Tag: Philippians

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.

Advertisements

To be or not to be?

Jonah 3:10-4:11 Tennant_and_Tchaikowsky_as_Hamlet_and_Yorick
Philippians 1:21-30

“To be or not to be; that is the question” is a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and is spoken by Hamlet. He asks – what is better? To live; or to die? Back and forth Hamlet goes, considering the pros and cons of living or dying.

In our scripture readings today, both Jonah and Paul are considering living or dying, too. Considering if life is worth the effort to keep fighting for every second.

The word of God has come to Jonah and told him to go to the home of his enemies, to warn them if they don’t repent, God will destroy them. Instead, Jonah runs the exact opposite way. And runs and runs. And each encounter he has with death – storm, whale, desert – he doesn’t die. Finally he delivers the message half-heartedly to the city of Ninevah. Instead of killing him, as what happens to most prophets, the city immediately changes their way.

He’s the most successful prophet.

And yet, Jonah gets very mad, for now God won’t destroy the town. Jonah complains to God – “This is why I didn’t want to come! You, God, are too merciful and loving! You should kill me now! It’s better I die than I live.”

I wonder, what is too much for Jonah, so much that he wants to die. Is God’s mercy too much?

God’s care for the righteous and the unrighteous too much?

God’s love for all people too much?

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he’s saved his enemies. When he goes home, what will his neighbors and friends say when they hear that the Assyrians are doing just fine, even after all the murder they did to the Israelites, because Jonah went and preached to them.

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he feels his life has no meaning whatsoever. He knew from the very beginning that God wouldn’t kill all these people. So what was the point of even going?

God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”

Jonah doesn’t answer, but goes out of the city, makes a little tent, and sits to watch and hope that the city doesn’t keep up their changed ways… or God changes God’s mind again. Jonah wants God to destroy Jonah’s enemies.

As Jonah sulks, God causes a bush to grow and give Jonah shade. Jonah goes from very angry to very happy. The next day, a worm eats the bush, there is no more shade, and now it is hot and windy.

Jonah tells God, again, to kill him. This time because he is suffering from the heat and dust.

God asks Jonah – is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah replies: “Yes! Angry enough to die!”

God replies back, “You didn’t plant the bush or cause it to grow. It just appeared and disappeared. I made people, and cause them to grow, and they’ve been here a long time. Shouldn’t I be concerned about Ninevah, with its 120,000 people who don’t know right from wrong, and all their animals?”

The book doesn’t record Jonah’s reply.

Maybe Jonah replied once again, “Yes, angry enough to die!” This would mean Jonah thinks God should be so angry when someone hurts people that God would be willing to die.

Or maybe Jonah’s answer is again, “I knew you wouldn’t harm them. Just let me die.” Jonah continues to sulk and miss God’s point and message of universal love.

I read, that for Jonah, life is cheap. He’s willing to give his life up out of anger over a bush; and he’s willing for innocent people and animals to die because he doesn’t like their leaders.

God, however, says life is not cheap. God tries to show Jonah again and again that even a bush has worth. People have much, much more worth.

Not a sparrow falls without God knowing. And we are worth many, many sparrows.

There are no lives that are truly meaningless. Somewhere, somehow, every person is called to bring good into the world. Some do this like Paul, with eagerness. Some do this like Jonah, begrudgingly. But we all have the call, the invite, to deep meaning and purpose to our lives.

Even so, death can be a sweet thought.

It is for Paul.

Paul is pretty much sitting on death row. He is accused of sedition, of encouraging others to be more loyal to someone other than Caesar… and he is very guilty. So guilty, he is STILL preaching against Rome through his letters to the young Christian churches. This letter today is addressed to the church in Philippi and full of messages such as “don’t be intimidated by your opponents” and they may destroy your body, but not your soul.

Paul also writes about considering death. How can you not contemplate death when you can feel it coming closer and closer?

Paul writes, “I don’t know which I prefer” living, or dying. To paraphrase, he says: If I die, I know I’ll be with Christ – and that is far better than any day here on earth. But if I live, I can help you all and encourage you. I guess, living or dying, I am with Christ. And living or dying, I gain.

Since I don’t know if I’m going to die and see Christ, or be released and see you, give me this comfort: live your lives in a manner worthy of the Good News of Christ. So whenever I hear about you here in Rome or there in heaven, I’ll hear you are standing firm together and striving together in the faith of the Gospel.

Paul is considering his death because it literally may be this afternoon, or tomorrow, or in years. But he can feel its presence. And he has decided – he is ready to die. Death no longer scares him. He welcomes death, even.

Have you ever met someone who is ready to die? It is unnerving. Every creature has a survival instinct that makes us fight tooth and nail to survive, to live. We abhor death, and avoid it, or try to make it pretty and sanitized. We say euphemisms – she passed away. He is in eternal sleep. They went to heaven.

Death is taboo.

But Paul is welcoming it. And sometimes, people we love welcome death too.

Someone I love recently told me she is ready to die. I wanted to protest and tell her I want her to see my daughter grow up. I want her to always be around in my life because she’s always been in my life. I want to know so much more about her childhood and have a million conversations I’ve put off or not yet even considered. I want…

And I realized, all my protests against my loved one dying are because of things –I wanted–.

I paused in our conversation, and I considered her life, and what she wanted.

She wants her parents, and siblings, and even some children, who are all long dead. She wants to converse with friends about times no one else alive remembers. She wants to be less lonely.

She wants to be in less pain and misery. Every day there is more of both as her body slowly dies and she knows there will be no more better days… only worse and worse days trapped in this fragile flesh body.

She wants to pass with dignity and grace.

If she gets her druthers – at home and in her sleep. Who wouldn’t want to go that way?

And if that’s not possible, then in a nursing home where there are people to care for her without being a strain on her family.

And she is ready. Ready to die.

I am not ready for her to die.

When I worked at Children’s Hospital, sometimes doctors or nurses or chaplains asked parents, “Who are you doing this treatment for? For your child, or for yourselves?”

Is it in the child’s best interest to do another round of chemo that likely will not work but which will make them very, very sick. There is a slim chance it will save their life… but the evidence in this case shows it is much more likely the child will spend their last month in misery. Is it better to go for this tiny slim chance, or is it better to have the child go home and die with grace and dignity?

What does the child want?

Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The refrain is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He tells wise men, good men, wild men and grave men to fight for every single second of their lives and not to die gently, peacefully. The last line is addressed to his own father who he pleads for any blessing, any word — just don’t die and rage instead against death.

Who did Dylan write the poem for, and who was he considering?

His line to his father is: “Curse me, bless me… I pray.”

Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to accept the person we love, that we are going to miss more than our own lives, is ready to die. Accept their choice, and help them go gently into the good night. Help them die in the manner they choose. Love them, as they let go bit by bit, of this world and step into the next.

Love them, and support them, when their wishes for their lives, and deaths, are counter to our own.

Love them, and support them, and know that death is hard work and as they go about the hard work of dying, we are called to be Christ for them. To walk along side them. To be their advocates, to give them agency, to give them dignity, and to help them depart to Christ.

It is actually a blessing when our loved ones jar us with mentioning their preparations for death. That panic we feel tells us how much we have left undone. Moves us to have those conversations we have put off and do those things we always said we’d do someday.

It is a blessing, because we can work on ourselves accepting our loved one’s desires… and when they ask for the permission to let go, to stop fighting, and go home… we can take their hands and say, “Well done, Good and Faithful servant, enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

“It’s okay to die.”

We know it is okay to die because it is not the end of God’s story. It is not the end of ourselves. Death is not the final word – there is a resurrection and a victory.

So… Is it better to be or not to be? That is not the question. The question is: In who’s interest am I acting? Whom am I considering? How can we face this transition together?

Amen.

Superhero!

Philippians 2:5-7

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Everyone has superheroes – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman – Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, or Helen Keller. I have always held Mother Teresa as one of my super heroes. One of the great things about superheroes is how they inspire us and give us hope. However, if you’re like me, you tend to place these people on pedestals. They are more amazing than is humanly possible (Clark Kent literally isn’t human.) So when I learn my heroes have faults, I actually take heart and like them more rather than less. It gives me more inspiration and hope because it tells me a person with faults like myself could do these amazing things. For example, Mother Teresa worked tirelessly with the poor of India out of love of Jesus… but she also struggled with faith doubts and questions. Since I sometimes do too, this doesn’t disqualify me from doing amazing work. Indeed,  it was out of her spiritual loneliness that Mother Teresa received strength to work with the loneliest people. Passages about Jesus’ humanity – complaining to his mother at the wedding, crying over Lazarus – inspire me too. We are called to have a mind like Christ. How could that be possible for us if Jesus’ mind wasn’t human? We’re called to live our lives in Jesus’ Way. How could we if that way was beyond what’s humanly possible? Therefore, our Savior came as both fully divine, and fully human. Our God took on human flesh, and knew what it is to be human… and then showed us how to live like superheroes.

 

Published in the Fairfield Towne Crier 4-21-17

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.

What Just Happened?

Meister_der_Palastkapelle_in_Palermo_002.jpgLuke 19:28-40
Philippians 2:5-11

Can you feel it? Something is afoot.

It doesn’t matter if you are a Trump or a Sanders supporter… either are promising something new. A revolution. To make America great again. Can you feel the energy? The possibility? The people gathering, a new SOMETHING on the horizon!

Or maybe you’re a Cruz, a Kasich, or a Clinton fan: why rock the boat? Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

There is uncertainty. What will home look like? Who will lead us? What kind of future are we striding in to? Who will control what that future looks like? Can you feel the struggle, the hope, the worry, the dreams, the possibility, the feeling that we are on the cusp of a unique moment in our history?

… Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re one of the many who are already sick of the political ads, and political Facebook posts, feel like you’ve lost friends and the election isn’t even here yet. You just want this whole thing to blow over so you can go back to your normal life.

And you know, we are speaking of politicians. Not potential messiahs.

The level of built up possibility, energy, change on the horizon was even greater in Jerusalem when the people saw Jesus arrive. So too the wish things would just go back to normal! And, he wasn’t a potential new president of a democracy; he was the potential promised savior from God AND new king AND herald of God’s reign on Earth.

Just as we go to rallies to wave banners, and greet politicians with cheers and whistles. We sing their victory songs and repeat their chants. So too, did people 2000 years ago.

When Jesus arrived, they ran out with their banners — in this case, palm branches and tall grasses. They cheered and whistled. They sang a victory song from scripture and changed the lyrics to be “Praise the KING who comes in the name of the Lord” rather than “Praise the one who comes.”

Today, we gather around potential presidents knowing they’ll take the stage, teach us, inspire us, lead us – and we hope they end up at the capital where they do a ritual – swearing in – and become our leader.

In Jesus day, too, the crowds gather with stars in their eyes and dreams on their sleeves – inspired, ready to be taught and lead. They hoped he’d head for the temple – the capital – and do a ritual sacrifice where he proclaimed the city belonged to God and no longer Caesar.

People around Jesus cried, “He is the promised Davidic King! He will take us to war, destroy our enemies, liberate us, and we will be great again!”

Others cried, “He is the promised prophet! He will turn the people’s hearts back to God, rid our institutions of corruption, and restore our faith!”

Still others proclaimed, “He is the Messiah! The one who brings God’s holy reign on earth; when peace and prosperity flourish and all things are made whole!”

And some proclaimed, “He is the Son of God!”

King, prophet, messiah, God…

If you weren’t in the crowd, you were standing to the side shaking your head at the words being thrown around. You were thinking, “Can’t we have this Jesus business over with and get back to normal life?”

Others, not waving fronds, grumbled, “These people are blockheads; this is some charismatic carpenter with pie-in-the-sky ideas. He just says whatever the people want to hear. Look at this ragtag lot – jobless peasants, cripples, sinners, the mentally unstable and the foreigners – following their pied piper.”

The claims of king, prophet, messiah, God; the people, welcoming Jesus as their victorious conqueror and king… these are very troubling developments to the people in charge of keeping order. This might be fun and exciting for the rabble today… but tomorrow, when Pilate hears there is a king? When Caesar, who is called the Son of God, hears there is a new Son of God? What then? Will the people cheer and rejoice when this ‘king Jesus’ brings fifty-thousand soldiers bent on bloodying their blades and scattering the people, murdering the educated, and enslaving the children? Only the stones will be left to testify what once was here. Only the stones will remember the great people and city that was Jews and Jerusalem.

The ones worried about the coming future tell Jesus, “Rabbi – tell your disciples to stop!”

Jesus replies with a reference to scripture. What Jesus references is the prophet Habakkuk who heard God say: (Chapter 2)

…Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
the arrogant do not endure.
They open their throats wide as Sheol;
like Death they never have enough.
They gather all nations for themselves,
and collect all peoples as their own.

Shall not everyone taunt such people and, with mocking riddles, say about them,
‘Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!’
How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge?
Will not your own creditors suddenly rise,
and those who make you tremble wake up?
Then you will be booty for them.
Because you have plundered many nations,
all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you—
because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who live in them.

‘Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,
setting your nest on high
to be safe from the reach of harm!’
You have devised shame for your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life.
The very stones will cry out from the wall,
and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.

‘Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,
and found a city on iniquity!’
Is it not from the Lord of hosts
that peoples labour only to feed the flames,
and nations weary themselves for nothing?
But the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.

In other words, when Jesus says, “If I silence the people who are testifying, the stones and wood and plaster will cry out the truth: The arrogant, the wealthy, the creditors, the people who think they are safe because of their possessions and because they have destroyed the people they don’t like – those people are being lowered. The people who live by faith alone are being raised up.

This feels like oppression to the oppressors. This feels like liberation for the oppressed.

What just happened?

Jesus has told the religious leaders, and the politicians, and the people around him that God is going to do a new thing – and it is nothing at all like that most people are expecting and many won’t like it.

It is a reversal from the norm, a scandalous equality. The knowledge of the glory of God has arrived – and even if the people are silenced, God’s truth can never be silenced.

This is God’s truth: That all of us are brothers and sisters, equals.
God’s truth is that equality is not something to exploit. We ought to serve one another, not lord over one another.
God’s truth is a king on a humble donkey, not a war horse.
God’s truth is a messiah who says show love to your enemies, not sword and war.
God’s truth is a savior who doesn’t save even himself from suffering – but who saves us from isolating Sin.

God’s truth is that love – not hate or fear – is the strongest power on Earth.

And God is love.

Jesus’ reply is God’s truth is so integral, so a part of the world, that no politician, no media, no person or people can ever fully silence love.

During this Holy Week and always, may we have a mind like Christ’s – and not exploit others. Let us be humble, servants, loving. Let us confess Jesus is Lord – and we follow the humble, loving, peasant God, who died a shameful death, and who defeated the evils of the world to be resurrected into eternal life. Let us live into that eternal life – and as we wave our palm branches, celebrating, let us remember we celebrate one who loves us enough he willingly walked into the city of his death, let himself be betrayed, captured, let himself be made a fool of, let himself be crucified… let us go with him to dark Gethsemane and let us rise with him next Sunday victorious in love.

Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio, Palm Sunday 2016

Where is the joy?

Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Joy to the world!
Joyful joyful we adore thee!
How great our joy!
O tidings of comfort and joy!
Joyful all ye nations rise!
Bringing joy to every boy and girl!

… Do you ever get tired of being told this is the season of joy?

What if I don’t feel jolly at all?

I spent some time this week sitting and waiting in Walmart waiting on my car battery to be replaced. Across from me was a thirty-foot-long display of “Christmas Joy.” Trinkets imported from China, sharp cinnamon candles, glittery baubles for decorating a tree, and everywhere smiling snowmen and reindeer. The people who walked past this, perused it, and picked things up looked like zombies. Their eyes were glazed over, they looked like this was a chore they felt obligated to do, but it sure wasn’t enjoyable.

I like to make up dialogue for people whenever I’m people watching. So I heard one woman think, “Another season. Another day I’m supposed to smile and be happy and rejoice to see my mother.”

Her mother, walking with her, was thinking, “It’s Christmas already? I seems like it was just Easter. I’m not ready. Well, I mean, I still have the lights up from last year – I never got to taking them down – will last year’s candy do for the grandkids too?”

I saw a man standing in traditional zombie stance with his mouth hanging open and his eyes unfocused as he stood before the “Ready for Wrapping!” makeup case. I pictured him having no thoughts — so overwhelmed — maybe a bit of miserable sorrow since whatever he picked wouldn’t be the right kind of make up… yet the real makeup aisle is ever more overwhelming… Why did his teen daughter have to ask for makeup?

Maybe cash. I think he thinks as he walks away empty handed. Cash is easier. Is it too… crass? He stops at the end of the aisle, grabs the first pre-wrapped makeup case his hand falls on, and hurries away. This makeup is cheaper than cash.

When I went to pay for my battery, there was a line of unhappy people frowning at one another and upset that it was taking ten or more minutes for the line to move. The unhappy workers were upset with the crowds, and yet everyone is here… stuck.

The crowds don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to by social pressure. But this is the season of joy, so shut up and be happy, smile and spend!

The workers don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to to pay the bills. But this is the season of joy! So wear red to work and smile to the angry customers!

Maybe some of those workers would be in the crowd later, unhappily spending their money to purchase things their relatives don’t really want or need… but they don’t want to give their relatives nothing for the holiday. Who wants to be a scrooge? Who wants to say bah-humbug?

Can you be Christian and not feel the feeling of Christmas?

Can you be Christian and think this isn’t the season of joy?

Can you be Christian and just want Christmas to come and be over with already?

“Christmas joy.”

Maybe that’s the feeling you get when you finally have the Christmas decorations put away.

It’s kinda weird, but the first Christmas wasn’t all joyful either.

Some people say Mary gave birth as miraculously as she conceived – a sparkle of light and surprise! There’s a baby. Most people say no, she had a labor. I mean, she was riding a donkey for a reason – it hurts to walk when you’re in labor. There’s a lot of pain in giving birth. Joy, too, but also pain. Fear. Worry. Anxiety.

The shepherds didn’t have joy until after they saw the babe. Until then, they were scared, curious.

Herold sure didn’t greet the news of a new king with joy.

Just like life, the first Christmas was a mixed bag of emotions. Sometimes joyful, sometimes sorrowful.

The Bible, and its stories, lead more insight into our true meaning of the season than the aisle of “JOY!” at Wal-mart too.

You see, the crowds who came to John in the wilderness were far more unhappy and joyless than the folks waiting in line. But these ancient crowds, too, were stuck. You see, as Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the Amistad UCC Chaple writes, “in [John’s] day, the powers-that-be had arranged a world based on empire, with those at the top grabbing – through force and greed – the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. It wasn’t just the Roman Empire and their puppets that experienced John’s anger and sharp words, but also the religious institutions as well felt the sting of John’s rebuke…

John’s message about the forgiveness of sins and being baptized in a river made the Temple and its elaborate systems run by powerful priests sound rather unnecessary. The priests, including the ones listed when John first appears, couldn’t have greeted his preaching with enthusiasm, because the people on top, whether religious or political leaders, ‘abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt’ (William Herzog, New Proclamation Year C 2006). The abuse of position and power for profit is nothing that we have invented ourselves.”

And the crowds are desperate. Things are near a breaking point. People have had enough and can’t stand anymore. None of their leaders seem trustworthy. None of their religious institutions — their very priests!– seem trustworthy. Even the old, old story of the Exodus, and God’s promised covenant to be with the people no longer seems trustworthy since everything is going so, so wrong. The people want a Messiah. They want revolt. They need things to change.

So why did people come to John? He wasn’t winning any Public Relations contests. He was dressed in nasty camel’s hair, looked and spoke like a wild man, and he welcomed people by yelling at them, “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! WHO WARNED YOU OF THE COMING WRATH?!”

Maybe some came in desperation. Maybe others in curiosity. Maybe some liked that he was fiery. Others liked he wasn’t going along with Rome and the temple. Maybe, for some, he was stirring that dim, jaded, barely remembered childhood wonder and hope hidden in the people’s hearts.

That hope and wonder we remember as kids looking up at the ceiling at the glittering Christmas lights reflected off the white paint.

That excitement, and joy, we remember ourselves having as we crawled into our cold sheets Christmas Eve dreaming of tomorrow’s Christmas Day gifts.

Maybe, John awoke the message of the Exodus, of God’s promise to abide with us, in a way that spoke to hearts heavily weighed by taxes, bills, occupation, corruption, and being stuck in a system where you’re unhappy but nothing changes.

You see, John came preaching the advent, the coming, of the kindom of God. He told us to prepare the way for the Lord. This sounds like a humongous, gigantic task. As gigantic and as seemingly impossible as achieving world joy or world peace.

But John breaks down the work into things we can actually tackle: little deeds, little actions, we can actually accomplish…. but which make a huge impact.

“He doesn’t tell the people to get back to church, to overthrow the [government], to transform the world in some sudden, drastic revolution. No, he tells them the same things that [their and our parents have always told us:] ‘Share with one another. Be kind to one another. Don’t fight. Be fair. Don’t hoard, or lord it over one another.’

I don’t mean to reduce John’s message in any way, but at the heart of it, it seems to me John” is teaching that basic justice and goodness “will knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we’ve built.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews) He’s saying God’s way is a way built of daily deeds of justice and goodness, and these daily deeds “take the air, the power, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another’s children.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews)

The people coming to John were desperate. The people I saw in Wal-Mart were getting desperate. The crowds ask, “What should we do?” What should we do if Christmas comes and we feel no joy? What should we do if the world is large and scary and we are tiny and scared? What should we do if everything seems out of control and we are powerless even to change a tiny bit? What should we do when it seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t?

John’s message is this: be generous. Be just. Be repentant. These prepare the way for the Lord.

The beginning of joy to the world is the beginning of simply offering hospitality to someone who needs a place to stay.

It is welcoming a baby into the world.

It is repenting — saying you are sorry to others and to God when you mess up.

The beginning of the Christmas spirit, Christmas joy, is a Christian life.

A Christian life is one that produces good fruits.

Good fruits… like joy, love, peace, and hope.

Good fruits, like forgiveness, patience, kindness, and generosity.

John’s examples of good fruits is so simple: don’t use your power to hurt others. If you own more than you need, give it to someone who is needy. Don’t sell it to them. Give it.

If you collect money on a bill, take what is fair. Don’t jack the price up. Don’t overcharge. Don’t cheat people.

If you are a soldier, protect people. Don’t intimidate and threaten. Don’t be a bully.

In today’s children’s chat, we read about many ways to prepare the way for the lord. Little deeds, random acts of kindness, are like rain drops. This rain like grace becomes rivers of life-giving water. Rivers for redemption, for repentance, for making people whole.

Not feeling the Christmas joy? It’s okay. Christmas is full of many emotions. You don’t HAVE TO do Christmas. You don’t HAVE TO purchase presents, visit people, and fake a smile. These are heavy burdens, and we can repent and lay them down. Instead of carrying these HAVE TOs, we can carry divine love. Divine love might feel joyful, or it might be peaceful and still. Divine love might be sorrowful, or lonely. Divine love is our gift at Christmas and just like the stories of old, divine love comes in many forms and many expressions.

Sometimes we “rejoice in the Lord” with celebrations and loud music. And sometimes we rejoice in the Lord by being grateful God is with us when we’re feeling alone, and sad.

Our God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore Ohio, 12-13-15