Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent 1 - Year C

While I haven’t yet seen it, the new movie 2012 is built around the ancient Mayan Prophecy that the world will end on December 21, 2012, which is said to be the end date of the 5,125-year-long Mayan Long Count calendar of one age and the beginning of another.

While the Mayans were long on math, they were short on details. Leaving many scientists to believe that the calendar doesn’t predict the end of life on this planet. But it simply marks a turn of the calendar. No different from when we change the cute 2009 calendar with the cute puppy 2010 calendar.

But that doesn’t stop the doomsday sayers. End of the world prophecies are VERY popular. They’re romantic, even sexy. They provide drama to a boring life. Power to an insignificant life.

After all, what is more important than the end of all things, the destruction of the planet, the finale to all existence? And if we have some inside information, we possess knowledge that most people don’t have. Giving us a sense of power.

2012 doomsday advocates don’t have to look far for support that the world will end some day. Today’s gospel provides some pretty heady predictions that sends the heart racing of everyone worried about whether the world will end by next commercial break. Jesus says that all we have to do is look at the signs:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” Jesus warns. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Now THAT would make a great movie!

I get why people are drawn to apocalyptic doomsday predictions. Especially when we feel we're on the winning side of a cosmic battle.

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” Jesus warns. Of course, he's NOT referring to US! Is he? After all, we're the good guys, the faithful Christians who do gospel work. Certainly Jesus will spare us from the doom just under the over pass...

It's almost a Christian tradition to predict the End of All Things. We confess in our creeds that “We believe that he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” So, it's not as if we're pulling this from our collective noses.

But for some Christians, the End of the World and Jesus' so-called “Imminent Return” is the centrepiece of their faith. You've probably seen these guys on TV. Christian talking heads who say that Jesus is on the brink of gracing this planet once again. That the clouds will open and Jesus, astride his trusty steed, will brandish his sword of righteousness against all evil-doers. So, we better be on our best behaviour because this is going to happen AT ANY MOMENT; leaving death and destruction in his wake.

However, the problem is, the “Imminent Return” theology has been around for thousands of years. Every generation does the calculations and believes that THEY or WE are the final generation and will see with our own eyeballs, Christ return in glory, to punish the wicked and lift the righteous to heaven. And this is going to happen by the time you finish your breakfast.

But at what point does “imminent” cease to be “imminent”? If Jesus is supposed to come back the day after tomorrow, and we've been saying this for 2000 years, then maybe we have to re-evaluate what he was saying. Like a dog panting at the door waiting for the master to return, maybe we need to get comfortable on the couch, because it might be a while.

That doesn't stop folks from flipping through the bible while watching endless loops of Fox News, connecting events and people with biblical prophecies. Jesus has to come back SOMETIME, right? So why wouldn't it be TODAY? After all, don't we live in the worst time in history?

Again, ever generation thinks that their's is the height of moral failure and human cruelty. Every generation believes that the human species can't sink any lower, and so the end of history is within their grasp. Every generation looks at the state of the world and sees it as the worst that humanity has to offer.

Those Jesus was talking to certainly believed that. As did those who Luke wrote to decades after. Jesus told them, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “

They expected the world to burn itself out. They saw terrible tragedy; Rome destroying Jerusalem killing thousands of Jews; the temple burned to the ground; God's people scattered all over the known world.

And yet, no Jesus. They fainted in fear. But did not see God's Son arrived in glory. They saw only pain and tragedy. They saw their world disintegrate.

No Jesus. No shining sun. No glory. No standing with heads and hands raised.

People just went back to their lives wondering what went wrong. And there weren't a shortage of people to tell why Jesus didn't come back.

“You're too sinful.”

“You're too immoral.”

“The world isn't ready.”

“People don't have enough faith.”

Redemption as reward. Forgiveness as merit.

But a better way of seeing what happens is that the world will always have pain and suffering because pain and suffering are birth pangs of a new world that God is giving birth to. Jesus say to keep alert to the signs of the kingdom of God. I don't think he just means the End of All things, but the Kingdom that has already come in Jesus. Keep your eyes open to what God has done and is doing. Keep watch for God's kingdom of peace, forgiveness, justice, and life. Because it's all around us.

Keep your eyes open for the kingdom in the corner. Keep your eyes open for the hope that surrounds you hiding. Keep your eyes open for the New Day that Jesus promises.

To understand what Jesus is saying is to hear his words, not from the perspective of death, but with resurrection eyes. Our lives will have pain. We will have sorrow. We will feel like the weight of death will crush us.

But there is also resurrection. There is also new and everlasting life. There is also the New Creation that began that day when Jesus walked out from the tomb of sin and death, alive, breathing forgiveness and healing, until that Day arrives when there will be no more sorrow, no more pain, no more death.

And may this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christ the King - Year B

The folks who put the lectionary know what they’re doing. The lectionary being the series of bible passages that we read each week at worship. I certainly don’t choose the bible readings. Most churches around the world read the same bible passages. It’s something that unites us.

I don’t always agree with how they divide up the texts. They leave important passages out and often (I think) distort the meaning of the readings by how they lump them together.

But this week I can see twinkles in their eyes as they assign the reading from John on the one hand, and the readings from Daniel and Revelation on the other.

In John we get Jesus and Pilate bantering back and forth. Pilate representing worldly power and authority. And Jesus representing God’s dominion over the world. Jesus is the one who ends up dying a horrible. Pilate just washes his hands.

But in Daniel and Revelation we hear about God’s presence burning like fire while thousands of thousands attend to the Almighty’s every need. We hear threats of universal judgement and promises of everlasting kingdoms. We get unbridled power. Overwhelming omnipotence. Unrelenting strength.

So, John gives us Jesus on the losing end of a trial. Daniel and Revelation give us divine glory. Utter defeat verses total victory.

Which is it? What are we supposed to do with this?

And this isn't a question for cranky preachers up way too early on a Sunday morning. It's a question for all us who bear the name 'Christian.' We live in the tension between these two bible passages. We have trouble figuring out who the 'real' Jesus is, who the true 'king' can be. Which Jesus we worship. Which Christ we serve.

Do we follow the Jesus who was a poor, wandering preacher from the middle of nowhere? Do we gloss over that part of Jesus' resume, preferring the second page where we find his kingly credentials, the parts we he triumphs over his enemies and the whole world kneels at his toes?

The temptation is to pay lip service to the suffering servant, to the poor man from Nazareth, to the executed criminal, while secretly hating him. Because if we follow THAT Jesus, then THAT Jesus shines a light on our lives that we probably would prefer to be kept unexposed. If our lives were to emulate the itinerant preacher and healer, the poverty-stricken Jewish peasant then what would our church look like? Would we use our money differently? What would our mission be? Would we still be doing church the way we are doing church?

That's why we often prefer Christ the King over Jesus from Nazareth. Christ the King affirms our ambitions, encourages us in our quest for worldly power. Jesus of Nazareth calls us to love our neighbour. Christ the King doesn't demand that we serve others because we're too busy serving him, worshipping his power and authority. Jesus of Nazareth asks to serve others in his name. Christ the King offers glory in his presence. Jesus of Nazareth offers us a cross.

It's hard for these two to find common ground.

I think one of the reasons Christianity has been in such decline in the west is because we've followed Christ the King, turning him into Caesar. We've nestled so snugly in Caesar's bosom that we've forgotten our missionary mandate. We society propped us up. We grew, but it wasn't real growth. We weren't creating disciples of Jesus. We were recruiting church members. Churches became another social club. A religious institution.

Over the past 1600 years or so, when Christianity became the official culture religion we've expected the public institutions to do our jobs for us. We got lazy. We let our missionary muscles atrophy. When Christians have a holiday, we expected EVERYONE to have a holiday. We used the culture as a crutch so we didn't have to rely on the Holy Spirit for our strength.

And the culture willingly obliged. In return for their endorsement it received our blessing for its ambitions, no matter how cruel or self-serving. We were partners in the enterprise of empire building. Christianity became synonymous with worldly power. The main image of Jesus people had was the King of kings and Lord of lords. No crucified messiahs need apply.

Christianity fell in love with its approximation to power that it forgot that it's primary act is to serve. And since society and culture did our jobs for us, we find ourselves grappling with what to do when society and culture broke their agreement to prop us up.

People aren't expected to come to church. Parents aren't presenting their children for baptism as often as they once did. Pastors aren't praying at community functions as often. Worship attendance has almost reached a tipping point of decline. Congregations are greying. Churches are closing. Christ the King's crown is tarnishing. His robes in tatters.

Christianity, as we recognize it, is dead. It's been buried along with our influence. Christianity may be dead. But Jesus is alive.

Institutional Christianity may be six feet below ground but Jesus is still healing the sick and setting the captives free. Christianity may have had an inelegant demise, but Jesus is still loose in the world. Jesus is still good news for the poor.

And God is opening new doors of opportunity for those who follow him. Jesus is still recruiting disciples who are more interested in serving others than getting what they can for themselves.

We can get angry over what we lost, or we can see the tremendous possibility that stands right in front of us – to be good news people, not an institutional religion. To be God's messengers of love, forgiveness, healing, and grace. To be a people of hope. Tomorrow's children. Resurrection people.

That's where Jesus truly reigns as King. In the lives of those who serve. In the dried tears of the hurting. In the hands that heal. In the forgiving word.

May this Jesus reign over us. Amen.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pentecost 23 - Year B

“The building is our idol,” our esteemed bishop said in his report at yesterday's Southern Conference Convention. “Some churches, if they had a choice,” he said, “would rather be without a pastor than a building.”

I immediately knew what he was talking about. My first church was like that. They had been without a pastor for about two years before I arrived. And when I was moving into the parsonage a couple council members made it known to me that they were happier without a pastor.

At first I thought they were saying that being without a pastor energized the congregation, that ministry was happening among all God's people, not just the ones wearing dog collars, that people were empowered to live out their baptismal calling through Word, Sacrament, and service. I thought they meant that being without a pastor meant that they were forced to flex their ministry muscles.

No. That's NOT what they meant.

“When we're without a pastor,” I was told, “we take in A LOT more money than we give out. We were able to amass a small fortune before you came along. Now it's going to all be gone.”

I thought this was some isolated grump. Some mean, cheap, old guy who lost the crowbar that opens his wallet.

But no. There was something in the water of this little church. There was a palpable resentment over paying me.

The treasurer hemmed and hawed whenever I submitted my mileage for travel allowance. They didn't pay me my continuing education or book allowance. And half way through the year they cut off my dental insurance after I jokingly boasted about never having a cavity (40 years on this planet and STILL no cavities!). They would whine about how “poor” a congregation they were, so poor they couldn't afford to pay me what they agreed to.

However, I was up in the church attic one morning with some folks and we noticed that some of the beams holding the roof together were looking a little worn. One fellow has his drill with him and wanted to see how deep the wear and tear went into the beam.

The drill went through that beam like cotton. It looked like the 150 year old building was due for some serious maintenance. They hired a contractor and received a quote. It was somewhere around s$300 000 to make all the needed repairs.

It looked like this “poor” little congregation was headed for closure.

But no. This “poor” little congregation who who couldn't pay me according to synod guidelines raised the needed funds in just five Sundays.

“The building is our idol,” the bishop says. Or as the writer of Hebrews would put it, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands.”

I wish I could tell you that this was an isolated case. But I can't. I know of a church in Nova Scotia who let their pastor go because they said they didn't have the money to pay her. But they DID have the quarter of a million dollars to fix their bell tower when it toppled over – a bell tower!

“The building is our idol,” the bishop says. Or as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands.”

The point isn't clergy welfare, but ministry vitality. What I think our bishop meant when he called the building an “idol” was that it's easy to worry about the upkeep of our physical space at the expense of Christ's mission.

This is something I'm VERY aware of. And I know most of you are as well. I know there's some among us that are hesitant or even opposed to us getting an elevator (eventually!). You've been very open with me that you feel that we should be spending money on people not bricks and mortar or elevator shafts.

And I hear that concern. And I'm sympathetic. “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands” so maybe we shouldn't be spending so much on ourselves. At least that's what it can feel like.

But I don't think Good Shepherd is guilty of Bp. Ron's accusation. The building is not our idol. Our building is used 6 days and nights a week. There's always someone here. And by God's grace, there will be even more people coming here. And an elevator is simply the cost of doing ministry.

And we're working hard at making this worship space workable in this new configuration. And that will cost money. And I know that, since worship is the central act of the church, making such changes are the cost of worshiping God.

But it also feels to me like we're spending a lot of money on ourselves. Even though there are good, solid, gospel reasons why we're doing all this. And I've been thinking about these changes over the last year, wondering what we can do.

To me, it feels like 2009 has been a year of looking inward. And that was intentional. We explored the bible and our Lutheran theological tradition together, and we will continue to do so. We've tried to make our physical space more workable and attractive, which will be an on-going project. But these were all about US.

So, I'm going to give you folks a heads-up of what I'm thinking about for 2010. I'd like to make 2010 a year of mission, of looking beyond our doors, of touching people in the community with good news. I don't know exactly what this looks like yet, so I'd like to hear your ideas. And so would our executive. How can we impact people in our community with the gospel?

That's your homework for the next couple months and beyond. I have some impressions of what this might mean but I also know that you are a creative, faithful bunch who see opportunities that I do not.

Stepping beyond our doors is stepping beyond ourselves. In serving together as Christians we will grow together as Christians. And we will show the world that the church is not just some religious institution only interested in protecting itself, but that our call is to serve the world in Jesus' name, being salt and light, bearing witness to the God of life.

“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands” because WE are that sanctuary. We are living stones, the holy temple where God dwells. Just like when Jesus in today's gospel despaired over religious leaders more interested in propping up the institution, and despaired even more of the little old widowed lady giving her final two pennies to corrupt, self-serving religious system, he did so because he knew that God was found in each of us, and in all of us together. This place we gather is sacred because this is where God's people – Christ's church – assembles to worship and to serve. This is home base for God's children, where we can rest and be fed, to go back into the world carrying God within us wherever we go.

So, bring me your ideas of how we can serve. Together, we'll bring Jesus' healing and forgiveness to a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world.

May this be so among us. Amen.