Monday, December 24, 2012

Welcome to the inn

Luke 2:1-20

During our midweek worship gatherings on Wednesday evening, the message was a series of sketches that told a story about an innkeeper and his wife and their reaction to baby Jesus.

I want to preface the telling of the story with the recognition that there has long been an error in translating a word in Luke’s Gospel. We read in most Bibles that Jesus was “laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the ‘inn’”. The Greek word here is kataluma, which usually means “guest room,” not “inn”. Many homes in biblical times had a guest room. The same word, kataluma, is translated as “upper room” where the last supper was held, and where the disciples were hiding after the crucifixion.

We who are unfamiliar with ancient houses assume that the animals were kept in a separate place, not in the house, which leads us to have the baby born in a barn, or a cave. In ancient – and not so ancient – times, animals were brought into the shelter of the house to keep them safe, and in the winter the animals also helped to keep the house warmer. The animals were in a separate part of the house, but within the walls of the house. A manger held food for the animals while they were inside.

It’s likely, therefore, that a family made a place available for the baby to be born, perhaps in the guest room, and then the baby was laid in the manger, where he would be safe, off the floor, and in comfortable, clean hay. On my office door is a picture of a Lego house which demonstrates the probable layout of the house where Jesus was born. [ Date: December 23, 2012]

The image of the stable is dear to our hearts, however, and modern stories still highlight the humility of the stable as a location for Jesus’ birth. The story, “If I were the Innkeeper,” [ ] continues the tradition, but also applies to us, the keepers of our own homes.

An Innkeeper and his wife had conversations about the wisdom of telling Joseph and Mary that there was no room in their place. The Innkeeper walked down to the stable where they were staying. He met the baby Jesus, and had a life-changing moment. He returned home, and over the next few days, made preparations for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to move into the inn.

The Innkeeper’s Wife wasn’t so happy with his decision. A number of the guests heard about his plan to move the “stable family” into the inn and they checked out. The Wife was concerned about the lost income. She was even more concerned about giving the best suite in the inn to the couple – for free! To their surprise, they had an influx of new guests, who were kinder, quieter, and more welcome. The maids were no longer complaining, and doing a better job when they cleaned each room. Some people in town made plans to come and see the baby for themselves. Even the wife stopped her whining and worrying about money. Everyone in the story who came into contact with Jesus was changed.

The story raises the question for us: What would we do if we were the innkeeper in Bethlehem? I’m sure that today, if we knew that Jesus was coming, we’d offer to sleep on the sofa to make sure Mary and Joseph had the best bed in the house. We’d offer the best meals, and rock the baby to sleep so Mary could rest. We would never turn Mary and Joseph away.

But, the Innkeeper and his Wife did not know when they sent them away that the baby was the Messiah. They did not know that the baby was the Savior sent by God. They did not know that this baby was going to change the world forever. They just knew that the couple was a scroungy-looking pair, who didn’t have the sense to stay home when the wife was so close to delivering a baby.

I’d like to believe if a young couple came knocking on my door asking for a place to stay that I would welcome them in. I’d like to believe it, but our current culture has taught us to be careful. Our first reaction might be: sure, come on in. But immediately after that, we begin to think: What might they steal? How badly do they stink? What kind of a mess will they make? Why don’t they go to the hospital, or to the Path, or to the Mission? Why have they come to my house?

Even so, I’d like to believe that I would open my doors and welcome them inside. I’d like to believe that I would make them as comfortable as I could in my home. I’d like to believe that I would see Jesus in them and offer them my best, just the way I would offer my best if I knew for certain that they really were Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.

I’d like to believe that you would do that too.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mary finds favor with the Lord

Luke 1:39-55

 Our story today is about Mary. We don’t read her whole story today, but we read a lot of it. We remember that one day when she was about 14 years old, and engaged to be married to Joseph, she has an encounter with an angel named Gabriel. The angel tells her she has found favor with God, and she will have a baby with the help of the Holy Spirit. This baby will be the long-awaited Messiah, sent to be the savior of the people. He will reign as the heir to Jacob, and as the Son of God forever.
I have always been intrigued by imagining the conversations Mary would have had with her parents and with Joseph about this conversation with Gabriel. What did she have to do to get them to believe her? Matthew tells us that Joseph isn’t so sure this is a good thing, but he too has a vision – another angel-encounter – assuring him that Mary is telling the truth.
In the part of the story we read today, Mary has gone to visit her cousin Elizabeth who is now six months pregnant with John – who will become the Baptist. At this moment, baby John somehow knows Mary is carrying Jesus, and jumps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. And in response Mary sings a song which we now call the Magnificat. We’ll get back to her song in a few minutes.
I think Mary goes to spend time with Elizabeth because, like all pregnant women, she needs another woman with whom she can share stories, fears, and new discoveries. But, she probably doesn’t want to talk to the women in Nazareth. She has a strong emotional bond with Elizabeth, since she, too, is pregnant because of God’s action. As a younger woman, Mary can help Elizabeth during those difficult last three months of pregnancy and the delivery of the baby. In the meantime, Elizabeth can reassure Mary that all will be well because this is God’s plan.
Eventually, Mary returns home, and lives with Joseph, until almost time for the baby to be born. They take the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, according to Luke, but not according to Matthew, who tells us the baby was born in Nazareth. Wherever it happens, the baby is born and on the eighth day, he is circumcised and named Joshua, which means God saves. (Jesus is the Latin version of the Hebrew Joshua.)
A month or so later, the family goes to Jerusalem where Mary can have the ritual bath and be purified after giving birth. Interestingly, Joseph is also purified, although there is no tradition for men to do so. There, Mary and Joseph are met by two elder prophets, Simeon and Anna. Anna praises God for the salvation to come. Simeon predicts that Jesus will be a light to reveal God to the Gentiles and give glory to the people of Israel. He also warns Mary that a sword shall pierce her heart.
Twelve years later, the family goes to Jerusalem for the Passover. Since the folks travel in large groups, who all know each other, Mary and Joseph did not notice that Jesus was not traveling with them. They returned to search for him, and found him in the temple, arguing with the priests and rabbis. Mary and Joseph scold him for not letting them know where he was. Jesus is the typical middle school youth and responds that he was where he needed to be at that moment.
Once, when Jesus is grown up, as he is traveling and preaching, Mary tries to prevent Jesus from getting killed, and to just come home where he will be safe. But, he quickly rejects that idea and essentially scolds her for even suggesting it. In the end, Mary is one of the women at the cross, and in some gospels, also at the tomb. She was with the disciples in the upper room after the crucifixion, and in the group who chose Matthias to replace Judas.  But this is about all Scripture says about her.
… As we turn our attention to the song Mary sings when she sees Elizabeth, I want to ask you a question. If you could change the world, what one thing would you do?
     Bring peace; end war; end hunger; power to the people (not just the wealthy); homes for all; no abuse of elders, children,& spouses; healing for the sick, disabled, and mentally challenged – if they want it.
When Gabriel spoke with Mary, he announced that Jesus would be the Son of God and reign forever. He would redeem the people Israel, and be the savior of all people. Mary’s song and Jesus’ life and ministry give meaning to these promises.
·         God is merciful
·         God upsets the powerful and raises up the oppressed
·         The hungry have enough to eat and those who have had an abundance know what it means to be hungry
·         God remembers the promise God made thousands of years before, and still keeps that promise today
We can read in the Magnificat all those things we would change if we could. Especially, we can hear today the hope of the oppressed people for power to be shared and for oppression to cease. Yet, not much seems to have changed. There is still inequality in the distribution of power and wealth. There is still war, including in Israel. People are still sick, disabled, mentally challenged, and so forth.
So, what difference did Jesus’ coming make? … His life and ministry and death modeled for us another way. His life, ministry and death modeled for us a way of caring for one another that puts God and neighbor first. His life, ministry, and death modeled for us a way of servanthood, life-giving servanthood.
How much, I wonder, did Mary’s song influence Jesus’ life and ministry? Mothers sing songs and tell stories to their children that demonstrate the values they hope the children will embrace when they grow up. So, Jesus heard these words from his mother before he was born and while she was waiting for his birth, and while she was raising him.
God chose well in choosing Mary to be the mother of the Son. She did indeed find favor with God all her life.
Please pray with me: God of wonder, we give you thanks for the mystery of your birth as a baby and your life and your ministry and your death for our salvation. Help us to find favor in your eyes as Mary did. And teach us to make the vision in Mary’s song a little bit more true in our community. Amen  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

John the Baptist

Luke 3:2b-3, 7-18

Today’s person of interest is John the Baptist. John is such a familiar figure in our minds, I want to start by asking some of the questions I asked the class on Monday.

First, looking at the text from Luke, what do we know about John the Baptist?
          Lives in the wilderness; baptizes with water; calls for repentance; fire and brimstone preacher

Now, how is he dressed and what does he eat?
The text doesn't say! Only Matthew and Mark tell us. He probably is dressed as Mark & Matthew tell us, but it’s not important to Luke.

Next, who is in the audience, according to the text?
          Crowd; Jews; haves and have-nots; tax collectors (and other sinners, implied); soldiers; NO Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, leaders are listed (only in Matthew)

          What assumptions can we make about the people in the crowd, since there are no religious leaders listed?
          Common folk, not wealthy, lower classes; sinners of all types; people who take advantage of others; curiosity seekers; like John’s preaching; want something different; could include some leaders; Jewish – and know it

Then, what does John recommend?
          Don’t count on your ancestry to make you righteous; live differently, fairly, justly; repent of your old ways; be baptized and forgiven

And, what does John promise?
          Someone is coming; more powerful than John; brings baptism of fire and Spirit; will sort grain from chaff; judgment

Last question: what does John call this? … Good news! Huh?

So, John says that the one who is coming will judge us, sort us out, and punish those who need punishing. How can this possibly be good news? It’s the rest of what John says about Jesus that is the good news. Jesus is more powerful than John. Jesus is coming with the Holy Spirit and with fire. We’ll get back to that in a few minutes.

People have begun to believe that John is the messiah, but over and over again, he declares that he is not. Even so, for about a century after his death at the hands of Herod, there was a John the Baptizer community. They encouraged people to come and be washed with the water of confession and forgiveness.

In order to be ready for Jesus, the folks should change their ways. They should not count on being of Jewish descent to be right with God. John says God can change stones into Jewish people. For us, this might translate into weekly church attendance. Just because we attend church every week does not mean that the rest of our lives demonstrate our faith in Jesus. We could be doing all sorts of wrong stuff Monday through Saturday!

John gives specific behavior corrections to several of the groups present. Soldiers should not abuse their power. Just because they have weapons does not mean they should attack women and children, and push old people around. They should not force shopkeepers to pay them to not steal their merchandise. And so forth.

Tax collectors should not steal and tell people they owe more than they actually owe. They should demonstrate fairness to all. They should not hang their finger on the scale so it costs more than it should to balance.

Above all, those who have a surplus should give some away so that all have enough. You only need one coat, if someone else has none, for example. John’s message is so powerful and clear, I wonder why we still need to say this today.

John the Baptist came to prepare the people for the coming of the one who is greater than he. He seems to have been expecting a military hero who would conquer the Romans; or someone with supernatural powers who will bring instant judgment on all the unrighteous people.  John is looking for fireworks and swords and thunder and earthquakes. Since Jesus is not doing what John expected him to do, he later sends a message to Jesus asking, “Are you really the one?”

We know, of course, that Jesus has a very different view of what he is supposed to be doing, and he makes it clear in his response to John. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” The good news brought to the poor by Jesus is the same as what John recommends. Those who have should share with those who do not.

We might by extension say, “Those who are not grieving should comfort those who are grieving.” This weekend, as our nation reels in shock with the families of Sandy Hook Elementary School, Jesus would tell us that it was not God’s plan for Adam Lanza, the shooter, nor God’s plan for those who died, including his mother. Jesus would invite us to pray for and with those who grieve, and assure us of the presence of the Holy Spirit with us and with the families of the deceased.

I share this brief story with you. Rabbi Shaul Praver said he had spent time with Veronika Pozner, whose 6-year-old son Noah, was among the victims. "She said that she didn't know how she was going to go on, and we encouraged her to focus on her other four children that need her and not to try to plan out the rest of her life, just take a deep breath right now," Praver said. [Reuters, online] This is good advice for all of us: just take a deep breath, and focus on the needs of the living.

And now, as we wait once again for the coming of Baby Jesus, we would be wise to listen to John. Let’s examine our lives and consider what thoughts and habits need repentance and forgiveness. In what ways are we unfair to others? In what ways do we not respect the rights of others? In what ways do we not share what we have with those who have less? In what ways do we assume we are right with God?

This week, I hope you will take some time to consider what John might say to you. Then, as you shower or bathe, or even wash your hands, wash off the sins and ask God for forgiveness.

Please pray with me. God of mercy, we forget how imperfect we are. Forgive us. Help us to be the people you call us to be. In Jesus’ name, amen

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Zechariah and Elizabeth

Luke 1:5-25, 57-67a, 67b-80

What would you say if an angel appeared and announced that you were going to have a baby? ….
What if the angel told you the name of the baby, and that the baby had a special purpose? …
For those of us young enough to give birth, this is no big deal although it might mess with our plans for our lives. For those of us too old to give birth it’s another story altogether. In the case of Elizabeth and Zechariah, it was a real shock.
Like Sarah and Abraham, and Hannah and Elkanah whose story we read just a few weeks ago, Elizabeth was not able to have children. In her culture, women were to be fruitful and multiply. Being childless was shameful. If a woman couldn’t have children, the must be some major sin which caused God to close her womb. It could not, of course, be the man’s sin.
Elizabeth and Zechariah were old enough to know they would never have children. They had reached an age when they had ceased praying for children, and were learning to be content to be childless and to enjoy the children of other parents.
They were both descendants of the priestly families, and lived righteous lives, pleasing to God, other than their childlessness. Finally, the timing was right for God’s plans to come to fruition.
There were many priests living in many parts of Judah. They were organized into teams, and served in the temple in rotation, spending a week in Jerusalem when their turn came. Mostly, they were responsible for managing the animal sacrifices, but they also had other duties. Burning incense in the morning and evening was one of them. The priest who would perform this ritual was chosen by lot – perhaps one black rock in a bag of white ones.
One day, it came to Zechariah to pray the liturgy and burn the incense inside the temple. He was alone, and had a vision of the Angel Gabriel. As with all angel visits, the first thing Gabriel says is, don’t be afraid. Gabriel tells him Elizabeth will become pregnant. They are to name the child John – Yochannan – which means God is kind (Yo for YHWH, and channan for kindness). John will be the prophet for one who is even greater than he. His job is to prepare the people for the coming of the savior.
Zechariah is a practical man. He hears the angel’s words and thinks about his wife Elizabeth, who is well beyond the time of having babies. He says, “I don’t see how that’s going to happen.” Obviously, even though he was in God’s house, he wasn’t expecting an encounter with the divine.
Truth be told, I don’t see much difference between the answer Zechariah gives and the answer Mary gives when she says, “How can this be?” But there must have been a big difference in the tone of voice, because Gabriel says, “Since you said you don’t believe me, you will not speak again until what I have said comes true – in other words, until the baby is born.”
Immediately, he is speechless. Zechariah went out of the temple, and the priests had to figure out from his hand motions that he had had an encounter with an angel.
We can have a lot of fun imaging the next several months. Zechariah went home and had to explain without words that Elizabeth was going to have a baby. Along the way, he must have found a way to tell her that the baby was going to be special, and that he was to be named John. We can imagine the joy Elizabeth felt at becoming pregnant. Six months later, when Mary was visiting, the Baby John inside Elizabeth knew the Baby Jesus inside Mary.
After the usual nine months, Elizabeth gives birth to the baby. Eight days later, he is circumcised, as was the custom. Friends and family are gathered around. The rabbi is preparing to perform the ritual and wants to know the name of the child. Everyone seems to assume the baby will be named Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth says the boy is to be named John. “What?!” the people exclaim. Zechariah asks for a tablet and stylus and writes, “His name is John.” Suddenly, he knows he has his voice back, and breaks out into song celebrating this wonderful event in the life of the people. And, he sings of the role John will play as God’s servant and forerunner to the promised Messiah.  
… I often wonder how I would respond if an angel appeared to me and told me I was part of God’s plan, if someone told me that something really miraculous was going to happen in my life. Would I say, “You’ve got to be kidding!” or would I say, “Let’s do it!”? Surely, my response would depend on the task required of me. It might be hard, or very simple, as natural as having a baby.
In reality, it doesn’t need to be a dramatic event. Each day, every one of us is asked to live as a child of God. Jesus simply asks us to use the gifts God has given us to be part of God’s plan for redeeming the world, one hurting person at a time. Each one of us is asked to prepare the way for Jesus. Each one of us is asked to tell others about Jesus’ love for us. Each one of us is asked to bring a friend one step closer to a relationship with God, with our kind words, with an invitation, with a gentle hug.  
This season of Advent, when we work so hard getting ready for the parties and the gift-giving and the travel and the decorating, I invite you to work hard to prepare the way for Jesus, too. I hope you’ll do this at home, too, but I also want us to take a moment now.
I invite you to get comfortable. Close your eyes if you’d like. Imagine that you are someplace where you can encounter God. Here in the sanctuary, at home in your prayer chair, on the beach, on the golf course, on the boat, in your bed, or wherever.
Take a couple of slow, deep breaths. You are praying, listening, waiting for God to speak to you.  … An angel appears. …  What is the angel asking you to do? … How do you respond? …  Is it so hard to do that you can’t imagine doing it? Or does it bring you such joy that you can’t imagine not doing it? … Imagine doing whatever the angel told you to do. … Celebrate your accomplishment. … Take a couple of slow breaths and open your eyes. …
Whether an angel appeared to you in your imagination or not, I still hope you will intentionally take the time to consider what an angel might ask of you. And then go ahead and do it. Whatever you are asked to do, you will not be alone. God’s Holy Spirit will be with you, encouraging you, helping to make it possible.
Please pray with me. Life-giving God, we give you thanks for the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth and John, and for their willingness to do your will. Help us to be so willing to serve you. In Jesus’ name, amen

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Son of Man is coming

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

I cannot resist this one stupid joke. Today’s readings invite us to be alert. It must be because the world needs more lerts.

I am planning this Advent to highlight a person or two each week. Next week it will be Zechariah and Elizabeth. The week after that, it will be John the Baptist, their son. The fourth week it will be Mary and Joseph.
This week it is Jesus as the Son of Man. Jesus, the Son of Man, is glorious, loving, awesome, powerful. Jesus, the Son of Man, will come and redeem us from all the distress caused by the signs of his coming. When he comes, we are to stand up straight and raise our heads in joyful expectation.
We could spend a lot of time speculating on the timing of Jesus’ coming. The first Christians thought it was going to happen in their lifetimes. Many today believe it is a cosmic event in the future – tomorrow, or soon, or in 50,000 years. Many today believe the coming again of Jesus occurred with the coming of the Holy Spirit; they believe that his coming again happens every time we sense God’s Spirit within and between and among us. But, Jesus warns against speculating on God’s timing and instead calls us to be alert to the possibilities of each day.
So, we’ll spend the time thinking about the meaning of the coming of Jesus, the Son of Man. By the time the Gospel of Luke was written, believers were dying, and Jesus had still not come as he promised – in their lifetimes. Just as the first Christians had to figure out what to do since they were still waiting, we too must discern how to live in the meantime.
There’s a saying: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”
There’s a song: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.”
The intention of these sayings is to have us bow down in perfect obedience. “Look busy,” and “you better watch out” both cause us to be afraid of making mistakes. If we are not busy, if we are not careful, there will be punishment. Jesus will not like us; Santa will bring us fewer toys, or give us lumps of coal in our stockings.
Paul tells us to strengthen our hearts and be blameless before the Lord. At first glance, this sounds like the same thing: be perfect, be 100% perfect. But there’s a difference. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, perfect obedience to the rules is not important. God’s grace makes us perfect, so we can strengthen our hearts – be encouraged. Out of gratitude for God’s grace, we try to pass on that grace to others.
In the ancient world, people bowed before those who were more important than they were. In some cases, they bowed the head. In other cases, they knelt on the ground, and touched their foreheads to the ground as well. (Think: the children in The King and I) And sometimes, they prostrated themselves, laying their bodies flat on the ground. This bowing is a sign of respect and reverence, and sometimes fear.
Today, many pastors invite us to “bow in prayer,” as a sign of our reverence and respect for God who is so much greater than we are. In contrast, Jesus tells us in this passage to not bow in fear but to stand up and raise our heads. In this way we can watch for what God is doing in our very presence.
In the last week or so, Mike and I watched a Hallmark movie. In the story, a young woman named Krissy Kringle finds a book with the title “Naughty or Nice.” She wonders if it is really Santa’s official naughty or nice list. The book seems empty until she says the name of a person who has just done something “naughty.” She looks in the book and finds confirmation that the deed was in fact on the naughty list. Towards the end of the movie, Krissy realizes that the book also lists nice deeds, and they far out-weigh the naughty ones. Krissy begins to understand that people are not only naughty or nice, but both, at the same time.
Doesn’t that sound just like a Lutheran theological point – we are saint and sinner at the same time, all the time. We are all sinners, and we are all forgiven by God’s grace. Jesus, the Son of Man, came into the world so that all people could have a better understanding of God’s heart, of God’s willingness to forgive.
Advent is a time to remember that the baby Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and laid in a humble feeding trough is the same Jesus who was arrested, tried, and crucified; and the same Jesus who was raised from death and ascended to heaven; and the same Jesus who comes again whenever we love each other in Jesus’ name; and the same Jesus who comes with power and glory as the Son of Man; and the same Jesus who makes us perfect in God’s eyes.
Let us not bow before him in fear, but stand with our heads raised so we can be alert to what he is doing in our midst today. This week, I invite you to watch for signs of the Son of Man in your life. Watch for his glory and his grace in your life and in the lives of those you encounter.
Here’s an example. Steve and Teresa are the owners of the Cowboy CafĂ©, the new restaurant across the street. Steve is not shy about being a Christian, but he is not pushy about his own faith. Some diners at a table near me asked him which church he attended, and he identified one down the street.
Then he went on to add, there are several other churches on this road, and named them, including Hope. He invited the diners to check them all out and see which one seemed to suit them best. After the folks left, he came and chatted with me about what he had said to the other folks. We both agree that no matter how we choose to worship, it is the same Jesus we worship, it is the same Son of Man who came to make us perfect, and to offer us all God’s grace.
This Advent, there is no reason to pretend to be busy; there is no reason to watch out; Jesus is coming to remind us of God’s amazing grace and love, which shows up in the most surprising places.

Please pray with me: Lord Jesus, we wait and watch for you, especially this time of the year. Help us to see you, not in the things we do or the things we make or the things we buy, but in the people around us. Teach us to walk with our heads held high and to remember that you love us and forgive us, and give us grace we don’t deserve. Amen

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The boss of all kings

Revelation 1:4b-8

The boss of all kings

When I was in Eastern Europe in 1987, I got some sense of what it was like to live there. In Germany, one of the first things I noticed was that there were soldiers with rifles everywhere. We were instructed that we were not to take photos of any soldiers, so if there was an interesting church we could not take a picture if a soldier was standing in front of it.
I noticed that the people never smiled. It was as if they were resigned to living under communist rule and there was nothing they could do about it.
Christians who made their faith known had limited options. They were not free to choose the career they wanted; they had limited housing options; they could meet for music rehearsal but not for Bible study; and there were spies among them, pretending to be Christians, ready to report them to the authorities.  
Especially in Russia, only those people who had permission to talk with foreigners were supposed to speak with us. If we saw someone on the street, we tried to greet them, but they looked away. They did not want to risk getting caught talking with us. Others were more daring. In the churches we visited, we were greeted warmly, but that was an exception.
While there were no arenas with gladiators and wild animals waiting to tear them limb from limb, people who lived behind the iron curtain were constantly on guard for those who might betray them. Everyone knew that there were torture chambers staffed by sadistic men just waiting for another unwilling victim. And Siberia was a train ride away, and a constant threat as well.
I imagine it was this kind of atmosphere for Jews and Christians in the ancient world, ruled by the Romans. Around the time of Jesus, the emperors began to believe they were divine. Everyone was expected to worship the Roman gods, bowing down to them, giving them offerings, praying to them. The Jews and Christians refused to do this, and it got them into trouble.
In ancient Rome, the face of the current, living emperor was printed on the coins of the day. For obedient Jews and Christians, this caused a serious problem. Handling Roman money meant they were worshiping other gods besides the Jewish Lord. So, they did not shop in the markets using the currency of the day, but bartered for what they needed with other Jews and Christians. Meats were slaughtered in the market to idols, so Jews and Christians avoided the meat markets. Jews and Christians then were not part of the local economy; they were not supporting the local shops.
There were several organized persecutions of the Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire, especially in the 60’s under Nero, in the 80’s and 90’s under Domitian, and several more times in the first two centuries. Jews were more tolerated than Christians, however, because it was understood that they had their own set of laws, and they followed them. On the other hand, the Christians were seen as a cult with strange rituals, such as eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. So, Christians were especially singled out in the ancient Roman world.
To avoid persecution, neighbors turned in neighbors, much the same way as it happened in communist Russia. Many Christians were arrested and tried and often sent to prison or even to the gladiator arenas where they died as martyrs for their faith. Many Christians also denied their faith or pretended to worship the idols, to stay safe and to feed their families. Many Christians abandoned their faith in Jesus.
The book of Revelation was written to give hope to Christians living under these persecutions. Of course, it needed to be written in code. Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn could not openly publish his books until the communist regime had ended. Neither could John of Patmos write his revelation in a way that the Romans would know he was writing about them.
In John’s Revelation, the world can be a horrible place. Monsters arise out of chaotic waters; scrolls are opened and read; horses and riders bring messages; and so forth. In the end, Jesus, the Lamb, the slaughtered one, rises against all monsters and saves those who believe in him.
Translating the coded language of Revelation with the help of our knowledge of the culture of the first century, we can understand that John is saying that Jesus is eventually victorious over all kings, all rulers, especially the evil ones.
It’s important to notice that John does not eliminate the hierarchy of kings and princes and governors. There was nothing in the culture to replace it; socialism and democracy were centuries away yet. John simply demonstrates that Jesus is the boss of all the rulers on the earth, for all time. Jesus is the king of all kings. Jesus rules with grace and mercy for all, rather than with special privilege for those who agree with him, and violence and punishment for those who disagree with him.
For us today, living in the US under democratic rule, knowing that Jesus wins in the end may or may not comfort us. In our day to day lives, we still suffer illness, injustice, inequality of wealth, unemployment, and so forth. It is no comfort to us that those who take advantage of us will be judged in the end. We’d much prefer that God would judge them and punish them today. But that is not God’s way.
In fact, God wants us to gather together and stand up to injustice ourselves. Jesus’ true disciples work hard against injustice. We are priests serving our King Jesus. Jesus wants us to help him feed the hungry, and he wants to speak through us to end the causes of hunger by challenging the oppressive systems of our time.
Christ our King calls us to be loyal subjects, obedient to him and his reign above our loyalty to our country, or our job, or our family, or ourselves. No matter how hard it is to do what Jesus wants us to do; no matter how much it seems like the bad guys are winning at the moment; no matter how much we have to struggle to stay faithful, we need only to remember that Jesus will win in the end. Jesus is the king, the boss, of all kings on earth, yesterday, today, and always.
Please pray with me. Jesus, our King, help us to be faithful to you, to trust you, and to serve you through serving your people. Amen

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Praying to the God of the Angel Armies

1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8

During the years that I was in Chicago for seminary, I occasionally went downtown. The size of the buildings and the variety of architectural styles never ceased to amaze me. I took a commuter train from the south side to the loop, and watched the buildings grow taller and taller. I walked along the streets of the Loop. I took a lake cruise as the lights of the city came on. I explored the city from a tour boat on the Chicago River. Being in the city was always exciting and invigorating. But, I never wanted to live there.
Touring Jerusalem had a similar effect on me. The newer parts of the city look much like any modern city around the world. When we got into the oldest parts of the city, we stood next to the enormous stones that formed the ancient buildings. I found myself saying, as the disciples once did, “What large stones, and what large buildings!”
The disciples knew it was possible, but never imagined that the temple they admired would be destroyed in just a few years. Thirty-some years after the disciples were in Jerusalem with Jesus, the Jewish people rose up against their Roman enemies. Mark was writing his story of Jesus as this revolt was happening. Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be torn down, stone from stone, was about to come true.
As the war within Jerusalem went on, I’m sure the people were praying for success for the revolt, and for safety, and for simple things like food and water during the siege. As the Romans invaded the city and tore the city apart, they fought, they died, they cried, they fled, and they prayed. But their prayers were not answered as they wanted. The destruction of the temple led the people to focus their worship in local synagogues, and the sacrifice of prayer instead of animals.
We know from our recent history that the largest, most well-built buildings are capable of being destroyed. We never imagined that someone would attack us on our own soil, but the terrorists did just that. We prayed that day, as a nation. We prayed hard. We prayed first that all would be safe; then we prayed that there would be few deaths; then we prayed for survivors; then we prayed that God would receive those who died. And then we prayed for the families of those who died and who lost jobs, and we prayed for God to tell us how to respond. Our prayers were not all answered in the way we wanted. 
Hannah prayed, too. She prayed for something quite simple – for many of us. She prayed for a baby. Today, there are all sorts of fertility treatments, but in the ancient world, there was little a couple could do except keep trying.
Hannah also prayed for an end to the abuse she endured as a childless woman. The other wife in the household teased her, bragging about her own ability to bear children. The women in town wondered what sin she or her parents had committed to make God prevent her from having children.
Even Elkanah, her husband, was amazed to realize that he wasn’t enough for her. It probably never occurred to him that if he died, she would have no home, no children to care for her. No man would want her, since she could not give him children. She would be out on the streets, begging, in no time.
Hannah prayed, probably every day, for God to give her a child. One day, when she went with Elkanah to the temple in Shiloh – this is before King David, and before the temple in Jerusalem – Hannah prayed really hard. She prayed alone, and silently as she sat in the temple. She received more abuse from the priest Eli, who thought she was drunk. Rather than slink away in shame, Hannah boldly spoke up and told Eli that she had been praying. Eli promised her that whatever she had been praying for would be granted. And soon, Hannah was pregnant, and gave birth to Samuel. Samuel went as a youth to live with Eli, and became the prophet and advisor to King Saul and later anointed David, the shepherd.
In our study group last Monday we were struck by the many ways in which God was named in our different translations. Some of us remembered singing as part of the communion liturgy, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabbaoth,” using the Hebrew word, sabbaoth. This is the term Hannah uses. The NRSV we read on Sunday mornings uses “Lord of hosts.” Other translations say, “Lord Almighty,” “Lord All-Powerful,” “Lord of Heavenly Forces.” The translation we liked the best was from the Message, which reads, “Lord of the Angel Armies.”
Hannah prayed to God using this name, Lord of the angel armies. She was praying to the most powerful image of God, to the God who could help her in her time of need. She poured out her heart to God, and her prayer was heard and answered.
We wonder why did her prayer work this time, when so many times before it hadn’t. Perhaps because God had a special plan for this child, and the timing was right. We don’t know, but we do know that the God of the Angel Armies, whom we also today call Father, heard her prayer and opened her womb so she could have a child.
When we pray, sometimes we wonder if our prayers are heard. Sometimes we wonder if our prayers will be answered. Sometimes we wonder what the answer to our prayers will be.
We pray with faith; with faith that our prayers will be heard and answered in the way we hope. We pray that someone – including ourselves – will be healed. We pray that God will intervene and prevent a natural disaster from impacting us. We pray for safety as we travel, especially as we travel far from home. We pray that God will receive our loved ones as their lives on earth come to an end. We pray for peace, especially in the Middle East, and wherever our soldier-loved ones happen to be.
We pray for many things. We pray to a God powerful enough to make happen whatever we pray for. Like Hannah, we pray to the God of the Angel Armies. God does not always answer our prayers, at least not in the ways we look for, the ways we hope for. Buildings fall, loved ones die, storms destroy our homes and businesses, babies never come, children make poor choices. Yet, we pray to a God who just might make something different happen.
Please pray with me. Almighty God, we rely on your power and your mercy to help us, no matter what is going on in our lives. Hear the prayers of our hearts, and answer us. We pray in Jesus’ powerful name, Amen

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Widows and orphans and resident foreigners

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44 

In the Old Testament, widows, orphans and resident foreigners represent the needy of their society. Over and over again, the LORD calls for the wealthier people to remember the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners. Today, two of our readings highlight the situations of widows, and it forms a strong contrast.
We know the story of Ruth: Naomi and her husband Mahlon moved from Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine; they had two sons, who grew up and married Moabite women; one year, Mahlon and the sons all died, making Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah widows.
Naomi made plans to return to Bethlehem and advised her daughters-in-law to go to their homes and find new husbands. Orpah did that, but Ruth went with Naomi to Bethlehem. It was harvest time, and Ruth worked hard gleaning the fields to feed herself and Naomi. A distant  relative named Boaz protected Ruth and became friends with her. Naomi developed a plan to get Boaz and Ruth married – which they did. Ruth was the great-grandmother of king David.
Notice how well the widows were taken care of in this story, and compare that with the widow in the Gospel story. This woman had very little, yet she gave what she had to God through her gift to the temple offering. Jesus compares her devotion to that of the scribes, who give for show, and who give a much smaller percentage as offering. It seems like no one is protecting her, making sure she can have enough to eat. Yet she gives her last coins to God. She is grateful for the little she does have.
How do we today take care of the widows and orphans and foreigners in our midst? Who else do we need to take care of? …  Some congregations do a good job of ministering to the needy; some go farther, and have a passion for it. I want to tell you a couple of stories about the ways churches have used money and property.
First Lutheran Church has a strong ministry with the needy. The building houses a large food pantry, collects and gives away household goods, participates strongly in women of the ELCA ministries, engages in ministry with the other churches in town. It has a flourishing children’s ministry, and a strong senior ministry. First Lutheran works hard to take care of the widows and orphans in its neighborhood. It seems like a perfect church. Yet, it has a problem.
First Lutheran has a large endowment fund, at one time nearly a million dollars, though I’m sure it is much smaller since the market crash. When it was started, the bylaws made it clear that the principle of the fund was not to be touched; only the interest was to be spent, and only for new ministries, to give them a head start. With the fluctuations in the market, there might be several thousand, or only several hundred to share each year. The endowment fund was used to build the shelves for the food pantry, to buy books for a new children’s after-school program, and so forth.  
Yet the talk on the streets of town was that the church was wealthy. Many parishioners felt the same. They think: there is so much money in the fund that they should not have to give much offering. Instead, the money in the endowment fund should be spent for day-to-day operations of the church, and for building repairs. The folks were forgetting the reason the fund was established – to take care of the orphans and widows, and they were forgetting the reasons we are all commanded by God to give – because it’s good for us.
First Lutheran had a couple other challenges. People with money wanted to give, but with strings attached, to serve their own purposes. The first was the source of some humor. A woman in the congregation died and when her will was read, there was a gift of several thousand dollars to the altar guild. As the council learned of this gift, they all imagined drinking much finer wine for communion. It could also provide for new banners, a remodeled sacristy, and so forth.
The second gift was much more troubling. It was a six-figure gift that would provide much needed money for overhauling the heating plant, and replacing the roof, in their large building. For the gift to be given some strings were attached. The giver wanted the church to remodel a room that was used for many purposes, including small funerals, Bible study, and council meetings, into a chapel with pews, to be used only for worship, Sunday school opening, and funerals.
The council recognized this gift as a bribe, and declined it. This gift had nothing to do with taking care of widows and orphans, or even the needs of a busy congregation. It had everything to do with pleasing a small group of people interested in limiting how the congregation used its space.
At Hope, we have had similar challenges. We ask ourselves many questions, not all at the same time, of course: How do we use what we have for ministry? How do we use large and small cash gifts? Are our buildings being used for outreach to the community? Can we designate space and time in our buildings without an increase in cost? Do we receive gifts with strings attached, such as taxable land? (NO!) How do we spend the endowment fund proceeds? If needed, may we use the cash in the endowment and memorial funds? Does it make sense to raise funds to send our gifts to distant lands when we have so many needy right here in Citrus County?  
In short, how do we use what we have, what God has given us, so that we can care for the widows and orphans and foreigners … and (others) … in our midst? It’s a question we need to ask over and over again, as a congregation and as individuals.
Today, we celebrate the end of the stewardship drive with a party – refreshments in Luther Hall. We continue to find ways to use our space, as the YMCA begins classes in the afternoon, and the scout groups and backpack program continue. Needy people call and come in seeking assistance, a gift of food or gas money, or help with utility bills. We help some of them, but have learned to not help all of them.
This week, I invite you to think about the many ways in which your offering helps take care of the widows and orphans and foreigners through the ministries of our congregation, in the synod, in the nation, and around the world. Give thanks to God for what you have, and for the freedom to give some of it away.
Please pray with me. Merciful God, you give us so much. Teach us to be grateful for all that we have. And teach us to be generous, so that all people may have enough. Today, we also pause to give you thanks for our veterans, who have given themselves to ensure the freedom we enjoy in America, the freedom to worship you any way we choose, whenever we choose. Amen 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

For all the saints

Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6; John 11:32-44

On this day, we remember. We remember and give thanks for the saints who have gone before us, from long ago and from just yesterday. We give thanks for those saints who are role models for us today, and far into the future. Today, we remember all the saints.
The word saint refers to those who are or have been faithful believers in Jesus. Beyond that, the word in Greek means “holy one”. Long ago, God said to God’s people, “Be holy, as I your God am holy.” Being a saint, or holy, means we have set ourselves apart so that we may do God’s work in the world. Being holy means having a relationship with God; it does not mean we have to be perfect. For example, even St Peter put his foot in his mouth with Jesus on a regular basis.
We remember today those special servants whom the Church has named as saints, and those everyday faithful servants whose names are recorded only in our hearts and in God’s heart. We sing the hymn “For All the Saints” to remember all the saints, the famous ones and the unknown ones.
… I love how powerfully Jesus proves to us that God has power over death in this event in John 11. Our Gospel text today is the short version of a longer story. Jesus intentionally stays away from Bethany when he learns that his friend Lazarus is very ill. By the time Jesus does get to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. By this time his body has begun to decay. He was really, truly dead. First Martha then Mary approach Jesus and basically yell at him. They greet him with the words we have all shared –“If only.” “If only you had been here, Lazarus would not have died,” they cry.
Jesus asks where Lazarus’ body is, and they take him to the tomb. Jesus begins to weep. We are not told why he cries, but we get a lot of comfort in reading that Jesus sheds tears like the rest of us. Over the centuries, many scholars and lay readers have explained why Jesus cries. They say: He is angry that people don’t believe he can raise Lazarus from death. They say: He grieves for his dead friend. They say: He didn’t want such a large audience for what he was about to do, for fear that it might mess up the timetable Jesus has in mind. Personally, I believe Jesus cries with the sisters, sharing their sadness.
Over the objections of Martha, who knows what a decaying body smells like, Jesus asks for the stone in front of the tomb to be rolled away. Jesus then prays out loud, for the benefit of those present. Jesus wants to be clear that it is God who acts, not Jesus. Then Jesus calls out, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes walking out of the tomb. He is still wrapped in his burial cloths, and Jesus says to the sisters and others, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
An important point here is that Jesus starts the process of freeing Lazarus by calling him out of the tomb; but then he turns the unwrapping over to the crowd. Unbinding Lazarus becomes a community action.
… When we grieve, we often feel that our sadness is a private matter, that no one else feels the way we do, and that we should stay home and cry alone, so we don’t bother other people with our sadness. It’s true that everyone grieves differently, but there are many things those who grieve have in common. Grieving with a community is very helpful. I love the way the widows and widowers at Hope take care of each other. It is community grieving, similar to what we see in the story of Lazarus and his sisters. We remember these saints, these people, these friends of Jesus.
The texts from Isaiah and Revelation are about community grieving as well. These texts are the stories of large numbers of people, whole communities, who are grieving. In Isaiah, the Jewish people are grieving the loss of their homeland; they are a thousand miles away in Babylon and worry that they will never see Jerusalem again. God’s words through the prophet encourage the people, promising them that God does indeed hear their cries and that there will come a day when they no longer weep for their homeland. We remember these believers, these children of God.
The text from Revelation, with its vision of a new Jerusalem, a new creation, reassures the people of the early Christian church that God does hear their cries of grief and frustration. They are being persecuted because of their belief in Jesus and their refusal to worship the Roman emperor. This passage gives the people hope that they will one day be free to worship Jesus whenever and wherever and however they wish. We remember these saints, these children of God.
Today, these three texts together can give hope to the people of the northeastern US and the Caribbean as they work to restore their lives and homes and businesses from the devastation caused by Hurricane Nancy. Just like Lazarus’ family, they cannot do this work alone. They need the support of the larger community of all the saints, including us here in Florida.
We remember on this All Saints Sunday that people we loved have died. We are sad that they are gone from us, and we rejoice because we have faith that they are with Jesus, no longer weeping, no longer in pain.
We remember on this All Saints Sunday that there are many people who have taught us about Jesus, those we have known and those we know only through the stories of their faith, twenty centuries worth of faithful servants.
We remember on this All Saints Sunday that there are many people who have suffered in the past for their faith. They have been Jesus’ witnesses. And we remember that there are many people today who are suffering from circumstances far beyond their control, brought by the power of Hurricane Sandy. We are the saints who will unbind them from their misery and let them go.

Please pray with me: Almighty God, you call us to be your saints. You comfort and strengthen us with your Holy Spirit. You call us into community, to help one another, to unbind them from whatever holds them. Fill us with your power, and guide us to create new lives for those who hurt. Amen  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Do the blind see?

Mark 10:46-52

Today, I invite you to use your imagination. Listen as I tell some stories, and put yourself into the story. 
You are a blind person, living in ancient Jericho, a few miles away from Jerusalem. You used to be able to see, but an injury has taken away your eyesight. You can imagine what the scene looks like because you remember it in your mind.
The roads are dusty and noisy. There is a good well in town, and every traveler stops to fill up their water jugs for the next leg of the journey. Local people come by, too, to get their water. You recognize many of them by the sound of their feet, and the sound of their voices. You know which people will toss a few coins your way. You spread out your coat, to catch the coins and pull it toward yourself to gather the coins in.
One day, you hear that Jesus of Nazareth is coming to town. You have heard a lot about him. He heals sick people. He gives sight to the blind. He cares for poor people. You believe he is the Messiah who has been promised for so long. You want what he has to offer – healing for your blindness!
When you hear a crowd of people, you know Jesus is with them and you begin calling to Jesus. You want Jesus to pay attention to you. Many people tell you to be quiet. You get louder and louder; soon you are shouting. “Jesus, Son of David, Messiah, have mercy on me!”
Jesus speaks again and you get a fix on his location. You stand up so quickly the coins on your coat go flying. You head straight for the sound of his voice and kneel before him. Jesus speaks to you. “What do you want me to do for you?” “Rabbi, I want to see again!”
Jesus speaks miraculous words. “Because of your faith, open your eyes, and see.” You open your eyes and realize that you are looking into Jesus’ beautiful face. You know you must respond by taking up your coat and following him wherever he will lead you. You have been blind, but now you see!
This story is obviously about physical healing – Blind Bartimaeus is no longer blind. But it’s about much more when we consider the location of this story in the Gospel of Mark. There are two healings of blind men that serve as bookends for a number of stories about people who are blind in other ways. This includes Peter, who calls Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God in one breath, then scolds Jesus for having a death wish in the next. Many in the crowd see Jesus as sent by God, while most of the leaders only see him as a troublemaker, a false messiah.
… Today is the day on which we celebrate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. So, here’s another story. 
The setting is Germany, about 500 years ago and your name is Martin. You are a young Catholic priest. You have been reading the Scriptures, and noticing that what you are reading does not match what the church is practicing. Everything you have been reading tells you that God’s grace, God’s forgiveness is freely given. You have been talking and writing about this, hoping the leaders in the Church will take notice, but you have not had much success.
One day, you hear about a man named Tetzel. He is aggressively selling forgiveness. He promises that the Pope will declare that the time of your punishment after death will be shorter if you buy his pieces of paper. It’s the last straw for you. You know that forgiveness is not for sale; it is not up to the Pope to grant it; it is freely given by God. You are angry at the lies he is telling and selling, and hurt for the poor people who give their last coins to him. It is such a scam!
You take out a sheet of paper and sharpen your quill. Dipping the quill into the ink, you begin to write. In 95 short sentences, you outline the ways in which the selling of forgiveness is wrong, and against the will of God. In the morning, you take your paper and nail it to the door of your church, with the hope of helping the church see how wrong they have been. You are hoping they will realize that they have been blind, but now they will see.
… We know that there were many people who believed what Luther had to say, and many powerful leaders who tried to shut him up, and even tried to kill him. But enough people listened and believed and acted, and Lutherans today continue to have a unique voice in the community and in the world.
In the last story, I invite you to listen to some portions of a longer dialogue I found on a website called Fresh Expressions. 
I lead a small missional community in a small market town that is socially and economically polarised. The aristocracy are often present in the parish church on Sunday mornings, reading the lesson with cut-glass accents gleaned from an elite education. On the other hand, a national survey showed our town to have very low levels of literacy with many people barely able to read at all. 
At our ministry, we serve and journey with people who find themselves at the bottom of the heap, and we are learning to walk slowly together towards Christ. We are sure Christ would have spent time listening to the difficult stories of our people. He would have used the language of their everyday lives to weave his story into theirs, showing compassion to those who hung on to him to find hope and healing. 
We find many of the traditional words of liturgy do not reflect our experience of life, or of God. These are not our words; culturally they have not come out of our hearts, our streets or our struggles, and so cannot easily come out of our mouths. 
For example, there was a minister who was obviously well to do praying a prayer asking God to ensure a fair re-distribution of wealth and the worlds’ resources, and to help 'us' to help the poor. We had five people with us at the service who were desperately poor, several on their way to the local Foodbank after the service.
Responses to this posting varied. Some wanted examples of new liturgies. Some protested that the words of the liturgy are sacred and intended to include everyone. One priest mentioned that he had tried to introduce “liturgical experiments” and he had been forcibly retired by his bishop.
… As we discuss today blindness and sightedness, we all need to remember that any one of us can be blind, and any one of us can be sighted. It’s important that we pay attention to what Jesus is saying to all people, in Scripture, and in our lives today. It’s important to not assume WE are the ones who see, and all others are blind. It comes down, of course, to how we see people. We see the good in some people, and we are blind to the good in others. We see the God in some people and we are blind to the God in others.
Please pray with me. Gracious God, you give us eyes to see, but sometimes we are blind. Help us to see what you would have us see. Amen