Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon 2015

In those days,
in those long warn out days,
in a long worn out world
—a world clunking along like an old clock, gears grinding along, but without purpose or consistency.

          In those old days, there was a certain kind of peace.
          The peace of Emperor Caesar Augustus
—Caesar the Revered One.
          Revered, because he was the one who climbed out of the Roman Civil War
—he scrambled over the bodies of:
Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
          He’d survived all that, and imposed a steel rule over that what remained. He held the Empire together through Roman Peace
—also known as Peace by Superior Fire Power.
          Caesar Augustus’ peace was essentially a blackmailing of Rome and all she’d conquered.
A strange kidnapping… a letter slid under glass to a bank teller stating, “Stick close to me and no one gets hurt.”
          A rule based on fear, not consent.

          And for that absence of war
—for filling the power vacuum left by Julius Caesar’s death
he was declared Son of the Divine.
          In those days, it was etched on rock, “Praise Augustus a Savior who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in peaceful order.”
          And in these old days it is important that we don’t judge those old days.
After all, filling power vacuums with non-violent, or at least non-chaotic, forces…
The absence of war, even if it’s not peace…
Security even if it means a certain amount of tyranny…
It is easy to want to settle for that…
But, we know even instinctually, that it is a fear driven kind of peace…
For that matter, sometimes just getting through another day feels like an acceptable end in and of itself…
But such a limited life may not even deserve the name.

          In those days, Augustus brought the kind of peace that fears so fully that it sends heavily pregnant women across borders…
Fear that forces a woman to deliver her child while traveling…
Fear that finds a father unable to provide even a guest room for his wife…
Not even a crib for his newborn child.

          And out there,
outside the gates of Bethlehem,
a people often left outside the gates…
          A people associated with animals and the outdoors
—a people who saw everything and everyone coming into the gates, and so were great gossips, to be believed but not to be associated with
          The Shepherds
          Now, what is a Shepherd? Well, I always remember the bumper sticker on my parents cooler—it said:
 “If you can’t trust a Biker, who can you trust?”
That’s kinda what we’re talking about here:
“If you can’t trust a Shepherd, who can you trust?”

          Those shepherds got to be witness to the greatest bit of gossip the world has ever known—the first to hear the gospel!
The first to hear a new thing in this old world,
The first to be a bridge between those old days to this day, this new day!
          Angels come to them…
Think about that!
 Angels! What are they doing out there?
          The Angels of heaven arrive on earth—imagine the weirdness of that
Their arrival indicates that heaven is down, the universe has upended itself, and this is an invasion!
          It’s like a scene from a movie
—the camera focuses tightly on an angel’s wing and the sky
—the stars all up there, only to flip around and rightsize at the last moment, revealing the angel is not flying, up there in the sky, but instead standing, right here, right here on earth!
The holy is not up there, but right here, right here on earth!
          In the book “Ender’s Game” the characters play an elaborate laser tag/capture the flag game in zero-gravity,
and the main character realizes spatial orientation doesn’t matter in zero-gravity,
that if you re-think where you are in the room, and see your opponent’s goal as down then the game, instead of being about dodging and hiding, is about falling well, landing in your enemy’s goal.
          So too, the orientation of earth has shifted, heaven is on earth, God has arrived here
—everything else is just an elaborate falling into His arms.

          Yes, with the arrival of angels heaven has come down, and the tired promises of those days are eclipsed with the true promises of this day!
          No more the worn out promises of safety by blackmail, a Caesar crowned atop the bodies of those he brutalized and beat, the peace he keeps by keeping a lid on it all.

          Instead the one who is Savior, Messiah, Lord…
is a baby bound in bands of cloth,
set in a slop trough.
          A tiny child
—a small human,
filled with God,
filled with all those proud promises made by Caesar,
but backed up by blessing instead of force.

          The host of angels is an army
—an angelic invasion of Caesar’s world,
our world
An invasion on behalf of this little child…
—an invasion like no other, (other than maybe The Beatles)
an invasion by a song,

an invasion that woos the world,
singing a better song than
all our false saviors,
all our controlling kings,
all our armies of interests and security and tyranny,
all that squared off against a song
Caesar’s song of fear…
Our song of fear…
Faces off against one of praise and pondering, and fear doesn’t have a chance!

No chance against:
--A song to shepherds outside the gates
--A song these shepherds sing to Mary and Joseph there a long way from Nazareth,
--A song there before little Jesus in the lowly manger.
--A song reverberating in Mary’s heart.
A song Jesus later sings to the crowds.
A song sung to Samaritans and Sabbath breakers,
Sung to the lost and the least.
A song sung for his whole life long
Sung there on the cross for us,
Wooing us at whatever the cost
And sung again on the other side of the grave.
Sung to you and to me,
…Sung by you and by me, as well
“Glory to God in the highest of heavens
And peace to God’s people here on earth!”

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent 3: John's Good News!

         You wouldn’t think it
—a wild man in the desert telling you to repent
—telling you the truth… that you are a sinner
—you wouldn’t think that would be a good message.
--You wouldn’t think it would be popular and attractive.

         Can’t you hear the ad men now, “Oh, soften your image, John. Replace camel hair with Prada and pastel. Maybe tone down the sin talk
Or only talk about sins that other people commit
—Tell the coatless that people need to be generous,
the occupied about the danger of Roman taxation,
and the extorted that soldiers are sinners.
Or even, you know, cut out this whole sin talk in total.”

         To which John replies by doubling down.
          He turns to the newly baptized, who he—I want to be clear here, he was the one who warned them… warned to flee the wrath of God, He question “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” is rhetorical,
and he says, “You brood of vipers!”
“Your ancestry,
your pedigree,
your nation of origin,
your race,
your ethnicity,
 isn’t your value
—isn’t your fruitfulness.
God created humans from the humus—earthlings from the earth.
God can shake every grave until the stones fly away and the dead rise
—God can produce women and men much more faithful than you.
Be fruitful or be cut down.
This baptism thing wasn’t a one and done.
Look alive or you might as well be dead.”

         “It’s like,” he continues, “you heard the phrase ‘Bear fruits worthy of repentance’ and turned it on its head… as thought that meant: sin a whole lot so when you repent you have a whole catalogue of stuff to repent of…
but you’ve already repented!
         You’ve somehow grabbed at the root of the phrase and assumed the root was the branches
—you’ve dug yourself into the root system, the term, repentance, instead of looking up at its fruits dangling there so sweet.
You’ve somehow managed to dig yourself into a grave, even though I called on you to climb out of it!
         You’ve repented, that’s the seed that you’ve planted…
I want to know what kind of bush you’ve produced,
what kind of plant you’ve got?
Is it an actual repentance-plant or some sort of sickly self-sanctified scrubland shrub?

         If that’s all you got, its taking up space
—it’s a waste of space
—it ought to be burnt so actual repentance will have space to flourish!

         “What does fruitfulness, a turned around life preparing for God’s coming, look like?” the crowd asks.
         “You that have, share with those who do not have.”
         Someone in the crowd hurrumphs and responds, “That’s all well and good—but we’re living in a complex multi-faceted world where diverse cultures and dominant empires collide to make all sharing hard.”
         “For example,” another man in the crowd continues, “This is an occupied country, but I collaborate with Rome to make ends meat, I collect taxes for the enemy.”
         “That way of doing things is rigged, unrig it,” John replies.
         A roman soldier studies him and says, “What about us occupiers ourselves?”
         “Did I stutter?” John replies, “The way you are occupying is rigged… unrig it.”

         Share and don’t rig the system—it’s so simple it’s in brilliant.
         Simple, but how often do you let your life get in the way of it?
         How often do you make excuses for not showing forth the fruits of repentance?
         How often do you say, “They probably don’t really need a coat”... or maybe you give them the worst coat you own and then complain that they are ungrateful!
         How often do you say, “I’m part of a very unjust and rigged system, but such a little part, that it doesn’t matter… blame the game not the player.”
         How often do you say, “This world can be brutal, but that’s just the world,” and shrug your shoulders and move on?
         Share and don’t rig the system… that’s what a repentant life looks like.

         There with John, despite, or maybe because of, his rough calls to repentance and fruitfulness, baptism after baptism occurred, and you began to babble asking, “who is this John fellow?”
         “Is he the one? Will he bring about salvation? Is he King of the Jews? Is he Lord of the World?”

         “No,” John replies to us
—“I can tell you about a fruitful life,
but he’ll burn you and turn you into mulch so you can be fruitful
—purifying you with fire and spirit.”

         And let me tell you one final thing—that’s good news.” A+A

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Advent 2: John Shows up

Advent 2: John Shows up

         Luke begins his description of John by placing him in living history—in a particular time…
7 years into the Presidency of Barack Obama, in the 5th year in which Chris Christie was governor of New Jersey. Putin ruled Russia, Assad still held sway in Syria, and Hollande was responding to the attacks on his country.
         When Francis was Bishop in Rome, Elizabeth Eaton Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and Bartholomew Bishop of New Jersey.
         The year when there were mass shootings in Colorado and California and 351 other places.

         I hope you notice the messiness there—Republican Governors and Democratic Presidents,
America, Russia, Syria and France,
Catholics and Lutherans,
Violence stalking just around the corner.
—we know the messiness of all that, the shading of our present reality
…Romans and multiple high priests
multiple high priests holding the singular office of High Priest
—something stinks… rulers with a variety of control over the lands they claimed, even if those lands that did not claim the ruler back.

         And out of this mess, this wide broken window of history, this painter’s palette of the powerful…
 a magnifying glass is given to you, swooping down from the heights of power—the grandiose swatch of the past,
to a priest,
To a particular priest.
To the Priest Zechariah…
         Zechariah, whose song we spoke together.
         This priest surprised and scared silent by the Angel of the Lord in the Holy of Holies itself,
He was acting as an atheist even as he functions as a leader of the faithful. Told that God will act and give him a son, he protests… and the angel puts a cork in it.
         Think of it, there where God is said to stay, you go about your work. Minding your own business, just getting things done—then God acts,
“Hey, you, Zechariah, you’re going to have a son.”
“Nah,” you reply…
to which the angel responds, “yeah!”
         For the next nine months he suffers in silence, until he is asked for a name. Then he opens his mouth and says,
“The Lord is Gracious”
or to you and me, he says, “John.”
         And then he sings that this name is true
—that the Lord is Gracious.
         He sings, in the face of tyrants and the violent messiness of his times
—of all times
—of our time
         He sings to your life, in this very moment, that God will set free, and send a savior
—save us and show us mercy, never forget us, but free us.

         Free as well, his Son, Yochanan, John, “The Lord is Gracious.”
         Free John, to be who he is, a prophet of the Most high,
free to prepare the way,
free to be a magnifying glass for that dawn from on high
—shining it brightly, a spotlight for  the one who himself is the light.
Free to be a path clearer, forging a way to the one who is peace
—the one who is God’s grace itself.
         Free to be Isaiah’s words in the flesh
—a person on whom to peg the precious image of God’s people freely returning home after being imprisoned in Babylon for a generation
—no crooked path,
no steep and treacherous valley,
no back breaking climb
—only return
—only salvation.
         Yes, John as the re-enactment and fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise. He, out by the Jordon, calls people to repent of their sins
because he is preparing the way.

          Think of your preparation for guests
—chucking the pile of papers from the side of the dinning room table into a big green plastic tub and sticking it out of sight out of mind.
         Think of the scrubbing and dusting that gets done only when your in-laws and outlaws come to visit.
         Think of the vacuuming and tidying up, fresh sheets / getting the guest rooms ready, preparing!

         John preparing the way
—that you will repent, so that you might be ready when the Salvation of God comes.
         John preparing the way
—scrubbing clean, that our honored guest will find us glistening.
         John preparing the way
—in a world so messy, with Emperors and Governors and High Priests,
so messy you could be excused for not repenting.
         John preparing the way
not allowing us to have excuses,
because in the midst of all the tumult and terror, the rulers and opinion makers, moving us like marionettes
—in the midst of all that, we still are called to repent.
         John preparing the way
—that even at your most religious
—when you’ve reached the station of his father Zechariah
—you can still be stunned into silence by God’s amazing acts.
         Preparing the way for the Graciousness of God, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sermon: Have you Met the King?

Have you met the King?
         He is our creative and eternal king.
King from the beginning to the end and everywhere in between, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
         He is king over the empty canvas, king above the terror of chaotic waters—with word and will He brings order and the possibility for all good things out of that empty chaos—even the empty chaos we find in our lives!
         He is, he was, and he will be
—he’s not leaving, not going anywhere
—I know it’s hard to believe in the face of the world as it is, but it’s true.
Empires pass away, 1,000 year kingdoms last barely a decade, reform efforts fail, their blind spots having unintended consequences, promises and threats by tyrants of all sorts, even those by benighted bags of benign buffoons, they are not long for this world.
         But, his Kingdom, has no beginning nor end, for wherever the King is, the Kingdom is
—His presence is his reign
—and he is the King who is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end—so his kingdom will have no end.

         Have you met the King?
         No, not the leader of a misguided Terrorist attempt at a Theocracy, the quote un-quote “Islamic” State Da’esh. A kingdom put together atop a pile of dead bodies.
         No, not the leader of any of those Kingdoms or Empires you are familiar with
—after all it’s like St. Augustine says, “Kingdoms without justice are robbers and Empires are simply piracy writ large.”
         No, He’s not even a president or prime minister of a democracy or republic
—filled with horse traders and graft
—where even our greatest heroes, once elevated lash themselves to power, and lash out against those who defy them.
         No, none of those kingdoms, beastly as they all are, none of them are from the King
—but a humane kingdom—a Kingdom coming from one like a human being.
A peaceful kingdom—one originating and finding it’s completion in one like the Son of Man.
That’s his Kingdom!

         Have you met the King?
         He wields power in a way completely different from anything else we’ve ever experienced.
He is king in the most unkingly of ways… yet more kingly than we’ve ever seen.
         His invasion into this world is a disarming call to arms, complete with an upside down army, and a misfit militia.
He conquers by offering his other cheek when attacked, going the extra mile in order to militate and facilitate redemption!
         His Kingdom is not of this world—it is an otherworldly invasion by pacifists,
conquest by moral authority alone,
standing up against all other kingdoms by kneeling and washing feet.
War Horse—Donkey.
Victory—Sacrificial Death.

         Have you met the King?
         He frees us! Standing up to the powers of this world, seen and unseen, he breaks the bonds they have bound us with—he shames and shatters all would be lords and would be kings and princes—all those who cling to the status quo, because it amplifies their status—all of them, all of us,
shattered and transformed.
         With his death he frees us from death—the wheels of the machinery of death are clogged by his blessed body.
         The gears that grind the world up with hate for hate and backbiting and all kinds of catastrophe for the soul—are gummed up and taken out of commission.
         All false kings flee in fear from the king who comes, who gives his life loving in the face of hate, dying to lead us away from murder, committing his spirit to his father from the cross that our souls might be washed clean.

         Have you met the King?
         It would be enough for him to stop it all
—stop the totalizing systems in their tracks, to give us the freedom to take another path.
         But it doesn’t end there—he doesn’t end this King of Ours. There is resurrection!
There is new life,
the creating out of nothing,
order out of chaos,
out of death life,
out of slavery redemption.
It is his and it is ours—freely given by our Lord, our King—freely given—see it?
See him?
Alive again and on the move—on the move in your life, right now!
Death doesn’t hold him, death doesn’t hold you!

         Have you met the King?
         He holds you and molds you, and is making you his brother, sister, sibling, kin
—his family.
         He, King of witness,
He, King of Testimony
—he Son of God, points, points to his Father.
         He points us to our father
—the Heavenly One, pointing to He who is to be praised.
         The King, our Great High Priest, ordains us and makes us priests as well… gives us the responsibility and joy of connection to God. Connected like the Priests of old… Called to this great connection, given a real responsibility.
         Sages, all of us, held tight to the bosom of God.

Have you met the King?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sermon: Birth Pangs

A Russian airliner blown from the sky, 224 dead.
         A Suicide bombing at a funeral in Baghdad, 26 dead.
         Twin bombings outside of a mosque in Beirut, 41 dead.
         Coordinated attacks on restaurants, a concert venue, and a soccer game attended by the president of France. Well over 100 dead.
         Kids hanging from nightclub windows, mourners and worshippers turned into victims, a plane full of people… gone.
         For that matter, an earthquakes and a Tsunami is Japan and Earthquakes in Mexico and California.

         So too, around the time of Mark’s Gospel
—Saccari in the street stabbing soldiers,
the siege of Jerusalem,
the destruction of the temple—those large stones ripped away
And the dispersion of the residence of Jerusalem.

         The good news, in a strange way, is that this is only birth pangs. That we are living in an already-not-yet time.
         In the face of world ending actions, we know the End of History is found on the cross and enfolded in the loving arms of Jesus.


         Terror and wars, and earthquakes and famines—these apocalyptic events. They destroy the body and weigh on the soul.
         But, these large, newsworthy events, are not the only ones that feel like the end of the world.
         There are personal tragedies too—Cancer attacking the body, Alzheimer’s the mind, the death of a loved one or end of a relationship, depression and despair eating at the soul.
It can feel like the end of the world.

         For that matter, there are times when a community comes to an end point.
         I think of our discussion at Pub Theology last Tuesday—the topic was the South Plainfield, Plainfield, Edison United Parish (SP/P/Ed-UP) and how we can work together to further the Gospel in our respective towns—but quite quickly the consensus became closing down St. Stephen and merging with either Our Saviors or St. Paul’s.
         Talk about Apocalyptic—end of ministry, end of community. (Me that evening)
         And these experiences that feel like the end of the world, can cause us to act like the end of the world is upon us—to buy into a story that says join those wars, respond in such a way that you can end the world on your terms!
         Yes, the danger is apocalyptic thinking
—making every move a saving throw,
every excursion in life a battle of good against evil.
         It’s easy to be co-opted by such messages
—Just do this one last thing and everything will be alright.
         Think of the variety of culture wars and political programs the Church has put her name to
—assuming if only this law was passed,
if only this person would be elected,
 if only we did this one thing, then it all would be better, we will have saved the world.

         For that matter The First World War was fought as the war to end all wars—but it only gave rise to an even greater war.
         The Cold War was fought with the belief that a win would be, to quote one of the great thinkers of that generation, “the end of history,” that liberal capitalist democracy would be the utopian end—no other power or ideology could possibly arise, if only the Soviets were defeated… How’s that working out for us so far?
         Provocatively one expert on the current so called “clash of civilizations” suggests that the best way to win an apocalyptic war, is not to fight one.
         That is, if your opponent sees themselves as noble religious knights and martyr of old, but you treat them as common criminals, you refuse to validate their story or sink down to their level
—after all the best way to slaughter a pig is to be a human and treat it like a pig, not get down in the mud and wrestle with it.

         Similarly we Christians must see all these things
—all the world ending experiences, be they global, local, or personal
—and understand them as the birth pangs. To not get caught up by them, to not let them get in the drivers seat of our souls, but instead to:
cling to the cross,
to hope,
and to each other.
         If we read Jesus’ words today in the larger context of Mark’s Gospel, we realize he is constantly pointing toward the cross
—he tells us we’ll find all these signs and the Son of Man himself—at the Cross.
In a strange way, history curves and finds its completion on the cross, even as it continues on.
         Yes, these horrors, war, earthquake, famine, were all historical realities in the life of the early Church, but they were all simply birth pangs compared with the birth of the Son of Man and the birthing of our freedom and adoption through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  
         This curve of the arch of history swoops towards our savior even as it still continues on.

         No lie, it’s a strange place along its path that we find ourselves. We find ourselves at the goal of life, Jesus Christ, and yet also still along the way toward that same goal—filled with hope that our end is the same as our beginning of the faith, caught in the embracing arms of Jesus.
         We find ourselves in between the already completed movement of history and the not yet completed reality of history.

         Found in this in-between space
—this already-not-yet place
—we cling to the reality being birthed, that we already know is ahead of us, because it is also behind us and with us now, Jesus Christ, in whom we find our confidence and our hope in all times, and even when it seems to be the end of time.

         We find him in the past, and as the goal of our future… but we also find him here and now. In this community, the Church, where at our best we poke and prod one another to the good
—we can encourage one another in our weakness, and provoke one another to love.
         Yes, in this particular community
—in the physicality of it
—in the down and dirty reality of it
—Here being birthed in our brotherhood, is Christ Jesus.
         In the clamoring complications of community, the ongoing physicality of just showing up, so we can be gracious burs in one another’s saddles, bees in each other’s bonnets to quote one late great saint here.
         What I’m getting at is that story I’ve told too many times already—after my first horrible, rotten, no good week of internship
—witnessing a murder, getting mugged, getting my mail stolen
—that the Sunday after all of that, when I knelt at that communion rail there at St. John’s Pimlico
—I finally understood why we Lutherans make a big deal about the real presence—about the physicality of it—because there are so many physical things that can cause us harm, that can end our world
—and so, that fleck of bread, that sip of wine
—that too is the end of the world, a physical reminder that all the rest—it’s birth pangs!
         So too, this community meeting together, a physical reminder of the limits of all those world ending things, a reminder that the end has been birthed, is birthed, and will be birthed again. We are a reminder to one another that: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.