Hope

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 24:36-44

There’s something going on at the house next door to us.  We haven’t seen any sign of the people who live there for almost a month.  No coming and going, no sounds of doors or windows opening or closing.  No voices floating over the backyard wall.  No barking from the dog.  A few weeks ago, the faded old blue minivan that was always—and I mean always—parked at the curb in front of their house…that old van just disappeared and so far it hasn’t been back.  

We didn’t see them move out.  There was never a For Sale sign in their yard.  We haven’t seen the house on any real estate listings.  We just noticed one day that it was empty. 

Then last week a team of painters showed up and began painting the house inside and out. Sometime during the week a bunch of new furniture was moved in.  It all looks new and modern and kind of Scandinavian.  We can see it through the front window because there are no drapes.  But that’s another odd thing…at night, there are no lights on in the house.  Not one.  Last Monday, landscapers showed up and they worked steadily for several days.  They even worked on Thanksgiving day.  They’ve pulled out all the shrubs and plants that had become kind of overgrown, tilled the planter beds, and now they’ve planted a number of rose bushes.  Rose bushes that are blooming.  In November.

So, all in all, it looks like maybe we’re going to have new neighbors.  With all this preparation, it’s obvious that someone is coming.  Probably soon.  To tell you the truth, we’re kind of on pins and needles waiting to see.  

Somebody’s coming.  We just don’t know when.  

We also don’t know who our new neighbors will be.  We don’t know what they’ll be like.  What we do know is that newness is coming.  In some ways it has already begun with the preparation of the house and yards.  So we’re watching to see what happens next with the house next door.

Advent is something like that.  Except the house next door is our house.  Our world.  And we do know who’s coming because he’s been here before.  

This is the season when we get our house in order.  It’s the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ while at the same time we prepare to celebrate the first time Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth.  

Advent is the season when we remind ourselves of the great dream of the prophets during that long wait for the first coming of Christ, the dream of the one who would bring in God’s reign of peace and justice as Isaiah described it:

Out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

                  and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

                  and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

         they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

                  and their spears into pruning hooks;

         nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

                  neither shall they learn war any more.

            O house of Jacob,

                  come, let us walk

                  in the light of the LORD!

Advent is the time when we remember that their hope, that ancient hope, is our hope.  It is a time when we remember that just as Jesus came to teach us the Way of love and truth, the Way of cooperation and companionship, the Way of kindness and justice, he will come again when the time is right to remake and renew the world.  So let us walk in the light of the Lord.  

We don’t know when that will be– the Second Coming of Christ.  The only thing we can know for certain is that each day brings us one day closer.  As St. Paul says, “You know what time it is.  Now is the moment for you to wake up.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  the night is far gone, the day is near.”  I don’t think Paul is telling us to make sure our bags are packed so much as he is saying make sure you don’t miss Jesus when he shows up.

It’s easy for us to get preoccupied with life-as-it-is.  I know it’s easy for me to sometimes be so focused on my own train of thought that I become oblivious to everything going on around me.  I think we can all be that way sometimes.

We’re like the absent-minded professor who became so absorbed in his work that he forgot the simplest details. One morning his wife said, “Now Henry, remember, we are moving today. Here, I’m putting this note in your pocket to remind you. Now don’t forget.”  When the professor came home that evening, he walked in the front door and found the house completely empty. Distraught and disoriented, he walked out to the curb and sat down.  A young boy walked up to him, and he asked him, “Little boy, do you know the people who used to live here?”  The boy replied, “Yes, Dad, Mom told me you’d forget.” 

Advent is a time when we remind each other of the important hope we so easily forget.  I sometimes forget that Jesus has promised to return.  I can go days, weeks, months without ever stopping to remember, “Hey, this might be the day that Jesus comes back!” 

Advent reminds us that Jesus told us to be ready, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  It’s not when you think it will be.  It’s not when you suppose it will be. It’s not when you choose.  So be ready.

It will be a surprise.  “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

This is not the so-called rapture, by the way.  Jesus is not describing people being caught up in the air or even disappearing.  He says that one will be left and one will be taken.  He doesn’t say where one will be taken.  That Greek word for “taken” is paralambanomai.  It doesn’t mean to be lifted up or to meet.  It means “to go along with.”  It’s used in the Transfiguration story when it says that “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John.”

Two will be working in the field; one will go along with Jesus and the other will just keep working.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will keep working and one will go along with Jesus.  It will be like the time Jesus was walking along the seashore and called out to Peter and James and John, “Follow me.”  

Brian Stoffregen wrote, “It isn’t a special word or a magical word about floating up in the air. It is much more like the fishermen or tax collector answering Jesus’ call to follow me – come along with me – let’s walk down the road together.
 
“What are the people doing when this “taking” or “leaving” occurs? They are at their place of employment. They are busy at work. My guess is that the man working in the field is “left”, because he couldn’t leave his important work. My guess is that the woman working in the mill is “left”, because she couldn’t leave her important work.”

Some will go with him because they’re ready.  They been watching.  They’ve been waiting.  They’ve been hoping for his return.  And they’ve been learning to discern all the undercover ways that Christ has been with us all along.  You can look at Matthew 25 for more about that.

Advent is the season of waiting and watching.  And hoping.  We live in the meantime.  We live somewhere between our deep dissatisfaction with the way things are and our hopes for the way things ought to be.  We live in hope that the time is coming when things will be made right.

Advent tells us that that time is coming.  It doesn’t tell us when, it just tells us to keep our eyes open, to watch.  And to hope.  

Newness is coming to the house next door.  Newness is coming to our house.  Newness is coming to the world.  Salvation is nearer to us now that it was when we got up this morning.  So watch.  And hope.  And be ready.  In the meantime, let’s keep walking in the light of the Lord.

Focus

Luke 21:5-19; Malachi 4:1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

The temple in Jerusalem—Herod’s temple—had been under construction for more than 40 years when Jesus sat down in its outer courtyard to speak with his disciples.  Herod had begun constructing the temple in 20 BCE, and it was already regarded as one of the wonders of the world even though it wouldn’t be completed until 63 CE, some thirty years after this teaching moment Jesus has with his disciples.

In order to be able to build the massive temple he envisioned, Herod first had to rebuild Mount Moriah, the low mountain on which the temple stood.  To do this, he encased the mountain with walls more than 33 meters (108 feet) high, then filled in the space with earth until it encompassed an area of more than 144,000 square meters.    

The temple in Jerusalem was a visual wonder.  A description in the Talmud says that  the interior walls of the temple were faced with blue, yellow, and white marble.   Gold spikes lined the parapet wall on the roof.  Josephus wrote that the entire eastern fascia was covered with gold.  “The rays of the early morning sun, striking the Temple façade created a blinding reflection,” he wrote.  “The rest was white, so that this towering edifice looked like a snow-clad mountain from afar.” 

It must have sounded like madness for Jesus to say that it was all coming down—that not one stone would be left upon another.  But by the time Luke wrote his gospel, sometime around the year 85, everything Jesus predicted in today’s gospel reading had already happened.  

In 70 CE, during the first Jewish-Roman war, the Roman general Titus destroyed the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem along with it.  

Six years before that, the emperor Nero had carried out the first official persecutions against Christians, using them as a scapegoat for the burning of Rome in 64 CE.

As for wars and rumors of wars, just between the time when Jesus spoke these words and the time Luke wrote them down, Rome fought the Roman-Parthian War, the Boudica Uprising in Britain, the first Jewish-Roman War, the Spartacus war, the Lepidus versus Sulla Roman Civil War, the Sertorian War and the first of three wars with the Kingdom of Dacia.  

Wars and rumors of wars.  Earthquakes.  The eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Portentous signs in the heavens.  Famines.  Plagues. Persecutions.  All these things happened between the time Jesus spoke those prophetic words and the time Luke wrote them down in his account of the life and teaching of Jesus.   

But the world did not end.

Dositheos the Samaritan, Theudas the Rebel, Simon bar Kokhba and other would-be liberators of Israel gathered followers, led rebellions and claimed to be the Messiah.  They were not.  And now history barely remembers them.

It’s easy to get distracted by apocalyptic thinking and doomsday scenarios.  That’s why books like The Late, Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series have always sold so well.  But Jesus made it pretty clear that we’re not supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about that.  “About that day and hour no one knows,” he said, “—not the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:36)

These lectionary texts that we have for today from Malachi, Second Thessalonians and Luke invite us to focus.  You could say they invite us to focus on what we’re focusing on—on what’s getting our attention.

The gospel lesson for today comes right after the passage where Jesus comments on the poor widow who put her two pennies—all she had–into the temple treasury.  The disciples were busy gazing at the grandeur of the temple and didn’t even see her until Jesus pointed her out to them.  They were focused on the impressive architecture.  Jesus, on the other hand, was focused on the people.  

Are we seeing what Jesus sees…or are we distracted?

It’s understandable that the disciples were captivated by the splendor and beauty of the temple as they sat there with Jesus, but they lost focus on why they had come to Jerusalem in the first place.  Reading the gospel accounts, you have to wonder if they ever really understood why they were there to begin with, although Jesus certainly tried to tell them often enough.  And now, there they were, a day or two away from his crucifixion and they kept getting distracted—first by the beauty of the temple then by speculations about apocalypse.  “When will this be?  Teacher, what will be the secret signs that all this is about to happen?”

To be fair, I know I would have had the same questions.  I suspect you might, too.  Wouldn’t you want to be ready for it?  Even with our long historical perspective that tells us that wars and plagues and famines and earthquakes and false messiahs have been pretty much stock set pieces in the long drama of life on earth—even though all these things have  always been happening—and are happening right now—we would want to know when the grand finale is coming to our neighborhood.   We would want to know when the final curtain for everyone everywhere is coming down.

Because the lectionary cycle repeats, we get this same group of texts every three years.  But even with that repeating cycle, I believe that these texts continue to speak to us in a unique way every time they come up.  They always seem timely—sometimes so much so that it’s uncanny. 

Six years ago we were reading these texts on the first Sunday after the presidential election when Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote but Donald Trump carried the Electoral College.  That was a pretty tense time.  A lot of people were wondering what would happen next.  I thought it was noteworthy that Hillary Clinton even quoted a line from our 2nd Thessalonians in her concession speech: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  

Three years ago these texts came up while we were wading through the first impeachment hearings.  Again, it was a tense time and people wondered if the country’s anxiety might explode into something more than oppositional rhetoric. 

Today we hear these texts right after the most anxious and divisive midterm elections in a long, long time—an election fraught with partisan vitriol and acts of violence.  While the votes are still being counted, many are wondering if our polarized political division in this country can ever be healed.  A lot of people are focused on that.

It’s hard sometimes not to let our focus, our vision, be hijacked by the currents of anger and isolation that have been flooding our lives with such violence. There was another school shooting this week, this time in Seattle.  As of November 11, Veterans Day, there had been 589 mass shootings in the US since the beginning of the year.  A total of 38,431 people have been killed by gun violence so far this year.  That certainly deserves our attention.   

We are still dealing with a pandemic that physically isolated us from each other.  We are still dealing with the fallout from the January 6 assault on the Capitol.

On this Veterans Day weekend it would be irresponsible not to mention the epidemic of veterans committing suicide.  

We have an ongoing addiction crisis.  Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. remain at record levels. According to provisional data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 109,000 people died from drug overdose in the 12-month period ending last March.

Homelessness.  The high cost of housing.  The cost of education.  Racism.  Inflation. Climate change that threatens our very existence… These things all need our attention.

Spouse. Family.  Work.  Church.  School.  Neighbors.  Community Groups.  Meetings. These things are all worthy of our attention.

Netflix.  Apple +.  Disney +.  Prime Video.  HBO.  Showtime.  Cable News.  Sports.  Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. These things are all very good at distracting us when the world just seems to be too much.

So where do you focus?

It’s tempting, very tempting, to just shrug it all off, give up and wait for Jesus to come back and fix everything.  Some Christians have built whole theologies around that.  The writer of 2nd Thessalonians was dealing with that very problem when he said to keep away from “those living in idleness.”  Apparently some people were so convinced that Jesus was coming back at any moment that they just stopped working and were mooching off the rest of the community.  They had lost focus on what Christ had called them to be and to do.

Focus.

Focus on what is helping.  Focus on what is good.  Focus on what is improving.  Focus on what you can be thankful for.  Focus on what is changing.  Focus on what needs to be changed.  But don’t be anxious.  Don’t let it all overwhelm you.  Do what you can where you can when you can.  

Then take a breath.

Take a breath.  And take a long look back.  

Everything changes.  There are only three things that are eternal:  God, Life, and Love.  And life and love are eternal because they come from God. 

The crazy politics, the anger and fear and hate, the anxiety and tension, the stupidity and racism, all the antagonism, all the misunderstandings… will someday all fade into history.

The beautiful temples, the faces that we cherish and hands we hold, our favorite music and art will someday all be lost to the world’s memory.

But God, Life and Love will live on.  And because we are made in God’s image and filled with God’s spirit and life and loved by God, so will we.

So let’s stay focused.  Let’s keep moving forward.  Let’s focus on the vision, as Jesus did, that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach.  Let’s keep working to make that a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.

Yes, a dystopian, destructive, apocalyptic unraveling of our world is always a possibility, but there’s no point worrying about it.  Instead, let’s keep working to build the alternative.  

Martin Luther was once said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces I would still plant my apple tree.”

So let’s do that.  Let’s keep planting our apple trees.  Let’s live in hope.

“The very least you can do in your life,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver, “is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.”[1]

Let’s live inside our hope.  Let’s focus on making the world a healthier, safer, more loving place for those who come after us.  Let’s seek first God’s kin-dom and God’s righteousness.  In a world of bad news, let’s not just proclaim the Good News, let’s begood news.

And even if it looks like the walls of the temple are coming down, it doesn’t have to bring us down with it.  “Do not be weary in doing what is right.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  

May we continue to live inside our hope.  And may God embrace us with mercy so that we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver

Restless Faith

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-4, 8-16;  Luke 12:32-40

Just as he was about to begin his sermon one Sunday, a pastor was handed a note.  He unfolded the paper then said to the congregation, “This says there will be no B.S. tomorrow.”  He paused for a long moment then said, “I’m pretty sure that means Bible Study, but I have to confess that for just a moment there I thought, ‘Oh, that would be nice.’”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a day scheduled for no B.S.—no Bogus Stuff?  

In the alternate first reading for this morning from chapter one of Isaiah, Isaiah takes the people to task for their Bogus Stuff.  He tells the people quite plainly, “God doesn’t want your bull.”  Well, what he actually says is:  

10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!

Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;

I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 

12   When you come to appear before me,  who asked this from your hand?

Trample my courts no more;

13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— 

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood.

Somewhere along the way, the people had substituted the practice of their religion for the ethics of their faith.  They had fallen into the habit of thinking that as long as they performed the right rituals and offered the right sacrifices, as long as they celebrated certain festivals and observed certain holy days in the calendar, then everything would be okay between them and God.  

But Isaiah tells them in plain language, “No.  God thinks all of that is B.S.  Bogus Stuff.  God doesn’t want your bull…or your ram or your goat.”  So what does God want? Once again, Isaiah is blunt:

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

The texts assigned for today are all about faith.  They tell us what faith is and what it is not.  

Isaiah makes it clear that faith is not simply worship.  It is not liturgical worship or praise worship or any other form of worship.  Faith may move you to worship God.  Worship is one way to express your faith.  But it is not a substitute for faith.  And worship without faith is meaningless.

Faith is not mere belief.  Faith does not mean you accept or give your intellectual assent to certain propositions or truths about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit.  Faith is not creeds or doctrine or dogma.  Those are tools that can help guide our faith in the same way a map can help you get somewhere you want to go.  But the map is not the journey.  It’s a depiction of the path others have traveled before you.   

So what is faith?

“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God… It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith… Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.”[1]

Faith is trusting God.  And that’s not always as easy as it sounds because God’s ways are not our ways and God’s timetable is not our timetable.

Abram trusted God, but that didn’t stop him from complaining.  He had left his home in Ur to find a new homeland that God had promised.   Everywhere he went in the new land he prospered.  He acquired vast parcels of property.  His flocks increased.  Local kings respected and feared him so much that they tried to recruit him as an ally in their territorial wars.  He could have built his own city, but Abram continued to live in a tent because God had told him to keep moving.  But when  long years had passed and he and Sarah had not been blessed with children, Abram complained.

So God took Abram outside to look up into the night sky.  “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can,” said God.  “If I can make that, do you really think giving you descendants will be a problem?”

Genesis tells us that Abram trusted God, and God regarded Abram as righteous because of his faith.

Faith is trust in God. 

When Jesus was on the road with his disciples announcing that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach, his followers started to worry about all the things one worries about in daily life.  Jesus turned to them and said, “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.  That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing.  Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!  Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?  And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?

    “Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.  And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

   “So don’t be afraid, little flock.  For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.”[2]

Faith is trusting God as we follow the Spirit-driven yearning of our hearts toward the better world that Jesus described for us.  It is trust that carries through this in-between life—living between what life and the world are now and what we hope and dream they will be as we work to transform them.  Faith is a holy restlessness.  A longing.  A hunger.  A desire.  Faith is not a destination, it is the journey.

“Faith,” wrote Debi Thomas, “is the audacity to undertake a perilous journey simply because God asks us to — not because we know ahead of time where we’re going.  Faith is the itch and the ache that turns our faces towards the distant stars even on the cloudiest of nights.  Faith is the willingness to stretch out our imaginations and see new birth, new life, new joy — even when we feel withered and dead inside.  Faith is the urgency of the homeless for a true and lasting home — a home whose architect and builder is God.”[3]

Faith is a holy dissatisfaction.  Faith wants to tear down walls and build bigger tables.  Faith wants to open the doors wider so more can come to the feast.  Faith trusts that there will always be enough for everyone.  Faith trusts that Love is not diminished but multiplied when it’s shared.  Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.

This week, our denomination, the ELCA is having its churchwide assembly, the national gathering that takes place every three years to discuss and vote on theological, structural and administrative matters.  This year there are a number of proposed changes in our national constitution.  In addition to the constitutional changes that are already part of the agenda, a number of synods have submitted memoranda calling for a complete restructuring of our denomination in order to root out any systemic racism, but also to make our denomination structurally and administratively less top-heavy, lighter and more nimble.  They want to ensure that we are able to follow Jesus more closely and more quickly.  They want to make it easier for us to respond to the needs of the world and our communities, more by faith and less by organizational systems.

Changes are coming to our church, in fact change has been happening for some time.  We don’t yet know what all the changes will be or what they will mean for us.  Faith is a journey, not a destination, and it might be time to move.  But whatever changes we face, we can trust that God is in the change.  God will be with us.  

So, Jesus tells us, travel light.  Sell your excess stuff and give to those in need.  Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be, so let your heart go out to those in need.  Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning.  And be ready.  The kin-dom of God is close…and we don’t want to let Bogus Stuff keep us from getting there.

Have no fear, little flock.  It is your Father’s great pleasure to give you the Kingdom.


[1] An excerpt from “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith from DR. MARTIN LUTHER’S VERMISCHTE DEUTSCHE SCHRIFTEN. Johann K. Irmischer, ed. Vol. 63 Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), pp.124-125. [EA 63:124-125]

[2] Luke 12:22-32 (NLT)

[3] Debi Thomas, Called to Restlessness, Journey With JesusAugust 7, 2022

Love Story

I came across the best love story on Facebook this week, and I just had to pass it along to you.  A reporter was interviewing a man who had managed to get himself and his family out of Mariupol during the Russian bombing.  Here’s what he said:

“I left the bomb shelter and saw a car with keys in the ignition near the store.  I watched it for two hours, waited for the owner.  When the owner didn’t show up, I didn’t wait.  I took my family, got in the car and drove to Vinnitsa to stay with relatives.  I found a phone number in the glove compartment and called the owner:

“‘Sorry,’ I said, “I stole your car.  Saved my family.’

‘Thank God!’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, I have four cars.  I took my family out in my Jeep.  The rest of the cars I filled with fuel and left in different places with the keys in the ignition and the number in the glove compartment.  I received calls back now from all the cars.  There will be peace.  See you.  Take care of yourself.’”

As I said, it’s a love story.  Leaving those cars behind, gassed up and ready to go  with the keys in the ignition so that other people, strangers, could escape the hellish bombing of their city—that was an act of love.  That was God made manifest.  

“I give you a new commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It isn’t doctrine that marks us as disciples of Jesus.  It isn’t our intellectual assent or understanding of the faith.  It isn’t embracing particular ideas about atonement or grace or the nature of Christ.  It isn’t our righteousness or our moral stance on hot-button issues.  It isn’t even “accepting Jesus into our hearts,” whatever that might mean.  “By this everyone will know you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “—if you have love for one another.” 

When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the most important, he went straight to love.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  There are no greater commandments.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Do this and you will live.”[1]

When some of the people in Corinth got all wrapped up in their charismatic gifts and started to take a kind of overweening pride in their spirituality, St. Paul wrote to them with a word of caution:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge—if I have so much faith that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions—even if I give up my body as a martyr—but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

A few years later, Paul said in his letter to the Christians in Rome:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul’s descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians and Romans are excellent and instructive.  But they’re also rather passive.  When Jesus talked about love, he seems to have had something more active in mind.  Often when he talked about love, he would combine it with action.  “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[2]  “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”[3] When a lawyer tried to find a loophole in the commandment to love your neighbor by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with a story about a Samaritan who rescues a traveler who had been left for dead after being beaten up by bandits.  Clearly, loving your neighbor involves action.  Love also involves generosity.  The Gospel of John tells us that God so loved the world that God gave God’s unique son to us.  Giving is an act of love.

All people are called to love, not just Christians, but followers of Jesus have been commanded to love so that we can be known as his disciples.   Love is supposed to be the thing that identifies us. Love is what we’re supposed to be all about…but how do you that?  Especially, how do you do that part about loving your enemies—or even just people you don’t particularly like?

You may already know that the ancient Greek language in which the New Testament was written had four different words for love: agape, eros, philia, and storge.  Storge was a word used to describe duty to family and country—think of it as patriotism.   Philia is friendship.  It meant a lot to call someone your friend in the ancient world.  True friendship, then and now, is a kind of love.  Eroswas the most commonly used word for love in the ancient world.  Our word erotic comes from eros, but properly understood there’s a lot more to it than that.  

Agape is the word for love that’s used most often in the New Testament.  Agape is a love that is unconditional.  It has no motive other than to seek the well-being of the beloved.  It can be spontaneous, but usually it is decisional—you simply decide that you are going to love that other person or those other people.  Period.  Agape is indifferent to any kind of reward and it doesn’t seek reciprocity— agape doesn’t ask to be loved in return.  Agape is the simple yet profound recognition that giving of yourself is a worthy and good thing to do.  It is an unconditional willing of good.  Agape loves the beloved for their own sake, whether they are worthy and deserving or not.

Eros, on the other hand, speaks of desire and longing.  Eros seeks to possess what we find valuable but not to covet or desire a person at the expense of overall well-being.  Edward Vacek defined erosas “loving the beloved for our own sake.”[4]  Plato thought that eros was the pathway to God.  His reasoning went like this:  I see a beautiful person or thing and I desire them or it, but if I look beyond the person or thing I find that what I am really desiring is beauty.  But beauty is truth, so if I look beyond beauty, I find that what I really desire is truth.  But truth comes from God, so what I am really desiring is God.  

Ilia Delio reaffirms that the heart of eros is passion or desire.  “Eros,” she writes,  “is that ineffable longing that stretches beyond oneself for the sake of oneself.”  She goes on to suggest that eros and agape aren’t so much in contrast with each other as related to each other and that philia—friendship—is the thread between them.  In philia a person gives themselves over to the relationship.  Philia is expressed in camaraderie and companionship, in life together in community.  Edward Vacek says that philia “may be the most cosmic form of love because it is based on mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation—with the purpose of promoting overall well-being.”  That’s how the Quakers understood it, which is why they officially called themselves The Society of Friends.

Agape is the word for love that’s used most frequently in the New Testament, but there are moments when philia comes into the text to give love a meaning that is broader and deeper.  Jesus brings agape and philia together in John 15:13 when he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  No one has greater agape than to lay down one’s life for one’s philon—those who are loved with the deep bond of philia.  He goes on to say, “You are my friends (philia/philon) if you do what I command you.”  And what did Jesus command?—that we should love one another with agape love as he has loved us.  

So how do you love—how do you obey the command to love?  Well to start with, it helps to realize that the kind of love Jesus commands doesn’t have to involve any warm, fuzzy emotions.  You can decide that you will unconditionally will and work for goodness for others without expecting anything to come back to you.  You can decide to love with agape.  That’s the starting point.

But agape can be a poor kind of love if it doesn’t bloom into something more than just a decision.  If it remains simply a decisional kind of love, it can become rote, individualistic, non-mutual, and even task-oriented.  Yes, agape is patient and kind, it’s not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it rejoices in truth, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and doesn’t quit—agape has all those qualities that St. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians.  But agape can be all that and a bag of chips and still not be warm enough to bloom into a real relationship.  Love, complete and healthy love at work in a community of faith, starts with a good base of agape, but mixes in a good dose of philia, friendship, and even a dash of eros, to keep us longing for God, for each other, and for the beauty of our relationships.

From the beginning of creation, God has been pouring love into the universe and calling us into relationship.  Love is the force that brings quantum waves together to form hydrogen atoms and hydrogen atoms together to form stars.  Love is the force that drives evolution, overcoming entropy to continually transform biological life into higher, more complex, more aware forms of life—forms capable of loving.  We are commanded to love because it is intentional love that identifies us as followers of Jesus, but even more importantly, because love is what God has been using throughout all time to transform the all of creation.  When we reflect that love back to God and to each other, we participate in God’s formative and transformative work.  

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humanity  will have discovered fire.”

Love is patient and kind.  Love does bear all things and believe all things and hope all things, and endure all things.  But love goes beyond that.  Love puts gas in the car and leaves the keys in the ignition so that beloved strangers can escape to new life.  Love promises there will be peace.  

May the Spirit ignite in all of us the bright flame of God’s transforming love.


[1] Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-28

[2] Matthew 5:43

[3] Luke 6:27

[4] Edward Collins Vacek, Love, Human and Divine: The Heat of Christian Ethics, 1994, pp. 157-158; as quoted by Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Orbis Books, 2013, p.42

Light a Candle

You find yourself glancing at the calendar and the clock with a slight sense of panic. So much to do and the days are rushing by. Busyness blinds you to the presence and the present of the Present. Decorating. Shopping. Wrapping. Mailing. Visiting. Hosting.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself constantly wondering just how much Christmas you can afford. You feel as if you dare not shut off your mental calculator and the joys of the season are clouded by the Ghost of Bills yet to come. Every gift becomes a bit of addition which, in turn, becomes an anxious subtraction.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself lost in a lonely daydream as the Ghost of Christmas Past fills your thoughts with scenes of happier holidays from days gone by. An old familiar song reminds you of friends and family no longer near at hand and your heart aches more than just a little.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself dizzy from trying to steer your way through the year-end collision of events. Reformation. Halloween. Election. Veterans Day. Christ the King. Advent. Christmas. New Year. Taxes. Fiscal Planning.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself simply feeling as if something is missing, as if you’re forgetting something, as if there must be something more.

Stop. Light a candle.

Five candles. Three blue and one pink for Advent. One white for Christmas.

First, ignite the flame of Hope, the Prophecy Candle. Let this flame remind you that God’s promises not only echo through the past but draw us toward the future. Let the light remind you that just as a feather will rise naturally above the heat of a single flame, so you, too, can be lifted without effort by the Spirit that warms and enlightens us all.

Next, light the flame of Peace, the Bethlehem Candle. Let this flame remind you that the peace of God is found in humble moments and humbler places. Let this light remind you that the real gift we all seek is something no amount of money can buy. Peace.

Then light the flame of Joy, the candle of a different color, the Shepherd’s Candle. Sing the old familiar songs of Joy and surround yourself with light and music. Dance with the Ghosts of your past and know that they are very much alive in your memories and in the presence of God. Watch the old movies, taste the old, familiar flavors. Let this light rekindle your senses and remind you that this song of Joy is eternal.

Now light the flame of Love, the Angels Candle. Let this light bring equilibrium to these days of celebration. Let it guide you through the maze of these impacted days. Let the flame of Love burn a pathway through the adiaphorous clutter. Let its warmth empower you to embrace the days. Swallow its light whole so that it shines through you.

Finally, sit in the presence of the light of Christ. Let the Candle of Christmas remind you that the most humble child born in the most unlikely circumstances bears the image and likeness of the Maker of Us All. Let it remind you that the thing that has been missing in our lives, the object of our unsettled yearning, is not a thing or an object at all, but the very Source of our Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Apocalypse

Mark 13:1-8

“When the end of the world comes,” said Mark Twain, “I want to be in Kentucky.  They’re twenty years behind everything.”

The word apocalypse comes directly from Greek and only drops one small syllable on its way into English.  Apokalypsis to Apocalypse.  The literal meaning is “to uncover” or “to unveil.”  It originally meant a disclosure, a revelation.  

The word can also describe a particular kind of literature.  That’s the first meaning in Merriam Webster’s dictionary:

one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.

Webster also gives what it calls the “Essential Meaning”:

a great disaster a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.

In more common usage, apocalypse is often used as shorthand for “the end of the world.”

From disclosure to disaster.  That’s quite a shift in meaning.  

Why are people so fascinated with the idea of The Apocalypse, the End of the World?  What is it about the human psyche that wants to immerse itself in “end of the world” thinking?  And why has our interest in this topic been growing? 

I took a look at Wikipedia’s list of Apocalyptic films.  It paints an interesting picture.  Before 1950, there were only 4 apocalypse movies.  The first one was a Danish film made in 1916 called, prosaically enough, The End of the World.  And then we went fifteen years before anyone made another apocalyptic movie.  That one was a French film made in 1931, also titled The End of the World.  American filmmakers got into the Apocalypse business in 1933 with Deluge from RKO Pictures, and then the Brits took a turn in 1936 with a United Artists picture called Things to Come, written by H.G. Wells.  So in the whole first half of the 20th century, only 4 apocalyptic movies are listed.  Four.  

And then they stopped.  That’s probably because the world was at war in the 1940s.  People were living through an apocalypse, and they wanted their movies to tell them there was a brighter day coming, a time of rebuilding.  

Apocalyptic films reappeared in the 1950s, but they were still sporadic enough that it would be stretching things at that point to call them a genre.  From 1950 to 1959 there are eleven apocalypse movies on Wikipedia’s list, but things would pick up significantly in the 1960s.  

From 1960 to 1969, twenty-six apocalypse movies are listed, including the classics Dr. Strangelove and Planet of the Apes. The 1970s gave us 39 apocalypse or post-apocalypse movies.  From 1980-1989, producers cranked out 47 apocalypse movies.  In the 1990s the stream of apocalyptic films slowed but not by much.  That decade gave us 41 apocalypse movies, but the Left Behind series of books hit the market in 1995, smack in the middle of that decade, so maybe people were reading about apocalypse instead of going to see it on the screen.  

After slowing just a bit in the ‘90s, the genre exploded in the 2000s.  From 2000 through 2009, Wikipedia lists 69 movies with apocalyptic themes showing up on our screens and probably in our collective psyche, because from 2010 through 2019, that number blew up again.  In that decade Wikipedia lists 109 movies with apocalyptic themes.  It’s too early to tell how “apocalyptic” this decade will be.  The pandemic put a serious crimp in film production of all genres, but even with a Covid-imposed lockdown, the first two years of this decade have put 15 apocalypse movies on our screens.

So back to the original question: why are people so fascinated by apocalypse?  Why is there such a big market for dystopia and humanity’s grand finale? 

I don’t know what the social psychologists would say about that, but I do know what Biblical scholars and theologians say.  They tell us that apocalyptic literature appears—and movies are a form of that—when a people is oppressed, or under great stress, or experiencing persecution.  The Book of Ezekiel, with its strange visions and imagery, appears during the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah to give hope and courage to captive and enslaved people who had seen their nation not just defeated but destroyed.  The Book of Daniel was written to give hope and courage to the Jewish rebels fighting against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the cruel Greek Seleucid ruler who desecrated Yahweh’s temple by setting up an altar to Zeus and sacrificing a pig on it.  John’s Apocalypse, which we call the Book of Revelation, was written to give hope and courage to followers of Jesus in Asia Minor who were being oppressed and persecuted by Rome. 

Hope and courage for people in dire straits.  That’s what all the ancient apocalypses are really all about when you wade through all the fascinating imagery.  They use imagery as a kind of code because the people writing them and reading them are living in dangerous circumstances.  If the empire is breathing down your neck, it’s not safe to say “Rome is a gluttonous, greedy, selfish pig of a nation that bullies other nations into handing over the best of everything while the rest of us are sucked dry.”  So instead you write about a harlot who sits on seven hills.  You can’t say that the emperor is a monster, so you write about a monster, a dragon with seven heads.

The writers of the apocalyptic works in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit who guided them, never intended to be giving a coded timeline of the end of all things.  That’s not why they were written.  They were written to give a simple clear message:  “Hang in there.  Yes, these are scary times.  But God is on your side. Nasty empires and oppressive regimes don’t last forever.  They either exhaust themselves, or somebody conquers them (see Darius the Mede bringing new management to Babylon), or enough people finally get tired of their rubbish and rise up to throw them out on their ear (see Antiochus Epiphanes versus the Maccabees), or they overindulge themselves to death and collapse from internal squabbling and rot (see Rome).  Once more for emphasis: Hold on to hope.  Have courage. God is on your side.  And God wins in the end.”

That is the uniform, universal message of pretty much all apocalyptic literature.

With one apocalyptic exception:  the “little apocalypse” in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark. 

Mark was written during the Jewish uprising against Rome from 66-70 CE.  There was tremendous pressure on the followers of Jesus in Palestine to join with the Jewish forces in the fight against Rome.  They were told it was their patriotic duty to save Israel.  Special emphasis was put on protecting the temple in this appeal to patriotism.

The temple was in particular danger for several reasons.  It was the natural rallying point in the heart of Jerusalem, their ancient capitol.  That would make it a target for the Romans.  It was also the largest temple to any god in the Roman world, something of a point of pride for the Jewish people.  It was an important tourist attraction, drawing both pilgrims and tourists.  It was the heartbeat of Jerusalem’s economy.  It was also one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful building complex in the ancient world.  Most importantly, though, it was central to every Jew’s sense of identity.  The temple was Israel.  Israel was the temple.  To destroy the temple would be to destroy the nation.  That, in turn, would put every Jewish person’s sense of identity adrift.  Their spirit and resistance would be broken.  For all these reasons, protecting the temple was the rebellion’s top priority.

In Mark 13, when the disciples are gobsmacked by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, Jesus just flatly tells them, “It’s all coming down.  Not one stone will be left on another.”  A bit later as they gather on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sits down to teach.  The disciples, having just heard a tantalizing tidbit of apocalypse want details.  “When is it going to happen?  What will the signs be that it’s about to happen?”  

Remember, this gospel, unlike Matthew, Luke, and John is being written while the temple is still standing, but in great jeopardy.  The questions the disciples are asking in the text are the questions that Mark’s faith community, his companion followers of Jesus, are asking.   They are desperate for a timetable.  As Mark writes his account, the Roman legions have vacated Palestine temporarily to go fight one of their frequent civil wars, but everyone knows they’ll be back. And with a vengeance. But when?

They want a timetable.  They want signs to look for.  But Jesus isn’t going to give them one.  “Stay on the path,” he says.  “Don’t let anyone lead you astray.  Others are going to come claiming they’re the Messiah.  Don’t fall for it.  If people try to tell you that various wars or natural disasters or famines are signs of the end and it’s time to get in the fight, don’t fall for it.  All these things are going on always and everywhere.  They are not signs of the end.  They are birth pangs.  Something new is being born.”

When they continue to pester him to be specific about the time of the temple’s destruction, Jesus finally says, “No one knows.  Even I don’t know. Only the Father knows.”  

This “little apocalypse” from Jesus in Mark is radically different from other apocalyptic writings in one major point.  Other apocalyptic writings—those included in the Bible like Daniel and Revelation, extra-biblical books like 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, and the apocalyptic pamphlets that circulated throughout Palestine during the rebellion—all focused on the basic universal apocalyptic message: hang tough, fight the good fight, God is with you, hope and courage.  But this homily from Jesus is almost the opposite.  Ched Myers and other scholars suggest that he is telling his followers to abandon the temple.  He is telling his followers not to join in the resistance.  He urges them not to be led astray from their path of nonviolent resistance by charismatic leaders with messianic claims, swords and spears.

Jesus calls us to a different pathway of apocalypse.  This is not the pathway of Judas Maccabeus picking up his sword to fight the Greeks.  This is not the pathway of Simon bar Giora, claiming to be the new King David as he leads guerilla bands in surprise attacks.  This is not Mad Max with a sawed-off shotgun.  

Jesus is telling them that the rebellion is not the kingdom of God.

This is the pathway of Jesus, the Way of nonviolence.  The way of critiquing the bad by doing the better.  The rebellion is not the kingdom. But the kingdom is a rebellion…done a different Way.

In the Gospel of Mark, the kingdom of God, as it is embodied by Jesus, is revealed to us as a nonviolent rebellion against business as usual, economics as usual, politics as usual, government as usual, and religion as usual.  It is also very much a rebellion against rebellion as usual.  The entire mission of Jesus in the gospels is, in its way, an apocalypse.  A revealing.  It pulls back the veil to show us the serious flaws in our ways of doing things.  It critiques the bad by giving us a vision of the better.  Yes, the Way of Jesus does describe the end of the world.  It ends when it is gradually, nonviolently reimagined heart by heart, mind by mind, one person at a time until the reign of God has come on earth as it is in heaven.  

How’s that for an apocalypse?

The Light Over the Barnyard

John 1:6-9; 19-28; 1Thessalonians 5:16-24

If we’re lucky and there is no cloud cover, on December 21, the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, we will get to see something like the Star of Bethlehem.  Jupiter and Saturn will appear in a great conjunction, within 0.1 degrees of each other as viewed from earth, so that they will appear to be not two bright planets, but one very bright star.  Close conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn happen every 20 years, but the last time they were this close was more than 800 years ago, in 1226.

So in these closing days of 2020, a strange year of plague and politics, protests and polemics, could it be that we are being given a sign in the heavens as two great planets combine their radiance into one great light?    

One of the things I loved to do when I was a kid, during the times when we would visit the family farm in Kansas, was to go out at night and stand in the middle of the field and just stare at the brilliance of the night sky.  I loved to see the lights of heaven spread out above me in the Milky Way.  We would get far enough away from the house so that the house lights didn’t interfere with our stargazing, then just let ourselves get lost in those deep fields of space and all those millions of stars.  

On a night with a full moon the stars were fainter, but we could see well enough to nose around a bit in the pasture and to make our way back to the house without our flashlights if we were careful.  But on a night with no moon it was another story altogether.  On a night with no moon it was easy to lose yourself in the sky and get turned around, and if the lights at the house went out, as they did one time, you could lose your bearings in the dark.

On those nights, standing in the dark, marveling at the stars, I would feel such a strange mixture of awe and vulnerability.  I learned fairly early about the distance and strangeness of the stars and planets and it was always a source of wonder to me to think about the great journey through time and space those lights had taken to reach me standing in a field in Kansas.  It made me feel both important and insignificant at the same time—important because God had given me the eyes to see and a mind to comprehend the vastness of creation—insignificant because I realized that I was one kid standing on a small planet orbiting a minor star on an outer spiral arm of one galaxy among billions.

And in the middle of these kinds of thoughts, always, every single time, something would happen to remind us that the night was not our natural habitat.  Some noise or movement would remind us as we stood out there in the field that the night was full of other creatures and that some of them were not our friends.  Fortunately, that also always seemed to be about the time when Mom or Aunt Betty would decide we had been out in the dark long enough and they would turn on the big mercury vapor light that glared over the barnyard.  The message was clear.  Time to come home.  And there was no mistaking which way to go once that light was turned on…provided you were turned in the right direction so you could see it.

Sometimes, if you get turned around in the moonless night and you are facing the wrong direction, you need a nudge from someone to turn you toward the light so you can find your way home.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  To give people a nudge in the right direction.

This happened during a time of tension and anxiety, but for many it was also a time of anticipation and expectation, so when John began baptizing and preaching it was understandable that the priests and Levites would want to know who he was and what he had to say for himself.  What was surprising was that John started by telling them who he was not.

“I’m not the Messiah.”  He said that pretty plainly, right off the top.

So they asked him, “Well… what then.  Are you Elijah?”

“Nope.”

“The prophet?”

“No. Not the prophet.”

“Well then who are you?”

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’  Just like the prophet Isaiah said.

“Well if you’re not the Messiah and you’re not Elijah and you’re not the prophet, why are you baptizing?”

“I’m baptizing with water.  But if you knew who was already standing here among you… the one who comes after me… I’m not worthy to even untie his sandals.”

For what it’s worth, a little thing should be noted here.  It says in the text at the beginning of this passage that John was sent by God.  But it says that the people giving John the third degree here, the priests and Levites, were sent by the Pharisees.  It’s an interesting contrast.  The one who is sent by God wants to focus the attention, to shine the light if you will, on someone else.  But the interrogation team sent by the Pharisees are laser-focused on John.  John keeps trying to redirect their attention to the one they’ve really been expecting for eons.  He tells them,   “Guys, at best I’m the moon.  You should be looking for the sun.  And if you had eyes to see it, you would realize he’s already here among you.”

John comes to a people who, as Isaiah said, are walking in darkness and points to the light that is dawning among us.  He comes to a people who are disoriented in the night and turns us to face the beacon that can bring us home.  

And here we are in the closing days of the year of Covid and Chaos, craving Christmas, singing Christ be our Light.  And God hears our prayers.  God sends us John the Baptist to turn us in the right direction, to face us toward the light of Christ. 

God sends us a sign in the heavens.  In a year when politics has pulled us ever further apart, two gas giants (make of that what you will) have drawn close to each other, Jupiter and Saturn in a rare conjunction, shining with a single bright light to remind us that we are brighter when we shine together.

In a year when we have not been able to come together as the body of Christ in the familiar surroundings of our sanctuaries, God reminds us that Christ is, as Luther said, in, with, and under the common things of life like bread and wine and water so that life, itself is sacred.  God reminds us that Christ is in all of creation.  God reminds us that Christ is in you and in me.  And, more importantly, that we are in Christ, so that even in our individual homes, gathered together by way of our computers and phones we are still the body of Christ.

At the end of a year when we have had so many reasons to weep, God sends us the words of Saint Paul writing in his first letter to Thessaloniki, the oldest of his letters:  “Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  Do not quench the Spirit.”  

So if you feel like you’ve been walking through a moonless night and you’re all turned around, stop.  Take a minute.  Take a breath.  Look up.

There is a sign in the heavens to remind you that you are not alone.  Christ is in, with and under all of creation and that includes your own sacred life.  

Rejoice.  Pray.  Give thanks.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Any minute now the light’s going to come on over the barnyard.  And if necessary, someone will nudge you in the right direction so you can see it.

Until then, may the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

This Is The Time

It’s time.  

Time to get out the boxes with the special decorations, each one with its own story and all of them together part of the bigger story.  It’s time to deck the halls, to fill the home with light and music.  It’s time to dig out recipes and to bake.  It’s time to prepare.

I loved Christmas as a kid.  I still do.  What I didn’t realize for years, though, was how much I loved Advent.  I loved all the preparation. I loved the anticipation.  I loved the way the house looked when it was all decorated.  I loved the way the kitchen smelled when it was full of baking and roasting.  I loved how everyone, even though they were a bit frazzled, still managed to be in a pretty cheery mood.  

I love the honesty of Advent.  I love the sense of longing in the texts and prayers.  “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”  And yes, Christ has already come to us, but no, Christ has not yet returned, and we surely do feel sometimes like he’s overdue.  There is an honest yearning for things to be better, especially in this year when everything has been scrambled and turned sideways by the pandemic.  “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah shouts for us.  We’re in over our heads.  “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we might be saved!” the Psalmist cries out for us.  But we also hear, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… Every valley will be lifted up.  Every mountain and hill made low.  The uneven ground shall be made level and the rough places a plain.”  Things will be smoother.  Something better, something brighter is coming.  Help is on the way.  A new day will dawn.  

I love the way Advent, if we pay attention to it, sets the scene for Christmas by reminding us that we are not the first ones to live in a time of shadows hoping for light.  “During the rule of King Herod of Judea…” we read in the first chapter of Luke.  This is the same King Herod who, in Matthew’s gospel, murdered all the male babies in Bethlehem under age two.  This is the Herod who killed two of his own sons because he suspected them of plotting against him, the Herod who killed his wife Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess, along with her brother and her mother.  This is the Herod who replaced the High Priest in the temple with a Sadducee who would be more inclined to do things the way he wanted them done.  This is the same Herod who, according to Josephus, as he lay dying, ordered that one member of every family in Judea should be slain so that the whole country would be in mourning when he died. Fortunately the order was never carried out, but the people never forgot that it had been issued.  

This is the time, Luke reminds us, when Quirinius is appointed legate of the expanded Roman province of Syria with the specific mandate to carry out a census, something forbidden by Jewish law, so that Tiberius can impose a new tax.  This is a time when Rome’s domination of Judea is iron-clad and iron-fisted with no velvet glove to make it less harsh.  This is a time when work is hard, taxes are heavy, and freedom is limited.

But this is also the time when an angel appears to an aged childless couple, Elizabeth, whose name means “God keeps promises” and to Zechariah, whose name means “God remembers.”  The angel promises them that they will have a child and that they are to name him Yochanan, John, which means “God is gracious,” and that many will rejoice because of him and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is the time when a kinswoman comes to visit Elizabeth, a young, unmarried kinswoman named Mary, who is also pregnant with a miraculous child.  And when Elizabeth sees her, her unborn child leaps in her womb.  This is the time when Mary sings a prophetic song of joy and rebellion that has been bringing hope to people on the margins for two thousand years.  My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”

This is the time to sit with the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.  This is the time to remember.  And to look forward.  This is Advent.  And soon, Christmas.

The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks, when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.

Waiting for the Light

Waiting for the Light

Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering,

         the sun will be darkened,

                  and the moon will not give its light, 

25       and the stars will be falling from heaven,

                  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 

28  “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.  34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,  36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

As of this weekend, 270,000 people in the United States have died of the Corona virus.  That’s two hundred seventy thousand empty seats at the Thanksgiving table this year, enough people to fill every seat in Angels’ Stadium in Anaheim six times.  

Because of the Corona virus, job losses and general economic disparity, only 44% of American households with children feel confident that they will be able to afford the food they need for the coming week.[1]  Put another way, 56% of American households with children are food insecure.  Twelve percent of those households reported that they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat.  

One in 5 renters in America are behind on rent and worried about eviction.  Persons of color were likelier to report difficulty affording rent because they have been harder hit by pandemic job losses.

In so many ways and for so many of us, this is a grim and precarious time.  The words of Isaiah ring in us like a bell:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

                  so that the mountains would quake at your presence—  

          When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

                           you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.[2]

O God, why won’t you do for us the kinds of things you did in the past?  Where’s our parting of the sea?  Where is our manna falling from the sky?  

It was a grim and precarious time for the people of Judah when Isaiah wrote those words.  They were suffering under the harsh oppression of Babylon.  They wanted divine intervention.  And isn’t that what we want now?

It was a grim and precarious time when Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives and shared his apocalyptic vision with his disciples.  As we read the story in chapter 13 of Mark, Jesus is telling his disciples about the end of the world not long before Judas betrays him, not long before he is crucified.  And it’s a very perilous time when the writer of the gospel records all this.  If biblical scholar Ched Myers is correct, Mark is writing this gospel some time during the Jewish revolt against Rome, the rebellion that will end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

“But in those days, after that suffering,

         the sun will be darkened,

                  and the moon will not give its light, 

         and the stars will be falling from heaven,

                  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 

Those words take on new weight on the first Sunday of Advent when you think of them being spoken during a time of violent political oppression, a time when any hint of opposition is quickly and decisively squashed.  These words have a sharper edge when you think of them being written down and preserved while the streets of the city are filled with the noise and bloodshed of battle between Roman soldiers and Jewish partisans.  

Beware.  Stay alert.  Stay awake.  The advice Jesus gives is practical.  Keep your eyes open.  Don’t fall for false messiahs and conmen. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to figure out God’s timetable because only God knows.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.  There will be trying times.  Stay awake.

Advent is a time for pragmatism and preparation.  

Advent is a time to walk into the turmoil and the pain of life with your eyes wide open.  In an age and a season when it is all too easy to live in denial, when we would love to jump straight to Christmas, Advent calls us to take a hard look at the world around us.  Advent calls us to see the world as it really is, to see ourselves as we really are, to open our eyes to things that we maybe don’t want to see, to listen to things we might prefer not to hear.  Advent calls us to be realistic…about the world and about ourselves. 

In 1952, as the Korean War was dragging on and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was becoming more intense, William and Annabeth Gay wrote a haunting and profound hymn that, to my mind, perfectly captures the spirit of Advent for our age.  The title that Annabeth gave it is Carol of Hope, but you might know it by its first line which is how it’s titled in most hymnals, a line that sounds anything but hopeful:  Each Winter As the Year Grows Older.

Each winter as the year grows older, we each grow older, too.  

The chill sets in a little colder; the verities we knew

seem shaken and untrue.[3]

When race and class cry out for treason, when sirens call for war, 

they overshout the voice of reason and scream till we ignore

 all we held dear before.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,

that growth can flower from our grieving, that we can catch our breath

and turn transfixed by faith.

So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,

the living flame, in secret burning, can kindle on the earth

and bring God’s love to birth.

O Child of ecstasy and sorrows, O Prince of peace and pain,

brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s, renew our lives again;

Lord Jesus, come and reign!

Advent calls us to be realistic about the shadow side of life, to mark where we’ve not only grown older but colder, where the verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.  Advent calls us to identify those voices that overshout the voice of reason so we can be more attentive to reason and to the Prince of Peace and pain.  

But Advent doesn’t simply ask us to dwell in gloom and shadows.  Advent also calls us to bring light—four lights to restore brightness and health to a self, a nation, a world stumbling in murky obscurity—four lights to prepare the way for the true light of Christ. 

And the first light is Hope.

“Genuine hope is not blind optimism,” said Jürgen Moltmann.  “It is hope with open eyes, which sees the suffering and yet believes in the future.”

And perhaps Barack Obama was thinking of Moltmann when he said, ““Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us.

“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver. “And the most you can do  is live inside that hope.  Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”[4]

So on this first Sunday of Advent we light the candle of Hope.  

On this first Sunday of Advent as we begin a new year in the calendar of the Church, we light the candle of Hope.  If the sun is darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars seem to be falling, light the candle of hope.

If we are suffering now because of the pandemic, Saint Paul reminds us that, “suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[5]

“If we hope for what we do not see,” he said, “we wait for it with patience.”[6]  

So if it looks like the sun has been darkened and the moon won’t shine and the stars are falling and the world is more or less metaphorically ending, in the spirit of Advent, let’s be realistic and honest about it.  Let’s stay awake and aware.  And then let’s light a candle of Hope.  Because Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.[7]


[1] https://www.cbpp.org/blog/as-thanksgiving-approaches-fewer-than-half-of-households-with-kids-very-confident-about;  also https://www.marketplace.org/2020/05/07/44-of-americans-fear-they-wont-be-able-to-afford-food-poll-finds/ (Marketplace/Edison Research)

[2] Isaiah 64:1-2

[3] Each Winter As the Year Grows Older, William Gay, 1920-2008;

  Tune: Carol of Hope, Annabeth Gay, 1925-2020;  Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #252

[4] Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

[5] Romans 5:4-5

[6] Romans 8:25

[7] Romans 15.13

Sowing Generosity

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Listen!  A sower went out to sow.

Karsten Lundring is an alum of California Lutheran University who really loves his alma mater.  Karsten attends every CLU football game and when the Kingsmen score he throws out handfuls of Jolly Rancher candies to the crowd in the stands.  Some of those candies fall through the bleachers and land on the ground.  Some are caught by people who are dieting or diabetic so they get passed along to someone else.  Sometimes people catch the orange ones but they just don’t like the orange ones, only the red ones so they give them away.  Some are caught by fans of the opposing team.  But a lot of the candies are caught by hungry children and CLU fans who are enjoying excitement of the touchdown and are delighted to celebrate with a taste of something sweet.[1]

A sower went out to sow.  

Jesus doesn’t usually explain his parables, but because his disciples pestered him about it he explained this one.  Well, partly.  He explained about the ground where the seeds landed.  The different places where the seeds end up serve as analogies for the different people who will hear the message that Jesus and his disciples are proclaiming, the announcement that the reign of God is about to begin.  Some will get it, some won’t.  Pick your reason.  Some are too shallow or too self-involved.  Some are too busy.  Some are too worried.  Some are misguided by their own misconceptions—these are all things that can keep the domain of God from really taking root in your life or, to put it another way, that can keep you from taking root in the domain of God.  

We have an natural habit when we read the parables of asking “What does this mean?” Please explain this.  We want to read them all as allegories—sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not.  We want to translate the analogies, to solve the riddle and walk away from the parable knowing The Point.  But Jesus tells parables not so that we can ask questions of them and arrive at some moral maxim like an Aesop’s fable, but so that the parable can ask questions of us.  Jesus tells parables to help us see the world, ourselves and God differently.  

When I’ve preached or taught on this Parable of the Sower in the past, I’ve always focused on the soil since that’s the part that Jesus explains.  My sermons were usually some version of “What Kind of Soil Are You?” with sometimes a side order of “What Are You Going To Do To Become More Productive Soil?” 

If you ever heard me preach one of those sermons, I apologize.  I messed the point.  I also missed the point.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s always a good thing to be looking at what we can do to let the love and life of God take deeper root in our lives.  It’s always good to pay attention to how our faith or lack of it is manifested in the lives we lead.  But that’s not the point of this parable.  There are other parables for that.  The fig tree in the vineyard comes to mind.

Parables ask us questions, and as I sat with this parable and listened to it again, the question it was asking me was “What do you see here that you haven’t seen before?”  Jesus is giving his disciples some answers, but not all the answers.  There’s more to see here.  And then I saw two things that made it a whole new story for me.

The first was this:  the soil can’t change itself.  It is what it is.  The pathway is going to be the pathway as long as people are walking on it.  The rocks are going to be the rocks.  Thorn bushes don’t uproot themselves.  

Jesus is telling his disciples and “anyone with ears” who will listen to not make themselves crazy trying to talk people into signing up for the reign of heaven if they’re just not ready to do that.  Just sow the seed.  Go out and announce it: the Domain of God is within reach.  Live it.  Be it.  Those who are ready will get it, and it will surprise you how many of them there are.  As for the rest, let the Holy Spirit work on them.  Rocks can be moved or worn down.  Pathways can be rerouted or tilled and fertilized.  Thorn bushes can be removed in any number of ways.  But right now that’s not your job.  Leave the Holy Spirit and the circumstances of life to soften them up.  You sow the seed.

The second thing I saw that absolutely turned this into a new story for me is this: this is a story of unbridled abundance and generosity.  There is no shortage of seed.  The sower throws it everywhere with no regard whatsoever about where it’s landing.  The word of the kingdom, as Jesus calls it in his explanation to the disciples, is an endless resource and when it lands with someone who hears and understands it, it reproduces itself even more abundantly. 

God has created this world to be a world of abundance and generosity.  As Gandhi said, this world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.  The earth itself participates in the generosity of God. The generosity of God was spoken in the word of creation.  The word of the kingdom is a word of perpetual regeneration.  Genesis.  Generation.  Regeneration.  The creative love of God is grounded in Generosity.  

“God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars,”  wrote Martin Luther, and surely God’s message of generosity and abundance is written in every harvest and planting.  

I remember being on our family wheat farm in Kansas once in the spring when the new wheat was standing bright green and knee-high in the fields.  I looked out and saw a family of deer grazing on the new shoots down by the creek.  I asked my mother’s cousin, Frank, if we shouldn’t maybe do something to shoo them away.  He just smiled and said, “Oh there’s plenty for them and us.  We’ll share it.”  

There was good soil there in Kansas where my family grew wheat.  The harvest was plentiful.  There’s good soil for the word of the kingdom, the domain of God, in many, many hearts out in the world.  Many people are already living in the heart of the kingdom whether they know it or not, living lives of generosity that produce more generosity in others.

When Michelle Brenner was furloughed from her job at a menswear store in Gig Harbor, Washington, because of the Corona virus, she was, naturally, upset, so she went home and made herself a big pan of lasagna using her grandmother’s recipe.  Nothing works like comfort food to soothe the soul.  Michelle realized that if her grandmother’s lasagna was making her feel better, it might lift other people’s spirits, too, so she posted on Facebook, “Hello favorite friends… if any of you want some fresh, homemade, no calorie-counting lasagna, let me know and I will gladly prepare it.”

A few requests trickled in—a retired neighbor, an out of work friend… Then Michelle took it on herself to deliver a few pans of lasagna to hospital workers and first responders, a few struggling single parents and others she knew of who were just scraping by. Word began to spread.  Soon she had so many requests that making homemade lasagna for others had become her full-time job.  When the president of the Gig Harbor Sportsman’s Club got wind of Michelle’s mission, he offered to let her use their commercial kitchen which had been closed because of Covid-19.  Three months later she’s still at it.  So far she has given away more than 1200 pans of homemade lasagna, although she’s lost track of the exact number.

Michelle initially used her $1200 stimulus check to pay for lasagna ingredients but that money was soon gone.  Fortunately, without being asked, people began to contribute what they could.  Some would give a dollar.  One person gave $100.  Somebody set up a Facebook fundraiser for her that raised $10,000.  All in all, people have given about $22,000 to the woman who is now known affectionately as The Lasagna Lady.  Every penny goes into lasagna while Michelle, herself, gets by on unemployment insurance. 

“It’s a pan of love,” says Michelle. “A lot of the people I make lasagna for have lost their jobs, and this is my way of saying, ‘I understand and I’m here for you.’ ”

When Jesus explained the Parable of the Sower to his disciples he said, “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”  Or 1200 pans of lasagna. 

I don’t know where Michelle Brenner heard the good news of the kingdom of heaven, the good news of God’s abundance and generosity.  I don’t know if she ever attended any church or is part of any faith.  Maybe she learned it from the earth itself.  Maybe it was layered between the noodles and the meat and the sauce and the cheese in her grandmother’s lasagna recipe.  I don’t know where or how she learned it, but she learned it.  And she’s passing along.

And a sower goes out to sow.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Thanks to Pastor Kirsten Moore, Calvaray Lutheran Church, Rio Linda, California for this story.