Monday, November 23, 2015

Praying the Vision

2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

In high school, a friend lent me Douglas Adams’ classic novel, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and I discovered the science fiction and fantasy genre. Until that time, I hadn’t realized that there was a whole section of the library and bookstore dedicated to stories about the far distant future - to spaceflight and sentient computers - and to magic. 
I found a whole new world of wonder, and I fell in love.

It was only recently, though, that I realized just why I keep reading science fiction - and other speculative or alternate reality novels. It’s because to writing or reading about an interplanetary future, or a world of magic, demands that the author and the reader have an optimistic view of humanity. 
To write about spaceflight - even space battles - in the 23rd century, you have to believe that humanity is going to get that far. To write and read about magic and benevolent dragons, you have to invest in a sense of wonder and possibility. You have to invest in the adaptability and potential of the human race.
Sure, there are some dsytopian sci-fi and fantasy novels, where the alternate or future world is miserable. But I find that they, too, contain the seeds of this human optimism and hope: the subtle, fierce belief that compassion and connection can make a difference even when the worst is happening.

Science fiction and fantasy stories - whether in novels or on the screen - help us to think about the world as it might be, about humanity as we could be, 
to stir us up from being resigned to things as they are.

And today, the church does that, too. Today the church imagines an alternate reality, a future, how the world will be, someday, when Christ is King, and we and all creation are truly governed by God.

We read David’s vision of a world where ungodliness self destructs at a touch, so different from our world - and David’s world - of messy moral conflicts, imperfect choices and shades of gray.
The conversation between Jesus and Pilate that we overhear reminds us of how hard it is to imagine our real familiar world governed by truth instead of self interest.

And the church focuses our prayer and attention today on the vision of Christ returning: stunningly, gloriously, unmistakably, to judge and rule the world, personally and directly
without the familiar intermediaries of religion and nations and systems of law and compromise.
It’s a vision that insists on the redeemability of our common, messy, guilty humanity.

Today, the church practices the same imagination as my favorite fiction genre, investing ourselves in a future that won’t look like what we already know.

We do this because what we believe about the future profoundly affects how we live and act here and now.
When we celebrate the unpredictable future coming of Christ as King, we practice dreaming of a world as it should be, and teach ourselves to live so that we’ll fit in to that different world, and prepare for it to transform our own familiar homes and lives.
The church puts this vision on the calendar once a year, but we pray the vision of God’s kingdom and God’s power and glory every single week. Many of us pray it every single day, or more often. In fact, you probably know this vision by heart:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, 
thy will be done, 
on earth as it is in heaven.
That’s us praying for the reign of God, for Christ as king, on earth, in our world, here and now.

Give us this day our daily bread,
we pray that God, that Christ the ruler, will distribute the resources of the world according to needs, not self-interest, or wants, or riches.

and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,
we pray for our hearts to be open and generous and freed, to know the incredible release of being forgiven, now, already, the way we want to be when Christ as King judges our actions and intentions and life.

Lead us not into temptation - save us from the time of trial - deliver us from evil,
we pray for protection, for God the ruler, for Christ the King, to do what we ask any government to do:  protect us from the moral murk of temptation and the vivid danger of enemies and evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,  forever and ever,
we pray ourselves into proclaiming our commitment to God’s real, present authority and power 
in the future and here and now.

When we truly believe;
when we enter into the story, when we trust the holy imagination of the church and the scriptures and get swept up in the potential and promise,
when we truly believe,
we make that future real by our own actions.
The flip phone — the must-have communications device before the iPhone — became real because Star Trek’s designers created entirely fictional flip-open instant communicators for a short-run TV show 30 years earlier.
We still don’t have flying cars, but do we have the Jetsons’ video chat and self-propelled cleaning robots as everyday conveniences.

Because when we read ourselves in to the story, when we trust the vision
we risk change, venture into new territory,
and see ourselves differently where we already are.
Imagine how that might work with the story we pray.

What if radical forgiveness were as common as mobile phones,
and what if it were as natural as touch screens?

What if living the simplicity of need defined by “daily bread” was as automatic as running a Roomba?

What if our confidence in God’s governance, and power, and glory were so great that we could easily believe that ALL God’s people - of any faith and nation - were our fellow citizens in the kingdom of God?

What if we trusted our prayer for protection enough to spend the $3 to 5 billion dollars projected for the 2016 presidential campaign on creating havens of deep human connection in the midst of our hectic, divided world?

When we trust the vision of Christ the King and allow it to guide our imagination, it will shape what we choose to use and invent and do and share, and that will make a world in which God’s kingdom comes closer and closer.

And so, today, this week,  I invite you to pray that vision and let it guide your imagination, your life.

With each news story you hear or read or watch, pray the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer.
With every facebook post of joys or complaints, with every email filled with new tasks, pray the vision of the kingdom of God.
When you do the mundane tasks of daily life, when you buy groceries, pay the bills, make the dinner, pray yourself into the story of God’s glory and power.
When you relax: when you read, when you watch TV or movies, when you play, 
pray those words that shape the future, 
because each time, you give yourself another chance, and another, 
to believe, to make it real.

Today, this week, I invite you to enter into the kingdom of God the way you enter a beloved story, to come home to that vision, and believe in its joyful, grace-filled ever-after.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Red Cups, Falling Stones

Mark 13:1-8

You know that Christianity is under attack, right?
If you didn’t know it before this week, you found out about it when Starbucks released their “holiday season” cups - you know, the red ones without pictures of reindeer and snowflakes
and trees and other, um, holy symbols?

I spent three days this week at a conference on vitality in the Episcopal Church, at a retreat center in New Mexico without radio or TV or a lot of time to check the internet, so I had no idea what was going on with the Illinois budget or the never-ending presidential campaign,
but I did hear about The Cups.

So I figure that you, too, must have seen something about this latest evidence that public religion is falling apart, and that the proud symbols of celebration no longer stand in public view.

Perhaps you laughed, like I did.
Perhaps you recognized the anxiety, even if you didn’t share it:
“Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus says to the disciple admiring the strength and beauty of the Temple, admiring the visible symbol of Jerusalem’s status as the home of God on earth.
“See these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be demolished.”

And by the time Mark’s story of Jesus got into wide circulation, everyone who happened to visit Jerusalem could see just how true that destruction was. The Temple the disciple so admired in the early 30s was destroyed by fire in the 70s when Roman forces destroyed Jerusalem to put down a Zealot rebellion. 

It’s a fearful thing when your spiritual base is attacked or destroyed.
It’s painful and chaotic, it induces panic, and it’s easy - very, very easy - to be led astray as you wonder who you can trust anymore, even God.

It’s like that in Paris, this weekend,
though those attacks - like the one on the Temple thousands of years ago - are more political and cultural than spiritual.
It’s happening in Beirut, too, and across the world right now.
But hearing and seeing it in our news, fearing for friends and places we love, makes the horror and chaos real and visceral to us, as we pray for those in the midst of it, and look to our leaders for answers, and planning - for prevention and ways to just make it stop.

That’s not far from how Jesus’ disciples must have felt when he told them that the Temple — the house of God, the necessary, active, constant spiritual center of their faith, their history as God’s people — was about to be destroyed. 

They press him for more information, for a clearer prediction of timeline and warning signs, for a way to prepare for the loss of their spiritual home. And Jesus won’t give them a date, or a warning system.
All Jesus gives them is more chaos:
wars and rumors of wars, international conflict, natural disaster, famine, 
false prophets in abundance,
and that’s only the beginning.

Christianity has been under attack, it turns out, since before Christianity even existed.

I laugh about the Starbucks cups, and the “war on Christmas,” and the other ways that some pastors and politicians and folks on the internet get offended or threatened by the world we live in. But there are a lot of real forms of chaos and disruption around us, and there’s also a new report out from the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study that shows - yet again - that the structures of religion in the US are coming apart, a little at a time, but steadily.

A majority of Americans believe in God, but fewer of us identify with a particular religion, fewer still are going to church regularly. 
The stones are slipping a bit, the structure of the church as a spiritual home, as a public symbol and necessary base for our faith, is coming apart, and people are predicting the end of organized religion.

And if you ask Jesus - or most contemporary religious experts - to tell you when will this be, how to prepare, you’re just going to get more chaos.
There is no time, there is no certainty, there is no actual way to prepare.
And the process of losing our spiritual home, the visible assurance of God’s presence and approval, is going to be full of conflict and chaos and false prophets.
That stinks.

This news also made it to the surface of that conference I was at.  The Pew study was quoted, and we talked about the challenges of knowing whether our church and our religious practice matter, if we’re making a difference, when Sunday attendance is lower (not just in a survey, but in our own actual congregations) and no one outside the church seems to care what the church thinks or does.

Can we still matter, can our faith be vital, and strong, and transformative,
if the structures are falling apart?

Well, yes, of course.
At the conference, we told stories about transformation and spirit-filled lives:
stories from Calvary, from congregations around the country,
stories where the light and power of God shine through, and clearly matter.

There are stories like that coming out of Paris, 
and even out of Starbucks, too.

But the stories don't keep the Temple standing, or the budget balanced, or change the real and clear trends in the culture around us.
So we still have to wrestle with the challenge that upset the disciples: the prediction that someday, the structures of our faith will crumble, and we’ll lose that home base that makes it normal and respectable to practice our religion.

And it’s painful, even if we already know that the fall of the Temple can't destroy our faith.
Jesus doesn’t pull any punches about that when he tells his disciples about the chaos that they're headed toward.
He tells them that global conflict and disaster are “only the beginning of the birth pangs.”

It’s the end of the world as we know it, sure enough, but this end is only the beginning — the beginning of the painful, irresistible convulsion that brings new life.
Resurrection needs death - something the anxious disciples have yet to learn, and something that takes learning over and over again for them, and for us.

When the disciples ask him for the when and the how, the things you’d need to know to either prevent the calamity or prepare for it, the first and primary thing Jesus tells them is “Do not be led astray.”

Don’t let what happens to the Temple, to the church, to the spiritual base that we want to trust, — or even to the world around us — don’t let any of that fool us into believing that this is the end.

Because in fact, it’s the beginning of the messy, painful, life-giving process of birth; the process which ejects us from the trustworthy, safe, and familiar place that has nurtured our becoming and growth, into a life of both potential and risk beyond imagination.

I suspect the church as you and I know it, the cultural prevalence of Christian holidays, Sunday worship, church buildings and congregations, will still be around for my lifetime, and most of yours.
But I think that we will also see it crumbling, and have to turn to Jesus with our questions about when and how and what will we do.

And we’ll get the same answer the disciples got about the Temple: that chaos and change and shock are just the beginning, the beginning of the painful, messy, transformative and life-giving process of birth, and we’d better not let any of that fool us into thinking that this is the end
of the world, or of faith, or of God’s presence with us.

I suspect that the church as you and I know it will come apart,
some day or some how,
and that new life beyond our imagination will be born from the mess and the change.

Next year, Starbucks cups will be different again.
Throughout the year Calvary and other churches will have new numbers to worry about and new stories to inspire us,
wars and attacks and rumors of wars will fill our newscasts,
and Jesus will warn us about all of this again, and again.
And we’ll need the reminder.

We will always need Jesus’ call to stay faithful, and expectant, and full of good news,
because this is just the beginning.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Widow's Challenge

Mark 12:38-44

It’s like they knew, somehow, that you’ve just gotten your Calvary pledge mailing last week.
Because Mark and the lectionary committee have given us a front row seat today to the pledge drive at the Temple in Jerusalem.

So you and I sit with Jesus, watching an offertory procession - one where you can tell how much money each individual is donating. And plenty of rich folks show up and give impressive amounts. It’s a show of generosity and honor and faithfulness, and it’s holy, since these offerings are meant to care for the neediest and loneliest of God’s people as well as to support the religious work of the Temple and the priests.

And in the middle of that procession of big donors comes a widow.
She doesn’t fit - you can tell just by looking that she is poor - and her contribution is visibly meager. 
Two cents.

We don’t know if she was embarrassed, or proud, well-known in the community or an anonymous stranger.  But she makes her tiny contribution visibly, 
and Jesus sees a little more.
He points out to his disciples - to you and me - that those two cents were her entire living. That “out of her poverty” she gave all she had to the Temple.

Now, if this inspires you to give dramatically to Calvary when we send you a pledge card, fantastic. 
Thank you.
Seriously. Because I do want you to give to Calvary, out of your abundance or out of your poverty or out of your checkbook or your wallet or whatever.

I want you to give to Calvary because I give to Calvary and I find it a valuable practice.
I give because giving money helps me to invest my heart, and because I believe that we do good work in caring for others, creating accepting, inclusive space to pray and grow together, and I believe that that work makes this world a better place, closer to the kingdom of God.

But I don’t think our pledge drive was what Jesus had in mind when he drew our attention to the widow’s giving. Yes, it’s a model of sacrificial giving that foreshadows Jesus’ giving his entire living for us, one it’s very worth while to appreciate and emulate in our lives, but I don’t really think Jesus was saying that this is how you are supposed to plan your financial giving to the church.

He’s got bigger things in mind for our lives,
and he’s got bigger things in mind for the church.

Anyone who was listening just a bit earlier, when Jesus condemned the Temple scribes for “devouring widow’s houses,” would probably hear the news that the widow gave her very last coins as condemnation of a system so screwed up that it robs the people it’s supposed to support of all they have to live on.

This woman is giving her all to a flawed system, run by people who fool themselves into thinking it’s okay to disregard and exploit the vulnerable - because the widows ‘ought to be taking care of themselves,’or aren’t smart enough to handle their own money - or whatever it is that everyone around them casually believes.

That happens around us, too. Listening to Jesus, watching the widow, I was reminded that my friend Jim Naughton tweeted recently that 
“Stewardship season [means] #Episcopal churches telling people whose real wages haven’t risen for decades to embrace ‘theology of abundance.’”
He was challenging the rhetoric and habits that a lot of churches have around annual giving. And when I asked Jim about it, he said that preaching “abundance” seems wrong in churches and communities that aren’t working to make that abundance real in the economic world we live in, not just the spiritual world; aren’t working to change the wealth inequality that ties up the abundance of God’s gifts in the hands of a few, and creates sharp divides in generosity and trust.

I think he’s on to something that Jesus is pointing out when the widow gives her mite. You can’t focus on abundance inside the Temple without caring about abundance outside.

Jesus wants us to notice the context, to understand that the widow’s generosity challenges the greed of the scribes, and their honor in the marketplace, and wonder what that looks like in the world around us.

Jesus wants us to pay attention to whether the systems we set up to care for those in need really work, wants us to watch out for hypocrisy when we - or our leaders - are tempted to disregard or disrespect the vulnerable, or praise and protect those who are already wealthy and secure.
Jesus wants us to hold ourselves and our faith accountable,
and make that awareness a part of our own generosity.

Perhaps that’s what the widow was doing, with her noticeably tiny gift. Or perhaps she wasn’t thinking about any of that, but I am sure that the gift must have mattered greatly to her because - as Jesus points out - she gave 100 percent. All she had.

And I suspect that there is something that matters that much to you, too.
What inspires you to give 100 percent?
What demands your whole heart, your whole self?
Where do you willingly give your all; not holding anything in reserve,
risking everything?

For some, it may be in your family, with your children, in your marriage.
It might also be a sports field, an art form, or a part of your work that completely engages you and feels worth doing whether you’re paid or not.

I hope there is something in your life that does receive your everything, your 100 percent, your all. Because giving of your God-given self to an ideal or cause or art or person is a more essential practice of stewardship than planning your financial contributions.

Of course, Calvary needs you to do both.
We run a better church when we trust in each other’s financial commitments, but we are a better church, a better Body of Christ, when we take care with the stewardship of our hearts and souls, when we seek God in the ways that we give our whole selves  to work or to play or to relationships in the here and now of daily life.

And the practice of generosity in the giving of ourselves will help us receive the widow’s gifts:
receive a drop in the bucket,
receive a challenge to our assumptions and expectations or indifference,
receive a whole life, given without reservation.

So while we watch the widow give her two cents, and give her all, while we write our financial commitments for the year to come, maybe we should also pledge to God and God’s church that we will give 100%, give your whole self, risking it all,
to your family,
to healing,
to feeding people - at a food bank or in the art of cooking -
to your art, to beauty in the world,
to keeping love fresh and vivid — 
whatever or wherever your whole self is needed.

Pledge that to the church, along with your money, because that, even more, is what you give to the church’s ministry and to God’s mission on earth, and because that pledge will help us receive the widow’s gifts, when she challenges us to make abundance real outside our walls, to receive her gift, and pass it on.