Tag: Hope

I Have Called You By Name

Isaiah 43:1-7 cb1453_grande
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I once had a job I was so unhappy with. I really disliked going in. I took as much sick time and vacation time as I could, and loathed Mondays.

I remember my friends asking me, why not get a new job? Why continue here? Was it the benefits? No. Lack of other jobs? No. The people? Oh no, absolutely not. So why? Why did I keep going in to THAT work?

I couldn’t come up with a good reason. I just kept going. When I thought about seeking a new job, I got anxious and worried. What if the new one is even worse? I mean, it was hard to get a worse job than the one I had, but they’re out there.

What if … what if…

Eventually, I realized that some people suffer from thinking the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence…

… and other people suffer from thinking the brown grass they got is still grass and try to convince themselves the green grass they see on the other side of the fence isn’t worth climbing over.

In other words: we prefer the hell we know to the hell we don’t know.

We fear the unknown. It’s better to be in an awful position than take a risk into… that great unknown. We don’t know what we’ll face if we change. We do know what we’ll face if we stay the same.

I knew what every day would involve. It would be trying to sell ‘insurance’ which really wasn’t insurance and feeling like a scammer… because I was…

But if I applied to work elsewhere, would it be any better? I didn’t know. And I feared that unknown. So back to door-to-door sales I went.

The ancient Israelites were in the hell they knew. They were in exile in Babylon. They, or their parents, had gotten settled in the new land. For awhile, everyone was miserable. But now they’re comfortably miserable. Some are even starting to like this exile.

But now the prophets are calling them back to their ancestral land in Israel, and the king of Babylon was saying they could go back too. So who will go? Who will leave the known for the unknown?

The people were comfortable in their known exilic shame, and scared of the unknown of traveling back to Israel. Fearful.

“O Israel, do not fear,” says God through the Prophet Isaiah. “For I have redeemed you.” I have bought you. I have taken you from debt, from shame, and released you. “I have called you by name, you are mine.” God is calling your name. Your own personal name.

You, listening, are called to risk the unknown.

I, back then in that awful job, was called to risk the unknown.

Today, we’re all called to still walk with God into the wilderness and unknowns where the Spirit moves us, like it does to Jesus after his baptism.

God promises to stick by us through that wilderness journey into the unknown. Stick through us through whatever we can image.

God said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
I will be with you through the rivers and they shall not overwhelm you.
“When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not consume you.”

What other horrible things can you picture happening?
I pictured leaving my job and not finding another. Then I’d be back on food stamps. Then maybe I’d lose my apartment and have to move home to my mother’s couch. Then I’d be a failure and ashamed.

The Israelites may have thought about robbery and being stolen and taken into slavery.
God told them, “I give Egypt as your ransom, and Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Talk about a kick to the butt for me. God would give an entire nation – or the richest nations – for me. I’m worth that much. How could God want me to stay in a sleazy job? How could being fired from a sleazy job for telling the truth “No, this insurance ISN’T going to help you” make me a failure? I am precious in the sight of God. My honor is from God, not my boss. I am loved… by God.

God promises to give whole “nations in exchange” not just for my life, but “for your life” too. You are worth whole nations to God. You are precious. You are honored. You are LOVED by the very creator who moved the waters of creation and spoke through the flaming bush. You – you who are terrified of what might be on the other side of the fence – you who are scared of the unknown – are loved by the unknowable itself who reassures you – I AM WITH YOU DO NOT FEAR!

God says that from the east and west we’re called. From the north and south. Everyone is called, called by their own name, and lovingly created as the sons and daughters of God.

God is calling the Israelites to their ancestral home, and to not fear the land and troubles in between.

But God is still calling today. Calling all of us to God’s self, and to not fear the reputation and troubles we’ll get for being faithful to God.

I listened back then to the call. And when this little old lady answered the door to me one afternoon with a big, brilliant smile on her lips and the fogginess in her eyes saying she couldn’t see… I couldn’t lie to her. She directly asked me, “Will what you’re selling actually help me?”

“No.” No, it would not.

At that moment, I stepped into the unknown. Time to buckle up! Now we’re off the script my boss had my memorize!

God never promises there will be no fire and there won’t be water. Instead, God said God will be with us in these things.

And yeah, I got fired real quick. But it felt… good. It felt good to be without a job. That time without a job, and that time of choosing to not lie to the elderly lady helped lead me towards seminary. I know it. Joblessness pushed me back into school… and although it took some time, eventually I began to say yes to God more and more often until I ended up in seminary, and chaplaincy, and that to here.

The grass was greener on the other side. But man, getting over that fence was rough. I’m so glad God the Good Shepherd was there to help me get from one pasture to the next.

If God were as John describes God, I’m not certain any of us would dare to call God a shepherd… let alone, ‘Good.’ John the Baptist preaches about the forthcoming “ax-wielding arsonist.” ((Barbara Brown Taylor)) That guy terrifies me. And he is some people’s God. Some people do picture God as wrathful and angry and hacking the world to bits and burning it.

But that’s not who Jesus reveals God to be. Jesus reveals God’s personality as the “gentle carpenter whom the Holy Spirit chose for a roost” ((Barbara Brown Taylor)). Since we know who God is through Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection… I’m inclined to think the gentle carpenter is more accurate of who God is – THE God of love – than the ax-wielding arsonist.

That’s not to say John was wrong and not the messenger preparing the way for God. I’m just pointing out it is Jesus who is more powerful than John, and Jesus who John feels unworthy beside. So it’s Jesus’ depictions and examples of God I feel more confident relying upon.

Still, Jesus does come with fire and water.

Jesus came to John to be baptized. And he stepped into the waters, the heavens opened – but instead of raining down fire, from heaven came the Holy Spirit, which was like a dove, to alight upon Jesus and infuse in his soul an unquenchable fiery spirit.

“When you pass through the water I will be with you”
In the waters of baptism – there is God!
In the waters of birth – there is God!
In the water of rain, and flood, and snows, and ice – there is God!
In the water of tears of sorrow and the tears of joy – there is God.
When we pass through the waters of life, God is with us.
And the waters will not overwhelm us because we have God, and we have one another.

Troubles will be there, but we shall overcome.

And,

“When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned.”
The fire of the Holy Spirit alighting upon us will not burn, but refine.
The fires that consume houses, and lands, and bodies cannot consume souls.
The fire that rages in anger and in war will and do surround us – but God sticks with us offering always the hope of peace of soul and mind and world.

Through this all, God declares: “You are my child, and loved, with you I am well pleased.”

You are my daughter.
You are my son.
You are my love.

We are NAMED by God. NAMED beloved child. NAMED and CLAIMED. Given a family. Given a protector. Given a companion. A brother. A redeemer. A savior.

If that’s not enough to encourage us to step out in faith and take a risk to do good; what would be?
If you’re in a bad situation and scared to change… Do not fear.
When you’re comfortable in the earthly hell you’re in… trust God will be with you through the transition towards living into the reign of God now.

Changing jobs. Starting relationships. Ending relationships. Telling the truth. Moving. Downsizing. These are scary waters! God promises to stick by us and not let us drown in them.

Confronting our sins. Confronting complacency. Confronting family racism. Addressing gay or lesbian intolerance. Welcoming strangers… These are fires God promises will not consume our souls.

In the waters of baptism we were given unquenchable holy fire for we are created for the glory of God and personally, PERSONALLY called by our names to relationship with God.

You can do this.

You’re not alone!

Amen.

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A Blue Christmas

Isaiah 9:2 (NRSV)1-candle.jpg
The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
Nat King Cole gave us the lyrics of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and “tiny tots with their eyes aglow.” From that same 1940s era is song after song about the “most wonderful time of the year” but, I’ll admit, it’s a “blue Christmas” for me. The pressure to feel happy and joyful makes me a Grinch. I’m sad there are people who are not here who ought to be, and the ghost of Christmases past haunt empty chairs and old photographs. I don’t want celebration songs; give me a few funeral dirges. The hymns “O Come Emmanuel” and “O Holy Night” feel more appropriate than joyful music during this season. These hymns deal with the reality of chains, sin, error, and this “weary world” mourning “in lonely exile.” For me, they invoke the spirit of Christmas that looks for the “thrill of hope.” They bring to mind the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” I feel that darkness. The Great Light of the hope of new life, reunion in heaven, and peace on earth is like a guiding star, like light at the end of a tunnel, like the joy others feel that I may someday feel again in this season. Until then, I live it “if only in my dreams” and watch for the light, like our ancestors did of yore.
— Published in the Towne Crier, December 2018

Kin-dom of God

John 18:33-37 crown
Revelation 1:4b-8

It is 1925: Secularism and nationalism is on the rise. Fewer people go to church, and more people identify with their country saying things like “America first!” Churches observe national holidays and sing hymns to the country, rather than to God. Many feel jaded… like God is an old notion and the new way is to follow someone who identified with the common man, speaks like him, and has good and bad qualities like him.

I’m speaking about the year 1925 – but it could be 2018. In 1925, the Great War, rumored to be the Final War, World War I had finished. The great kings and czars and ruling families of the Romanovs, the Habsburgs, the Osmans and Hohenzollerns were destroyed. People no longer identified with kings. They identified with presidents. Führers. Elected leaders. And since these people come and go quickly, they identified with their counties. I am French! I am English! I am American!

Churches began to display country’s flags, and hymns were rewritten to new words to honor countries.

But fewer people came to church. Church was too quaint, too antiquated, to answer to the pain that was Guernica, trench war fare, and missing brothers.

So Pope Pius XI said, we need a king “whose kingdom there shall be no end.” Who will be able to lead and answer to this world of pain. And over a few years, he and theologians worked together to craft a long letter explaining how Jesus is a king. If everyone saw Jesus as their ruler, their king, their president, their czar or führer, then there is hope of lasting peace among all these nations and never again would the whole world break out in to war. Truly, the Great War was the War to end all Wars.

We know it didn’t last. WWII breaks out. We have rumors of WWIII ever since WWII ended. Nationalism rises and falls. Secularism rises and falls. And even among Christian to Christian, we argue and fight.

But the goal of the Pope was lofty and right. He instituted this day, the last Sunday of the Church Year, as Christ the King Sunday. We Protestants adopted it, and sometimes call it Reign of Christ Sunday. Or something similar. The idea is the same: there is no king but Jesus. There is no Caesar but Jesus. There is no president but Jesus. There is no reign, no ruler, but Jesus. And since we’re all under the one same ruler, then there are no French, no English, no Americans. We are all one people – Christians.

And this gives us the hope of peace.

Really, the same notion is what holds the United Church of Christ together. We affirm there is no head of the church but Christ – and that is the bridge that unites us with all our different theologies, different political views, and different ways of worshiping and being.

But, I don’t know about you, the idea of Jesus as “King” sits a little awkward with our scripture.

Consider… Jesus NEVER calls himself king. Not once. He calls himself the ‘son of man.’ A human. He calls himself a child of god, but also calls you a child of god. He calls himself a servant, and a slave, and a witness to truth. After giving the people bread, the people went to take Jesus and make him king. He runs away. When the disciples want Jesus to go to Jerusalem and be king, he tells them kings are tyrants. Be servants. When Satan offers Jesus to be king of the world… Jesus refuses. Three of our four gospels are concerned with showing Jesus as a humble man, with humble beginnings, living a humble life, and dying ignobly.

All four note he dies, however, with the sign declaring his guilty charge above his head. And that sign reads: “KING OF THE JEWS.” in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. This sign is abbreviated on some crosses as INBI or INRI.

How did he come to be charged with sedition, with trying to become king, when he was adamant he was NOT an earthly king?

John teases us with it from the beginning,  but the bulk of the testimony to Jesus’ kingship is in the final chapters of the book of John. ((We’re setting aside Matthew, Mark, and Luke who do not really use king language.))

In John,

“John intentionally and dramatically arranges the trial of Jesus before Pilate into 7 or 8 scenes, punctuated by Pilate’s egress to meet the Jews and ingress to interact with Jesus.1 Each scene — and the whole trial — centers on kingship.

Scene 1: 18:28-32
Jesus is accused; the charge will be sedition — making himself a king.

Scene 2: 18:33-38a
The nature of Jesus’ kingship is raised. Is he king on Earth, king of Israel? King of who?

Scene 3: 18:38b-40
The choice: King of the Jews or Barabbas? The people reject the king for a bandit.

Scene 4: 19:1-3
Jesus is crowned King of the Jews by the local king.

Scene 5: 19:4-7
Jesus is presented to the people dressed ironically as a king. The chief priests and police, seeking Jesus’ death, demand Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate has put them in the position of demanding the death of their own king (19:6).

Scene 6: 19:8-11
Jesus’ authority as king and Son of God is revealed: Jesus won’t bow to Pilate.

Scene 7: 19:12-16a
Jesus is presented as King of the Jews. Pilate maneuvers in Jesus’ trial to appear as the one who crucifies the Jewish king. John recreates this scene of the demand for Jesus’ crucifixion twice. The second time, he underscores that it is the beginning of Passover, the moment when Israel would stop and remember God’s kingship and God’s rule over other powers. Instead, at that same moment, Pilate asks the Jews again, “Shall I crucify your king?” In their reply, “we have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15), John shows that the Jews’ rejection of Jesus leads them to deny God’s kingship and embrace Roman rule.

Some add an 8th scene: 19:16b-22
Jesus is exalted on the cross and reigns as King of the Jews. Part of the irony of John’s presentation of the trial and crucifixion is that Pilate uses his own authority to declare Jesus’ kingship. Pilate places an inscription over the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:19). The chief priests protest, asking Pilate to clarify that this was only what Jesus claimed. But Pilate refuses their request with a solemn pronouncement, “What I have written, I have written” (19:22).

In this way, John crafts his narrative so that Jesus’ kingship becomes most visible in his crucifixion. It is as if his crucifixion is his enthronement as king, the moment at which the declaration of his kingship is made public
((WorkingPreacher))

By the time of the crucifixion in John, Jesus is established as the king of not Jews… but “Jews,” which in John means all people whether or not they accept Jesus as king. He is king over the local kings and king over Caesar – for he is now lifted up and taken to heaven to rule.

As the crucifixion makes clear, Jesus’ kingship is “not of this world” (John 18:36). All of the gospels agree that Jesus and Caesar reigned in opposite ways. Caesar stayed in charge with violence, bread and circuses, militaries. Violence kept people fearful. Free bread fed their bellies. Circuses entertained them. Militaries oppressed neighbors and stole wealth and labor for Rome.

Jesus reigns with peace and repeatedly says “Do not be afraid.” He tells us to forgive one another. Jesus reigns with bread – the free bread from heaven that fulfills not bellies, but souls. Jesus reigns without circuses. Without entertainment that makes you forget your troubles because Jesus goes into your troubles and invites us to address them. Jesus rules without militaries. We’re told to set down our weapons, and to pray blessings upon our enemies.

Because Jesus reigns as no other king, some Christians have taken to referring to the Kin-dom of Heaven instead of the Kingdom. In a kingdom, a king is in charge. A male over all others. And the idea of a king brings forward the idea of hierarchy. Crowns. The king ruling over the impoverished and lowly serfs. A king with knights for war. A king with power stolen from others and kept with fear and manipulation. By referring to the kin-dom of God, we remember Jesus isn’t king like an earthly king.

Kin means family. Jesus reigns as our brother, our beloved, our friend. Jesus reigns as our servant, our slave, our sacrifice. Jesus reigns with hope, peace, joy, compassion, forgiveness – with love.

Kin-dom of God reminds us that WE are family. Much like Pope Pious intended the Reign of Christ to remind us: we are one. Our nationalities, our race, our gender expressions and sexual orientations, our ways of worship, our political views, our secular allegiances and clubs and groups do not separate us because… we are one. We are the children of God. We are all brothers and sisters.

Amen.

Humble Clay

Isaiah 64:1-9 maple_tree_bud
Mark 13:24-37

 

The Prophet Isaiah pleads with God – come, God, come – show the world how amazing you are. We’re dry leaves in the wind, blown to and fro about petty concerns, and chase after things which aren’t you. We’re lost in our sins.

But, God, we’re clay and you’re the potter.

God, we are the work of your hand.

God – come and remold us, rework us, repair us.

This hope is kept alive for generations upon generations. This hope keeps the people seeking and watching for the messiah – the one God will sent to gather us back from wherever we’ve blown, wash away the dirty sins, and remake us anew.

This hope brings us to the Gospel — the Good News — of the testament, the words, of Mark.

Mark remembers Jesus saying that when everything is darkest, and we’re shaken to our core — when it seems like all hope is lost…

There still is a light. THE Light. THE Word of God which will never pass away. THE God, who will not give up on us.

We don’t know when this will happen. We don’t know how or where. We don’t know when the first maple or fig bud appears – but we know it happens. We know when we see those signs of life after a long winter, that summer is near.

We don’t know what is the first sign of Christ’s full reign – but it is budding everywhere. And this long time of waiting in winter will be over, and full summer will be here.

A budding of that glorious time is happening today – with church, and with the foretaste of heaven in our communion.

A budding of that glorious time is happening all the time — all the time there is another little sign, another little bud — soon all the trees will have leaves. Soon, all people will live in harmony.

While we wait for that time, we keep the faith – keep our hope.

Hope with joy. Hope with peace. Hope in love.

For you do not hope in vain. What the potter has begun, the potter will continue to work into perfection.

Amen.

Why Have You Cast Me Off?

Psalm 43: All Saints Sunday sorrow.jpg

You are the God in whom I take refuge – why have you cast me off?

Why must I walk about mournfully? Oppressed?

The Psalmist demands an answer from God. He or she cries out – God – my God – why have you forsaken me? Why is this happening?

The Psalmist tries a plea, show me any light, any hope, God, and I will follow it to you.

The Psalmist tries to bribe God. I will come to your altar, God, your church, and praise you with exceeding joy…. if you give me any hope.

And the Psalmist chastises themselves, “Why are you cast down, o my soul, why are you disquieted?” Why are you sad? Soul, you should take hope. For I shall praise the one who is my help, my God, again some day.

And the psalm ends.

Does hope come? Does the psalmist ever get out of their sorrow? Does God ever send enough light that the singer can see where to find God?

We don’t know the ending.

Psalms are songs gifting us prayers and words to express how we’re feeling right now.

And right now, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Who sits here feeling forsaken, abandoned, cut off from God’s light? You don’t sit alone. 3000 some years ago, this writer felt the same.

Who sits here trying to cling to hope for a brighter tomorrow, who tells themselves good phrases like ‘Take heart,’ ‘This too shall pass’? This psalmist did, too.

Who sits here longing for the mountain of God where every tear is wiped away and death is no more? This ancient person, did, too.

Jesus told the people around him: listen to these teachings in scripture. Listen to the hope offered and the promises.

But Jesus said don’t tie up the problem with a pretty bow and hand it back as a burden. Don’t go using scripture to harm people. Preach the good news, preach the hope, but do no religious violence.

This often means sitting with the psalmist in that uncomfortable zone of not knowing why there is sorrow. Not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Not knowing if there is a happy ending.

It often means realizing our best intentions to say something nice, or scriptural, are actually harmful… for what the psalmists and the person mourning needs is presence and abiding love… they need an invitation and permission to bounce between hope and hopelessness just like the psalmists… and don’t need a judge telling them how to feel and think.

Do you know someone who is hurting?

Words like, “God must have needed another angel” sound nice… but are actually a burden implying God in God’s selfishness killed your loved one. Try instead, “One of my favorite memories of our loved one is…” or “Tell me one of your favorite memories of them.” Either of these open the dialogue up to be a conversation instead of a burden.

Instead of, “Be strong,” which implies it is wrong to feel sad, and is a weakness, say “We all need help in times like this. I am here for you.”

Try not to say, “Don’t cry, they’re in a better place,” which implies not only that it is wrong to cry, but also that being with the mourners was hellish. Say instead, “I wish I had the right words. Just know I care.”

Words like, “It’ll get better,” may be true… but are a burden, because that is not where a person mourning is sitting at right now. Silence, companionship, a hug, a dropped off meal, a check up calling or writing months or years later saying, ‘I know you’re still hurting, and you’re still in my prayers and thoughts’ does much more good than reassuring the person now that tomorrow is brighter.

Because when we’re mourning, tomorrow may not be brighter.

It may take years. Or decades. Or it may not be better until we’re in heaven and God wipes those tears away.

The one who know is hurting?

Just cry. Just sit. Let the mourner lead you.

The greatest among us is a servant.

The blessed among us are those who weep.

The psalmists leads us in his or her mourning from despair into hope and back and forth again. And God goes with them the whole way. We ought to too.

Today we remember all of us who are in mourning. We remember all who have died and leave behind beautiful, complex, lives and stories and memories for us to carry on.

And we remember all who have died and leave behind words unsaid, mysteries, and pains never addressed. We remember we are a community.

A community of saints, living and dead, born and not yet born, and never born, who all make up the body of Christ.

And we practice what we teach – to truly rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. To hold both the promise of new life with the pain of mortality. To embrace each other as who we are, where we are, and to love one another with the deep, abiding love God gives us.

Amen.

Why Rejoice?

Indonesia VolcanoIsaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9

Why rejoice? How can we rejoice at a time like this? Is it right?

Think of this year. What a year. A terrible year of tragedies, and world disasters. A year of record breaking fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. A year of genocide, and threats of nuclear war, and civil war. A year of racism and homophobia and hating immigrants. And our year is not over.

What a year. Families destroyed. Friends lost. Voices silenced. Homes burned and flooded and flattened. Hopes burned and flooded and flattened. And our year is not over.

There is literally a hurricane headed towards Ireland right now.

Think: Santa Rosa this week. Las Vegas last week. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands before that. Then Mexico’s earthquake, Texas’ hurricane, the genocide in Mynamar, the starvation of 20 million in Somolia, Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria. And constantly – terrorist attacks in Europe, threats of war in North Korea, Syria, Palestine…

Was last year better? Or wasn’t it a terrible year too? Was it this bad?

A shroud is cast over us. A mourning shroud, like a suffocating sheet, and depression settles in.

And anxiety. Fear. And even “an inexplicable gloom, inexpressible longing for unnamable things, weeping for that which is not yet lost.” ((Harano))

A post-traumatic stress disorder even though most of us haven’t experienced these things personally. But vicariously, by listening to the stories of others, and watching television, and the news, we know – and we mourn – and we hurt.

We have empathy fatigue.

It’s almost like a new horrific disaster happens and we look at it numbly, and then go about our lives numbly…

Because numbness doesn’t hurt like caring does.

It is like we gradually lose our compassion when always faced with trauma. Big traumas- working in hospitals – or little traumas, like working with school students with rough home lives year after year – or daily trauma… like caring for loved ones with chronic illnesses.

Hopelessness begins to settle in. And a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. Feeling dour. Feeling cynical. And resistant to help others who are suffering because no one is helping us. And what would helping this one person do?

There’s a million more crying for aid.

We are caring people. Called to care. Called to cry with those who weep.

It’s because we’re caring that this secondary trauma sets in.

Because we weep.

Because we love.

At all times in the world, in all ages, there are great and horrible things happening simultaneously. In Isaiah’s time, in Jesus’ time, in our time.

To survive empathy fatigue we need Sabbaths. Times of rest. Times of pausing to do some emotional self care.

We are called to weep, but we are also called to share in one another’s joys. To praise God together. To be happy for one another.

We are to weep with the world. And we are to rejoice with the world.

We are to hold both tender emotions together, in tension. And balance time of sorrow with time of joy – sometimes… maybe all the time… sorrow and joy are both present. It is okay to feel good too. This doesn’t negate the bad. We don’t need to feel guilty. Emotions are like breaths – best in and out, up and down. Feeling both the good and the bad.

Today, let’s do a little self care with scripture and with stories of good. Stories of the simple things that bring joy. Stories of hope and joy. Do ourselves some self care so we will be ready for whatever tomorrow brings.

ISAIAH JOY

Isaiah’s writing comes to us in a time of sorrow. He could easily just focus on the pain alone, and in some verses, he does. The country is weak and powerless. Around them large superpowers fight and war and their little land is caught in the middle – being burned and destroyed over and over again. Nearby is a city that keeps watch – a guarding city – but not protecting the Isaiah’s people. This city is Assyrian, and tries to keep the land for Assyria. For a hundred years Isaiah’s people have been subservient to Assyria, and pay it steep taxes in food and animals and people to just not be annihilated.

Now, suddenly, Babylon has defeated Assyria and leveled the military outpost city.

What will tomorrow bring? No one knows. Will Babylon come and destroy Jerusalem? Or will the Judeans be free?

Isaiah chooses to take the moment to point out : what seemed impossible has become reality. And he invites his people to take time to rejoice in their freedom – however fleeting. Time to appreciate what they have – right now in this moment.

“O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”

Wonderful things. Like creating the beautiful sunrise we saw this morning. Like painting the sunset we will see this evening. Like matching golden rod with purple asters and the music of crickets and grasshoppers when the birds’ songs are south for the winter.

Faithful and sure plans. Like planning to never leave us stuck in sin, or wallowing in death. Like being certain to always be beside us. Love us. Forgive us.

Isaiah considers the nearby military outpost, and how it is destroyed. Even though the Judeans did nothing. He is in awe. And he praises God more,

“…strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

Strong people who need nothing will still glorify God. And the cities of ruthless, cruel, malicious people will not glorify God, but they will fear God because God is the refuge for the poor. God favors the poor over the rich.

And God is refugee for the needy in their distress. God hears our cries and holds the powerful responsible to help the powerless.

And God is a shelter from the rainstorms and shade from the heat. In God we find our homes. Our eternal homes.

So the strong praise God for leadership and aiding the strong in helping the weak.

And the selfish fear God, for God judges against them as they harm the poor, needy, homeless and weak.

Isaiah continues,

“When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.”

In other words, when the ruthless, the evil-spirited people rained troubles and were an oppressive heat…. God provided shade, protection, over God’s people and sent cool winds to silence the voices of evil.

Cool winds in heat. Rain in droughts. Smiles. Kindness where you didn’t expect it. Flowers through concrete and the fast friendships of children. Birds on the wing and someone holding open a door for another. Things happening daily but which give us glimpses of how God is right here, living with us, giving us the power to do good and care for one another.

Isaiah pictures God as a victorious king who invites all people to a rich feast. The very best feast described in the Bible with aged wines and red meat and the tastiest food.

Then God, personally, will destroy the shroud of sorrow, the blanket covering our joy.

And God, personally, will wipe the tears from every face.

And no one will be shamed or disgraced or lesser. We are all equals.

And God, personally, will swallow – destroy, devour – death once and for all.

And the waiting for God will be worth it. “This is for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Remember: Isaiah writes this when he does not know what tomorrow will bring. When there are rumors of war.

But he rejoices in the present moment and keeps alive hope. Hope for the beautiful full reign of God on Earth as God reigns in Heaven.

PHILLIPIANS JOY

Paul also could be focused on misery. He also does not know what tomorrow will bring. And he also chooses to balance his sorrow with times of joy.

He is in prison. Christians are being persecuted, kicked out of their communities, killed. Often by their own relatives. And he hears of how the new churches are fighting each other, he could give up. Paul could get exhausted with caring.

But he takes joy. And urges the churches and us to take time for joy and goodness – even in the middle of pain – too.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”

All though the letter to Philippians, Paul is speaking of joy. He opens his letter with the “remarks that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4); he goes on to mention “joy in faith” (1:25) and wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). In chapter 4:1, Paul calls the congregation in Philippi “my joy and crown,”… we too probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”
… It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us…

So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God… ((Dr. Eberhart https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2148))

“And since we are beset with anxieties that get in the way of rejoicing, Paul tells us to pray in everything, bringing everything, no matter how trivial or how insurmountable, to the God who loves us. We cannot generate freedom from anxiety by our own efforts; the attempt only pushes the anxiety underground, where it festers and leads to secret despair. But Christ will meet us at the place of worry, because Christ has descended to the depths of human despair. Therefore God has become for us the God whose peace “guards” our minds and hearts.

[Lastly] Paul tells us to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise…Paul is holding two realities in view at the same time.

Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.
But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the counter reality of God’s rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.

…Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for Rome’s subject peoples; Tacitus, a Roman senator who served in Rome’s far-flung provinces, wrote bitterly, “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is itself a kind of “colony,” a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.” And to find time for joy.  ((Dr Eastman https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1011))
OUR JOY

Yes. Terrible things are going on. And yes. We care. And yes, we mourn. And yes, we are going to act and pray and help. But to prevent burn out, to prevent empathy fatigue, we need self care too. Time for joy and laughter.

So let us turn to our joy in our present moment… take a breather. Think of something this week that brought you joy. And let us share.

Think of the county fair.

Think of your family and friends.

Think of your pets.

Your fall garden.

The book you read, the show you watched, the phone call you had.

Let us share, one by one, as we feel so moved, something small or large that brought us joy this week…

I will begin if I may: Wednesday I heard my daughter squeal with pure delight in the kitchen. I went in and found she had dumped a bag of rice on the floor and was doing snow angels in the rice. I could have gotten angry, I could have complained – but she was having so, so much joy. She told me, “Mommy~! Snow!”

So I sat down and did them with her.

My joy is in choosing to see the spilled rice as my daughter does – as wonderful snow.

–sharing—

Amen.

What Anticipation!

Matthew 21:1-11
Philippians 2:5-11

palmSunday.jpgRoughly translated today, we are cheering: “Praises for the Prince! Anyone who comes in the name of God is a blessing! Let there be praises in heaven!”

We are anticipating the new prince, the new rule. We are making a religious statement- God celebrates this person, this Jesus. We are making a social statement- anyone who proclaims God is a blessing to us. And, we are making a political statement – Jesus is our Lord, it is Jesus we follow – not any other politician.

Is it any wonder the whole city of Jerusalem is in an uproar asking ‘Who is this man?’

The whole world should be in a uproar when we make such bold statements! If only we could live up to this hope and anticipation and proclamations of faith!

But you and I both know – these very same crowds turn on Jesus in just a matter of days. And we, who praise here this morning, will face hours when we’re tempted to deny Christ like Peter, and betray our faith like Judas, and sleep while on watch like everyone else.

So, in this reprieve between the reflection of Lent and the beginning of our holiest of weeks, let’s slow down like the Gospels do and really look at our scripture. Let’s sing our hosannas and understand why we do so.

In each Gospel, Jesus enters Jerusalem a little differently, but always hosannas are shouted. Always praises to God, and asserting heaven is praising this person. Hosanna means two things – literally, it is “Save us, we pray!” But over the centuries in ancient Israel, it also took on the meaning of huzzah, or yeah – a cheer. So we and the people are cheering for Jesus… but we’re also praying: save us!

“Save us, prince. Those who come doing God’s will are blessings. Save us, God.”

And slow down and look at what people are carrying. What people carry is different in the different gospels to reflect what celebration parades looked like to the people the Gospel was addressing. So cloaks here, palm fronds there, tree branches in Matthew, but always cheers and loud praises of Hosanna everywhere. Maybe today, if we were to write about this, we would say the crowd waved flags and threw confetti as we yelled PRAISE GOD! SAVE US! One way or another, it’s in God’s name, it’s about a savior, and it’s a big celebration!

But the items used are also symbols. They tell us more about the story.

See, Jesus comes on a donkey – and not just any donkey, but a young one. This is the symbol of peace. A warrior king rides in on a stallion – a big huge war horse. But the king of peace comes on a young donkey – a little common creature, skittish and untrained. Humble. Just as the prophets foretold that the promised savior would do. Curiously, in Matthew, did you notice the colt is so young that Jesus rides the baby donkey’s mother instead of the colt, and the colt goes along with his mother? I like this image. This is an image of peace, prosperity, family, love. You’re surely not running into war with a mother donkey and her nursing foal. This is like the image coming up in our gospel of Jesus wishing to gather up, protect, and love Jerusalem like a mother hen gathers her chicks. Jesus enters not as a warrior with weapons and might – but as a member of a loving family.

He might be on a donkey, but they still welcomed Jesus as a king and the center of the impromptu celebration parade.

Just like we roll out the red carpet for stars, ancient peoples would lay down their jackets or cloaks to make a special path for a ruler to travel. Again, they’re saying he is their ruler and someone super special.

But even more symbolism is at play in this tiny scene!

To Greeks reading or seeing this occur, the palm frond is the symbol of victory. The goddess Nike carries palms in victory.

However, to the Egyptians hearing this story or seeing the procession, palms are a symbol of eternal life because they stay green for so long.

And so, we receive the fronds as a powerful symbol reminding us of Jesus’ victorious power over death, and we celebrate in the promise of eternal life.

Now, welcoming Jesus in this manner is how someone would welcome a returning victorious war general, or a king… and the songs being sung by the crowd are Davidic songs… songs related to the fallen kingdom. This isn’t just a religious welcoming. This is a political welcoming.

I like this scene as the play ‘Jesus Christ Super Star’ sets it. The people are singing “Hosanna!” to Jesus, and nearby the Jerusalem authorities are grumbling and warning each other that this is getting out of hand. It was cool when Jesus was a teacher, or Rabbi, with parlor tricks… but now the people are mentioning words like miracle, king, and messiah. In that play, the high priest sings, “They crowd crown him as king, which the Romans would ban. I see blood and destruction, Our elimination because of one man… The stakes we are gambling are frighteningly high! … For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.”

In other words – just as we read last week Babylon would tolerate no political uprising, so too, will Rome not tolerate such. If the people crown Jesus as their king – a Jewish king – Rome is going to sweep in and bring blood and destruction… just as Babylon did a few hundred years back. These officials don’t see a prince of peace coming on a donkey… they see the would-be-king bringing the end of their city, and people. They see a heretical cult leader.

In Luke, some of Jerusalem’s authorities in the crowd about Jesus tell him, “Rabbi, rebuke your disciples!” Shut them up! Get them to stop saying you are messiah, king, savior!

But Jesus answers, “I tell you, if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out.”

Recall – John has said God could raise up descendants of Abraham from stones. Perhaps Jesus is alluded that even should the authorities silence every voice crying out Save Us! Praise God! that Jesus’ mission and word would continue. New stones would arise, and they would cry out too – prayers for salvation and praises of God.

Hope cannot be finally destroyed. Jesus’ whole mission is one of hope – of love – of joy – of forgiveness – and God’s love message to the world cannot be snuffed out. Even if lives are extinguished and voices made silent – the message continues on in new places, with new voices, in new lives.

The tension in this scene is incredible. There are the people – believing and hoping in their messiah. Some dreaming of a return to a beautiful earthly kingdom. Some dreaming of the golden age of God’s reign on earth. Some in the crowd already living in this golden age — people who have known and experienced Jesus’ miracles. And also in that same crowd are people dreaming of Rome coming and repeating what Babylon did, and leveling the city to nothing — scattering the people — and leaving a valley of dry bones. Some dreaming of God taking affront to this guy who is suggesting he is God, and God taking revenge.

The tension here at the beginning of Holy Week is just a faint echo – but what do you feel? When Jesus comes into town, how do you picture him? What do you anticipate?

Do you anticipate his miracles? His cures?

Do you anticipate his leaderships? His reign?

Do you anticipate war and the End Times?

When the Son of Man comes – what do you anticipate?

….

Paul encourages us to wait with our anticipation with the mind of Christ. A mind that does not take advantage of others, does not abuse privilege, and is obedient to God. A hymn asking that we not abuse the privilege we have of being alive, being made in the image of God, being able to greatly affect in and influence the world around us. A mind that is concerned with caring for others. A mind that takes all our hopes and anticipations and puts them to use – caring for, and loving, our hurting world.

Do you anticipate, and live into, God’s kin-dom, God’s reign and rule, now?

Amen.