Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent 1B

On May 21, 2011 I was on a plane traveling from from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Calgary, Alberta, having just finished attending a five day preaching conference, when I remembered the date, and a bead of sweat appeared on my brow.

How could I have forgotten so easily? After all it had been in the news for months. Warnings had appeared in my email inbox, billboards were erected all over the world, the TV was overflowing with news stories sounding the alarm for us to be aware of the impending scene about to unfold. Houses and businesses were sold in preparation. Millions of dollars were raised in the effort to make sure that the whole world knew what was about to take place on May 21, 2011.

As many of us were told, May 21, 2011 was to be the Day of Judgment. It was the Day when Christ would return in glory. It was the Day when God would judge the nations, and the dead shall rise in judgment, the righteous to be lifted up into heaven and the unrighteous left behind for destruction. It was a day of salvation and chaos. Heavenly joy and earthly suffering. A day when the good receive their reward and the the bad endure eternal punishment. It was a day when history was to come to a screeching halt.

And I was on a plane wondering if the pilot was among the righteous, lifted out of his earthly existence at cruising altitude upon Christ’s return. I wondered if he would go to his heavenly reward at 38000 ft, leaving the plane’s driver’s seat empty. Being that far up I’m guessing he wouldn’t have far to go. But then what would the rest of us do?

But then, three hours later, the plane landed safely in Calgary, the pilot still at the helm. I looked out the window and earth bound existence seemed no worse for ware. There was no fiery landscape, no weeping and gnashing of teeth. No mothers wailing or blood soaked mountains anywhere to be seen. The sun had not been vanquished by the night.

When I stepped off the plane I saw that it was just another day in Calgary. Sunny. Warm. Nothing to get excited about.

“H’uh,” I thought to myself. “It looks like Harold Camping was wrong.”

As many of you know, Harold Camping is the American doomsday preacher who prophesied May 21, 2011 to being the End of the World. Having been a lifelong student of the bible, he believed he cracked the code and did the math, calculating the date when Christ would once again, step foot on terra firma.

And people believed him. Even though he’d been wrong before. Some of his followers quit their jobs and sold everything they had to warn the world of the coming doom. Millions of dollars were spent in advertising.

And then....nothing happened.

After his humiliating mistake Camping said, “Oh! I must have dropped a decimal point. Silly me. I meant OCTOBER 21, not MAY. Oops!”

And when that second prediction failed to materialize, Camping became strangely quiet. His radio talk show ended, and we stopped hearing from him. And then Time magazine listed his warnings as one of the “Top 10 Failed Predictions.”

It’s easy to make fun of these preachers who seem to believe they have special access to God that rest of us don’t have. But what I find so frustrating about Camping and preachers like him, is that they haven’t really read the bible they say they believe to be God’s Word. If it is true that Jesus will one day return in glory and judgment, then surely today’s gospel needs to be part of the conversation

Jesus says,

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

So, if anyone tells you that they know the date, time, and place of Christ’s return, they’re either lying or they’re wrong. And I’m not sure that this passage means what they say it means.

Many people call this passage, “Mark’s Little Apocalypse” but I don’t think there’s anything “little” about it. It’s about cosmic forces colliding, and the power of God returning to fill the earth.

And Christians have been reading this story for 2000 years, expecting Jesus to return shortly after lunch. But of course, he hasn’t. And it makes thoughtful Christians wonder what we mean when we confess that Jesus will “come again to judge the living and the dead” as we do each week in the Apostles’ Creed.

But what this passage assumes is that Jesus will be, somehow, absent, from us. It assumes that his physical presence is more potent than his presence with us through the Holy Spirit. And I’m not sure that’s what Jesus wants. Because if we keep our eyes fixed on what God WILL do we miss what God is ALREADY doing.

When Jesus tells us to “keep awake” I wonder if he also means to keep awake for the signs that he is ALREADY here with and among us.

It’s like he’s saying, Keep your eyes open to the wonderful, life-giving signs of God present among you today. Keep your eyes peeled to God’s promised future reaching back and touching you in your life TODAY! Right NOW! In this place!

Keep awake to the care that’s shared between two wounded people. Keep awake to the concerned phone call to someone whom you know is hurting. Keep awake to the stranger who is looking for food. Keep awake to the prayers said at a hospital bedside. Keep awake to promises of the resurrection to eternal life heard and believed while standing over a loved one’s grave.

Keep awake to the joy of knowing that you are a child of God, beloved and chosen to do great things in this world. Keep awake to the gift of life that rises with each new day.

If you want to see what God’s future looks like, just watch a baby. After all isn’t that what we’re waiting for this season? We’re waiting, preparing to meet Jesus in a Bethlehem manger. We’re waiting with hopeful anticipation for God to show us that God’s world’s is filled with immense possibility. We’re preparing to receive God’s promised future in our lives TODAY. We’re watching to see that God has not abandoned the world, but that God is deep IN the world, transforming it and and US from the inside out.

We’re preparing to meet the one who brings peace and salvation, justice and mercy, forgiveness and grace. We’re preparing to greet the one who brings love and healing to a troubled world.

Jesus isn’t talking about the earth’s destruction. Jesus is talking about the world’s creation and re-creation. Jesus is talking about YOU and YOUR re-creation, as Christ is born within you. Jesus is telling YOU to keep awake to the awesome things God is doing in YOU and through YOU. It’s about the FULFILLMENT of what God is already doing among you and us. It a call to keep your eyes wide open to what God is doing HERE. TODAY. In YOUR life and in mine. And in the life of the whole family of God.

So keep alert. Keep your eyes open. You don’t want to miss what God is doing.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pentecost 22A

This story from Matthew’s gospel starts out really well, doesn’t it? Then it takes, a nasty, nasty, turn.

The boss is heading out of town and leaves his staff in charge. He’s not the type of let his money sit around doing nothing, he wants to put this cash to work for him while he’s gone. He’s probably the one who usually handles the finances, but this time he delegates.

He’s a savvy enough investor that he knows how to make money while he’s sleeping. He knows the difference between earned income and residual income and passive income. He’s probably part of the one percent, and had to step over some Occupy protestors to get to his waiting limousine to take him to the airport.

It’s clear he TRUSTS his staff to invest his money wisely. He wouldn’t leave his hard-earned money with just anyone. Since he’s probably the one who trained and mentored them, sharing the wisdom of what it takes to build a successful investment firm, he releases his capital according to each person’s abilities. We hear that one guy received 5 talents, another 3, and another one.

After his trip abroad, the boss comes home to find that the first two doubled their investment. Great job! They did exactly what the boss expected them to do. They get a promotion, a raise, and a couple extra weeks holiday.

But the third guy, afraid to take a risk, leery of the instability of the stock market and afraid of losing it all in real estate, buries the money in the backyard. An inelegant yet safe approach to protecting his assets.

This is where the story gets ugly.

The boss’s eyes burn and his skin turns red. The poor, lowly, slave, cowers under his bosses wrath, justifying his behaviour,

“I know you are a harsh man...I didn’t want to get into trouble if I lost you money....!”

“You knew, did you, that I’m a harsh now I’ll REALLY show you what harshness looks like.”

The boss grabs him by the collar, drags him to the door, and throws him out into the cold night air.

The boss didn’t loose anything. But he didn’t gain anything either. What I think got the boss so angry was that this guy didn’t even try, there was NO attempt - even a tiny one - to build on what he had given him. A savings account or even a guaranteed income certificate would have given him at least a modest return (if it wasn’t eaten away by banking fees). No the third guy hid the money where it couldn’t be used. The boss was enraged because all the possibility that money brings is hidden and locked away, under the guise of safety and security.

So the boss, in a fit of excessive managerial rage, strips the scared hapless grunt of the money he was given, and was pushed out into the darkness. There was no sympathy for poor performance, and no room for error. His job was to make money for the boss. No return on investment? Then no job. Period.

Sounds like an awful place to work, doesn’t it? Do you have a boss like that? I’d hate to hear how some of my former staff would answer that!

I find it unsettling that this story should have such a nasty ending like this. After all, this could be such a POSITIVE parable. This could be about how we use our gifts to build on what God is doing. It could be an affirmation of the joy people get when put to work doing something that brings our their passions.

Instead we get an ugly threat. And people don’t usually respond well to ugly threats.

So it makes me ask: where is God in this passage? The traditional reading is that God is the boss, and as the boss, expects great things from us, or we’ll suffer the consequences.

But I have trouble seeing God that way. There’s no forgiveness, no mercy, and no grace here. If we read this story with God as the boss then God becomes a nasty, punishing, overlord, who demands high levels of spiritual performance from us.

The boss cannot be God, because God does not behave this way.

You might point out that is was the boss who gave out the talents, and isn’t God who gives us our gifts?

But I want to ask, who gave the boss the talents to give out? He wasn’t born with them. He may have earned them, but these talents passed through his fingers. He was the steward - or caretaker - of the talents, not the provider. And as a steward - or caretaker - he wisely invested them. But he also harshly judged those who didn’t live up to his performance standards.

That’s why I see the boss as the church. As US. I’ve been around the church long enough to know that the church brings out peoples’ best and peoples’ worst. Even a quick glimpse at church history shows that many church leaders often used people to build the institution rather than use the institution to build people. After all, the Reformation that gave birth to the Lutheran church was a response to how church leaders forgot that God was interested in growing faith, not in creating structures of political power and empires of wealth.

But the could be others as well

The boss could be the culture, the voices of the past; your parents, your teachers, your pastors, your friends, anyone who made you so scared that you buried your talents, that you hid those gifts that God wants you use for the life of the world, the skills that bring joy, peace, and healing to others.

We all have the “boss” in our lives, standing over our shoulders, making sure we won’t make a mistake, and threatening to punish us when we do. Everyone has a voice whispering threats in our ears.

Who is YOUR “boss”? Who is it in YOUR life that keeps you in such fear that you bury your talents so they won’t be used?

This past week’s bible study we talked about Steve Jobs, and asked whether or not there could be a Japanese version of him. Most agree that, no there couldn’t. That Japanese culture demands conformity at the expense of individual creativity. And that, somehow, makes Japanese culture deficient.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, and that’s certainly not for me to decide, but it did get me thinking. Yes, we say that North American culture created the environment for a Steve Jobs to emerge, and that he represents the best of North American aspirations. His innovation, risk taking, and creativity represented all that North Americans strive for. We like to take collective credit for his individual accomplishments.

But then I realized that Steve Jobs is the exception, not the norm. Which is why there was such an outpouring of emotion upon his death. He may be symbol of what North Americans SAY they aspire to, but in reality, North Americans are not the ones who take their talents and invest them wisely. North Americans pay lip service to innovation, individuality, and that anyone can chase after their dreams and create their own destiny.

But in reality, North Americans encourage conformity, walk the easy path plopping in front of the TV or computer after work, and pursue the comfortable if diminished dream. North Americans celebrate the weirdoes only when the weirdoes are successful. We mock failure. So most don’t even try to excel.

So, I don’t think either Japanese or North Americans, or ANYONE has a lock on what helps people grow into who they were created to be. That famous Japanese saying about the “nail that stands up gets hammered down” is just as true anywhere else in the world as it is here. At least, here in Japan, people are honest about it.

As Christians, we are asked to walk a different path. Our job is not the be the “boss” in the story, but to fire him if he gets in the way of what God is doing.

Our job as Christians is NOT to throw people into the darkness but to help them SHINE in the world, to show them how much God loves them, to help build on what God has given them, to affirm their gifts and to set them loose into other peoples’ lives bringing peace and healing to those who need it..

And we can start by shining OUR lights, the light’s that WE have been given, by using our gifts, skills, and passion for the sake of other for the the life of the world.

In a few weeks or months, we’ll be offering the workshop on discovering your spiritual gifts, so you can use them for the good of the church and the life of the world.

And so, as Christians, followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, Paul reminds us in today’s second reading, as he reminded the church in Thessalonika, “let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

That is who we are. That is what we do. May this be so among us. Amen.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

All Saints Sunday

First. Class. Doormat. That’s what I said to myself as a little boy and heard this passage from Matthew for the first time.

And I’m not alone. American civil rights activist, Malcolm X once noted that oppressed people will continue to be oppressed if they follow this teaching. And US comedian Bill Maher likes to make fun of this “crazy” teaching that sets people up for abuse.

Those of us who’ve been around the church for a while might find Malcolm’s and Bill’s comments offensive. After all, they’re the words of Jesus, and their sharp edge might have dulled in our ears from years of hearing them.

But to fresh ears, Jesus’ words can sound astonishingly naive. Or even dangerous to our well being.

Blessed our the poor in spirit....blessed are those who mourn...blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemaker, and the persecuted.

Most of these are parts of ourselves that we’d rather keep hidden, aren’t they? These are human attributes that we’re trying to avoid. We don’t want to be on the same city block of mourning, or of meekness, or even of peacemaking.

We spend more time and energy trying to look strong. We put on brave faces to share with others, so we won’t look weak.

And this week, I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why these readings have been assigned to All Saints Sunday.

To me it seems that we’re being asked to celebrate those who’ve lived according to Jesus’ impossible standard in this passage if finding blessing in tragedy. We’re supposed to remember with thanks those who have succeeded in the Christian life and are now gathered around the throne singing praises to God. We’re supposed to want to emulate the heroic faith of Saints past, who joyfully divested themselves of worldly pain and now reap the rewards of heavenly peace.

But that’s not something I want to do. Because if we spend our time looking at other peoples’ spiritual “successes,” our faith lives can look small. And we learn the wrong lessons.

I think the Christian life isn’t measured by our successes, but by our scars. It’s our weaknesses and failures that make us strong. It’s in our crosses that we find resurrection.

I stopped regularly wearing a clerical collar because I found that it ceased doing what it was supposed to do. I found that the clerical collar wasn’t a way INTO peoples’ lives, but was keeping me out. I noticed that people were talking to the ring around my neck rather than to me. And they were parsing their words.

And because of that, I saw that people were hiding information from me. They were afraid that I’d judge them for their mistakes and hurts. They were afraid that my uniform meant that I was in the business of condemning them for their failures rather than being an agent of God’s mercy and forgiveness. My job was getting in the way of doing my job.

The phone rang and I recognized the number on the call display and wasn’t going to answer it. But the guilt-ridden sucker in me wouldn’t let me ignore someone who I knew needed my help.

“Hi pastor, I need you to pick up my daughter’s prescription and take it to her apartment...” said the voice on the other end of the line.

I sighed.

What was I, a delivery service? Why does she assume that I have time to drop everything to pick up some pills, then drive across town to drop them off?

But rather than get into a heated argument with this particular person, like I so often did before, I decided I’d help her and her daughter.

“Where can I pick them up?” I asked.

I was still grumbling when I drove across the city to the outskirts where she lived. I put my “Clergy Parking -Emergency” sign on my windshield hoping that it might discourage vandals or thieves, since she was living in a drug-addled neighbourhood.

She buzzed me in and I and made my way through the haze of marijuana smoke that loitered in the air. I was worried about the smell sticking to my clothes and having to answer some uncomfortable questions when I got home.

I knocked on her door. When she opened it and saw me in my work clothes, it looked like her eyes were going to pop out of her sockets. She wasn’t expecting - for what she knew - a priest to deliver her medication.

She invited me in and told me her story. She’d been arrested for stealing a car. She had a history of drug abuse, and so the judge put her under house arrest.

She sat up straight in her chair with her hands folded on her lap as we talked. She was choosing her words carefully. It was clear that she didn’t trust me.

“Thank you for picking up my pills, pastor” she said. “They keep the demons in their cages.”

“What demons?” I asked.

“Depression,” she said, examining my face for a reaction.

“How are you finding the medicine? Is it helping?” I asked.

“Sort of,” she answered. “They keep me functioning. But they make me feel like I’m just going through the motions. I have no highs or lows. They steal the flavour from life.”

“Yeah,” I noticed the same thing when I was on them.

Her eyes widened.

“YOU!?” she shouted? “Why would a pastor need pills for depression!?”

“We all need help from time to time,” I said.

Her shoulders relaxed and the muscles on her face softened. Then the REAL conversation began. She talked about her bully of an ex-husband, the impossible expectations of a perfectionist mom, and the life she dreamed of having.

I realized that she was sharing so openly with me, NOT because I had a collar around my neck and the word “reverend” in front of my name. In fact those things kept us at a distance.

She shared so openly because I shared her brokenness. I wasn’t preaching from a mountain top as one with all the spiritual answers.

But we communed as two children of God bound by our frail humanity. And I think that could be the blessing that Jesus talked about when he said, “Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”

That phrase, “Kingdom of heaven” isn’t describing a disembodied existence of heavenly bliss far away from the dirt and pain of earthly life.

But the kingdom of heaven is wherever God is healing the sick and raising the dead. The kingdom of heaven is wherever God is working within our lives and the world that God so loves. The kingdom of heaven is wherever two or more people gather to share their common frail humanity, trusting that God can use them for God’s resurrection purposes.

As we begin our ministry together, it is my greatest hope and most heartfelt prayer that this community will be marked with God’s healing power in the brokenness of our lives. That our mission is to serve each other and the world God loves through our common human frailty rather than worldly strength and power. Because it’s in the midst of weakness and pain - the crosses of our lives - that God’s resurrection work is done.

It is your wounds that give you power. It is your scars that give you strength. It is your tears that give you wisdom. It is your weakness that gives you authority to minister to others in Jesus’ name.

And together, as we join the saints of every time and every place, joined together in our common need for a saviour, we will sing with one voice, Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!

May this be so among us! Amen!

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