Sunday, November 22, 2015

God Wins: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 - Christ the King Sunday

In Prayer by Brett Davis.  Creative commons image on flickr
  9 As I watched,
   thrones were set in place,
     and an Ancient One took his throne,
   his clothing was white as snow,
     and the hair of his head like pure wool;
   his throne was fiery flames,
     and its wheels were burning fire.
  10 A stream of fire issued
     and flowed out from his presence.
   A thousand thousands served him,
     and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
   The court sat in judgment,
     and the books were opened.
13 As I watched in the night visions,
   I saw one like a human being
     coming with the clouds of heaven.
   And he came to the Ancient One
     and was presented before him.
  14 To him was given dominion
     and glory and kingship,
   that all peoples, nations, and languages
     should serve him.
   His dominion is an everlasting dominion
     that shall not pass away,
   and his kingship is one
     that shall never be destroyed.
They saw their homes burned, their property confiscated, and their loved ones tortured and slain.  Their houses of worship were defiled and their faith outlawed under penalty of death.  Those who could flee did so; those who could not were persecuted and enslaved.

I’m describing the plight of the Jews in the year 167 B.C.E. at the hands of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Dynasty, a successor regime to the Empire of Alexander the Great.  The Old Testament book of Daniel was written during this time…

But I could also be describing the plight of early Christians, particularly the seven churches in Asia Minor for whom the Book of Revelation was written. 

"Antiokhos IV" by Jniemenmaa (talk) 08:46, 20 July 2009 (UTC), own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
I could be describing the plight of Jews at the hands of the Nazis in Europe, or the present plight of Christians, Jews, and Muslims at the hands of militant groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram.  History has a tragic way of repeating itself…

To truly understand what God is speaking through today’s Scriptures, we must imagine ourselves as these innocent people (if we can).  At the same time, we’re called to a humble gratitude for the relative comfort, security, and prosperity we enjoy as Americans—because life could not have been more different for those to whom the Book of Daniel was written. 

Suddenly, the Jews found themselves the target of state-sponsored persecution, enslavement, and murder at the behest of Antiochus Epiphanies.  He went as far as to erect a shrine to Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple.  For the Jews, it was as though God was dead and all the armies of hell were unleashed against them. 

This is terror—just as it exists in our world.

But today, God’s Word is a reality check to evildoers and their victims: Their days are numbered…

The glories enjoyed by those who wield power through violence and terror will soon fade.  Daniel speaks of an “Ancient One” who will pronounce a fiery judgment against the evil empires and their subjects.  All power and authority shall be given to a new ruler who will reign with peace and justice.  Though that day is a long way off, one thing is clear: terror and evil have a definite end. 

In the meantime, Jesus is in the midst of the pain.  The cross is proof positive of this—Jesus suffered and died by the worst evil that humanity could dish out.  All the while, he cried out “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…”  So when it’s us, suffering evil—Jesus is suffering with us.  Conversely, when we’re the ones committing evil, Jesus is crying out for God to forgive us.  Either way, God always has the last word. 

For thousands of years, the evildoers have tried to destroy God’s people, just as they crucified Jesus.  They all fail—because these monstrous evils are not part of God’s plan.  God’s plan is life.  Our lives and loved ones, property and possessions can all be taken away from us; our arms and legs may be in chains—but we are God’s.  And we are loved. 

Even as we face the threats of terror and death every single day, we still can rest secure…  Security comes in believing that we have been baptized with Jesus into death, thereby we are baptized into his resurrection.  God wins.

God wins as when we enter into a daily communion of worship, thanksgiving, and prayer—confident that we can approach the throne of grace in every time of need.  God wins when we live as witnesses—seizing every opportunity to do good to each other; praying for and with each other; and encouraging one another’s faith.  God wins as we strangers to share in our belonging.  God wins when we meet real needs.  God wins as we forgive sins.  And even if we die, God wins—as we enter into life beyond death. 

As I said before, it’s a scary time to be a Christian.  It’s a scary time to be a human being.  Terror is hell and so is the war we’re trying to wage against it.  But terror’s greatest threat isn’t to our bodies, but to our humanity.  Fear can easily erase all compassion, patience, and forgiveness.  In the fight for survival, good people can become every bit as evil as the terrorists.

Terror is equally threatening to our faith—because it’s never easy to trust an invisible God in the face of visible evil. 

But faith that anticipates God’s victory receives God’s victory.  God wins because goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; peace is stronger than war; faith is stronger than terror.  This is God’s world; we are God’s people; life and love is God’s will.  God wins.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Stronger Than Stone: Mark 13:1-8 - Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Prayer in Crack of the Wailing Wall by Janine on flickr
1 As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (NRSV)
Earlier this week, millions of Christians around the country were seeing red…

The global coffee chain Starbucks unveiled its “holiday” paper cup design: plain red.  In years past, the cups have been illustrated with Christmas tree branches, snowflakes, and ice-skaters.  But not this year…

One internet evangelist posted a video on Facebook accusing the coffee giant of “taking Christ and Christmas off of their cups,” because “they hate Jesus.”

This worried me, because we just ordered new paper cups for our church—and we love Jesus, but he’s not on the cups!  [I should point out that baby Jesus never appeared on Starbucks’ cups to begin with.]

Jesus may be “the reason for the season,” but any more, Christmas in America isn’t really about Jesus. 

This is happening as part of the larger decline of the institutional Church in this country that we see in the decline of church attendance and the closing of congregations.  Sunday isn’t the day of rest it used to be.  The Church no longer has the moral control of society it once did.  The future has never been more uncertain for our congregation or for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Juan R. Cuadra - Own work on Wikipedia Commons
But this pales in comparison to the crisis on the horizon for Christians and Jews in Jesus’ day.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are departing the magnificent Jerusalem Temple, built by Herod the Great.  Its gargantuan size was matched only by the fact that much of it was covered in pure gold.  Surely, Jesus caught his disciples off guard when he told them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

But this isn’t the worst of it…  Jesus warns his disciples of false Messiahs, wars, earthquakes, and famines. 

As history would have it, the Roman Emperor Nero destroys Temple forty years later.  It won’t be long before major persecutions break out against Christians. 

Make no mistake—Jesus is building his Church during the worst possible time.  It’s going to be hell to be a Christian.  But, by the grace of God, the Church prevails.  The martyrs prevail.  Not even the Roman Empire can stand against the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.  In our world today, the Church is flourishing in parts of the world where Christianity is illegal and persecutions are widespread.  The Church is flourishing amid famines and violence.

So why is the Church declining in a wealthy country of religious liberty where we remain the cultural majority?

My take on it is this: The Kingdom of God will always triumph over every foe, except for the Church…  If the American Church is going to crumble and decline, it’s going to be because of our own complacency.  This will happen when we let our Bibles get dusty and start listening to false teachers, whose teachings have nothing to do with the gospel of the crucified and living Christ; when other stuff begins to take priority over serving our neighbors in need.  The Church will crumble as we give up meeting together, and stop teaching the faith to our children.  The Church will crumble as individuals and factions battle it out for authority and control; as we sink more time and energy into maintaining the status quo rather than doing ministry.

If there’s anything to be learned from the destruction of the Temple, it is this: Jesus does not build his Church with stones.  He builds it with people. The Kingdom of God is built upon relationships of mutual belonging to Christ and to each other.  It rises as the Holy Spirit calls and gathers us
·         To worship and praise
·         To pray with and pray for
·         To teach the Christian faith to our children and to each other
·         To encourage and embrace the poor
·         To meet real needs
·         To work for peace and justice in all the world

It’s a difficult time to be a Christian.  It’s a difficult time to be a human being, especially as nations rise against nations; where there are earthquakes and famines.  Jesus said these are the beginning of birth pangs. 

What is being born to us is new life.  The proof is in the pudding—that the Body of Christ is flourishing in the places, among the people where you’d least expect it.  The Holy Spirit rests upon us to deliver us in all our trials and give us the power to make a difference.  Even if our congregations and our very lives crumble to pieces, Jesus will still be here. 

Today is the day to hold fast to these promises; to be bold in approaching the throne of grace; to be courageous in proclaiming our faith. 

Together, in Christ, we are stronger than stone.  Very truly I tell you, an army of devils cannot tear down what Christ builds up. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Poverty Matters: Mark 12:38-44 - Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Old Widow by PREM KUMAR MARNI.  Creative Commons image on flickr
38 As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (NRSV)
I wasn’t in history class that I first learned about the Great Depression...  I learned about it from my grandparents who lived it.

My grandmother on my mother’s side grew up in a small coal mining town called Crucible.

Her father was a coal miner—and in those days, the mining company was your whole world.  They owned the house you lived in and the stores you shopped in...  The miner and his family, on the other hand, owned practically nothing.  And the wages were anything but fair.  A miner was paid based upon the amount of coal he dug out of the ground—and if he didn’t mine enough, he would be in debt to the mining company for the cost of the oil for his miner’s hat light.

He was never without work during the Depression—but one day, the family was down to its last dime...  With that, he purchased a can of baked beans from the company store.  That was their dinner—and they ate with no promise that there would be food on the table tomorrow...

I’ve never had an experience like this—so it’s hard for me to fully understand the plight of the widow at the temple…

Jesus is seated in the temple with his disciples, opposite the treasury.  Many rich people make extravagant contributions.  Then a poor widow comes along who gives two small copper coins.  In today’s money, it would amount to about a dollar or maybe two. 

Jesus makes a very simple analysis of the situation: the wealthy give of their abundance; the widow gives of her poverty—which amounts to everything she had.  Her whole life…

There’s so much tragedy in this short story…  In Jesus’ day, if you were a widow, you didn’t have your husband to provide for you.  Most widows were forced into a beggars’ existence.  But before she comes along, Jesus condemns the religious leaders at the temple, who wear extravagant clothes, demand peoples’ honor, and show off their religiousness for everyone to see.  As teachers and experts in the Law of Moses, they surely had read the numerous passages from Deuteronomy in which God commands that widows, orphans, and foreigners be looked after and provided with the necessities of life that they cannot obtain for themselves.  In reality, they were devouring widows’ houses, instead of building them up…

Sadly, poverty in today’s world bears a stark resemblance to the widow’s plight.  The statistics spouted off by politicians and charity organizations only begin to tell the story of human suffering that is everywhere present, yet mostly invisible.  Unless you’ve lived it, it’s unimaginable having to live each day with the very real possibility that you could be hungry and out in the street.  Unless you’ve lived it, it’s unimaginable having to choose which of life’s necessities you will do without, because you can’t pay for them.  What makes matters worse is the cruel and dehumanizing perceptions we impose on the poor: that they’re immoral, lazy parasites feeding off of honest, hard-working people… 

At the same time, we fail to recognize what’s true for all of us: that wealth, health, relationships, reputation, and everything else we build our lives upon can disappear in an instant.  There isn’t a single one of us who can claim a righteousness that surpasses everyone else.  We can’t rise above our mortality.  In the end, we’re all beggars before a holy God.

But here is what makes the story of the poor widow good news for everybody: Jesus notices!  Her poverty matters to Jesus—and so does her faith.  She has basically nothing to give, but gives it anyway.  She drops her two copper coins into God’s hands, and with them, her very life.  And God, who raised Jesus from the dead, can take that nothing and create new life.  Her simple gift will forever be a testimony to the faithfulness and mercy of God, especially in the face of overwhelming need.

Jesus challenges us by her faith in three ways:

Without question, the widow is living what is for the rest of us the sum of all our fears.  She is destitute; forced into a beggars’ existence.  We fear poverty perhaps even more than we fear death —and it is this fear that drives so much of our greed, such that we hoard and squander our abundance while others do without.  But we all have to make a choice: do we hold it all back and live in fear?  Or do live in faith, and say “it all belongs to God?” 

We are all one breath away from being destitute—but regardless of if it happens, or we’re already there, our lives matter to God.  Our needs matter to God.  It’s God’s will that your needs be met.  And no matter what, you can never fall out of God’s love and care. 

But as great a promise as this is, it’s just noise unless we put the widow’s generosity into practice.  We must put off all pretense about our strength, ability, and self-sufficiency and own our poverty before God and each other.   We’re all “have-nots” without Jesus.  Yet we have been gathered together into one body to belong to Jesus and to each other.  God’s gifts are present in the time, talents, and treasures in our individual possession.  We can see to it that there is no one in need among us and that no one is forgotten.  Let’s not forget that God’s gifts do include those persons, who on the surface, may have nothing to offer.  They may very well be as angels who build you up in faith and reveal to you the face of Jesus. 

There is no stronger evidence of the presence of Christ when a community like ours embraces with love those who are most helpless.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

From Grief to Resurrection: John 11:32-44 - All Saints Day

Autumn Bench by Steve Dean.  Creative commons image on flickr
32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (NRSV)
My grandmother lives in a house that was built by my great grandfather in 1950.  As a child, I would visit him—and his home was always filled with the combined aroma of coffee and the cigarettes he smoked.

He died twenty-nine years ago—but every now and then, when I visit my grandmother, that familiar aroma will appear for a fraction of an instant—bringing with it a treasure’s trove of memories…

That’s the power of our senses. 

But sometimes, our senses will connect us to more troubling realities …

Today’s Gospel paints a powerful sensory picture of the horrors of death.  There’s Mary’s bitter cries of lament, that if Jesus had come sooner, her brother would not have died.  Jesus himself literally trembles with grief, unable to hold back his weeping for his friends and all the mourners looking on.  There’s the murmuring of the crowds as some doubt and others defend Jesus. 

When they reach the tomb, they’re met with the cold lifelessness of the stone, and the ghastly stench of death.

Most of us have lived what these persons experienced.  Any time when we think of death, we think of at least one person we’ve loved and lost.  There’s the event of death—which may have come in the form of a prolonged illness, a sudden medical emergency, or a tragic accident.  But there’s also the reality of death—which we see in that empty space at our dining table or church pew, or hear in the bitter silence of solitude.  Our hearts and minds ache as we ask what we could’ve done to prevent that death; as we harbor resentment towards persons who could’ve done something but didn’t; as we question why God permitted it to happen… 

You see, death impacts the living every bit as much as the dead.  Our lives are built on the foundation of relationships—and when one of those relationships ends, for any reason, life isn’t the same.  The brokenness that follows in the aftermath is what we call grief.  Grieving is the difficult and lengthy process of becoming whole again, even though life will never be the same again.  Only trouble is, our society has forgotten how to grieve.

Employers rarely grant any kind of bereavement leave that extends past a day or two.  Funerals are occurring less and less often; in part because they’re very expensive; but sometimes because people don’t want them.

Anymore, our culture makes it seem as if it’s wrong to grieve; that grief is for the weak.  We say “God helps those who help themselves,” as if to imply that you should take personal responsibility to get over it; get back to work and get back to life as if nothing happened. 

We get so wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t really care for the grieving.  We may attend a funeral visitation or send a casserole or a sympathy card, which are helpful.  But nothing can replace what Jesus ultimately gives to Lazarus’ grieving family—which, ironically, isn’t resuscitating their dead brother.  Jesus walks with them into the heart of their grief.

That is what we must do when it comes to grief.  We mustn’t deny it or minimize it.  When loss of any kind happens, it impacts all aspects of our being—because you’re not made of stone.  You must face the reality of grief head-on.  And you have to be realistic—because you can never replace the people you’ve lost.  You can’t raise the dead.  The grief will always be there—but it is possible to face it, carry it, and live an abundance of life in spite of it.

Jesus goes into the grief with us.  He knows the pain of losing a loved one—and he knows the pain of losing his own life.  The cross assures us of this.  By faith, we cling to the promise that death will not have the last word.

Yet even though Christ goes with you, you can’t go through grief totally on your own.  How can you know the love of Jesus if there’s no one loving you?  One of our basic responsibilities to each other as a child of God is to bear one another’s burdens.  When it comes to grief, we do this by giving the gift of presence.  This is hard, because we think that to help someone, you have to fix them, which you can do by saying all the right words and doing all the right things.  Truth is, the best thing you can do for someone is just to be there, and perhaps not say a word.  It’s especially helpful to throw away all our culture’s clich├ęs and one liners, like “God needed another angel,” or “she’s in a better place.”  Don’t say “I’ll be there.”  Just be there!

We are, after all, a communion of saints.  We gather to pray, worship, and serve with complete confidence that we do so with Jesus and all who’ve gone before us.  But we gather for the sake of each other as well.  We will all find ourselves in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  But when we go together, we go with confidence that Jesus goes there, too—and that Jesus can create new life in the most desperate times and places.  In the Valley, Jesus will shine the light of resurrection—for even as grief is great, in Christ it’s only temporary.