Sunday, November 24, 2013

Visible and Invisible

Colossians 1:11-20
11May you be strengthened through his glorious might so that you endure everything and have patience; 12and by giving thanks with joy to the Father. He made it so you could take part in the inheritance, in light granted to God’s holy people.13He rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.

15The Son is the image of the invisible God,
The one who is first over all creation.
16Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
17He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.
18He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
19Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
20and he reconciled all things to himself through him - whether things on earth on in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

The last sunday of the church year, the last sunday before advent, is always dedicated to proclaiming the Reign of Christ. Our resurrected Lord rules all of creation from where he is seated on the right hand of the Father, from thence he shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.

So I set out at the beginning of the week excited for a sermon comparing the reign of Christ to all the things that his rule would replace. It was going to be full of hope for a brighter future, when we left our unjust systems behind. I was ready for a scripture passage all about how The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is within it. It was going to be very Presbyterian in its emphasis on the loving and unyielding sovereignty of God.

There was going to be a parade celebrating the reign of Christ, people were going to cast ticker-tape from the windows of buildings, marching bands would play the great hymns of the faith, and people would wave banners all proclaiming the good news of God!

Then I turned to our Gospel passage this morning, where I read the following story. Please stand for the reading of the gospel.

Luke 23:33-43
33When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots for his clothing.

35The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”

36The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him offering him sour wine 37and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”

39One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

40Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? 41We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

You’re kidding me, right? I was all prepped for a high-energy-God-wins-in-the-end kind of sermon and I get the narrative of the crucifixion? I wanted banners and instead I got a sign that said “This is the king of the Jews. Where’s the part about God smiting the evil empire and setting up a kingdom which shall have no end? I wanted marching bands and instead I got jeering crowds. Where’s the redeemer who rescues his people with a strong arm? I wanted ticker tape and instead I got cast lots for his clothing. Where’s the end to all our suffering? Why did it end up at the place called The Skull?

My guess is that the disciples asked the very same questions. The inner circle whom we call the twelve have made themselves invisible during the night, and the people who stand around watching are no longer convinced that this is the heir to the throne of David.

It looks as if the Roman Empire has found another brigand. They’re going to make a visible example of him so that others will know not to claim the title of “King.” For only Caesar is a son of gods, and only Caesar rules in this empire.

Or so it seems.

Up to this point, everyone who has looked for the coming of the kingdom of God was watching for the same model of visible conquest as earthly rulers had used. But God is not the same kind of generic ruler we have come to expect. The reign of Christ is not defined by champions or armies. The reign of Christ is defined by the cross. “Because the fullness of God was please to live in him, and he reconciled all things to himself through him-- whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.”

I think it is certainly within God’s power to sweep any empire right off the map. But I don’t think God is interested in coercive, destructive, rule. God is much more interested in redemptive, creative, reign. The first is much easier than the second. Christ’s redemption over all creation comes through the cross so that the world might be forever changed, even the parts of the world that had opposed God at every turn. The reign of Christ is not visible in armies marching forth with religious symbols painted on their shields, it’s shown when at his death, the heir to all authority on heaven and earth intercedes in prayer, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

We really don’t. We don’t know what we’re doing when we step out into this world and proclaim that the powers and principalities that we can see are not the final word, and yet work so hard to serve them. We don’t know what we’re doing when we buy into the stories that our culture tells us about what being blessed looks like. We don’t know what we’re doing when we say we believe, but live in a way that sows doubt. We don’t know what we’re doing, and so out of our own limited understanding of how the world works, we end up opposing God.

The reign of Christ claims even us. Even in our stubbornness, our limitedness, our ignorance, our sin, Christ still claims us. No matter how deeply we are stuck in our wrongness, God measures us according to Christ’s rightness. The reign of Christ doesn’t just upend our unjust systems because even those injustices we would rather stay invisible are subject to the redemptive reign of our Lord who “rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.”

That, friends, is something worthy of gratitude on this Sunday before Thanksgiving. The reign of Christ, in his peculiar cruciform way of showing it, extends to all of creation, even to the unworthy bits.

Lucky for us. Because I’ve never met anyone who is worthy of the gifts God gives us. And it’s easy, I think, to get caught up in obsessing over all those components in our lives that we wish we could just make invisible and never have to deal with again.

In my work in the Chaplain’s office, I’m not only tasked with visiting patients and providing pastoral care to a broad swath of people. I’m also working in an educational setting to learn and explore my own pastoral identity, and to develop the skills to engage those around me not just on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level as well.

Much of that work involves exploring and confronting the parts of myself that I would rather keep hidden: my anger, my fear, my grief, the places in my own history where I have been hurt. As we approach the holidays and the gathering of families, it is all to easy to see the places where I have been wounded. It is tempting to compartmentalize the parts of myself that I’m not proud of, especially in a family where there is an unspoken expectation that, let’s be honest, I don’t always meet.

Now I’ve never felt unloved by any member of my family, and I certainly hope to make them as proud of me as I am of them. There’s a lot to celebrate in the rich history of Tabers, Potters, Shrewsburys, Barnettes, Barnards, and Boshells. The love shared in those groups, the talents, the triumphs, the traditions, are all part of what defines my family for me. Those parts are easy to identify as belong to, and extending from, the reign of Christ.

But there are also parts of my history that I would rather sweep under the rug, history of families broken up through divorce, or abuse, or of being ruled by addiction.

The reign of Christ extends to all of that as well. Even the parts of me that I don’t like belong to God. The reign of Christ preserves my whole self, even the parts of me that I would rather not let anybody see, and claims all of me as beloved by God, and wrapped in the righteousness of Christ until even the darkest parts of my soul are set free from the stain of sin.

All of this is possible through the reign of the Son who, at the place called The Skull, prayed for the forgiveness of those who mocked him, killed him, and dared him to try and save himself.

The Son is the image of the invisible God,
the one who is first over all creation.
Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.

T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” makes the claim that the world will end not with a bang, but a whimper. Christ, however, claims both as defining characteristics of his reign. The visible bang comes in the hymn of praise in our Colossians text, for all people can sing praises to their God, and to Christ who reigns on high. But in claiming the greatness of the hymn, Christ also chooses to define his reign by the whimper of a dying criminal, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Both the visible acts of praise and the nearly invisible cries of hope out of despair belong to the reign of Christ.

In our own time and place, we are approaching Thanksgiving, a time when we celebrate the things we are grateful for, lifting them up and choosing them as our organizing narrative throughout the darker months of the year. Immediately after Thanksgiving, we line up around the block for the chance to get the best deals on our holiday shopping. We make the news with our nuisance, a visible part of the Christmas season which we are approaching.

Yet on that same night, others will be lined up at the doors of soup kitchens and night shelters, hoping for the chance to get a meal this week, or that they might not have to sleep outside in the cold. They’re often overlooked, invisible to society for any number of reasons. It’s easy to judge them as being unwilling or unable to work their way out of their situation, or so say that we are not in a position to help, and maintain their invisibility.

On the other hand, a number of my friends from Seminary, and I’d imagine they’re not alone, would look at the commercial bent of the other lines, the one’s outside of department stores, and see those who have twisted their whole lives around saving a few bucks. They would judge those who would sacrifice time with family for a we dollars fewer spent on gifts for that same family.

I say that both sets of lines are full of people who are claimed by Christ. The homeless and the shoppers are all citizens of God’s kingdom, rescued from the darkness by Christ.

As our days grow steadily darker, and less of the day is visible, we celebrate the Reign of Christ at the end of the Christian Calendar. Advent begins next week. It’s a season of waiting, of longing, of preparing. Advent is a time when we look for the invisible, preparing for the easily overlooked birth of a peasant child whom we celebrate at Christmas. The invisible God made flesh, visible at last for those who know to look. Advent is a time of waiting for the invisible to become visible. The Christian calendar begins in Advent because we need to know that we start with waiting.

This week shows us what we are waiting for. The reign of Christ, who is heir among all creation, who’s reign is defined not by a visible sign that reads “This is the king of the Jews,” but by the invisible redemption that is already begun.

The things we celebrate, and the things we hide are all subject to the lordship of Christ. We can hide them from each other, because some of them cause friction within the community of faith. We cannot, however, hide them from God. The parts of ourselves we would show to the whole world belong to God, the parts of our society we would make visible to all who look also belong to God. But in those moments when we are ashamed, either of part of ourselves or on behalf of our whole community, God claims those as well. The Reign of Christ is not about discarding the bad and uplifting the good, it’s about the reality that all of creation, both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and invisible, Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through Christ and for Christ.

And Christ who reigns loves us.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Living the Apocalypse

Living the Apocalypse from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Luke 21:5-19
5Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, 6“As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”
8Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. 9When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”
10Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. 11‘‘There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 12But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will provide you with an opportunity to testify.14Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. 15I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. 16You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. 17Everyone will hate you because of my name. 18Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. 19By holding fast, you will gain your lives.

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

A couple of years ago, I visited a couple of Cathedrals. Leah and I were blessed with the opportunity to travel to Ireland on a combined trip with the English and History departments at Presbyterian College. We flew into Dublin, which is home to both Christ’s Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

They date back to an era when communities banded together to erect massive monuments to the glory of God, stone testaments to the bedrock of their faith, and filled them with finely carved statues, ornate stained glass, and beautifully crafted furnishings. I took pictures of altars, pulpits, baptismal fonts, and even some of the doors just to show my woodworker friends what our spiritual ancestors had built out of faith in God. I am still awestruck at the memory of how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God.

But the thing is, those cathedrals, in spite of their beauty and the faithfulness out of which they were constructed, are not thriving communities of faith. Christ’s Church in downtown Dublin has enough room for almost a thousand people, and finds itself an echoing expanse to the sixteen or so worshippers it greets each service. “Jesus said, ‘As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.’”

It’s not a matter of the glory of the temple. It’s the glory of God that gives our worship, and indeed our lives, its meaning. But the Jerusalem temple, the European cathedrals, even our own Protestant denominations, are what we have used to order our worship for so many centuries. The craftsmanship evident in those structures are a testament to the way God has been active in our history, and to the devotion of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. It is an intimidating prospect to think that “the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another.” We are very anxious when our Lord tells us that “All will be demolished.” After all, isn’t the kingdom of God established for all time?

So we ask, alongside the disciples, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?” How long should we participate in these systems of worship if they’ve got an expiration date anyway? Doesn’t it make sense to go ahead and cut bait if these things are all temporary? Maybe invest in whatever’s coming next? When will we know that it’s no longer worth it to worship in the place and manner of our ancestors?

Jesus responds, but I don’t think he answers the question we are asking out loud. I think he answers the question behind the ones the disciples voice. Their question is about a timetable, when is the end? What will show us that the Apocalypse is about to happen? How can we prepare our defenses so that we can outlast all the outsiders who don’t know you? Their questions are all about the end of the only world they think they’ve known. Apocalypse, to the people who ask these questions, is about the dread of the end of the world as we know it. People who ask these questions, people like us, and often we ourselves, are searching for a way to be in control.

But we are not. God is.

Because the glory of the temple doesn’t matter. The glory of God, who’s presence is with us even after the fall of the temple, is the important thing. Because no matter how many times we’ve used it the other way, apocalypse doesn’t mean a violent end, it means a revelation of God. Living the apocalypse means that God is sharing something of his identity with us.

So Jesus warns us against the anxiety over the end of how we understand the world.  When will the God I worship and serve pay me back and reward me for being a good person? Jesus sees through the pretense of asking for a sign immediately, and lovingly brushes past the question the disciples ask out loud and goes to the fear that motivated them to ask it. He warns them that others will come who will play on those fears, who will claim that God will do what we want, that God’s purpose is to prevent human suffering. Preaching an easy God that leads us to an easy life. 

But we don’t worship an easy god, we worship a Great God.

An easy god would fix all our problems and never expect us to change our hearts and minds. An easy god would keep a naughty and a nice list of those to bless and those to punish. An easy god would be content to let us figure things out on our own until things got out of hand, and then choose whether or not to be involved. An easy god would focus on making sure that god’s chosen people, which since this is our easy god, means us, would want for nothing and be carried along by rainbows and unicorns.

But we don’t worship an easy god, we worship a Great God.

So Jesus paints a rather discouraging picture of the future of his followers. We can easily identify with the global suffering Jesus names: wars, rebellions, nations and kingdoms fighting, earthquakes, food shortages, epidemics, terrifying sights, and great signs in the sky. Catch the right night on the evening news, and you can check off the whole list in half an hour. It’s not a big jump to say that since all these things are happening, we must be living in the end times.

But I’d imagine those are nothing new. The disciples saw and heard these same things even before Christ came into their lives. Jesus is not just describing the world as it will be, he’s describing the world as it is.

He does this because the comfort of the person and work of Jesus Christ is not in his ability to make all that is bad and ugly go away, it’s in the assurance that when we go through the bad and the ugly, we do not do so alone. The wonder of the resurrection is in the promise that even though the temple may be demolished, and the cathedrals may crumble, and our denominations may die, God’s presence is still among us, reforming us always to be closer approximations of the image in which we have each been created. The revelation of God’s self to us is not one that prevents the crucifixion, but one who goes to it willingly, with a loving power that cannot even be contained by death.

But until such a time as the reign of Christ comes to its full expression, when God’s promise to Isaiah that no one will ever hear the sound of weeping or crying again is carried out, we must continue to have faith in the Great God who creates, redeems, and sustains us, rather than settling for the easy one that we create for ourselves.

Because, to paraphrase Jesus, there’s a whole river of hurt headed our way, not because that is God’s intent, but because the kingdom of God is breaking through the darkness. But the violence of that breakthrough is not cause for fear, but for testimony to the heavenly light that ushers in the morning.

“But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody, and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict”

That’s one of those passages in scripture that reminds me that being a Christian is hard, following Jesus’s teachings is perhaps beyond any of us alone. This one is difficult for me because I’ve never had my faith questioned in an adversarial way. I’d imagine very few of us have been hauled into court because of our faith. But moreover, I have the blessing of being good at words. And this passage challenges me to set that talent aside and not rely on any clever turn of phrase. 

“Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I’ll give you words and wisdom.” If we are striving to defend ourselves, we are still holding on to our own control. We are preparing ourselves out of our own strengths, and it is all to easy to forget to include God’s strengths in those plans. God’s love is always reliable, God’s involvement in our lives is always reliable. God acting according to our plans...Not so much.

So rather than trying to grasp on to our own words and wisdom, which is limited by our human scope, Jesus urges us to trust not our own defenses, but in God’s ability to make himself known through us. Have faith that Christ will speak through me? It’s so much easier to decorate my language with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God, to shape my words into a temple.

But our faith is not a matter of the glory of the temple, and we don’t worship an easy god. We center our faith around the glory of a Great God, who is even now breaching the divide between us. God’s glory shines through us because God has chosen us to live the revelation of the LORD.

“These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”

Our job, as Christians, is to testify to how God is actively involved in the world. Our task is to respond to a frightening future with the faith that God holds us in her hands like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child.

Because what if these are not failures of God to protect us from harm, but opportunities for us to prepare each other and the whole of creation for what living in the kingdom of heaven is like. We must take our actions into a world ruled by fear and demonstrate the liberation of a faith in Christ Jesus. Because we have seen the resurrection, we have seen glimpses the kingdom of God, we have lived the promise of a new creation, and we know that the fears of the world, though real, do not have the final word.

Being hated is not the final word, being executed is not the final word. Neither are betrayal, or contradiction, or arrests and harassment. Epidemics, food shortages, and earthquakes are not the final word. Nations and kingdoms fighting are not the final word, and neither are wars and rebellions.

The final word is the peacemaker who stands in the middle and refuses to let force rule the day. It’s the person who has enough food sharing it with the one who does not. It’s the political prisoner who will not lie to save herself from persecution. The final word is not of argument against an opponent, but love for one’s enemies. The final word is forgiveness in a family torn apart. The final word is “Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives.”

The final word is Grace.

Because when we live the apocalypse that Jesus describes in this passage, we are not living the end, we are living the revelation of who God has shown us he is.

Monday, November 11, 2013


from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Haggai 2:1-9
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say,
3Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?
How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?
4Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord;
take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest;
take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord;
work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts,
 5according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.
My spirit abides among you; do not fear.
6For thus says the Lord of hosts:
Once again, in a little while,
I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land;
7and I will shake all the nations,
so that the treasure of all nations shall come,
and I will fill this house with splendor,
says the Lord of hosts.
8The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.
9The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former,
says the Lord of hosts;
and in this place I will give prosperity,
says the Lord of hosts.

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

Over the last several years, I've noticed something peculiar about American culture. We are totally youth obsessed. We spend untold amounts of time and money to avoid the reality of our own aging. Maybe it’s because we remember the past more fondly than we read the present. Maybe we look towards the former glory of our houses because we have become discouraged with the work required to maintain them, to rebuild time after time.

I think that's because, at some level, we know that we have a shelf life. We are limited both in our ability and in our time. Our limits terrify us, the death and loss we experience during our lives are so far beyond even the illusion of our control that we reach into the illusion of eternal youth to avoid dealing with the most terrifying events in our lives. We are consistently taught, as American Christians, that grief and fear are “bad” emotions, and should be treated as though something is broken in our minds.

But the human condition is a frightening one, throughout our lives, we have to deal with loss, with grief, with pain, much of the time through no fault of our own. In my work at the hospital, even the most gifted doctors much eventually face that everything they do is just a stall tactic. Avoidance of these frightening realities may be easier than dealing with them, but pretending they don’t exist doesn’t solve them, and I’m not convinced it actually makes it more bearable.

I think that when we run as hard as we do from the things that frighten us, it makes us think that we have to bear them alone when they do finally catch up to us. When we can no longer avoid the grief over the loss of a dear friend or relative, we feel like we cannot reach out to anyone else because no one else is grieving in the ways we are. By avoiding them, we are allowing them to fester, merely so that we can keep up the cultural illusion that we are not susceptible to those dark emotions.

Death is a reality, and an eventuality, for us all. And that is a terrifying prospect, so much so that we go to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of approaching that end. Searching for a way to increase our reach into the future, straining for something beyond the scope of our life on this planet. We search for eternal youth, for a measure of immortality, the idea that our deaths are only in part.

The Christian claim is not one of immortality, it is of resurrection. Because we will all face the trauma of loss and death. If we trust a continuity based on our own abilities, we will find ourselves paralyzed in the face of the limits of our imagination.

The prophet Haggai finds himself in that position. He is among the Jews who return to the promised land after what's called the Babylonian captivity. It's one of the pivotal moments in scripture, for before this time the understanding of God centered around the protection of the law, the covenant, and above all the holy city of Jerusalem which housed the temple. God was one who preserved the life of his people.

But the temple has been destroyed, the people of the land have been carried off to a foreign country, away from their ancestral inheritance. Though some of the people have survived, and have been allowed to return home, they have lived through a trauma so severe that American culture has no common frame of reference. Everything they understood about reality, about their identity, about their God, is dead.

But the covenant is not one of immortality, but of resurrection. God speaks to their spiritual death:
"Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?
How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?"

The temple-centered religious practices are dead. But God is not. Though lives have been lost, though faith has been lost, the God of their covenant is working on their resurrection, and encourages them to rebuild, not because they are invulnerable to another conquest, but because not even death can separate us from the love of God. It is not the glory of the temple that matters, it is the glory of God. Though the temple may be lost, the presence of the LORD is still among us. So God tells us to not be paralyzed by our fear that even the greatest of our works will fade in time.

"Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord;
Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts."
It is easy to become discouraged when they look around and see the limitation of their humanity, and the fruits it has borne for them. There is much to fear, Haggai's congregation do not have a King of the line of David on the throne, they have a governor appointed by their captors. They have a high priest, but no place for him to carry out his duties. The work of their hands has been laid waste with fire and sword at the hands of the Babylonian army. Their exile has been real, so have the deaths that they have witnessed on their journey.

Just so our own journeys take to places we would not choose to go. Sometimes they take us to a sports field, where we begin to realize that our bodies can no longer do what we ask of them. Sometimes they take us to a rite of passage and we are confronted with the vision that the one who we are so accustomed to seeing as a child has become an adult, and our relationship has irrevocably changed. Sometimes they take us to the edge of a hospital bed, where we hear the doctor say words that we cannot accept, news of finality, of saying goodbye instead of new greetings.

The theoretical Widow in our gospel passage has found that grief time and time again, having buried seven husbands. But it’s not her grief that concerns the Sadducees in our gospel passage this morning. These learned men, wealthy and powerful, pose the question as a trap, to get Jesus to admit that the resurrection isn’t logical.

Well they’re right, it’s not.

Where’s the logic in the grief of a seven-fold widow being transformed to songs of praise? Where’s the logic in a barren mother being called a child of the resurrection? Where’s the logic in a conquered people reinvesting in a temple to a God who hadn’t prevented disaster?

Where’s the logic in a God who refuses to give up on us when we so consistently abandon God? Where’s the logic in an all-powerful God who goes to death, even death on a cross?

The resurrection is not about logic, it’s about the greatness of God, who can triumph even over the fact of death.

God’s covenant is not one of immortality, it’s one of resurrection. Where there once was only death, now there is life, and life abundant. For God is not of the dead, but of the living. John Donne wrote that “All [humanity] is of one author and one volume, and when one [person] dies, a chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.” And as we wait for our own translation, we will lose access to friends and family who are taken by death before us. That loss is real, and deserves to be mourned.

We confess that Christ was crucified, died, and was buried. But through the loving power of our God, death was not the end of his story, and it’s not the end of ours. Because we are witnesses to resurrection: the creation of life where there was only death. That resurrected life will be one of greater glory than we can now imagine.

The Sadducees assumed that in the resurrection, everything would be back to the life they understood, the life that had enriched them, that they understood and could work within, only with everybody alive again.

But the God who writes and rewrites the laws of nature does not just raised us from the dead, we are reformed in this resurrection. Not just humanity either, all of creation is redeemed through the death and resurrection of Christ, that is the new form of humanity. “For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; ...The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.”

The resurrected life is one where we dine with our Lord, no longer held back by our fears and grief, but loved through them. Our fears are redeemed to joy, our grief to gratitude, our despair to faith. Because the power of the God of resurrection makes it so.

Because the God who loves us enough to become a human, with all of our limits, like us in every respect except sin, will let neither sin nor death separate us from God. The God whose sovereignty speaks into being things which do not exist declares us to be children of the resurrection.

So the widow no longer needs to be defined by her ability to bear children and continue the family line. The sinner no longer needs to be cast out for his uncleanness. The wealthy businessman no longer needs to focus on acquiring enough stuff to pass on his legacy. The temple no longer needs to compare itself to a faded memory of its own glory. The church elder no longer needs to hold up the church on his own, fearing that if he steps away that no one will fill the void.

Now they are all called children of the resurrection, worshipping God in spirit and in truth, not in a temple or church.

“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” Because ours is a tradition not of immortality, but of resurrection. Our tradition says that death may be more powerful than we are, but our God is more powerful than death by far. We will grieve those we have lost, and we will grieve for ourselves when we lose parts of ourselves. When our time comes, others will grieve for us as well.

But that grief is not the end of our story, because God’s story continues forever, and God’s love for us is such that he wants us to be a continual part of that story. A story of creation, resurrection, and everlasting praise.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Keeping Their Distance

Keeping Their Distance
from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Our gospel lesson this morning is from the seventeenth chapter of Luke. By the seventeenth chapter, we’ve already heard the story of the Prodigal Son. We’ve already seen Jesus heal on the sabbath. By the seventeenth chapter, we’ve already learned the Lord’s prayer. We’ve already hear the story of the Good Samaritan. By the seventeenth chapter, Christ’s followers have already been sent out to proclaim the good news of God and returned to him. Twice. By the seventeenth chapter, we’ve already been fed alongside a crowd of five-thousand. We’ve already seen the dead raised and the seas calmed.

By the seventeenth chapter, we can probably assume that word has gotten around about Jesus’s ability to work miracles, to heal and to feed God’s people. But knowing that healing is in Jesus’s power, they still keep their distance, as if they are shielding themselves from the rejection they have already faced so many times from so many other people who should have answered their plea to “Show us mercy!”

Most folks have heard that leprosy is the Biblical description for any of many skin diseases, not necessarily just for the chronic bacterial infection we know it as today. Those who suffered from whatever condition had been identified as leprosy were ostracized, kicked out of the social order for the duration of their disease. Their uncleanness was seen as a punishment for some sin for which they had not atoned.

This kind of social separation a way of keeping the community pure, of keeping those who retained their righteousness from being pulled off-course by those who sinned and did not make restoration for it. Jewish Law and custom provided ways for those who were cast out in this way to be reinstated to the community, they had to prove that their disease was gone to a priest, who would then declare them ready to rejoin their congregation. But until that time, they were shunned.

It is no surprise, then, that people would hide their skin conditions as long as they were able, not wanting to be seen as the abnormal sinner, worthy of rejection by their community and their God.

The signs of their need for the LORD are written on their skin, and yet the shy away from one who they know can heal them, because they’ve been shown over and over again that they are only worthy of rejection.

I wonder how much of their fear we can see in ourselves.

Their brokenness is clearly visible, and oftentimes ours is not. Instead of a skin affliction, it’s guilt, or fear, or anger. Maybe it’s just the feeling that we’re only going through the motions of our lives and it doesn’t have any meaning. I think for many people, it’s a fear that people will see that we’re only faking our way through things, and we’re not actually as calm or in control as we seem, we just hope no one notices that we have no idea how to handle a situation.

My dad is a big Simon and Garfunkle fan. We were listening to one of their albums on Dad’s record player one night, and the song “I am a Rock” came on. It sang of a person who isolated themselves because they had been hurt before, refusing the love of others because, in one verse, “If I never loved I never would have cried.” As the song came to and end, Dad held up a hand to emphasize the closing lyrics, “I am a Rock/I am an island./ And a Rock feels no pain./And an Island never cries.” As the music faded, he voiced the implied question, “So why am I crying?”

We tell ourselves that we are the rock, the island, that we are unaffected by what’s going on around us because it protects us from being hurt.

So we keep our distance, because if people could see that our wounds are not skin deep, but have infected the core of our being, surely they would reject as thoroughly as the lepers who find themselves keeping their distance outside a town on the border of Galilee. So we find ways to protect ourselves from the truth of our brokenness, to avoid our weakness.

We spend so long covering up our leprosy that we sometimes begin to believe it’s not there. Or we tell ourselves it’s just a small thing that will resolve itself before too long. Nothing to worry about.

That’s where we find the Exiled people to whom Jeremiah is writing.

Jeremiah was appointed prophet during a disastrous time for the people of Judah. During his ministry, the Babylonian Empire conquers Judah and carries its people away from the Promised Land. What’s worse, they destroy the temple. For the ancient Judeans, everything they have believed about God is under attack, their home is destroyed and they are ripped away from the promise of God. Reality doesn’t make sense anymore, and a number of false prophets try to console the people by saying that they’ll soon return and that everything will be ok again soon.

But the Babylonian Captivity lasts for seventy years. It isn’t over quickly, and in order to survive and remain in relationship with God, the people need to deal with what’s really going on in their world, even though it is a painful process, it is a necessary one.

Jeremiah’s letter to those who have been carried off to Babylon requires the people to face their brokenness on a national level. He tells them again and again that they cannot pretend it will all be over soon, but to rebuild their communities and lives again in the new place to which they have been taken. He tells them to act in faith when everything around them is screaming to react out of fear and self-protection.

The Captives in Babylon have seen in their own lives that nothing about their reality was reliable, not their monarchy, not their temple worship, not even their homes. In a disaster like this one, their identity is totally broken, and the world doesn’t make sense anymore. If any population would have an excuse to withdraw into themselves and not to trust or rely on anyone, it is those who lived through this nation-spanning trauma.

Yet Jeremiah coaxes them out of their withdrawal, commands them to have faith that they have a future again. He tells them to build houses and settle down, To get married and have children, and to tell those children to get married and have children of their own. He even tells them to pray for the cities of those who have carried them into exile. Because their future depends on its welfare.

But they have a future. Though this terrible thing has happened, and more traumas may be in the future, God promises a future. God’s redemptive arm is working even through the violence and suffering of their reality, sending a prophet to heal their community identity, to make sure that they know that although life is not always good, God is.

I recently hear a story from a friend of mine who works in a hospital about a family who had received bad news about a patient, and was reacting angrily. My friend, who was doing an internship with the Chaplain’s office, has a background in the military, three black belts, and ran his own bouncing service for a while before going into ministry. So when one of these family members got into his face, everything in his background screamed at him to hit first, before the guy could hurt him. Had he done so, he would have forever been mythologized as the Chaplain who punched someone.

But he didn’t. He chose to remain vulnerable. An angry, grieving, family member was looking for someone at whom to be angry, and my friend chose to neither hit first nor run away. He had the faith to be vulnerable, as Jeremiah did. To remain open to God’s action in their lives. The people have been so traumatized that they do not even know what they need, but God is there, speaking to and through Jeremiah, because even when we don’t know it, we need the LORD.

I’ve met dozens of people who have claimed to not be in some way wounded by their lives. I’ve met many people who have said that they have been able to handle everything without anyone’s help. I’ve met many people who assert that they are strong enough to build their lives by themselves.

But I have never met anyone for whom that was true. Some folks are really good at hiding their wounds, at masking their darkness, at covering their shame. But everybody has been exiled in some way. Everybody is a leper who fears being cast out. We work so hard to be the rugged individuals of the American Dream, those who faced the world on their own and triumphed on their own strength. But try as we might, we are not those people.

But I don’t think we need to be. I think we need to be the kind of people who can remember that we need each other, and that more importantly, we need God. It’s been said that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I hate that phrase. I think it’s another way to pretend we are strong, and to avoid dealing with the real pain in our lives. What doesn’t kill you leaves unfeeling scar tissue. God makes you stronger.

When Jesus saw the lepers, he said “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. There’s no bargain, no demand to be paid back. God sees people who are wounded, who are unclean, and heals them without question. They knew their condition, and cried out to Jesus for help. I don’t think they were especially sinful, or unusually broken, I think their particular brand of exile was just easier to see than those of the community members who had cast them out. Perhaps we will be able to recognize, as the lepers did, that we cannot be who God has created us to be on our own. Perhaps we should trade our “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” for “God’s strength is perfected in weakness.” Perhaps we should abandon the fantasy of the self-made man for the hope of the God-centered community.

Then maybe when the LORD comes by we can approach him, confess our sickness, and be healed. Then, without having to run off and prove ourselves, we can join the Samaritan, who was already an outsider, in grateful praise of a God who will be with us even though we cannot be worthy of that presence and love on our own.

That’s the kind of God we have, one who knows our brokenness and whose isn’t stopped by it. Even though that means that we take God’s love to the cross, God will not  exile us for our spiritual leprosy any longer, but when we try to keep our distance, God pursues us to the cross, to the grave, and to resurrection to show that God’s loving desire to be with us is stronger than what separates us.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

If it Delays

Habakkuk 2:2-4, 18-20
2Then the LORD answered me and said,
Write a vision,
and make it plain upon a tablet,
So that a runner can read it.
3There’s still a vision
for the appointed time;
it testifies to the end;
it does not deceive.
If it delays, wait for it;
for it is surely coming;
it will not be late.
4Some people’s desires
are truly audacious;
They don’t do the right thing.
But the righteous person
will live honestly.

18Of what value is an idol,
when its potter carves it,
or a cast image that has been shaped?
It is a teacher of lies,
for the potter trusts the pottery, though it is incapable of speaking.
19Doom to the one who says to the tree,
“Wake Up!”
or “Get up” to the silent stone.
Does it teach?
Look, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
but there is no breath within it.
20But the LORD is in his holy temple.
Let all the earth be silent before him.

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

Luke 17:20-24
20Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom was coming. He replied, “God’s kingdom isn’t coming with signs that are easily noticed. 21Nor will it say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ Don’t you see? God’s kingdom is already among you.”

22Then Jesus said to the disciples, “The time will come when you long to see one of the days of the Human One, and you won’t see it. 23People will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Don’t leave or go chasing after them. 24The Human One will appear on his day in the same way a flash of lightning lights up the sky from one end to the other.”

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

Our world is fractured, families are divided, churches are splitting, politicians focus on wedge issues, nations either attack or ignore one another, and nobody stops obsessing over their own rightness long enough to consider that maybe being a people of God doesn’t mean that we defeat or destroy everyone who disagrees with us. Perhaps rather than conquering our enemies, we instead make them our brothers and sisters.

I wonder if some of what we used to call respectful traditions have become so overlaid with gold and silver that we have forgotten that there is no breath in them. I wonder if we’ve gotten lost in the richness of our history. Sometimes our greatest strengths become our stumbling block.

Like the master potter of our Old Testament Passage, who begins to love the product of his gifts more than the God who is their source. In the face of these distractions, we must make our vision plain, like Habakkuk’s tablet. There’s still a vision for the appointed time. A dream that testifies to the end, it does not deceive. There is a vision for a time when a father doesn’t have to choose between divorcing his wife and keeping his children. There is a vision for a time when church buildings are inviting and gracious, rather than austere and intractable. There is a vision for a time when we will no longer have to choose between funding a prison, and funding a school.  There is a vision for a time when our rockets are used to explore the cosmos rather than to rain down destruction as punishment for violence already done.

There is a dream that one day children will not be judged by the color of their skin but for the content of their character. Beyond that dream is a vision of when they will not be judged by the content of their character but by the Grace of God and the Love of Christ Jesus. Because as worthwhile as the dreams of great people are, the vision God has for us is immeasurably more wonderful. It testifies to the end, it does not deceive.

If it delays...

Parents still struggle with marriage and custody issues because some marriages can no longer work, but they never stop loving their children. We still spend more money on prisons than schools because a criminal is more dangerous to society than an uneducated person. Nations still bomb each other because some people cannot understand any language other than violence.

Children are still judged by their skin because we have a history of keeping ourselves separate from those who are different than we are, and those bad habits, though weaker in each generation, still persist.

We do not live according to the vision that God has set for us. We have not learned our role in the kingdom of God. There is still a vision for the appointed time, but we cannot embody that vision on our own.

If it delays...

Wait for it.

God’s not done working on us yet. We don’t have the answers to the complex questions with which we are faced, but we cannot allow our fear of being wrong to either prevent our action or to stop us from listening to those God has placed in our lives. God’s not done working on us yet.

Then the LORD answered me and said “Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet.” Remind yourself that you are not mired in this moment, there is a plan for us, an intention. God is not satisfied with the state of the world either, and is intervening in it constantly so that all who are regarded as righteous may live honestly.

The greatest intervention was the person and work of Jesus the Christ. God saw that we could not, can not, live up to the vision of the image of God in which we are all created. God saw the brokenness of humanity and chose to accomplish his ends for us by becoming flesh himself, experiencing the shame and death of the cross, all for the sake of a world that had not yet come of age. God’s kingdom is already among us! But we can not yet live in that new reality. The time is at hand, but the vision is unfulfilled.

If the fulfillment of the vision does not fit our schedule, if the completion of who we are as a people of God works at a slower pace than we hoped for, if our progress in answering God’s call in our lives is set-back, if it delays...

Wait for it.

For it is surely coming.

It will not be late.

That’s easy to hear when we’re comfortable with the order of the world: when our the leaders for whom we voted are in office, when our wealth increases consistently. The vision is surely coming. It will not be late. It’s easy to hear when our churches are growing, when our children are healthy, when smiles come easily to our faces.

If it delays, that’s ok, because my life is basically good. I’m living in comfort and have built a good life for myself. I can wait for the vision.

But many of the people of God live on the other side of that coin. They live constantly worried that they will be able to feed their families, or that they will be able to maintain a roof over their heads. When your best day involves being ignored instead of attacked, it’s tough to hear that the vision is surely coming, and will not be late.

You’re telling me I have to wait for the arc of history to bend back around to justice? What do you mean it will not be too late? It certainly looks like it’s too late for those who were killed during peaceful protests around the world. It certainly looks like it’s too late for the martyrs who seek human rights for all people. How many more people have to suffer under the injustices of fear and oppression before God will do something and bring about that vision! What’s the suffering level got to be before God decides it’s “the appointed time.”

When it feels like you’re winning, it’s easy to run out the clock. When you’re on the losing end of things, being asked to wait, for the help from the Lord is surely coming, is offensive. How many civil rights leaders were told “Wait, your rights will be granted to you, just don’t go too far too fast, let us adjust to this new way of life slowly.” How many church leaders have shied away from changes they know are necessary because they don’t want to change too much, too fast. They know the direction, but feel the inertia of the system drags on them. The vision is there, but just out of reach.

If it delays, wait for it.

For it is surely coming.

Because God’s promise is for all people, even for those who resist being a part of it. The Human One will appear on his day in the same way a flash of lightning lights up the sky from one end to the other. After all the waiting, we will be made one in an instant, and the vision that testifies to the end will be realized.

If it delays, wait for it. For it is surely coming. It will not be late. But some people’s desires are truly audacious, they don’t do the right thing.

Some preachers see the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the crisis in Syria. They hear about the potential destruction of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus, and call it the beginning of the end times.

Like them, I long for the days of the Human One, when we knew Jesus face to face, instead of through a faith tradition passed down to us from our spiritual ancestors. It was easier then, when we could put our hands in his wounds and experience the wonder of the bodily resurrection. Like those preachers I look toward the moment when God’s vision for humanity is fully realized, and the already surpasses the not yet. But I will not join them when they say of those days “Look there” or “Look here.” God’s kingdom isn’t coming in signs that are easily noticed, wrath and destruction that happens to fall on people we don’t like.

The kingdom of God is already among us in a thousand easy-to-overlook ways. In love for one another, in sharing of ourselves with the least among us, in holy moments that reveal God’s creation to us, God’s creation is already among us. But these require faith.

Paul writes that once we knew Christ according to the flesh, we no longer know him in that way. So our faith is made more difficult, based on spiritual experiences and trust in God’s vision for his people, rather than a physical encounter.

It is difficulty to be faithful to the vision God has for us when we are being pulled in so many different directions by otherwise honorable obligations. It is easy to get sidetracked by the trappings made with our own hands, overlaid with gold and silver, but with no breath within. We get caught up in our impatience when compared to God’s timeless vision, and would rather build a kingdom for ourselves than wait for the fulfillment of the one God has established forever.

God’s kingdom is already among us, the LORD is in his holy temple. But we don’t fit in that kingdom yet. But God’s vision for us testifies to the end.

There is great hope in the idea that God’s vision for us has not yet been fully realized, because it means that God is still working on us to make us more faithful, to make our actions more meaningful. We are validated if we are not satisfied with the way things are, or with the way we ourselves are. If we are happy with how we are, it means that God’s vision for us is better than we can imagine.

The LORD is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him, as he appears on his day in the same way a flash of lightning lights up the sky from one end to the other.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Morning Routine

Luke 13:10-17
10Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11A woman who was there had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. 12When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free of your sickness.” 13He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.

14The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”

15The Lord replied, “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? 16Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

In all the religious art I’ve seen displayed in churches and museums, I’ve not once seen a painting of Jesus getting ready in the morning. I’ve never seen him depicted brushing his teeth, or fixing a cup of coffee, or stubbornly hitting the snooze button on his alarm time after time. But along with being fully God, he is also fully human. I’m sure he woke up with morning breath, or a little sore from sleeping wrong. He went through a morning routine similar to what each of us did today. Every seventh day, wherever he was, his morning routine shifted slightly. Rather than preparing for his work of preaching, teaching, and healing, he went to the local synagogue: that’s what a Rabbi does on the Sabbath.

I don’t think Jesus went into the synagogue saying “I’m going to shake things up around here.” I don’t think Jesus woke up that Sabbath morning and thought “I’m going to change the way people think about the law today.” I think Jesus went through that Sabbath morning routine in much the same way he always did. When he got to the synagogue, he began to teach.

Then he saw a woman who was there.

This woman had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. During that time, everything about her life was colored by her disability. People looked at her differently, people treated her differently, the synagogue leader changed his behavior around her. She had to alter herself as well, as once simple tasks became increasingly impossible. Her morning routine now was less about preparing for her day and more about coping with the obstacles her disability brought to her. Though every action is difficult and painful work, she is still able to attend her synagogue on the sabbath. After eighteen years, I cannot imagine she went each week expecting that she would be healed. After almost a thousand sabbaths, she just went because that’s what one does.

Then an unfamiliar Rabbi named Jesus called her to him.

Scripture makes no mention of a cane, a crutch, or a walker. It doesn’t indicate if she’s elderly, or if she has any family to help her. Scripture says she was bent over, and couldn’t stand up straight. When he saw her, Jesus called her to him.

Jesus doesn’t walk over to her and lift her up. Neither does he just heal her from a distance. He sees her, and calls her forward. I wonder how far back in the congregation this woman who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years sat. I wonder how long it took her bent body to get up. I wonder how many steps it took her to come from her seat in the congregation to where Jesus was teaching. I wonder how much anxious shuffling, and uncomfortable coughing tried to mask the awkward silence as Jesus waited for this woman who had been disabled to come to him. I wonder if the woman felt afraid that this strange Rabbi would call her a sinner, and say that she deserved her disability, that is was a punishment for some hidden wrong.

The tension in the room builds with each painful step, until Jesus says “Woman, you are set free of your sickness.” Then he puts his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.

The synagogue leader, attending to the behind-the-scenes details of worship leadership, probably didn’t notice what was happening at first. His morning routine had already been disrupted by this traveling holy man who was teaching in his synagogue. After all, when this Jesus character taught in the synagogue in Nazareth, they ran him out of town. The synagogue leader may have only known him by his reputation as one who regularly upended the social order. I wonder if he was lost in his own thoughts and worries about how to make the worship service go as smoothly as possible in the presence of this unknown variable of a Rabbi.

Nothing will get people’s attention as quickly as a sudden silence. Lost in his own thoughts, the synagogue leader is caught off guard by the long dramatic pause in the middle of the service, and looks up just in time to see Jesus touch a woman, and she straightened up at once and praised God.

Where the gospel writer saw a miracle, this well-meaning community leader saw the potential for swarms of sick and suffering people to clog the synagogue asking for healing that was beyond his power, and nobody in the community could come and worship the God of their ancestors, who released them from bondage in Egypt.

I wonder if his statement is meant to prevent that situation, to keep the sabbath holy, and not to be a stage for people to call attention to themselves. Either sick people who just want a quick-fix rather than real healing, or people who claim to have special healing powers can quickly take the focus of a worship service off of God and onto themselves. He makes an announcement to try and protect worship, promising to attend to the needs of the sick as best he can during the week, “There are six days on which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”

Jesus, on the other hand, will not stand for it. Where the synagogue leader saw a legal snare, or a worship disruption, where the gospel writer sees a miracle, Jesus sees a woman who, after eighteen years, is finally set free from her sickness. So he directs the focus of the moment away from the law, and back to her. “Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” This is not about legal loopholes or keeping your worship time in pristine order, this is about a woman, a daughter of Abraham, who has now been set free.

Brilliant scholars and biblical thinkers, when writing about this passage, tend to focus on either Sabbath law or on the culture of the synagogue. Concerning themselves with unpacking what could be discovered in the first sentence of the passage “Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.” Jesus, on the other hand, seems to pay very little attention to the nuance of the law, and even less to the maintenance of dignified worship. Jesus pays attention to the woman. Christ refuses to look away from this beloved daughter of Abraham, he restores the image of God in her. What’s more, he shows her humanity to the community of faith. “Look!” He says, “This is what humanity looks like, full of praise for God in whose image we are all created! This is what God intends, not bent suffering, but glorifying God and enjoying him forever!”

Because his emphasis on humanity is part of Jesus. It’s easy to look straight to the cross, to see the substitution made on our behalf, or to look straight to the resurrection, and see sin and death defeated for all time. But Jesus also came to reestablish what it means to be human. A human is someone who is cherished by God. That is the root of our identity, not our successes or failures, but the truth that God loves us.

That’s why everything that Christ does in this story calls attention to a woman who is first in bondage, then set free. Jesus restores humanity to people, taking them from their sins and brokenness and completing them, that they may be called Children of the Living God.

This is one of many stories where Jesus points to God by directing focus to the people he meets, and refusing to let them be overlooked any longer. After eighteen years with her disability, I’m sure this daughter of Abraham felt invisible to the faith community. Sure, they may support her financially, but they treat her as a burden, not as a person.

A seminary professor was at the grocery store, and having a rough day. By the time he got to the check out counter, he was already running late to a faculty meeting. He was behind a woman whose payment card had been declined, and who was trying to decide which of her necessary items she would do without this week. He impatiently growled “I’ll pay for it.” And handed the cash to the clerk. As he began patting himself on the back for helping a needy person, he heard the woman say to the clerk with a hollow sound in her voice, “He didn’t even look at me.”

He treated her as a problem to be solved, rather than as a person to be loved. I wonder if that professor felt the same shame as Jesus’s opponents.

The synagogue leader and the seminary professor both focused on the problems with which they were presented. But in so doing, they missed out on the people God had placed in their lives. They stumbled over the obstacles in their morning routine, rather than loving the person they had stumbled across.

Jesus restores humanity to its noble image-of-God origins, rather than the sin-tainted state it had become. Just as he freed the woman in the synagogue from the bonds of her sickness, so he has freed us from the bonds of sin and death. With Christ as the model of what it means to be human, we can see the beauty in a varied and diverse humanity, that irrespective of the differences in our morning routines, we are all created in the image of a God who loves us and intervenes in our lives, even when we cannot see how.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bring a Towel

Hebrews 11:29-12:1

29By faith [the Israelites] crossed the Red Sea as if they were on dry land, but when the Egyptians tried it, they were drowned.

30By faith Jericho’s walls fell after the people marched around them for seven days.

31By faith Rahab the prostitute wasn’t killed with the disobedient because she welcomed the spies in peace.

32What more can I say? I would run out of time if I told you about Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. 33Through faith they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, realized promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34put out raging fires, escaped from the edge of the sword, found strength in weakness, were mighty in war, and routed foreign armies. 35Women received back their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured and refused to be released so they could gain a better resurrection.

36But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. 37They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. 38The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.

39All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith. 40God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us.

12:1So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, 2and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

When I was in high school, every August meant the same thing: Lawn mowers on the football field, lines being carefully measured and painted on a practice field. It meant hours assigning uniforms and making sure that every piece of equipment was in top shape, ready for the first game of the season. It meant drilling and fundamentals and practice after practice. Each August of my tenure at Freedom High School was the beginning of another season in the Marching Band.

Each hot August afternoon was spent on the lumpy practice field in the nearby park as we learned the show we would perform at home games and band competitions. 140 of my closest friends and I would march around in the 90 degree weather while the drum majors and band directors called out commands. We stood at attention while mosquitoes and gnats ate us alive. And when the first year marchers asked us why we bothered with all this unpleasantness, we pointed toward an experience they didn't know yet, and told them to trust us. It was all worth it.

We pointed to the moment at the first home game after we marched onto the field and were called to attention, after the drum major counted us in for our opening number. We pointed to the moment after the thousands of precise steps, after the hundreds of measures of music. We pointed to the instant we finished our last note and brought our instruments down together, when we could hear our last chord reverberate off the brick stands as the applause and cheers of the fans mingled with and overcame it.

At that moment, we are breathless, exhausted, and overcome with joy because we have accomplished something together that none of us could do alone. We have to rely on each other to get through the show, to play the right notes, to watch our neighbors and keep our lines straight. The only way to get through the show and for it to be good, is for us to trust and rely on each other.

Because no matter how talented an individual band member is, they cannot do it all. We need the great crowd of musicians all around us to bring forth that wall of sound that makes the emotional impact of the music so powerful.

In my experience, when we talk about the gifts God has given us, we're talking about the gifts each individual in the group has. God has given you the ability to turn raw materials into a sound and solid structure. God has given you the resources to provide employment for others. God has given you the talent to play a musical instrument. God has given me words that I may speak.

Those are certainly all true, and worth valuing in ourselves. However, the kingdom of heaven is not a bunch of individuals all praising God in whatever way pleases them. It's a community that gathers around a single table. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a bunch of performers all waiting their turn on the stage, it's a dinner party sitting in stunned silence with all eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who has told us that this is my body, broken for you.

The greatest gift God has given us is himself, as Jesus Christ. The second greatest gift God has given us is each other: the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. United  Presbyterian Church is not a building in which individuals gather to be spiritually entertained each week. United Presbyterian Church is a community that shares a history that goes all the way back to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. It is a community based on faith in the one who endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God's throne.

We often use "belief" and "faith" nearly interchangeably. We start our Affirmation of Faith with "I believe." There's just a tiny difference between the meaning of the two words. There's a significant difference between "I believe it will rain this afternoon" and "I have faith it will rain.

Christianity is not about knowing the right answers or even believing the correct doctrine. Belief is a thought, often a dearly held one. But faith is something more. Faith begets action.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said on Twitter a few months ago that "The good thing about Science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it" If that's not a statement of faith, I don't know what is.

We can spend all day debating the merits of that faith, or the accuracy of its target, but that tweet reflects a faith in the scientific method to discover truth and improve the lives of humanity, and Dr. Tyson has dedicated his life to its service. His faith in science has compelled him to participate in that process.

Our faith, however, is not in our own ability to solve problems, or that greater knowledge will give us greater abilities. Our faith is in the God who is the source of all our gifts. Who intervenes in the lives of his people, who is the way and the truth and the light, whether or not you believe in it. This is our faith, and that of the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.

By faith they crossed the Red Sea as if they were on dry land. Through faith they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, realized promises, shut the mouths of lions,   put out raging fires, escaped from the edge of the sword, found strength in weakness, were mighty in ware, and routed foreign armies.

This history of great deeds is included so that we might know that we have a mighty shared history that spans nations and centuries, all based on faith in the living LORD our God.

These are great heroes through whom God worked great wonders because of their faith. However, faith does not always make for an easy road. It doesn't promise to fix all our problems, and it doesn't always soften the blow of what falls on our path.

Others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. They were stoned to death, they were cut in two. They went around wearing skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. The world didn't deserve them.

I'm currently working as a Chaplain Extern at Spartanburg Regional Hospital, and yesterday a tear-stained face told me that "God doesn't give you more than you can handle, but sometimes I feel like I can't handle it, and sometimes I feel like I don't want to." I am certain that she is not the only person who feels that way.

There are people who are suffering from overwhelming burdens. To ask them to carry them alone is to abandon our call to love them. The suffering that many of our brothers and sisters endure is not what God intended for them. It breaks God's heart to see his children suffer in this way. But the suffering is not the end of their story, because our God takes that pain and shame on himself. All these people didn't receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith.

God provided something better for us so that they wouldn't be made perfect without us. While we may find ourselves given more than we can handle, I promise you that it is not more than God can handle. Jesus endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him.

That joy is the kingdom of heaven made real. It's the joy of a family playing a game together where each one of them has a chance for their particular talents to shine through, laughing together and knowing that the game would be less fun if one of them were absent. It's the joy of a long-carried burden being taken up by a loving community of faith. It's the joy of our faith, perfected at last in the resurrection of that great shepherd of the sheep: our Lord Jesus Christ, who took a towel and wrapped it around his waist, and washed his disciple's feet.

The British Science-Fiction author Douglas Adams writes in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy on the subject of towels. He writes "a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a [non-hitch hiker] discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the [non-hitch hiker] will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost".

A towel is a simple thing, just a bit of woven cloth. In Adams's novel, knowing where one's towel is shows that you've really got your life together. It's a symbol of a life of adventure. For us, it's as symbol that we serve one another, it's an affirmation that we do not have our lives together, but that God keeps us together anyway. God gives us each other, and we love and serve one another because we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.

Because we are not meant to run the race that is laid out for us on our own. It is not God's intention that we push our way to the front of the crowd so that we can be first through the gate. It is not God's intention that we go through our lives relying only on ourselves, the perfect self-made person, a pioneer in her field, a perfecter of his technique.

It is God's intention that we go through our lives loving God with our whole selves, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith's pioneer and perfecter.

I cannot do it by myself, and neither can you. There are gifts I do not have, things I do not know. But God has given us each other, so that we don't have to do everything. Though none of us have every gift we will need, each of us does have some gift to offer. We are guided by the Spirit to be a people of God, not just a collection of Godly persons. By faith we are drawn together to be a great cloud of witnesses, sharing in the joyful work of the one who sat down at the right side of God's throne.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Children of the Living God

Children Of The Living God from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Hosea 1:2-10
2When the Word of the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to him, “Go, marry a prostitute and have children of prostitution, for the people of the land commit great prostitution by deserting the LORD. 3So Hosea went and took Gomer, Diblaim’s daughter, and she became pregnant and bore a son. 4The LORD said, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will destroy the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Jezreel valley. 6Gomer became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the LORD said to Hosea, “Name her No Compassion, because I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel or forgive them. 7But I will have compassion on the house of Judah. I, the LORD, their God, will save them; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen. 8When Gomer finished nursing No Compassion, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. 9Then the LORD said, “Name him Not My People because you are not my people and I am not your God.”

10Yet the number of the people of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which can neither be measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it will be said to them “Children of the Living God.”

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks Be to God

This is one of those texts that makes congregations shift uncomfortably in their pews. Don’t worry, it’s also one of those texts that makes preachers shift uncomfortably behind their pulpits. It sends us straight to our commentaries to try and explain away why God would command these terrible things. We have been raised on a happy-fun god who has no more substance than the cotton balls our children glue to the pictures we draw of him. The God of Hosea makes us anxious. Because in this minor prophet, God stares down the full measure of humanity's darkness and refuses to blink.

Hosea’s actions are abusive to both his wife and his children. He doesn’t choose his wife because he’s in love with her, or because it was arranged as a good match. Hosea chooses Gomer because she’s the one who comes to his mind when the LORD commands him to Go, marry a prostitute. She is a prop to his prophecy, not even a real human being who will have to suffer through the rejection and abuse that is chronicled in the second chapter of Hosea. As soon as we meet her, Gomer’s husband strips her of her personhood and leaves her an object lesson.

Then the children start arriving, and God tells Hosea to name them terrible things. They’re not people, they’re walking sermon illustrations! Jezreel, the site of a terrible battle. No Compassion, because God is done tolerating our shenanigans, Not My People because we have so thoroughly abandoned God that God no longer even recognizes her covenant people. These are children of prostitution, brought into the world to embody the way that God’s people have deserted him. What chance do they have of making themselves whole when they are so wholly surrounded by brokenness?

Hosea’s story is almost always read with the assumption that Hosea, the man, represents God, and Gomer, the woman, represents Israel. I'm not satisfied with that interpretation. This isn't a story of a prostitute's purifying punishment. This is a story of the redemption of the entire family. God transforms their family’s brokenness into wholeness.

Broken heroes and fallen examples are a motif throughout the scriptures. Noah was a drunkard. Abraham sold Sarah to be another man's wife, twice. Moses murdered an Egyptian. David was an adulterer who conspired to have Uriah the Hittite killed. Hosea is an abusive husband and father, and he needs redemption as much as his wife and children do.

Hosea does not stand in for God in this enacted prophecy. Hosea is a family member and a prophet whose life testifies to the need for a redeeming God. His abuses are inexcusable. "Hosea's treatment of his wife and children has sometimes been used to justify similar actions in modern relationships as well. This is a perversion of the biblical narrative and of the intent of the passage. Hosea 1-3 is not a story about the absolute submission of wives to their husbands, nor does it give license to husbands to brutalize their wives for real or imagined transgressions,"

Abuse is inexcusable, but neither the abusers nor the people they abuse are beyond God’s saving reach. This first chapter of Hosea sets the stage for, and is the promise of, redemption. 

Hosea, Gomer, Jezreel, No Compassion, and Not My People are all living in a world that is distorted by sin, and every aspect of their behavior and identity is colored by that distortion. Nobody in the family escapes unscathed. Some of us find it easier to see that distortion in others. Some of us find it impossible to escape that distortion in ourselves. God gives the children names that reflect their brokenness and that of the community into which they were born. Hosea’s children are wearing the sin of their people as a nametag. They are children of prostitution, for the people of the land commit great prostitution by deserting the LORD. God stares into this broken family’s darkness, and refuses to give up on them.

The story begins with a prophet's family identified as the "sick ones." They are the children of prostitution. They are the ones who desert the LORD. Gomer, Hosea, Jezreel, No Compassion, and Not My People are no doubt ostracized for the sickness in their family. It’s a sort of social quarantine that hopes sin is an infection that will just run its course and then go away. 

We avoid them because if we keep the children of prostitution at arms length, and ignore them, we don’t have to recognize how much we are like them. The way they treat each other makes us squirm in our churches, I wonder how much more we would squirm if they sat in the pew next to us. We can see the disorder in Hosea’s family, and we wonder if maybe our own symptoms are not as well hidden as we thought.

The symptoms are obvious in this family, but the rest of God’s people are just as sick. Even in our church family, nobody escapes unscathed. When an addict reaches again for the dose that makes them feel better even as it kills them, that is a symptom. When a son cannot face his family because he has failed to meet their expectations, that is a symptom. When a woman abandons her nursing child, that is a symptom. When a father disowns his child for the choices he’s made, that is a symptom. They are easy to see, easy to point out, easy to label “children of prostitution.”

But I wonder if our quieter symptoms qualify us to share that label with Hosea’s family as well. Like when we cursed at the person who cut us off driving to work last Thursday. Or when we lied to the person who asked for a little money for food or gas saying “I don’t have any cash”, because we thought they might just go buy booze or smokes with it. I wonder if the fact that these transgressions are acceptable in our society is evidence that we are not oriented toward the ends God has for us. But God sees the darkness from which these actions stem, and refuses to abandon us to it. God is going to transform our brokenness into wholeness.

The Israelites committed themselves to a higher standard, one that glorifies God, who brought them out of Egypt and transformed Israel from slaves into a covenant people. That higher standard is a gift, a reminder of who they are and whose they are. It is a constant reminder that they need God to be active in their lives, and a promise that God is active in their lives.

When Israel cannot live up to the covenant, God doesn't give up and start anew, or just create a new sinless universe like a child who has grown tired of her lego creation. God does not discard us like a writer crumpling a page of an uninspired rough draft.

No, the author of all that exists takes the crumpled paper, and reorders it into a new creation. A creation where Gomer is no longer just a prop in a prophecy, but is once again somebody’s child: Diblaim's daughter. A creation where her children are not rejected, but are embraced by a loving heavenly parent. A creation where Hosea no longer passes on a pattern of abuse, but empowers those around him to hear the Word of the LORD. God promises that we will not be defined by the ways we have stumbled, but as the people whom God has lifted up, even when it means the fabric of existence must be made new.

It is a reality where the addict is no longer known for the substance they use to escape, but for the way she helps others who are also recovering from addiction. It’s a reality where the young man who flunked out of college given the opportunity to succeed, even at something different. It’s a reality where a mother will not forsake her nursing child, where a father runs to welcome the prodigal home. It’s a covenant that is not dependent on our ability to hold the broken bits of our lives together, but on God transforming our brokenness into wholeness.

The new covenant that is promised in Hosea is a covenant where “the number of the people Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which can neither be measured nor numbered.” It is a covenant where God speaks “I will have compassion on the house of Judah. I, the LORD their God, will save them; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.” Because this is not a covenant of law, or of force, or of money. This is not a covenant of our deserving God’s love, because we could never earn such a gift. This is a covenant of the WORD made flesh in a man named Jesus of Nazareth.

Christ came for the children of prostitution. Christ went to the cross knowing that the people he was saving were the ones who called for his death. Christ died because we were incapable of claiming or even remembering our identities as people of God. Instead we commit great prostitution by deserting the LORD. Christ was crucified because God refuses to part with those whom God loves, even when they reject her. When those whom God loves are too broken to reach out to him, God goes to the cross, giving us a loaf of bread saying “This is my body, broken for you.”

We may have earned the names “No Compassion” and “Not My People.” But that is not how God sees us. The place where it was said, “You are not my People” it will be said to them “Children of the Living God” For God has stared into the depths of humanity’s darkness, and when we could not emerge from it, came to us so that even when we walked in darkness we would not walk alone. Not even death could contain God’s love for us. We are no longer identified by sin of the world but by the righteousness of the risen Christ. Our lives are forever transformed.

The empty tomb has transformed the children of prostitution into Children of the Living God. Amen.