Sunday, November 28, 2010

“Jesus is Coming! Everybody Look Busy!”

First Sunday of Advent – Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Sunday, November 28, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

As we begin this Advent season, it feels to me as if there is so much going on. Perhaps it is because we just finished Thanksgiving and are already three days into the official Christmas season as reckoned by secular society. Perhaps it is because I made the mistake of looking at my calendar and see how much we have going on around here, how much needs to be done before Christmas – Advent programming, Lessons and Carols, Las Posadas, Blue Christmas, planning for pageants and special liturgies. That may contribute to it, but what I am particularly referring to is that Advent is not just a time when there is a lot of activity going on, but it is also a time in which there is a lot going on theologically.

We always talk about how Advent is a time of anticipation and preparation. It is the time when we anticipate the coming of our Lord, both in terms of the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem, and in terms of the coming of the Risen Lord at the end of the ages, what we refer to as the parousia, the Second Coming. And it is a time of preparation, as we prepare our hearts and our spirits to receive the newborn baby who grows up to be our Messiah, who ultimately is crucified and resurrected for our salvation. It is also a time of preparation for his coming again; of putting our spiritual lives in order so that we are ready for the Second Coming and the new kingdom it will usher in. Advent is the time of anticipation and preparation for receiving God’s gift of salvation through the Word made flesh in varying manifestations.

We pretty well have the anticipation and preparation for Jesus’ birth, for Christmas, taken care of. We have something tangible to shoot for, something date certain – Christmas Day, which, by the way, is only 27 shopping days from now. For most people, the good cheer amid carols of “Joy to the World” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the retelling of the nativity story, just sort of naturally prepare our hearts and spirits for the remembrance of Jesus’ birth. But in all the rushing, the frantic and frenetic activity, we tend to miss out on some of the theological richness of this season. We tend to overlook the second component of Advent – the anticipation and preparation for the Second Coming of our Lord.

The Second Coming is a little more difficult for many of us to fathom, isn’t it? As Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We don’t know when it’s going to happen, and I think for many of us in this crazy, busy-ness oriented, schedule driven world, this is a little uncomfortable. We need to know when it’s going to happen so we can get it on the calendar. Even if we aren’t able to control the timing, at the very least, we want to know the details about what is going to happen, so we know what to expect. But Scripture doesn’t give us any useful information. Because the whole Second Coming thing is far less tangible than Christmas, maybe it’s just as easy to ignore that unknown and unknowable part of Advent.

But how can we when our Gospel lesson focuses on that very subject? Jesus makes it clear that despite the unknown timing, we are to be prepared. Prepared how? I have to admit that whenever I read this section of Matthew’s Gospel, whenever I think about Christ’s Second Coming and what it means to be prepared, I am instantly reminded of a bumper sticker I saw years ago – “Jesus is Coming! Everybody Look Busy!” And to be honest, I think that’s kind of what a lot of people think about the Second Coming. Oh, I’m not going to worry about it until later, when it actually happens.

As the 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth has commented, Christians look backward, remembering God’s acts of salvation, and we look forward, anticipating the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth. As such, Barth notes, we Christians live “between the times.” Advent focuses on these two times, the time of Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago, and Christ’s Second Coming at some time in the future. Advent is a reminder that we do live “between the times.” As such, we cannot look down the road at some yet-to-be determined event, but rather we would do best to focus on our lives as they are in the here and now, “between the times.” That’s not to say that we shouldn’t look to the past or anticipate the future. The past gives us insight and the future allows for imagination. But we live in the here and now. And so our preparations need to be in the here and now.

That is part of why we come to church and do all the other stuff that goes on around here. It’s about preparation. We come together to explore what it means to live the Gospel. But the work doesn’t stop there. We are to take what we see and hear and experience home with us, reflect on it in relation to our own lives, and figure out what we might need to change, what we might need to do better, to live the Gospel, to be the Body of Christ in the world, to help us be better prepared. This is not something that can happen instantaneously, but is on-going work.

Another way to look at it is the same as you would New Year’s. Appropriate, since today, the first Sunday of Advent, is the beginning of a new liturgical year – our New Year’s Day, if you will. On New Year’s Eve, I tend to spend some time looking back at the previous year, at what went well, what went right, and celebrate that. I also look at what didn’t go so well, at where I may have fallen short, and try to see the lessons to be had in those experiences. And I look forward, at the blank slate ahead of me and maybe note some ideas of what I might want to do with that blank slate. But then I move back to the present, because it is what I do in my day-to-day life that is going to make the difference as I move into the future, that will define who I am, who I become. There is an anticipation of what the future holds, and recognition of the preparation that will be needed to get there. Some people make that anticipation and preparation real through New Year’s resolutions. There is a recognition that something needs to change, there is the motivation to do so, leading to a resolution to make the change a reality.

It can be easy to put off making changes to sometime down the road, particularly when there is no apparent pressing need to do so – such as an uncertain time frame like the Second Coming. But Jesus’ warning is that we “must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Based on this, our preparations cannot wait. Jesus is calling us to identify where we are falling short in living the Gospel; what we need to do to achieve what Paul describes as coming “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). After all, that is what each of us is called to as Christians.

The anticipation is pretty much the same for all of us. We examine our lives and see where and how we might be able to better live the Gospel, to be ready for Christ’s coming again. The preparations that we need to make, on the other hand, will vary from person to person. Just as one person might make a New Year’s resolution to spend more time with loved ones, one person’s Advent resolution may be to spend more time with God in prayer. Just as another person may make a New Year’s resolution to take a class or learn a new language, someone might make an Advent resolution to study the Bible more intentionally. Just as someone might make a New Year’s resolution to undertake an exercise program, so might someone make an Advent resolution to exercise their missional muscles by engaging in outreach.

And it’s not just individuals that do this. The church, as the Body of Christ in the world is similarly struggling to discern how best to live the Gospel in the world. I think we have seen that in our own parish over the last few years. In 2009 we began our strategic planning process, in which we spent a lot of time looking backward, at who we are, where we have been, at what worked in the past and what did not. And we determined that while we have done some good things, maybe we could do a better job of looking beyond our walls and be the Body of Christ in our community. Based on this information, we developed a strategic plan that identified who we want to become and where we want to go. In 2010, we spent a lot of time fleshing that out, identifying what specifically needs to be done, how and where we need to change, to meet our objectives. A big part of that has been to identify just how we are called to use our gifts and talents in mission to the community and to plan how to do that. And in 2011, we will begin implementing some of those plans, more fully living the Gospel, and moving more into the fullness of who God is calling Trinity parish to be. I see this new year as one in which Trinity busts loose and really starts to live into the fullness of who and what God is calling us to be.

And the beautiful thing is that all this preparation tends to build on itself. We as individuals prepare ourselves by striving to better live the Gospel. And a lot of that for those of us in the church translates into the energy and resources that are needed for the parish to move forward, proclaiming and living the Gospel in the world. And this collective energy further strengthens the resolve of the individuals to devote more energy to exemplify the Body of Christ, being the hands and feet and heart of Christ in the world. In this we grow together into who God is calling us to be. That is the preparation that Jesus asks of us.

As individuals and as a parish, Jesus issues the same warning – to be ready, for he will come at an unexpected time. So let’s not just look busy. Let’s get busy. Jesus is coming!

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Being True to Our Identity

25th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28) – Year C (RCL)
Native American Sunday

Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

Sunday, November 14, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

“By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:19)

These are the final words of assurance and encouragement Jesus provides to his disciples after a pretty nasty description of things to come. Jesus has just foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He also foretells of false messiahs, wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues, dreadful portents, and persecution of his followers. We know that the Temple was indeed destroyed in 70 AD. And all the other things foretold by Jesus may well have been the reality at the time that Luke was writing his Gospel, and therefore, been reflected in his writings. But this foretold reality is ancient history to us in 21st century America.

What Jesus is talking about is a time of betrayal, condemnation, and persecution that, in his time and the time immediately following his death and resurrection, was because of his name. This betrayal, condemnation, and persecution would be directed toward the followers of Jesus merely because of who they chose to worship, because of who they were. In short, this was all about identity and what can happen to us because of our identity. And in those final words, “By your endurance you will gain your souls,” I believe Jesus is telling us that what is of paramount importance is to be true to our identity, no matter what.

Sadly, betrayal, condemnation, and persecution because of identity are not a thing of the past, but have been and continue to be very much a part of our societal struggles and conflicts. I am particularly mindful of this today, as we celebrate Native American Sunday. From the time that Europeans set foot on this continent, interaction and relations with the Native peoples has been characterized by distrust, betrayal, and persecution. Our European ancestors and the government they established have broken treaties originally made with Native tribal nations, stolen Native lands, and forcibly relocated proud peoples to desolate, nearly uninhabitable reservations. For generations, up through the latter part of the 20th century, our government’s policy was to force the assimilation of Native peoples into “American society.”

Our honored guests today include a number of our Native brothers and sisters. Among them are the White Rose Singers from Sherman Indian High School in Riverside. The school was established by the US Government in 1892 to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society. The purpose and programming of Sherman Indian School and similar institutions across the country was to force Native children to learn English and to adapt to the American way of life. Use of their own languages was forbidden. Traditional customs and cultural practices were forbidden. Native spiritual beliefs and rituals were forbidden. They were taught that their traditional cultures were inferior and shameful. In short, these people were denigrated because of their identity as Native. As a result, many became, and continue to be, ashamed of who they are.

Sadly, because of such shame, the betrayal, condemnation, and persecution of who we are because of identity is not solely from the outside, at the hands of others, but can be wrought at our own hands. We are sufficiently capable of betraying, condemning, and persecuting ourselves for who we are as well. I want to tell you the story of such a person, of a woman who grew up and lived her entire life ashamed of being Native. Her name was Hazel Nell Hunt, and she was born in 1891 in southeastern Kansas. Hazel Nell was Cherokee. Because of the time in which she lived, she was made to feel ashamed of her Native heritage. But Hazel Nell had an advantage, at least as far as she was concerned, in that she could “pass.” Her features and complexion were such that she appeared to be white. Because she was ashamed of being Native, she used her looks to her advantage and was able to hide who she was, to deny her heritage.

Hazel Nell grew into a young woman, and two days before her 17th birthday, she married a white man – someone who could remove her one step further from her despised heritage. She eventually had six children, five boys and a girl. While the outside world may have thought Hazel Nell was white, her husband and her children knew that she was Cherokee. But because she was ashamed of who she was, and probably to protect her children from the shame of being “half-breeds,” she never taught them anything about their Cherokee heritage. As a result, one of Hazel Nell’s sons, my grandfather, never learned about his Native heritage. And as a result, he was never able to pass along that part of his heritage to my father. And he was never able to pass along that part of his heritage to me and my sister. As a result, a valuable and proud part of my family history is essentially lost to me. As a result, I feel a bit incomplete, not knowing my full heritage, not knowing my whole identity.

I don’t condemn my great-grandmother. It’s not Hazel Nell’s fault. Who could blame her? She was just doing what she felt she needed to do in the early 20th century to protect herself and her family from potential persecution because of bloodline and blood quantum. But in protecting herself, my grandfather, and his siblings, she herself effectively instituted the forced assimilation that was the policy of the US government. It wasn’t imposed from outside. Hazel Nell imposed it on herself and her family. To prevent the government from taking away her identity, she stripped herself of that identity. But does that make the damage any less real? Because the reality is that no matter how much she claimed to be white, she was not. She was Cherokee. She knew herself to be Cherokee. She knew that she was living a lie. So how much did her well-meaning actions impact her sense of dignity and self-worth? How much did they impact her soul? There has to be some emotional and spiritual damage in being forced to deny who you are, who you know yourself to be.

I think that is what Jesus was warning his disciples, and us, about in today’s Gospel reading – to be faithful and true to our basic and most fundamental identity. Be it what Jesus was talking about – our identity because of his name, because of being Christians – or any other identity we have, be it based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever else – it is part of who we are. It is how God made us. God honors and loves what He has made and how He has made us, and so should we.

We belong to a Church that believes that identity is not an issue when it comes to membership. We are as God made us and that is enough. When our Creator made us, no matter who we are, He declared what He did when He made the first humans – that we are very good. In our primary act of inclusion, at the time of baptism, we vow to “respect the dignity of every human being.” And several times each year, we renew those same baptismal vows, just as we did last Sunday, re-promising to God and reminding ourselves of the importance of respecting the dignity of all, no matter who they are. God respects our dignity. And so are we to do likewise.

Actually, I need to take that back. Identity is an issue. But the only identity that makes any difference to God is our identity in Jesus Christ, our identity as God’s beloved children, made in His image and likeness. And yes, that image and likeness is red. And it is brown. And it is black. And it is yellow. And it is white. And God honors us and loves us despite our identity, and because of our identity. God loves us precisely for who we are. As such, who we are is not to be hidden, but celebrated.

It has taken many years, but maybe we’re finally beginning to get the message Jesus preached 2,000 years ago. Many of our Native sisters and brothers were forced to assimilate. Many of our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers felt compelled to hide who they were. But no more. That is why we celebrate Native American Heritage Month – to honor our heritage, to honor those who have gone before and paved the way so that today we can freely and openly proclaim who we are, whatever that may be. And that is true for every person in this room, Native or not. For that heritage given us by God is what makes us who we are. And it is our identity in Jesus Christ that gives us the strength and courage to boldly proclaim who we are and whose we are, to claim that which gives us life and gives it to us in abundance. For as Jesus proclaims, “By your endurance,” by being true to your identity, your total identity, “you will gain your souls” and the fullness and richness of life that your identity opens to you.

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