Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Waiting A Looooonnnnggg Time

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is a time of waiting.  It can be a time of preparing; of stopping all the frantic running around; of straining to listen.  Or it can be another time that we just rush through on our way to 'Somewhere Else.'  In this case, 'Somewhere Else' is probably Christmas. But what kind of Christmas will our frenetic behavior carry us to?  The one where Christmas evening is a big sigh of relief, a stiff drink, and a "whew, I'm glad that's over"?  All too often, even for clergy, this is where we land.

But there is a different way.  It is to think about this time.....at least for a few minutes each day.....as a time of anticipation.  It's possible that Zechariah and Elizabeth-the couple in this week's scripture-can be some help to us.  That scripture by the way (I'm straying from the Lectionary this week) is Luke 1:5-25. 

They are "getting on in years" a phrase that doesn't necessarily make them candidates for the local synagogue's "Adopt A Grandparent" group, but does indicate that they are past normal childbearing age.  They're good people.  Luke says that "both of them were rightous" which is his way of saying that the lack of a child wasn't the result of some sin (which was often thought in that day).  And...as was usual in that culture....the 'fault' for this fell on Elizabeth, who was barren.

Zechariah is a priest.  Not the kind of priest  that got to hang out all the time in Jerusalem; but a village priest.  There were about 800 priests in the division of Abijah of which Zecheriah was a member.  They got chosen to go burn the incense in the temple by casting lots.  I could be a once in a lifetime experience.

One has to wonder what impact being childless has on this couple.  How did it affect their relationship?  What was it like for Elizabeth when she her the gossip behind her back?  What was it like for Zecheriah, laboring year after year as priest in the village and not getting his most fervent prayer answered.  It was this unanswered longing that colored the texture of their lives.

You really can't blame Zecheriah for wanting a sign when the angel comes to tell him he's going to be a daddy....for asking "how will I know this is true?"  Mary is going to ask "how can this be?" a little while later.  But for some reason Gabriel doesn't seem to like Zecheriah's question and strikes him dumb (this means, by the way, that he can't give the benediction when he comes out of the sanctuary of the Lord).  Elizabeth goes into seclusion until she starts to show....don't want to be announcing you're pregnant until it's really obvious if you're known as 'that nice barren lady down the street.'  Both of them, it seems, want to see some proof of the promise.

But that waiting has a positive side as well.  It is time to dream; to do the "what if it really is true?"  To think and ponder, and maybe to change a little as we anticipate and then believe in what is coming.

What is the pray of longing that colors the texture of your life?  What if Advent was a time to ponder and wait and believe and maybe be changed.  What if we extended that longing into the spiritual rooms in our life?  What if we found time to be 'struck dumb' in the middle of the mad shopping season.  Would we be changed?  Would the Christmas Eve service feel different?  Would we meet the Baby Who Is God in a different way?

On this first Sunday of Advent, maybe going into a little seclusion, and being struck a little dumb, isn't all bad.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thinking About Luke, Thanksgiving, and Preparing for Advent

We talked in the last blog about who Luke might have been and why he wrote his version of the Gospel the way that he did.  This week, I'd like to talk about theology that guides Luke and why this is the lens for us to look through at the Gospel. 

Last week we talked about the ways in which Luke uses the concept of hesed: when "the one from who I have no right to expect anything gives me everything."  This is most clearly shown in Jesus' parable of the Lost Son which Luke records in Luke 15:11-32.  Some people have referred to this as the "Little Gospel."  In it many believe that we have the clearest picture in Jesus' teachings of His view of God and of the salvation/Good News that He came to share with us.

One of the things that Jesus tells us in this parable is that there is no distance so far; no sin so great; no betrayal so foul that God is not still waiting,  looking, longing to see us coming a long way down the road....and to run out to meet us.

Jesus tells us that if we want to know what God is like; look at the face of the father, robe lifted, running down the road (something no self respecting potentate would ever do), throwing dignity to the winds to throw his arms around his son.

This Thanksgiving many of us will return home to our own version of this parable.  We will go to fractured families where the conflicts between siblings go back for years-perhaps decades.  What would happen if we let this parable guide us?  What if those of us who are parents chose to imitate the father in this parable; welcoming home the child who has caused us the most pain, with love and celebration.  How might living out this parable change our lives?

Finally, how might looking at Advent, the preparation for the coming of Christ, through the lens of this parable change the way in which we prepare for and experience this season?

The love of the father calls each of us as God's children to respond to one another-whether we are the sibling who betrayed and deserted family and community, or the sibling who stayed and worked and tried to be good-with love and compassion....a response rooted in our awareness that we are all loved, all being redeemed, all being made whole.

Take the time to read the parable again.  Think about how it is your story.  Let it shape your Thanksgiving, your Advent, your life.  Here the Good News.
And Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Thinking About Luke-Part 1

On December 2 we will begin the season of Advent and the new lectionary year which, for those of you interested in these things, is Year C.  This means we'll be moving from a focus on the Gospel According to Mark to the Gospel According to Luke.

I sometimes think that we 'bust in' on Advent in the middle of the holiday season, and we're so caught up in the Advent/Christmas stuff-not to mention the life that includes shopping and cooking, and planning for parties and out of town guests-that we don't stop to look at the way that the year's Gospel writer approaches what Jesus' coming means, what His living means.  From what 'angle' or perspective did the writer look at the Jesus tradition, and to whom was he trying share it?

Over this past year as I've been studying and preaching from Mark, I've developed a new and strong appreciation for this writer.  He wrote what was the first Gospel; he didn't pull any punches about the disciples and their difficulties understanding what Jesus was up to; and he reminded us over and over that Jesus is calling us to do something-that faith isn't just about some cognative belief system.  He wrote this to an economically disadvantaged, struggling early Church.  If I were to gather all of my study into a single theme it might be: "In Jesus the power of God has been turned loose in the world. You may not understand it all, but follow on the Way anyhow."

Now we move to Luke, and the way Luke tells the good news is different.  Luke's perspective is different.  It's not that he disagrees with Mark; in fact Luke apparently drew a great deal of what he know from Mark.  The rest comes from a collection of Jesus' sayings (sometimes called "Q"), and Luke's on gathering of the oral and written traditions about Jesus that were making the rounds at the time.  He apparently spent a great deal of time talking to eye witnesses as well.  Luke is obviously in love with the story of Jesus; he spent such energy chasing it down.

Some other things are worth noting.  They will help us understand this Gospel better.  Luke also wrote the book of Acts, which means that he wrote 1/3 of the material in the New Testament.  Luke was a gentile; this means that he is the only non-Jew to have written an account of the Gospel.  He may have been (this is debated, but I won't go into all the argument here) a doctor-he certainly has an eye for medical conditions and language.  Building on that, Luke may also have been a slave.  Many of the most respected Roman doctors were slaves; Augustus's personal physician was a freedman (former slave) named Anonius Musa; the Romans promoted the idea of recruiting doctors from the slave community until the end of the first century when the emperor Domitian issued a decree forbidding any more slaves to study medicine-presumably because the profession was becoming overloaded with slave doctors.  This possibility would shed great light on Luke's concern for the marginalized and his focus on how Jesus related to those who were outside the circle of acceptability.

Continuing to build on the stuff above; when Luke writes about the genealogy of Jesus, he goes all the way back to Adam.  For Luke, Jesus is the savior who comes for all humankind-none are left out, none are ignored.

Finally, in Luke's Gospel, Jesus is experienced as eating and drinking with folks....this is God come to fellowship with humankind.  There is an intimacy here in the experience that does not happen in any other Gospel.  And it is an intimacy undeserved and un-looked for.  Micheal Card, one of the commentators I've been reading, goes back to the Old Testament word hesed to describe this.  God uses this word to talk about God's Self again and again in the Old Testament.  Card says that the best translation of this word that he has found is "When the  person from whom I hae a right to expect nothing gives me everything."

This is Luke's good news.  The One from whom we have a right to expect nothing, has come to fellowship with us in Jesus and to liberate us from everything that marginalizes us or seperates us from God and one another.  Over and over; in story and parable, teachings and sayings Luke will drive this point home.

Listen to the Advent scriptures thru this lens, this filter, and see what happens to the way you hear.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Taking Risks

The election is over.  But, as the pundits are reminding us, the balance of power is pretty much the same as it was before we went to the polls.  And the tasks ahead are truly monsterous.  No....this is not going to be a blog about the election; what I hope it, and this Sunday's sermon, are going to be about is about our responses in the face of what appear to be overwhelming obstacles.

The scriptures for this coming Sunday are Mark 12:38-44 and 1 Kings 17:8-16.

The story from mark is one that many of us grew up hearing in Sunday School: the story of "The Widow's Mite."  I remember the picture in my Sunday School classroom of this little old woman, bent with age, dropping her two small coins into the wooden treasury box in the Temple.  Jesus, we're told, said that, "she gave the most of all because she gave out of her poverty everything she had; while the others gave out of their abundance."

Now there are many commentators who would point to the picture of this woman giving her last two coins, and Jesus' scathing denouncement of those who "devour widow's houses and for the sake of apperarance say long prayers" (v.40), and say that this story is a condemnation of a social system that left widows marginalized and forbidden to manage their own affairs (thus allowing their homes and belongings to be devoured).  I don't disagree with them.  I think this story IS that....but I don't think that's all it is.  At one level it is a judgement story about any economic system (one in this case supported by religious rules and an ecclesiastical system) that drains the life out of the poor.  And we need to hear it as a judgement about our own economic system and our personal economic behavior to the extent that they victimize (a sin of commission) or ignore the needs of (a sin of omission) the vulnerable and the marginalized in our American society.  So in this sense, it is a judgement story for all of us.

But, at another level, it is also a story about courage, faith, and taking risks.  Most of us know some version of this widow.  She may have next to nothing; but she'll drop what she has into the offering for victims of Sandy.  Maybe she's often been duped by televangelists....but the sin is theirs....for she genuinely wants to see the hungry fed and the Good News preached.  And she has faith.  Think about the kind of faith it takes to drop your last pennies into the box.  I'm not talking about faith in a reward...this isn't about manipulating God into making you rich by give your last money.  In fact, we're told nothing about what happened to this woman afterward.  What did she do?  Did she starve?  Reward is not the point of this story.

Then there is the story of the Widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings.  She's literally getting ready to cook the last bit of meal she has, feed herself and her son, then figures that they will die of starvation.  Elijah....in what I've always thought was a HUGE bit of hutzpah, says, "first make me a little cake"...now mind you, he first says, "don't be afraid"...but still.  And what is amazing is she does!
In the middle of her desperation, she takes the risk.

My point is this: many of us often feel small, at the end of our rope, like nothing we can do will make any difference.  We look at ourselves and we think, 'there is absolutely nothing I can do that will make a difference.'  These passages challenge us to take a second look; to take a risk; to move out in faith that our efforts-no matter how small we think they are-will make a difference.  They also challenge us to remember who we're taking the risk for.....it is not for the Powers That Be, for the political structures or the religious ones, it is not even for ourselves (though there is a way in which we will benefit)......we take these risks in loving response to the God who has called us....regardless of how small we may feel...to be partners in the New Creation.