Sunday, November 13, 2016

The End of the World As We Know It

Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19


It’s the end of the world as we know it.
A man with no political experience, treated as a long shot for his entire campaign, has won the US presidential election. The Cubs have won the World Series. 
This is my last Sunday with you.
In big ways and small, healthy and painful, sublime and ridiculous, things are not the way they used to be, and they won’t be again.

Whoever you voted for, however delighted or devastated you have been this week, however you care or don’t about baseball or pastoral transitions, the end of what we know and have gotten comfortable with is here.
Not the end of the world, period.
But the end of the world as we know it.

This is what Jesus is talking about today, too.
The center of faith and identity will be torn down, unrecognizably destroyed, he tells his disciples. The world will be filled with false prophets, dangerous leaders, wars, riots, revolutions, famine, disease, natural disaster.

That’s worse than anything that’s happening to us, here, today – but it probably resonates for many with some of what we’ve felt recently.
Change brings loss, even when it’s good change.

Some changes bring overwhelming fear.
And those are the kinds Jesus is talking about today.

If they aren’t happening to you now, they will.
Or they have in the past.
Because the world never, actually, stays as we know it.
And right now, my world is changing fast and hard.

I have been heartbroken this week.
In a good way, in a way that speaks of enduring love, as I have said goodbye to many of you.
In a not so good way, as I have struggled with feelings of betrayal and anger, and have shared the fears of friends and colleagues who see their hard-won safety eroding under proposed new policies, or have been harassed or threatened by individuals whose bitterness and intolerance have been released by the election results.
Others are feeling betrayed and angry because their faithful and perhaps difficult vote is being characterized by many as stupidity and thoughtless bigotry.
With the best of intentions, by accident, in love – and in some few cases, on purpose – we are hurting one another.
So my heart keeps breaking, but that’s what it’s supposed to do.

I think that’s what all our hearts are supposed to do when the world we’ve known is ending.
Because protecting ourselves, protecting our hearts from breaking, means withdrawing from our love for one another, for God’s world, and for God.
Protecting our hearts from breaking is what tempts us into pursuing false prophets– the ones who promise cheap safety or triumph without hard, ongoing, open-hearted work – on every part of the social and political spectrum.
Protecting our hearts from breaking is what leads us to build defenses around ourselves so strong that the Holy Spirit has a hard time finding a way in.

Broken hearts hurt.
But letting our hearts break when the world we know is ending – when we are losing a person, a way of life, a trust – letting our hearts break is part of giving ourselves over to love, and staying open to God in the chaos or the loss.

And when we leave our hearts open God rebuilds the world with us.
You heard the promises of the world God plans to build from the prophet Isaiah this morning. Those promises are independent of who the pastor or the president is, how hurt or relieved you feel about either, or which church you go to.

And you heard what Jesus said to his disciples about what to do when the world you know is ending: Testify. 
Keep your heart and your mind open for what God is going to do with you even when you feel upset or threatened, when you are betrayed or endangered, keep yourself open to how God is going to speak through you.
Be witnesses for God’s grace and justice and stand up for the Kingdom of God, even while it feels like it is shattering into a million pieces. 

That's hard to do. And Jesus doesn’t promise it will all be okay.
(Oh, if only he would!)
But his instruction to testify is also a promise – a promise that God will not let us down.
God will not let you go, in the midst of chaos or devastation.  God will be with you, and will speak through you to the world – if we are willing to take the risk of keeping our hearts wide open in the face of danger and loss.

This week, moments of anger and grief, and stories of unleashed aggression and bitter backlash have been accompanied by stories of people acting with love, generosity, hope; caring for one another above and beyond the usual; building connections in ways they couldn’t have imagined before this change in the world we know.
These are the witnesses God needs. 

In every whirlwind of chaos, every end of the world as we know it, the signs of disaster are accompanied by the signs of God’s kingdom breaking through.
And Jesus tells us to be those people. Tells us to be the signs of God's kingdom in the midst of the world's uncertainty, and our own.

So if you are heartbroken or if you are happy about the election results, you are called to testify – to hold the friends you grieve or celebrate with to the standards of human dignity, generosity, and hospitality, to the rejection of evil and the nurturing of the holy.

If you fear for Calvary or if you are full of confidence and trust, you are called to testify to your dreams and hopes, to witness with your ongoing presence here – even when here is not what you want it to be – to show up, to share yourself, and to listen to others, so that the strength of Calvary can be nurtured among you and revealed to the world in service and celebration.

If your world is changing for some other reason – the loss of a job or a loved one, an illness, something unimaginable – you are called to testify, to let God bear witness with your life and words to the eternal promise of love and compassion.

We are called to keep our hearts open to what God may do with us, even in the hardest times and places. To refuse to build the inner walls that protect us, and stay open to how God will preach the gospel with your life – and to how God will reveal that gospel to you in the lives of those who seem so different from you.

So share your dreams, your hopes, your transformations. Testify with word and action to the importance of the promises we make and renew at baptism: to continue to pray and worship and work together, to share good news, to repent and seek reconciliation and renewal, to truly look for Christ in every person, to love and serve both friends and strangers as Christ, and to respect and uphold the dignity of every human being.

Because that call to testify is a promise, to us and to the world, in change and uncertainty and loss, that God will not let us down. That God will never let us go, and will be with us, right through the end of the world as we know it, however long it takes, however often it happens, right through until we build, together with God, the world as God dreams it will be.


Monday, October 31, 2016

Revealed

Luke 19:1-10


This is one of my favorite gospel stories. I love the comic element: I see Zacchaeus as a short little guy in an expensive suit, bobbing along behind the crowd, stretching his neck, trying to peer around and through, and finally giving up, rushing up a tree so that he can actually see this local celebrity coming into town. 

He just wants to get a glimpse of Jesus, the way many of us would with a celebrity. You don’t need a personal relationship, but it would be great to tell your grandkids you were there. You saw him. Maybe got an autograph.

Well, everybody in Jericho is out to see Jesus that day. Some of them probably want to touch him, to be healed, to become famous by association. The crowd is thick.
And now rich, short, Zacchaeus is up in a tree. Near the crowd but not really part of it.

You ever do that?
The center of the action isn’t for everyone. Sometimes you like to be just a little removed from the crowd; from the rough and tumble. You want to vote, but not knock on doors or go to rallies. Enjoy the music, but don’t need the crush and noise of a stadium concert. Love the worship; like your seat two-thirds of the way back; enjoy the sermon, but, you know… don’t want to demand attention up front, or get involved in how the sausage is made.
Anybody here ever feel like that?

I suspect Zacchaeus was feeling like that about seeing Jesus. He’s drawn to this wandering rabbi, this God-touched celebrity, but he’s just staying a bit apart. He’s got his observation post, up in the tree – not among the crowd, but able to enjoy it without getting too involved.

And then Jesus stops.
Looks up, straight at Zacchaeus.
“Hurry and get out of your tree, Zacchaeus. I’m coming to your place for dinner!”

Wait. What?!

I bet Zacchaeus’ heart stops for just a minute.
He wanted to see, but did he want to be seen?
Recognized?
I don’t know. There’s a good chance Zacchaeus didn’t know either.
Is this what he wants?

Well, he doesn’t have a choice now.
Jesus has just inserted himself into his life in a big and intimate and public way.

And now Zacchaeus is out of his tree, standing in front of Jesus, in the center of attention with everyone’s eyes on him. And nobody likes this.

Because Zacchaeus is a tax collector. He’s got one of those jobs that runs against the public good.  Think tobacco company marketer, slum landlord, telemarketing magnate, or subprime mortgage banker. He might be a nice guy, but he works for the bad guys. A little morally suspect if you don’t know him. And probably no one really knows him well.

Until Jesus bursts into his world, demands a personal relationship (how un-Episcopalian), and suddenly Zacchaeus is in the spotlight. And people are complaining that Jesus is going over to the dark side. Or he’s been duped into consorting with the Wrong People.
His reputation is at stake, and everyone’s cranky.

Now Zacchaeus’ character matters. And so – in public, in the presence of God – he confesses. He comes clean. But it’s not the confession anyone is expecting.

“Look,” he says, “I am giving away half of my wealth, and if anyone is injured by me, I pay it all back and more.”
The original Greek suggests that this is something Zacchaeus is in the habit of doing. Our translators see the powerful conversion moment, the encounter with Jesus, and translate it as a promise of new life, but it’s just as possible to read this as a revelation of the deep and long held character of Zacchaeus.

Something he doesn’t talk about, that people don’t know. The kind of care for others that prefers to remain anonymous, apart from the crowd, behind the scenes.
I mean, I want to keep my finances private. It’s between me and God, isn’t it?

But whether Zacchaeus is making a new commitment of life, or a revelation of the private, holy generosity he has practiced for years, it’s real and now it’s public.
It’s out there.
People know. (How un-Episcopalian.)

You know, I don’t talk about my giving habits either.
I bet you don’t, very often.

But here is Zacchaeus, one of my favorite biblical characters, thrust into the spotlight, yanked out of his tree, stuck in the center of attention and confessing his true character.
And maybe we should, too.

Maybe it’s time, after all these years, for me to come out as a tither. To talk about my quiet habit of giving ten percent of my gross annual income to the church, and of giving beyond that to other organizations that matter to me and help make God’s dreams for us real in this world.
And to tell you that I’m not doing this because I’m your priest. But because years and years ago,
someone else told me a story like this, and it moved into my heart and settled in.

It took time to take root; longer to grow. It wasn’t easy or immediate. It took years to build up to the goal, once I set it, of giving a full ten percent, and more.
And I never talked about it.
But on the way, I’ve discovered the truth of another thing Jesus is reported to have said: that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

When we spend real money on something, when we invest, that cause or object or community gets bigger in our attention, in our perception of the world. It happens with our homes, cars, families, friends, hobbies… And let me tell you, investing a noticeable chunk of my income in the church has made me a lot happier, since that money pulls my attention and heart to the quietly life changing work that happens in classrooms and hospital rooms, meetings and study groups, over meals, and by prayer and worship. So the more I gave, the easier it got; and the more I gave, the more I saw God at work not only through the church, but beyond: in the community, in the world.

And I wonder if Zacchaeus found that out, too: that by investing in generosity, his heart and his attention are drawn more deeply to the presence of God in and among us, so that while it’s a shock to have Jesus at his dinner table, it’s not actually a new thing to find God so close to him.

It’s just new and shocking – and transformative for both him and his community – that he confesses his heart, revealing God already at work in unexpected ways, and instead of just seeing Jesus, becomes seen and known as an agent of salvation.

Maybe Zacchaeus’ story will be your story too.
Maybe it already is.
But if it hasn’t happened yet, I suspect it will. Someday Jesus is going to show up in your life, demand to eat at your house, and make your personal relationship with God public, whether you want it or not.

What character will you confess, then, when the spotlight shines suddenly on your relationship with God?
Will Jesus reveal your best self to the world?
What will your best self be?

And shouldn’t you be sharing that now?
Shouldn’t I be sharing that now?

I wonder what will happen if we all give up on the back of the crowd, expose our whole selves to the good and the holy that we are already attracted to, start sitting up front and meeting Jesus’ eyes, risk getting out of the tree and being seen, risk letting God burst in and take over and reveal our lives to ourselves and everyone else.

I don’t know what will happen, but I suspect there’s some glorious generosity hiding among us.
And maybe it’s time to find out. 

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

To Not Lose Heart

Luke 18:1-8


How do you know when you’ve lost heart? When you’ve lost faith?
What do you do differently? Start doing/stop doing?

The most consistent thing I do when I have lost faith, or lost heart – and either don’t realize it or don’t want to admit it – is to start trying to do it all myself.

I’m fortunate that I have several good friends who will listen to me run through an ever-expanding to-do list and gently say, “But isn’t it actually the florist’s job to arrange the flowers?”
or “She’s a very capable person. She can probably do that for herself.”
or “You know, you might leave that one in God’s hands.”

Oh. Yeah. Right.
Prayer. Faith. Trust. Patience.
That’s what the gospel is about today, isn’t it?
Luke tells us that right away: Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

In some city there was a judge who did not fear God or respect anyone. And a widow was in that city, and she kept coming to him and saying “Avenge me against my opponent.” And the judge kept not wanting to do so.
But eventually, he said to himself: “Even though I don’t fear God or respect any human being, she keeps making so much trouble and work for me that I will avenge her, so she won’t come and beat me up.”

Yep.
That’s the story about prayer.
About a judge who is too lazy or indifferent to act, and a woman demanding vengeance or vindication to the point that the judge expects her to beat him up. Literally, “hit me under the eye.”
A story about a person who gets what she wants through bullying, through implied violence; and another who gives in to that pressure for no better reason than a desire to be left alone and not have to bother.

We don’t know the particulars of the case, we don’t know where actual justice lies. Although centuries of commentators and translators have been generous to the woman, casting her as a vulnerable victim begging for justice, the raw vocabulary suggests that what she desires is not the righteous, godly judgement so often referred to in scripture, but vengeance, vindication or punishment. She wants to win, and to see her opponent lose.

Now, that still might be justice you and I would unhesitatingly support and call holy. She might be, for example, a rape victim demanding powerful punishment for her attacker. But she could just as possibly be more like a political candidate demanding an investigation and “consequences” for the “unfair” tactics of opposing politicians or indifferent third parties.

There are no good guys, no hero or heroine, in Jesus’ original story. If anything, this parable is about the opposite of the kingdom of God, about the ways our everyday world betrays our expectations and hopes.
And then there’s Luke, telling us it’s about persistent prayer, about keeping hope and faith alive.

The traditional interpretation, the one that starts cropping up as early as a generation after Jesus first told the story, is that persistence – sticking to what we ask for, even if we don’t seem likely to get it – persistence will wear down imperfect, corrupt fellow humans, so we expect persistence to work on God, too.

But do we really want to apply the lesson that you can bully or exhaust someone into compliance to our relationship with God?
Do you want to think of your prayer life as an effort to wear God down – even if we do it because we know God has already promised to act?

Or perhaps – just perhaps – is the single-minded, repetitive focus of that widow in the story actually what prayer looks like after we have given up?
Is it possible that dogged pursuit of the answer I want is a symptom of having already lost my faith or trust in what God wants?

Is it possible that to pray like that widow – focused on my own agenda, unwilling to let an issue go, repeating my demands to God even about something as obviously right as justice, healing, peace – is the prayer equivalent of my habit of trying to do everything myself because I’ve lost my fundamental hope, my trust in others, my heart’s faith in God, even while my head still insists that this repeated prayer is an act of belief?
It’s possible.
At least it’s possible for me.

And that judge might just be another model of lost heart, or faith, or hope – the model of disconnection. Because connection – respecting others, respecting God, showing up to do the work of relationship – takes ongoing, repeated, trust and hope with our actions, not just our heads.  And when we feel like relationship – with others, with God – is too much work, it’s often because the faith, heart, or hope we need for those actions is already lost.

So if, in fact, this story is a teaching from opposites, a model of the symptoms of lost faith and heart, then what it teaches us about prayer is to keep our conversation and relationship with God open-ended.

To pray, perhaps, by listening for what God might be doing for us when our petitions and intercessions seem to go unanswered.
To ask what work of the kingdom might be happening in the upheaval and distress – even while we keep praying for peace;
ask what unasked miracles might be happening in the illness itself, even while we pray for healing without giving up hope.

Perhaps this story teaches us that not knowing what to pray for – and praying uncertainly anyway – is more faithful and hopeful than knowing what we want and steadfastly praying for that.

To pray with faith, with trust, with hope, probably means letting go – over and over – of the need to work it out myself to get it right, letting go of the need to know the outcome, or the belief that there is always a right answer.

Because God treats us that way:
with faith that doesn’t force us to get it right,
hope that doesn’t need to know the end of the story,
and the trust to accept more than one answer – to our prayers, to God’s own dreams, and to Jesus’ question of whether there will be faith on earth when God comes again, and always.


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