Saturday, November 26, 2011

Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

The Prayer of the Day begins ‘Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.’ So often in our lives we cry out to God: Hear me! Come to me now! Why are you not here with me?! Today’s scripture passages scream out with longing for God to make God’s presence and power known and felt.
The situation in our passage from Isaiah the prophet speaks to God for the people. The Judeans, the people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, have returned from exile in Babylon. They hoped to pick up life where they and their parents and grandparents left off 50 years ago, but it was not to be. Their land was filled with weeds, the vineyards and olive gardens were overgrown and untended, their buildings were flattened, the protective walls around the city were just piles of rubble, and the temple – which Solomon had built – was destroyed.  
Things were so bad, the people as a whole grumbled to God. We have here in Isaiah’s text a lament about how bad things were. This writing is 2500 years old, but it’s as fresh as if we were speaking it today. The people cry out for God’s powerful presence as the Israelites had experienced it in the past: manna, water from a rock, pillars of smoke and fire, a voice speaking from the heavens. But God seems to be absent, so the people are looking for reasons and answers.
They blame God – ‘You were absent, so we sinned.’ And they ask for forgiveness. ‘We recognize our sin and we repent.’ ‘After all, you are our God; you are our Father. We are your children and we need your help. So, now, act like our parent and help us!’ In other words: Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!
Working together, under the leadership of Nehemiah, the people were able to rebuild their city, their walls, and their temple. They restored the vineyards and olive gardens, and reshaped their religion with a focus on obedience to God’s commandments so they would never again be conquered and taken into exile. But the leaders’ focus became obedience to the rules, instead of caring for the poor and needy among them.
Five hundred years later, two thousand years ago, the time was right for God to act. The people needed a new direction for their faith practices, the Romans were very oppressive, and the people were crying out for help. They called out: Stir up your power, O God, and come to us! They were looking for smoke and fire and earthquake, not a human infant. They were looking for a leader like Moses to free them from Roman slavery. They were looking for a military hero, like King David. They did not want to hear what the prophets like Amos, Micah, and Ezekiel had to say about caring for the needy. They were not looking for God to be born as an infant.
The Gospel of Mark was written in the middle 60s, probably during the Jewish Revolt against Rome, but before the destruction of the city and the temple in 70. Once again, conditions were terrible in Jerusalem. The city was under siege, and Jews and Christians were joining the revolt, hoping that God would notice their fight and come to help them. They, too, were hoping for God to show up with smoke and fire and power to defeat the Romans. They were crying out, Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!
However, Jesus’ message in this passage is that humans cannot make God to do what humans want. God’s plans are God’s plans. God’s timing is God’s timing. The little story of the fig tree tells us that: Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem in the spring, and the fig trees do not yet have leaves and fruit buds. When it is the right time, they will sprout and grow and produce fruit, but only at the right time, God’s time. As people who love figs, we can only watch and wait for the fruit.
And we can only watch and wait for God’s activity. In every era, in every age, every century, people have cried out, Stir up your power, O God, and come to us! Now, as we face serious illness in our individual lives, and as we face economic meltdown, and as our elected – wealthy – politicians play games with Social Security and Medicare, and as wars go on and terrorists continue to plot against us, ... now, we think, would be a good time for Jesus to come. We cry out with those of every time and every place, ‘Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!’
Yet, I wonder. Would we notice Jesus if he did return? How would he come to us today? As an illegal immigrant? As a demonstrator in the Occupy Movement? As a starving infant in Africa? As a Palestinian living in Bethlehem? As a neighbor in need? As a homeless person living in the woods in Citrus County?
Would we notice Jesus as a neighbor with a casserole dish? As a fellow parishioner offering a ride? As a cashier with a kind word? As a stranger offering love when we thought life was hopeless? As a family member offering forgiveness? Would we know Jesus even if we were actively watching and waiting for him to return?
Let’s remember that God doesn’t do what we expect but what God know is best. When we cry out, ‘Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!’ Jesus actually does come to us. He comes through the Holy Spirit present in many of the people we encounter every day. He is present in the people who need us and reach out their hands to us, and in the people who reach out to us and help fulfill our needs.
They may not be what we were looking for, but they are God’s response to our cry for help. They are all instances of God responding and coming to us with power. God comes to us in God’s time, in ways that surprise us. Our job as believers is not to try to predict when he will come again, but to watch and wait for all the ways he is already present among us now.
Please pray with me. Stir up your power, O God, and come to us! Amen 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Generous Collection

2 Corinthians 9:6-15
We know that letters were sent back and forth between Paul and the churches because some of the letters we have from Paul are his responses to their correspondence. We have no copies of those letters to Paul, but we can make assumptions of their content based on what Paul wrote. We have no way of knowing, but perhaps several people from a congregation wrote letters to Paul.
Paul’s letters would have been read aloud in the worship gatherings. They would have been studied for lessons to learn about Jesus and about living a life of faith. Paul’s letters offer encouragement to remain faithful to his understanding of what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection meant. His letters stress the importance of not believing different interpretations. They call for repentance when the believers’ practices have been unfair to some of the believers. Paul’s letters also demonstrate a strong bond between himself and certain named individuals, like Priscilla and Aquila, Junia, and Clement.  
I imagine how some people might have responded to what we know as Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. Since Paul had lively, respectful relationships with women as well as men, this letter is from a woman named Mary.

Mary, blessed by Christ Jesus, a member of the community of believers in Corinth,
To the Apostle Paul, called to share the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you.

Your letter to us has been read many times, and I am so grateful for the message it brings. I am bold enough to write because of your encouragement to all of us to use the gifts God has given us for the common good. I believe God has given me the gift of caring deeply for others and I have committed myself to using that gift as well as I can, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
You know my history and how you rescued me from a life of using other people to make money for myself. You assured me that there was forgiveness and peace in believing in Christ, and I have found that to be true. I am so grateful for this new life of faith that I have given up my old ways altogether. I love being able to share the fortune that I earned in my former life with people in real need.
I have told many of my friends about Christ Jesus and they have also come to believe in him. The knowledge that God loves them and forgives them has given them a new life. They are able to endure much hardship because of their faith.
Unfortunately, many believers in Jesus have been forced out of their families – who still believe in the Roman gods – and are now homeless. I have opened my home to offer them shelter and a place at my table. They do not go hungry here. I cannot give a home to everyone, but I am so thankful to be able to share what I have. I have learned what a blessing it is to be generous.
I am reminded of your request for a collection for the people of Jerusalem. The collection is to help people in circumstances similar to what we are experiencing, only in larger scale; hundreds of believers driven from their homes and their jobs and their families, all because they have faith in Jesus, the Son of God.
The believers living in my household agree that we should make a generous donation to them. We have all shared as much as we can, and more than most of us can really afford. We share with joy and thanksgiving what we know God has first given us. It is not ours to keep, but ours to share with those in need.
Added to the gifts from the other believers here in Corinth, there will be a large sum from us for you to carry to the believers in Jerusalem. In addition to these gifts, we hold the people in Jerusalem in our prayers both night and day. We pray for their comfort, their safety, and that they may remain faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.  
We also pray daily for you, giving thanks for you and Titus and Sosthenes for the blessings you have given us in the name of Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Greet them for us, and greet our sisters and brothers in Macedonia and elsewhere as you travel and share the good news with all who will listen.
May God keep you safe and in peace.