Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hurry Up and Wait!

First Sunday of Advent – Year C (RCL)
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
Sunday, November 29, 2009 – Trinity, Redlands

Hurry up and wait!

If you’re like me, you don’t like to have to wait. I hate waiting in line at the grocery store – I want to get checked out so I can get home or on to my next errand. I hate sitting at stop lights – I want to get wherever it is I’m heading. If I have an appointment at 10:00, I want to be underway promptly at 10:00. If I make up my mind to do something, particularly if I have spent a lot of time struggling or agonizing over the decision, I want do get it done right then – no waiting.

Ours is a culture of instant gratification. Ours is a culture that sees waiting as inefficient, a waste of time. But aside from that, waiting carries with it an element of uncertainty – uncertainty about when we will indeed get that meeting underway or about what will indeed happen when the waiting is over. And most of us don’t like uncertainty. We are not comfortable with the unknown.

The irony for us 21st century Christians, for a people who are not comfortable with waiting and the unknown that goes along with it, is that ours is a religion based on waiting. In the early days of our religion, Christianity was not known as Christianity. It was known as The Way. But given the nature of our religion, it might more aptly have been known as The Wait. A look at liturgical time demonstrates that.

It all began with the birth of Jesus, what we now know as Christmas. But after Christmas, we have to wait for Epiphany, for the arrival of the wise men. And after Epiphany, we have a period of waiting for the arrival of Ash Wednesday. Following Ash Wednesday, we have the season of Lent, where we wait for Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. But it doesn’t end with this triumphal parade. We have to wait some more, through the week that leads to the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, on to Jesus’ arrest later that night, to his trial and his execution on Good Friday. And then there is the hardest waiting of all, the time between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter. But it doesn’t end there. We have to wait some more for his Ascension, followed by the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But even that is not the end of the waiting. Following Pentecost, we wait and wait and wait some more as we explore and experience the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry, of Christ’s reign – a time of waiting for Christ’s promised return, for the Second Coming.

While we know the path of the liturgical year and the periods of waiting that must necessarily occur, we also know what the next step will be. While we may not like the waiting, we know what to expect and can see a definite end of the waiting. But perhaps the most significant period of waiting actually begins today, the first Sunday of Advent. This is a time when we do double duty in the waiting department. We await God’s coming to earth in the form of the baby Jesus, born at Christmas. And we await the returning to earth of our Risen Lord, at a time that we do not know. The first of these we can readily see. We can see the first because Jesus has already been born. We don’t really need to anticipate that event, although we do anyway. What we truly anticipate is Christ’s coming again. But this, we cannot see. The hard part is that this coming again will be at a day and an hour that we do not know, that we cannot know. But the two events we anticipate, Jesus’ birth at Christmas and his Second Coming, are inextricably linked. For as one commentator notes, a “transformative chain of events was launched at the announcement of the coming of the infant, God-incarnate” (Kärkkäinen, 22) – a chain of events that would lead to that God-incarnate being crucified, risen, and ascended, and who would one day return. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot have the Second Coming without the first coming, Jesus’ birth. And so we wait.

It is because of this waiting for the Second Coming that we have the Gospel lesson we do today. In it, we do not encounter the baby Jesus, but rather a stern, adult Jesus, issuing warnings and injunctions about the end times. It is quite appropriate that these words are issued by Jesus from the middle of the Temple mere days before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus, too, waits. And while he waits, he takes this opportunity to let us know what to expect while we wait for a situation that has not yet been fulfilled.

Dealing with situations that have not yet been fulfilled is nothing new in the Bible. Dealing with situations that have not yet been fulfilled is actually the subject of both our Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah and our Gospel lesson from Luke. While dealing with different situations, both deal with the subject of waiting for what is yet to come. In Jeremiah’s case, he is dealing with the anticipated end of the Babylonian Exile, when the people would be allowed to return home. But that had not yet happened. The people were anxious because of the waiting. Luke uses the words of Jesus to tell the early church that Christ would come again in the fullness of time. But that had not yet happened. These people, too, were anxious because of the waiting. In both cases, the people had grown weary from waiting and had begun to fear that the promised returns, of the exiles to Israel, and of Christ’s Second Coming, may not happen after all. In both cases, sloppiness had begun to set in among these two communities of faith. In both cases, Jeremiah and Luke attempt to convey a message of hope, of assurance, that the promised events would indeed happen. And in the case of Luke, regarding the coming again of the Messiah, he attempts to convey a message of what needs to be done during the time of waiting – to be watchful and alert, to be prayerful and humble, to trust in God and the awaiting redemption that only God can, and will, through Christ, bring.

Because of all the imagery of cosmic signs and distress among the nations and the powers of the heavens being shaken, because of predictions of people fainting from fear and foreboding, this text from Luke tends to evoke images of fear and damnation preceding the return of the Messiah. But this is not the real intent. The text from Luke offers not fear and damnation. Quite the contrary, what the Lukan Jesus is really offering is hope and expectation – hope and expectation because God loves us, because God wants to redeem us, because God through Jesus Christ is coming. To fulfill this hope, this expectation, we need Christ to come, both as a little child and as our Risen Lord. But we must wait.

And Jesus tells us what we must do in our waiting. He tells us that while there will be signs, that does not mean that we need to become obsessed with trying to interpret the signs, to second-guess what any potential sign might mean. People have been trying to do that for the last two thousand years, trying to pinpoint the day and the hour of the Second Coming. And they have always been wrong, because we don’t know the day or the hour of his coming. Rather, Jesus is telling us that we need to be alert. That’s different from trying to predict. In being alert, we are aware of what is going on around us and are able to act accordingly. In being alert, we see how the world falls short of God’s vision for it and for humanity. We see what we might do to bring a little bit of the promised kingdom to light in our own dark world. Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we need to constantly prepare, not wait until all the signs are right and it looks like this may be it, and only then begin to prepare. For if we continually prepare, it won’t matter when the day or the hour is. For when it comes, we will not have to scramble. We will already be prepared. We will be ready for Christ’s coming and for whatever may follow.

While Jesus tells us that we need to be prepared, he does not say much about what that includes, other than a passing reference to prayer. But I think part of our preparation is found in his statement that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The eternal thing that will remain, and hence, the thing that will sustain us during the time of waiting, that will prepare us for what is to come, is that very word – the Gospel. The message of the Gospel, the good news of the coming kingdom, what it will entail, and what we must do to be a part of that kingdom, are integral to our preparations – the Gospel as explored and lived out in community.

We all know that when we have to wait, the waiting is made a little easier when done with someone else. For us Christians as we wait through Advent, as we wait not only for the coming of Jesus as a child, but even more so as we wait for the Second Coming of our Risen Lord, we are better able to wait, are better prepared for the coming events, when we do so in community. We are not meant to wait it out alone. We cannot wait it out alone. As one commentator notes, “Knowing and believing the ‘good news’ of the coming kingdom finds evidence in how we see that kingdom in the world around us – in others. Our own belief in the kingdom finds expression when we see it in others, when we name it in their lives and rejoice, giving thanks for the sometimes surprising ways that the people around us and in front of us reveal the coming kingdom in our midst” (Mulder, 5).

The church exists to help us through the waiting process, as we wait for the birth of God-incarnate, as we wait for the coming of the Risen Christ, as we wait for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. The church exists to help us prepare for all these promises, through our communal prayers, through our worship, through studying and learning how to live the Gospel. The church exists to give us a foretaste of what the Kingdom may ultimately look like, as we live into Kingdom ideals by working for the well-being of all God’s beloved children through outreach and pastoral care. The church exists to provide examples, through the lives of our sisters and brothers in faith, of what it means to live the Gospel. The church exists to provide the support and the companionship that we each need as we struggle with what it means to live the Gospel, as we wait for the coming of the Kingdom that is yet to come. The church, this faith community, will help us get through the waiting. It’s the only way we can get through it. If it were not for the church, the community of faith, the Body of Christ, Advent and all that follows from it would be pointless.

As we begin this Advent season, we anticipate the coming of the Christ child. We anticipate the Second Coming of our Risen Lord. We anticipate the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. All this is promised to us. All this will happen in due time. But for now, we wait.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. “Luke 21:25-36, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Mulder, Timothy J., et al. New Proclamation: Year C, 2009-2010, Advent through Holy Week. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Eve Homily

Thanksgiving Eve – Year B (RCL)
Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33
Wednesday, November 25, 2009, 7:30 pm
Joint Service with Trinity Episcopal and First Lutheran, Redlands (at First Lutheran)

Jesus said, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

Without a doubt, the bottom line of today’s Gospel lesson is a message of assurance. At some level, we all know that, we all feel that. But, like so many of Jesus’ words to us, this same passage can, at the same time, leave us feeling a little uneasy. Depending on who we are or what circumstances we find ourselves in, the cause of the uneasiness will be a little different.

I would hazard a guess that most of us are either pretty well of, or at least have sufficient means to live a reasonably comfortable life. What does today’s Gospel lesson say to us? Jesus tells us, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” For 21st century Americans, this injunction could be expanded to include do not worry about your house, or your car, or your 401(k). But having such things, having the means to live comfortably both now and in the future, brings with it a great deal of worry, particularly in our current economic climate. How can we not worry, with the stock market being more of an E-ticket ride than any rollercoaster? How can we not worry with employment on the rise? We may have what we need for a comfortable life now, but will we still have it next month, or next year, or when we want to retire? Worry is the sign of the times we live in.

For us, the Gospel message is quite clear. “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” This message does not necessarily mean that we are assured of keeping what we have. Rather, it is an injunction to not worry about the material, but to focus on what is important. For us Christians, it is not the food we eat or the clothes we wear or the house we live in or the car we drive. What is important is our relationship with God. What this message is saying is that when we focus on such things as house and car and food and investments, those things detract from our focus on what is important. The Gospel cautions us to not let our anxiety over having enough become the driving force in our lives. For if that happens, when that happens – and we all succumb to such anxiety at one time or another, it is only human – when that happens, it becomes our ultimate loyalty. It becomes our idol. It becomes our god.

The corrective, according to Jesus, is not to worry about such things. It doesn’t do any good anyway. It just results in increased blood pressure, ulcers, headaches. Rather, we need to trust that God will watch over us, protect us, and help us get through such times. At times, this may sound like a platitude, but I’m sure we have all heard stories of those who do demonstrate righteousness by trusting in God, and when they do, somehow, all is well. God does provide. Not necessarily with miracles. Not necessarily in the ways we would like, hope, or expect. But God does provide. Of that we are assured, and in that we place our hope.

But as I reflect on this passage, I am also mindful of those who do not have sufficient means to life a reasonably comfortable life; of the results of a recently-released study that shows that one in seven people in the world, nearly one billion people, suffer from hunger and malnutrition. And I am mindful of a study released by the US Department of Agriculture last week that in 2008, one in seven households in the United States, nearly 49 million people, while not necessarily suffering from hunger or malnutrition, struggled to put enough food on their tables. While they may have food, it is not sufficient to for an active, healthy lifestyle. The government study noted that this was a significant increase over 2007 number, and that, because of the global recession, this number is expected to climb even higher for 2009. For many people faced with financial difficulties, something as simple and basic as food becomes an unaffordable luxury.

In response to the report, the administration called the findings “unsettling.” As Christians, I would say this is more than unsettling. It is unacceptable. It is morally reprehensible. So what does today’s Gospel lesson say to these people? Jesus tells us “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.” How can these people not worry? These people and the billion others around the world who are waiting for the Good News of today’s Gospel lesson to tangibly manifest itself in their lives.

Does this mean that these people do not have faith? That they are not righteous? That if they would only trust in God, they would have the food they need? Definitely not! In fact, many of these people, in their poverty, have nothing to turn to but their faith. They have utmost faith that despite their circumstances, God will provide, as promised in today’s Gospel. Sure, they can’t help but worry – worry about how they are going to feed themselves, how they are going to feed their children. But in the midst of the worry, they somehow are able to see the truth of God’s grace, the bounty of God’s love.

So how come they are not relieved? How come they continue to suffer from hunger, homelessness, disease? That’s easy. In our day, God does not generally work through miraculous means. All that changed with the coming of Jesus Christ. Christ’s coming ushered in a new way of doing business. God now works through the Body of Christ present in the world. God works through us, who are called to be the hands and feet and heart of Christ in the world. So, from this standpoint, today’s Gospel lesson does not let us, those who have what we need to survive, off the hook, but rather invites us to struggle with our sense of priorities.

In ancient times, wealth was perceived to have limits – there was a finite amount to go around. Striving for personal gain, while providing for the well-being of the one seeking it, at the same time, meant that less was available for someone else. Striving for material gain was often viewed as robbing from another. We do not hold such views today. In fact, our current global financial crisis was at least partially precipitated by the prevailing notion in our own time that wealth knows no bounds. Maybe we need to return to the old way of viewing such matters.

Does that mean we who have sufficient means need to impoverish ourselves to exhibit our faith, our righteousness? By no means! But it does call for awareness. Awareness of the plight of the other who may not have sufficient means; awareness that we may not be so different, that what separates us may only be one or two paychecks; awareness of ways that we might be able to give of our bounty to help those who do not have even what they need to survive.

At this time of Thanksgiving, when we take time to be mindful of the riches we have, we are called to be thankful for our bounty, both material and spiritual. But our response does not stop there. Today’s Gospel lesson calls us to righteousness – to right living – to living into the Gospel message, to be the hands and feet and heart of Christ in the world. As we count our blessings, we are not to just stop there, but are called to consider how those blessings might be used to the benefit of others beyond ourselves. Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink. Instead, worry about the other – the poor, the marginalized, our brothers and sisters who are the least of these. And not just worry, but act. This is, in part, what it means to strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And as the Gospel promises, if we do this, many more blessings will be given us as well. Now that has the makings for a Happy Thanksgiving.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Widow's Mite or the Widow's Might?

Twenty-Third Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 27) – Year B (RCL)
1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
Sunday, November 8, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

From a structural standpoint, how do you view the portion of Mark’s gospel that we just read? Is it two stories, or is it one story with two parts? How you answer that question can greatly impact how you interpret the sum total of the words we just heard. So what’s the right answer? Is it two stories or one? Well, the correct answer is “yes.” Let’s take a look at today’s gospel both ways and you’ll see what I mean.

In many ways, today’s gospel looks to be two stories. In fact, if you look in a Bible, today’s lesson is spit into two pericopes. The first is Jesus teaching in the temple. He observes some scribes and uses this as an opportunity to reinforce his previous teachings about personal glorification. You will recall that Jesus has previously taught the disciples to give up aspirations of power, reputation, prestige, place of honor. The first part of the lesson attacks these attitudes in the scribes, who exemplify all that Jesus has been criticizing and condemning: scribes wearing long robes as a sign of wealth; scribes strutting their stuff and looking to be recognized in the marketplace, a public arena where the common folk would witness the honor bestowed upon them; scribes seeking the best seats in church and at banquets, indicating that they are people of status. In addition, Jesus goes on the attack because of the scribes’ hypocrisy. He strongly suggests that the scribes have likely exploited their position for personal financial gain. In short, their piety is a façade.

The second story shifts location to the temple treasury, where people are coming forward and presenting their monetary offerings. Jesus calls attention to the fact that a number of rich people are giving large sums of money. That’s certainly admirable. But then, a poor widow comes in to present her offering. She gives a measly two copper coins. That’s nothing compared to what the others have given. But Jesus points out that this woman gave an offering of all that she had to live on.

The words “all she had to live on” can also be translated as “her whole life” – she gave everything, held nothing back in her devotion to God. Proportionally speaking, she gave a greater share than the others. Forget the tithe. Her faith was so great that she gave her entire self to God. In so doing, the widow puts God first, thereby putting her own needs and wants into God’s hands. The wealthy, on the other hand, give from their surplus, putting their own wants and desires first, thereby putting God farther down the list of priorities.

The widow’s offering speaks volumes of how she views God compared to how the wealthy in the same story view God. For the wealthy, giving to God is out of a sense of duty. What is given is from the surplus, the leftovers after all other wants and desires are taken care of. But for the widow, her offering was more than just two coins. It was more than the sum total of her entire financial resources. It was even more than the offering of her entire life to God. Her offering of all she had represents her total, unwavering trust in God. In giving all that she had, she was placing her well-being, the possibility for continued existence, in God’s hands. She trusted that God would take care of her. In her faithfulness to God, she knew that God would be faithful to her.

The bottom line of this second story is that this woman is unencumbered by the cares of the world that prevent most people from entering fully into God’s kingdom. As Emilie Townes writes, “The coins represent faith-filled offering found in presenting all of who we are and all we hope to become to God for service to the world . . . It is not so much the act of giving or receiving, as it is the act of being” (Townes, 286). It is the act of being faithful to God. It is the act of trusting in God. It is the act of living into the promise of the Kingdom of God. Not just saying that we believe it, but rather living as if we truly believe that what we say is true.

So here we have two stories. One having the purpose of reinforcing Jesus’ teachings that personal glory is not what the Kingdom of God is about. And the second, providing a complementary message about what it means to be truly devoted to the Kingdom. There two stories, when looked at side-by-side, provide a study in contrast, focusing on values – particularly illustrating the values of the Kingdom of God – seeking personal glory versus selfless offering of self. We have a message directed to each of us on a personal level, about how we view our faith and how we chose to live it out.

That’s a look at the gospel lesson treated as two separate, although complementary, stories. Now what happens if we take them as one unified story? What message is revealed? What connects the two halves of this broader story is the widow herself – or at least the concept of widowhood. It is important to remember that in the society of the first century, women had no real social standing. There are the occasional stories of women owning property or having some sort of financial means, but this is really the exception rather than the rule. In general, a woman in first century Palestine was dependent on her male family members for her support. A girl was dependent on her father. Then when she got married, she became dependent on her husband. If her husband died before she did, she was left without means of support. There were no social service agencies as we know them. A widow’s only means of support was other male relatives, typically her sons. If a widow had no male relatives, she was left without a means of financial support.

The only hope in all of this was that if a widow did not have sons or other male relatives, she herself would inherit any property her husband may have owned. At least she would have a place to live. And if she happened to own some farm land, she might have some source of income. But being a woman, she would not have any experience in managing such affairs. So she would need help from someone else. Enter the scribes. The scribes were part of the religious system, interpreters of the law. They had charge of legal documents and financial matters. Hence, one of the things that they did was to help manage the financial affairs of those who did not have the knowhow. It would not be uncommon for a widow to engage the services of a scribe to help her manage her property. For a price. Well, as Jesus implies in the first part of the story, when he says that the scribes “devour widows’ houses,” some of these scribes were less than scrupulous and used their position to take advantage of naïve widows for personal financial gain. The result? The scribes, those who were supposed to be helping the widows, contributed to and worsened their condition of poverty – the implied example being the widow in the temple.

In short, this broader story provides a critique of the religious system that allowed, even facilitated, the widow being destitute in the first place. Things are a little different in our own day. It is not the religious system that results in the poor among us. It is a broader societal issue. But that does not mean that the church does not have a part to play. We may not have caused the problem, but the teachings of Jesus Christ and the overall Gospel message regarding justice and mercy dictate that we certainly have a responsibility to be a part of the solution. Here we have a message directed to us collectively, to the church, about how the church needs to be concerned not with pledges and attendance figures, but with issues of justice and mercy, with the marginalized.

So, looking at the stories one way, side-by-side, we have a study in contrast, focusing on personal values – particularly illustrating the values of the Kingdom of God – that the Kingdom is not about personal glory but rather is about the complete offering of self to God and to the work of the Kingdom. And looking at today’s lesson as a unified whole, we have a condemnation of the systems that contribute to poverty and the marginalization of others, and an implied injunction that even though we don’t cause the problem, part of our job as a community of faith, as the followers of God and of Christ, is that we have an obligation to do something about such injustices, such poverty.

So bringing all of this full-circle, the combined message of complete giving of self to God for the work of the Kingdom of God, and the injunction to care for the poor, the widows, the marginalized in our midst, gives us a very clear picture of what it means to be Christians. The stories bring together the personal and the communal. How do we be Christians individually? And then, how does that translate into being a Christian community?

Of course, it is easy when we hear such stories as today’s gospel lesson to beat ourselves up. We certainly are not like the widow, giving absolutely everything we have to God and thereby relying on God’s grace and mercy to take care of us. Neither are we like the scribes, strutting our stuff in search of praise and personal glorification. But I would venture that in our own minds we all seem to be able to relate a little more to the scribes than to the widow. And so, we tend to beat ourselves up, focusing on what we see as our shortcomings and inadequacies. Or, we may become despondent, feeling that the world’s problems are just to massive, and we are just one person, just one parish. There is no way we could be possibly make any real difference.

Now lest we all start feeling that the situation is hopeless, and rather than focus on our perceived shortcomings and inadequacies, what we can do is focus on opportunities. That’s what this time of the year is about – this time of our annual stewardship campaign. This is a time when we have the opportunity to examine who we are, what we are doing to live into who God is calling us to be, both individually and as a parish, and to make adjustments as necessary. This is a time when we have the opportunity to evaluate how we contribute to the work of the Kingdom in terms of the time we devote to parish programs and activities, the monetary support we provide for that work, and the God-given talents we bring to this place to enable Trinity to do the work God has called us to do as the part of the Kingdom of God here in Redlands.

Maybe in this process, we as individuals, and we as a parish community, can try to relate a little less to the scribes and try to relate a little more to the widow. Maybe we can live a little less as the scribes do, and try living a little more as the widow does. Maybe we could trust God just a little bit more – trust that when we give of ourselves to him, when we are faithful to him, he will, in return give of himself to us and be faithful to us – that we will not be left wanting, but rather, will be greatly blessed, nourished, and enriched for having stepped out in faith, putting forward our time, treasures, and talents for use as God sees fit.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Townes, Emilie M. “Mark 12:38-44, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4, Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers17-Reign of Christ). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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