, 2010
Steve Hammond

There have been lots of predictions about the end of the world. They go way back to Jesus’ time and before. And there’s a long history of end times movements in the history of our nation, although there has been an almost constant drumbeat of end times predictions since the 1960’s, culminating with the Left Behind craze that has captured the imagination and theology of millions of Americans and others throughout the world.

Hal Lindsay has been predicting the immanent end of the world for 50 years. You would think after 50 years that people would start to get a bit skeptical about his credibility. There was the 88 reasons the rapture was going to happen in 1988 that took the church in this country by storm. What? That was 22 years ago. At the turn of the millennium there were all kinds of prophecies, religious and secular that the end of the world was at hand. Remember the Y2K stuff? All our computers were going to stop working. We would loose our electricity, water supply, all the emergency rooms would shut down, planes would fall out of the sky, and the world would descend into its final chaos? Both religious and secular folk were predicting the end of the world then and they both still are now.

Do you know what all these end times prophecies have in common? None of them ever happened. Yet we are still fascinated by them, scared by them, and when the next one comes along we take it seriously. Now the world is supposed to end in 2012. The prophecy seminars are still in full swing.

What is the fascination with all of this? Why do so many Christians believe all these end times scenarios like they were in the Bible, when they aren’t? Even in the passages people like to site for their end times theology, like the one from today, we are warned to not fall for all this stuff. Beware of the doomsday sayers, Jesus says. When have there not been wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and times when it seems like the the stars are falling from the sky?

Jesus knew that Jerusalem wasn’t going to be there forever. You didn’t have to be much of a political analyst to know what Rome would and could do, even tear down the Temple, piling its stones one on top of the other. It gets hard, but redemption comes. What in all of the world is going to separate us from the love of God, even if it feels like the world is coming to an end?

All of these end times scenarios like the Left Behind stuff, are built on death and destruction and vengeance. They take Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and turn him into the Avenging Warrior who delights in the bloody genocide of billions of men, women, and children. How did we get from the Jesus of the Bible to the Jesus of Hal Lindsay, Tim LeHaye, John Hagee and all these other end times entrepreneurs? Do you think what they see for this world is what Jesus saw?

This passage from Luke’s gospel is paired in the lectionary with that passage we read from Isaiah. What a different view of what’s in store for this world in Isaiah. “No more sounds of weeping in the city, no more cries of anguish.” “They will build houses and move in, they will plant fields and eat what they grow.” “They won’t work and have nothing come of it, they won’t have children snapped out from under them.” “Wolf and lamb will graze in the same meadow, lion and ox from the same trough.” “Neither animals or humans will hurt of kill on my holy mountain.”

Which of these visions, the death and destruction or life and peace do you think Jesus was working with? What vision do you think he wants us to live toward? And you can’t have it both ways. You can’t hope for this incredibly awful destruction of the world in order to for this world of peace to emerge. We have to choose, because it makes all the difference in how we follow Jesus. It’s the same question Joshua asked the Israelites as they entered the promised land. “Are you going to choose life or choose death?” And the sad history for the people of Israel and throughout the history of the church is that we keep choosing death, when God keeps holding life out before us.

There is another vision of a better world that comes from the end of the Book of Revelations. It starts at the beginning of the 21st chapter. (I’m a real fan of the Book of Revelations, despite all the stupid stuff the end times predictors do with it). “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, gone the first heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea…I heard a voice say, ‘Look, God has moved into the neighborhood…’Then the angel showed me the water of the River of Life. It flowed from the throne of God, and the lamb, right down the middle of the street. The tree of life was planted on each side of the river, producing 12 kinds of fruit. The leaves of the Tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The vision Jesus had was for the healing of the nations. And our nations, including this one, are sick. You see it in so many ways. The preferential option for the rich, the sexual greed, the divisions, the prejudices and oppression, the plundering of the environment. What we do to the children in this world in enough to make you sick.

Some of you know who Noam Chomsky is. He’s a cognitive scientist at MIT, and a political activist. Last week, I was listening to a podcast where he was being interviewed and he mentioned a recent poll amongst self identified Republicans where they were asked what American they hated most. That question, in itself, tells us how sick this country is. Do you know who it was? Jimmy Carter. How sick is that?

Can we, like Jesus, see a new heaven and a new earth and help bring it about. It won’t come by the streets of Jerusalem running red with blood of the enemies of Jesus. It will come if we do the kind of thing Jesus really did do to his enemies, love them.

Part of the problem is that we have forgotten what time it is. In the bible, there are two kinds of time. Chronos is the word used for one of those times. It’s human time, that time we measure with our clocks and calendars and appointment books and Blackberrys. “I’ve got to get done with this meeting so I can get back to office. Or, “I’ve got to get these errands done so I can get home and start dinner.” “I’ll get the homework done now, and then do some laundry.”

This is the kind of time the end timers get caught up in. They are working with calendars, and time lines. “When this happens, then that will happen and Jesus will come back.”

The other kind of time is called kairos. Some call it God’s time. “The time is at hand.” “Now is the day of salvation.” It’s about those times where God is at work and something significant is unfolding that is beyond calendars and alarm clocks.

John Patton–“Digital deadlines, synched schedules and web-based calendars define us. But God never works that way. Kairos time. The unexpected. The mysterious. The passing of an hour, which seems to take only a minute . . . or the month that blurs by as if a week…. I’ve huddled around a campfire with fellow hikers, deep in the wilderness, our sharing intimate and honest, and felt time disappear. I’ve known the anguish of a comment that transformed a dull moment into months of catastrophe. I have visited a church member in the hospital, saying nothing and holding hands and entering into timeless compassion.

‘Tis easy to joke about time’s end. To want to snip away the parts I don’t like. But I will, in this season of change, of long nights and short days, read all of Isaiah and all of Luke, and remember that time’s not under my control. As much as I can say it’s time to get up or time to go to work or time to meet another for coffee, God’s time spins and cavorts, and who knows what may unfold. A minute is an hour. A day dawns like any other and a split-second later you experience an epiphany that changes every day that follows. Catastrophe looms; celebration beckons. Time ends; time begins.
And you will say on that day, Isaiah reminds, give thanks to the Lord. It’s always the right time.”

We don’t need to get caught up in the end times. We need to be caught up in the here and now times. How are we going to live? What vision is going to call us forward. A vision of life or a vision of death. Which of those visions are we going to surrender our lives to?

I’m a fan of Woody Allen movies. The Purple Rose of Cairo may be my favorite movie ever. I’ve read that Woody Allen doesn’t give his actors any of the script that doesn’t pertain to them. So they really don’t have any idea what the movie is about, much less how it ends. Woody Allen gives them the direction they need to to play their parts and he puts the movie together.

We are called to simply play our parts in the unfolding drama of God’s time. It may be a big part, or a little part. We have no idea when the movie ends or how it ends. The only thing that matters is that we have contributed our part, and let God direct this movie.

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” That’s the only Bible prophecy we need. And it’s the only one that gets us on the path Jesus is going down. That’s because it’s a prophecy that calls us to new way of living, a new way of imagining, a new way of bringing hope and life and kairos, God’s time into this world. It brings the future to us. And that’s what will bring about the end of the world as we know it.

Heat and Light

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Mary Hammond
November 7, 2010

It has been awhile since I gazed out the guest bedroom window at the trees across the street in the dead of night. But Friday morning I felt compelled to truncate my journaling, turn out the light, and simply behold.

I know a sign when I see one. Signs don’t usually come when bidden; neither do they always appear when needed, but sometimes… they do. And this, time, it did.

What I witnessed might not seem like a sign to someone else, staring into the darkness at the nearly naked silhouettes of trees, the grey sidewalk, and the blue Emergency Response light on a post in front of Tank Hall. But thankfully, it shouted to me. It helps when signs shout, because I can be rather dense at times, and if not dense, easily preoccupied or overly restless.

This fall, I have begun doing contemplative mentoring with a college student, and we realized recently that her color for God is blue…blue like the ocean, blue like the sky, blue like serenity, blue like shalom. My color for God is yellow–yellow like light, yellow like autumn leaves, yellow like the sun’s brilliance, tiny finches, and unbidden butterflies.

So I stared at the blue light, and I was instantly reminded that blue is Allie’s color for God. I had been dealing throughout the week with a lot of darkness in peoples’ lives, people I deeply loved and wanted so much for them to be able to hold onto the light. That blue light sparkled and shined. It emanated and lit up the sidewalk. The Apostle John declared so powerfully, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out” (John 1:5, GNB).

No cars passed by for minutes and minutes. No breezes blew. No leaves fell. Just this brilliant blue light, the Emergency Response light, whose beams literally penetrated the windows of the room and shot straight into my soul. Sometimes those beams were invisible to my eyes. Sometimes I could see one lightbeam; sometimes three. Visible or invisible, I knew they were there. Another parable, another mystery, another sign. The writer of the Book of Hebrews reminds us, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV)

There I was, in the midst of that luminous space created when I stopped and heeded the words of the psalmist, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). All the characters of the drama were there for ages—heck, we’ve lived on this street now for twenty-one years! The trees, the Emergency light, the sidewalk, the road, the night sky, autumn after autumn. Nothing new there. But everything new, all at the same time.

A tune has been roaming my heart lately, and Ruth Hastings always reminds us that such tunes often have meaning beyond the obvious. I have no idea what the verses of the song are. I just know the chorus. Thankfully, the chorus is all I need. It goes like this: “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. Open the eyes of my heart. I want to be with you. I want to be with you.”

One of my spiritual practices is very helpful in the face of anxiety. It is also very inexpensive. It requires a red pen or pencil, a piece of paper, a little mental organization, and some surrendering prayer.

What I do is draw a big heart in red on the paper (actually, I use a journal so I don’t lose these things), and then I proceed to put people and situations inside the heart. This heart reminds me of God’s pulsating, compassionate and loving heart. As I write things down, the heart “holds” my anxieties, much like God holds us and holds our prayers. It also “holds” situations that rile, perplex, concern, antagonize, or threaten to undo me.

Let me take a few moments today and illustrate this spiritual practice with you. I have a big fat marker, and I have a big red heart. We are going to place in this heart some of what you and I need God to hold today. So I invite you to name someone, a situation, country, or some other reality you want to place today in God’s heart.

Now, look at this full heart. Take a few moments and just meditate on it, eyes open or shut, whichever you prefer. If there are other things you need to put there but didn’t want to mention them, put them there silently. See all these concerns, held within the Great Heart of God.

“Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord. Open the eyes of our heart. We want to be with You. We want to be with You.”

Breathe into this prayer. [Silence]

Now let me show you another heart. It is a heart covered with eyes. It is full of passion, love, and life. It is full of vision, insight, wisdom, and direction. It is the heart we long for as we leave the cares of that other heart in God’s hands. Take a moment and be with this heart. Be with your own wisdom and confusion, your faith and questions, your hope and anxiety.

It is time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It is a celebration full of beauty and grace. The remembrance of Jesus and his gifts for us–his seeing, giving, loving heart. The blessing of Christ’s body–moving, growing, serving, being. The Church Gathered and Scattered. Generation after generation. The Church Universal, throughout the globe. The sharing of food–cup, loaf, sustenance, life.

I invite you to enter the Great Heart of God and be drenched in the Light of Divine Presence as we sing the hymn, “Eat This Bread.” May each of us bring our fragile and precious journeys to this celebration with the living Christ. Amen.

A Tale of Two Rich Guys

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Luke 18:18-30, 19:1-10
October 31, 2010
Steve Hammond

Zacchaeus beat the odds. Remember what Jesus Jesus said after that encounter with the rich, young man who walked sadly away after Jesus challenged him to sell all he had and give the money to the poor, and then follow Jesus? “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for the rich to enter God’s Realm? Let me tell you, it’s easier to gallop a camel through a needle’s eye than for the rich to enter God’s Realm.”

But Zacchaeus made it. He was a rich guy who entered God’s Realm.

Notice that Jesus changed the subject on the rich, young guy who asked him about inheriting eternal life. This guy wanted to know about getting into Heaven. But Jesus’ comment to the disciples was not about how hard it was for the rich to get into Heaven, but into the Realm of God. Though we confuse the two, they are two different things, and Jesus was much more concern about the Realm of God than Heaven. [Ask people what the difference between Heaven and the Realm of God is]

Heaven is about the here after. The Realm of God is about the here and now. Or another way of saying it, eternal life is something you start grabbing hold of now, rather than assume it’s something that only comes after you die. In John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I have come so you might have life and have it abundantly.” And to the Samaritan woman he said “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”

So Jesus, it seems, was trying to push this young, rich man to something more than just a hope for Heaven. He wanted him to find the eternal life that we find in God’s Realm. But the rich, young man walked away.

Zacchaeus, the rich, old man had a much different encounter with Jesus. Notice that Jesus didn’t tell Zacchaeus to do anything, other than go home and get lunch ready. There’s nothing about following the law, nor selling all he had and giving the money to the poor.

Unlike the rich, young guy Zacchaeus was an outcast. He was a tax collector and despised by everyone. He’s the one everyone would have expected for Jesus to be hard on rather than the rich, young guy. It’s not simply that Zacchaeus was collecting people’s taxes, but he was supporting the Roman occupiers in doing so. So that made him a traitor as well as a crook in the eyes of his neighbors.

The way it worked with tax collectors was that people like Zacchaeus would come up with a bid. For example, a tax collector would tell Rome that if you give me the Oberlin district, I will get you $100,000 in tax revenues. Now he could collect a lot more than the $100,000, and Rome didn’t care as long as Rome got its promised 100 grand. The tax collector just had to make sure he wasn’t such a crook that the people started to rebel. And Rome would give him some soldiers to help him persuade the people to pay up.

So one day Jesus showed up in town and everybody wanted to see him, including Zacchaeus. But he was short and it was hard for him to push his way through the crowd. Especially when this was a prime opportunity for all the folk who despised him to push him down, elbow him aside, and block his way.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so much that he decided to climb a tree, so he could see above the taller crowd, and escape their abuse. But it turned out that it wasn’t just Zacchaeus wanting to see Jesus, but Jesus wanted to see Zacchaeus. And this is the most interesting part of the story. As much as we like to sing the Zacchaeus song, you know about the wee little man who climbed up in a sycamore tree, this story is much more about Jesus. [Ask people if they want to sing the Zacchaeus song]

Here Jesus goes again, befriending a traitor and crook, regarded by most others as a non-person. Jesus, though, even referred to Zacchaeus as a Son of Abraham, rather than the religious outcast he was regarded to be by everyone else.

The spectacle of a tax collector up in a tree was nothing to the crowd compared to Jesus going to have lunch at Zacchaeus’s house. That was the outrageous act of the day. None of the rest of them would have bothered to acknowledge Zachaeus as a human being much less share a meal with him.

This is the kind of stuff Jesus did all the time. Right before that story about the rich, young man Jesus told the story about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying at the Temple. It’s the tax collector who gets it right.

It’s between these stories of the rich, young man and Zacchaeus that Jesus’ disciples try to shoo away the children from Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples that it’s the children who are the pride and joy of the Realm of God and understand it better than any of the rest of us.

Luke it piling it on here. What are the lessons? One is that nobody can tell you that God doesn’t love you and that you don’t belong in church. That’s nonsense. Over and over again, Jesus welcomes those who aren’t supposed to be welcomed. It’s the tax collectors, the whores and the whoremongers, the drunks, the children that get it, who understand what God’s Realm is about, not the religious folk.

Another lesson is that we can’t tell others they don’t belong. God’s Realm is for everybody to find. It’s not restricted to straight people, or religious people, or rich people, or white people, or male people, or educated people.

Another thing Luke is getting us to ask ourselves who is really lost. If Zacchaeus, who understood what God was about more than most, was lost, then what about the rest of us? What does in mean for salvation to come to our house? Where do we need to find welcome? Where are we missing out on God’s grace? What parts of our lives need transformation?

Zacchaeus was willing to risk his well being and dignity by trying to muscle through that crowd and climbing that tree, all so he could see Jesus. [Paint a word picture of Zacchaeus, the tax collector in his robes climbing a tree]. What are we willing to risk, what efforts are we willing to make to see Jesus for ourselves? How badly do we want to discover the Realm of God for ourselves? What kind of fools for Christ are we willing to be?

The Zacchaeus story is a joyful one, unlike that story of the rich, young man where everyone was sad. When the disciples saw that young man walk away they said then how can any of us be saved? Jesus response said it looks so impossible to us, but nothing is impossible with God. And Zacchaeus is living proof.