Saturday, January 21, 2012

Epiphany 3B

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Repentance. I think the Christian proclamation has twisted this word into so many knots that it would be unrecognizable to Jesus’ first listeners. And now, the mere utterance of that word evokes strong feelings of shame. At least it does for me.

“Repent!” we hear preachers say. And what they usually mean is “Stop sinning! Change those parts of your life that is putting you in conflict with God. Cut out those impure thoughts and actions and turn to the purity of God’s will. If you want to be close to God then you have to remove anything that gets in the way with your relationship with God.”

I heard that a lot from too many preachers. For me, when I hear that, and if it`s true, I always wonder if I have repented enough. I always worry that there’s something that I’ve missed, that there might be a spiritual blind spot that is keeping me from growing in my faith.

Luckily, in an old prayer of confession, there’s an escape clause. The prayer confesses those sins “known and unknown.”

However, while we may be forgiven of those unknown sins with a linguistic sleight-of-hand, practically, we are no better off because we cannot change that which we do not know that we SHOULD change. If being close to God and greeting the kingdom when it arrives is dependent on something that I do, than I’m not sure that really sounds like good news.

As Christians, we tend to focus our faith on the sin/forgiveness transaction. We reduce our faith to us sinning and God forgiving. And we repeat that over and over and over again.

And yes, that is an important part of our Christian faith. But that’s not where our faith ends. Our Christian faith is SO much more than that. Receiving forgiveness of sins is just the beginning of our faith. It’s not the whole of our faith.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

There’s more here than meets the ear. Jesus’ first listeners might have gasped at the boldness of such a proclamation. Not just because of it’s religious expressions, but for it’s political overtones. Such talk was a good way for a guy to get himself killed.

That’s because they lived in Caesar` kingdom. And Caesar doesn’t share. And Jesus’ listeners had seen plenty of loved ones fixed on crosses so Caesar could keep his real estate.

So Jesus set up “The Kingdom of God” in direct competition and contrast to Caesar and the kingdoms of this world.

The “Kingdom of God” that Jesus talks about isn’t a disembodied existence in the heavenly realm. But the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about is God’s presence in their world. The Kingdom of God was God’s vision of life, of peace, of forgiveness, of justice, of mercy, and grace alive and running loose in our world.

To repent means to “turn in a different direction.” So when Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” what they’re hearing is:

“Turn away from Caesar and the kingdoms of this world, and turn to God’s kingdom. Where the Caesars and kingdoms of this world protect their power through force and oppression, God’s Kingdom brings peace and justice. Where the Caesars and the kingdoms of this world seek revenge against those who hurt them, God’s kingdom brings mercy and forgiveness. Where the Caesars and the kingdoms of this world seek to grow their wealth by stealing from others, God’s kingdom feeds the poor and sets the captives free.

“So don’t align yourself with the Caesars and the kingdoms of the world. Be part of God’s kingdom. For God’s Kingdom is here. The kingdom of God arrived! Be my kingdom agent, be my agent of healing, of working for justice, of seeking peace, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forgiving one another. That’s the kingdom that I have brought to the world. That’s the world I want my followers to live in. That’s the Kingdom I want you to be a part of.”

So, maybe, for us, instead of the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness, some Sundays we could have a Brief Order of Kingdom Accomplishments.

Instead of always talking about where we have failed, we can share about those times we have succeeded!

Instead of always admitting our guilt, we can proclaim our successes.

Instead of pointing to our shortcomings, we can share our victories.

You can talk about where you have seen God working the world.
You can tell stories of how God is working in your life.
You can share about how you have participated in God’s kingdom work.
You can talk about the forgiveness you offered and received.
You can talk about the justice you worked for.
You can talk about how you feed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. You can talk about how you were that caring ear, that comforting touch, or that encouraging word.

You can talk about how you fished for people by letting them know about a God who loves them.

You can share all of this, not to brag about how spiritually awesome you are. But because this is evidence of the kingdom of God at work in the world and in your life.
You can share these stories to bear witness to the God who promised to make all things new.

You can tell these stories not to point to you, but to point to the one who called you, who chose you, who tapped you on the shoulder and said, “Follow me.”

You can do this to remind yourself and each other, that God has not given up on us or the world, but that God still creating and re-creating everything. Just as Paul tells us in the first reading that the present world is passing away just as the new world is arriving in Jesus.

You can do this because you are a citizen of Kingdom of God, named and claimed as God’s own because of what Jesus has done for you.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Now go! Be the kingdom people that God called you to be!

May this be so among us. Amen!

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Epiphany 2B

New Years day was quite an education for me. I was told that Japanese people are not religious, yet they pray at the shrine. And from the lineups I saw at the various shrines in the area, I could see what people meant.

I would say that makes Japanese people VERY religious. At least in practice if not in belief. It seems that in such a highly ritualized culture, the act of praying at the shrine is a quite a religious thing to do, even if folks sometimes do so out of ritual or simple tradition.

Tokyo is this amazing city where I can walk through blocks and blocks of highly modern landscape, with its massive steel and glass buildings, and stunning architecture. Then I encounter - out of nowhere - a small Buddhist temple. And someone might be praying there. And down the block I’ll stumble upon a Shinto shine, reminding people of the city’s deep history.

And of course, on my way to the office I walk through the Yasukuni Shrine, where there is, often, a crowd gathering. And knowing its complicated history, and the strong feelings it arouses, I make my way as quickly as I can when the young men in black shirts and sunglasses start shouting into their microphones.

Religion is everywhere here. Yearnings for the sacred are found on every city block.

This wouldn’t have been news to the Christians in Corinth. The Corinthian Christians knew shrines, and they knew temples. They knew that temples and shrines were places where gods and goddesses lived.

Temples were expensive to build and even worse to maintain. Temples were sacred, holy, awe-inspiring places. They were places people went to celebrate life’s special events, those transitional moments that helped them along life’s journey. If they wanted to find the Holy, they went to the shrine and the temple.

So they were probably surprised when Paul asked them: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

They probably answered, “No, we didn’t know that.” After all, how COULD they know that their bodies were temples of the Holy Spirit? That wasn’t what they were taught. And it’s not always something we remember as well. And forgetting that we - our bodies - are temples of the Holy Spirit can bear significant consequences.

I know this from personal experience.

I think I’ve done more walking in the past 10 weeks than I’ve done in the past 5 years. Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, where I came from is, very much, a car culture. Actually, it’s more of a truck culture. While I buzzed around the city in my mighty 2006 PT Cruiser manual, 5-speed, with no cruise control or air conditioning, most other vehicles on the road were fully loaded half-ton pick-up trucks, with the occasional gun rank on the back.

In the eight years I lived in Lethbridge, I never once took the bus. It simply didn’t occur to me. Public transit wasn’t on my radar screen. Even though I could walk to my office from my apartment in 24 minutes (I once timed it), I still drove. I told myself that it was because I needed my car for home visits, and going to meetings, or running around the city doing church business.

But that was just a lie I told myself. I was immersed in the car culture of Alberta and didn’t want to admit it. I assumed I was better than those who reflexively bought into the unspoken idea that successful adults drove. Losers and children didn’t.

And swallowing whole the notion, I grew into the lovable mass of tubbiness you see now. And why my walking has helped me reconnect with my physicality. Aching leg muscles and sore feet remind me that I’m alive.

I see Alberta’s car culture as a metaphor for how we see ourselves. It’s as if the less we need to use our bodies than the further progress we’ve made.

It’s as if we’re running from our physicality, and with our physicality, our humanness. And perhaps, as we’re running from our humanness, we are trying to escape our mortality. Because our physical-ness reminds us of our limitations.

Maybe that’s putting too fine a point on it, but I DO think that we’re forgetting how to be human in a way that deeply connects with others and our surroundings.

On the subway everyone’s face is buried in a screen, including mine. And people are trying not engage the person next to them. I find riding the subway eerily quiet. So I put on my ear buds, turn on some music, and open a card game on my phone, so I join the rest of those who are oblivious to the mass of humanity milling around.

You may already have heard bout this, but I read recently about a game called LovePlus+, where men can get a virtual girlfriend as an app for their mobile device.

According to an article in The Atlantic Monthly: “Users play the game by simulating everything from holding hands to sending flirty text messages, and can even use the device's built-in microphone to hold simulated conversations. But unlike traditional video games, LovePlus+ users say the point of the experience isn't simple fun or virtual competition. 19-year-old player Tatsuya Fukuzawa [says], "There isn't a lot of romance in my life. This helps me cope with some of the loneliness." (Atlantic, November 2009)

And this reached an extreme with a guy, in 2009 “marrying” his virtual girlfriend. Is this a frightening trend away from deep human connections? A symptom of the growing desire to craft one’s own life apart from human community? Or the obvious next step for a techno geek to take on his way to nerd heaven?

I think I know what Paul would say:

“ you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body...”

In other words: YOU are sacred, YOU are holy, YOU are awe inspiring, because YOU - are temples. Or the better way of saying it: you are a temple. The Holy Spirit is dwelling within your physical space, in your very body. Everyone together. That’s why you can never really be your own. You’ve been summoned into a life where you are responsible for others and others are responsible for you.

That’s the life into which Jesus called Philip in this morning’s gospel. The simple summons, “Follow me” created an earthquake within him, and he knew his life was not his own, that he was part of a bigger family, a larger community. He was - with the rest of God’s people, a temple of the Spirit of God, who calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy.

And that’s what Paul was trying to say to the Corinthian Christians. We are made in God’s image, and our bodies have been made into the body of Christ, Our lives are not to be about arrogant, self-serving freedom, demanding that our personal hungers be satisfied.

Our lives are about loving and serving each other, knowing that our lives - and our life together - is a gift; a gift of the Spirit that lives and thrives deep within us, that there is not part of our lives that God does not dwell, no corner of our existence that God is not transforming. God lives in this body [pointing to me] and THIS body [point to the congregation] - YOU are the temple of the Spirit of God.

“Glorify God in your bodies,” Paul concludes. God lives in you and you live in God. YOU are the dwelling place for the Almighty, welcome all into the Spirit’s Temple, swing the doors wide open and receive a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world. In THIS Temple there is forgiveness and healing. In THIS Temple life is renewed.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Baptism of Jesus B

We met John the Baptist in Advent – two Sundays in a row! And we encounter him again today. And he’s in no better a mood now than he was then.

But Mark left out the juicy bits of John`s story. He took his scissors to the moments when John’s venom was most poisonous. John had a few choice words for King Herod and his wife. John didn’t like the fact that Herod married his brother’s wife. In fact, it was against Jewish law. And if Herod didn’t like John’s well-aimed preaching he should have taken it up with God, not John. John was just doing his job.

It might have been that joltingly honest preaching that drew Jesus – and everyone else - to John that morning at the Jordan River. John was refreshing. Unique. Different from other preachers who either told people what they wanted to hear, or lined their pockets with the pennies of little old ladies. John wasn’t warm and fuzzy. But you knew that he’d give you the straight goods when it came to the things of God.

That day, in the river of freedom, where thousands of years prior, God’s people crossed from slavery into the land that God promised them, was where Jesus joined himself to that saving story, where his mandate as God’s Son was given to him. Where the affirmation of the Almighty wrapped around him like sun-soaked blanket.

“You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased...” Who wouldn’t want to hear that from God? Or from any parent for that matter.

But lying underneath this affirmation from the divine was a summons. A calling that might have made Jesus’ blood turn to ice.

If Jesus was God’s Son - Israel’s Messiah - the one to save people from their sins and create a world of justice and mercy, then that didn’t mean that he could simply bask in the warm embrace of heavenly approval. He couldn’t walk around town all Messiahy cashing in on his sacred status.

Being God’s Son meant he had to go and do things that the messiah was supposed to do. Being the messiah wasn’t a state of divine being. It was a job description. A letter of conscription from the only one in the universe who won’t take “no” for an answer.

Although, I’m sure saying “no” crossed his mind. And so, I wonder if before he dipped his toe in the water for his heavenly bath, he was tempted to take another walk around the block. Or hop on the next bus out of town.

Maybe Jesus’ temptation didn’t begin or end, like we assume, in the desert to where he ran after being dunked by John. I wonder if his temptation anxiety started well before he found himself in the Jordan River. I wonder if he was tempted to run away from his calling. From his task as God’s Son. I wonder if he was tempted to escape and hide from who he was.

If he was tempted to stay in Nazareth and take over the carpentry business from Joseph, maybe settle down, get married, and crank out a few kids, I don’t think anyone would have blamed him. After all, it wasn’t a bad life. The work was steady. He was close to family. And there were no crosses following him wherever he went.

I’m sure he had all that in the back of his mind when he followed John into the water. I’m sure he knew that, once he was dipped in the muddy river, his life was over. Everything he was and did was gone. He knew the weight that was being placed on his shoulders. It was a new beginning for Jesus. A call into God’s vision of the world that he had to follow. A path that led to the Kingdom of God - the kingdom that dwelled within his very being.

“You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased...” The next, unspoken, sentence was “Now get to work.”

Work on healing the sick and raising the dead. Work on preaching good news to the poor and setting the captives free. Work on giving sight to blind and comforting the broken hearted.

Work on showing God’s Kingdom love to a world in pain. Work on forgiving people’s sins. Work on setting the world straight through mercy and justice.

That’s quite the job description, isn’t it?

I’m glad that’s his job and not mine. I wouldn’t want to be saddled with such a burden.

But then again, who were all those people who being baptized with Jesus? What did God want for them?

As it turns out, Jesus wasn’t the only one being called into a new life that day in those waters. God was calling them into the same life that Jesus was called into. Baptism isn’t just a ritual that we perform as an entry way into the church family. And baptism isn’t just a one-off salvation ticket.

Baptism is about being recruited - drafted - into a movement. In baptism, we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, so we can live resurrection lives in a world so often more interested in death.

Baptism is about God’s light shining through us in a dark world. It’s about binding the world’s wounds. It’s about being part of a movement that is bigger than ourselves, God’s movement of renewing everything about the world, where God wipes every tear from our eyes, where crying and pain are extinguished, where the hungry are satisfied, and the dead rise breathing new life.

That’s the life into which God has called YOU. That’s the task that God has placed in front of YOU. Not to earn special favour, or gain some sort of heavenly reward, or attain special spiritual status.

But God has called you into this life because that mission who God is and that’s what God does, and you are in Jesus, and Jesus is in God.
You have been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have been drafted into Christ’s mission. You have been named and claimed as God’s own child through your baptism into Christ so that you walk the earth as a healing presence.

It’s because God looked upon you, saw everything you’ve done, looked over your pains, your weaknesses, your regrets, and your failures, God has looked you up and down and inside out, and God open the divine arms, wrapped your in divine love, and said, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased…Now, you have a job to do.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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