Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bow Down

Revelation 4:1-11

In college, probably at the beginning of my radicalized black consciousness phase, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Unlike many of my peers, however, I read it as a practicing Christian, and found most arresting Malcolm's description of his conversion. I was especially moved by his description of the first time he knelt in prayer. He said, "The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying." Then he continued, "I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up. For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God is the hardest thing in the world. It's easy for me to see and to say that now. But then, when I was the personification of evil, I was going through it. Again, and again I would force myself back down in the praying-to-Allah posture. When I was finally able to make myself stay down - I didn't know what to say to Allah."

Actually, it's not enough for me to say that I found Malcolm X's testimony about his conversion to Islam moving or even compelling, I found it convicting. The change he experienced made me question my commitment and then recommit to the discipline of my own faith in Jesus Christ. His testimony also made me more conscious of my need to bow down.

Little about the book of Revelation is straightforward or easily accessible, but all of its images are evocative. Everything it shows us makes us think. Note the transition in today's lesson, marked by the opening of heaven's door. The earlier chapters have been discussing the current activities of the seven churches, but beginning with chapter four we glimpse the activity taking place in a realm beyond our natural sight. This spirit realm is a place of brilliance and majesty, with thrones and gems and angelic hosts, with thunder, lightning, and flashing torches. There is One great Being who sits on the throne. There are 24 elders who wear crowns but in the presence of the One who sits on the throne, they cast their crowns down. Not just their crowns, though. They cast themselves down too, and fall down before God's majesty.

I needed the reminder when I was in college, and I am thankful for the reminder today to bow down. While I know that prayer is not simply about posture, I also know that where we put our bodies and how we configure them indicates and shapes what's going on in our minds and spirits.

Holy, holy, holy the Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Signs that Point to the Unexpected

Matt. 24:32-44 (NRSV)

32 'From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates 34Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 36'But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

For me, a central element in the commemoration of the Advent season is learning to expect the arrival of the thing I cannot imagine at the time when I cannot imagine it. After all, we are talking about the coming of the Lord here. And God is nothing if not unpredictable. If our eyes could see, ears hear, or hearts imagine what God is up to, then we... well, we'd be God.

Listen to the competing images in the section of scripture for today's reading. The lesson of the fig tree is that there are signs that point to the change that's coming. The lesson of the thief is that some events are by their very nature unexpected. So, in Advent, I guess what we are looking for are the signs that God is up to something. And since we know that because what God does always disrupts the normal and mundane (cooking, eating, working, sleeping), we might as well get prepared for the shock of it. Everything will be normal until it isn't.

Be ye also ready.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I See You

Revelation 3:7-13

When I was a child there was a television show for preschoolers called Romper Room. I remember almost nothing about the show. I do not remember any of the stories or skits. I don’t even know whether it, like Electric Company and Sesame Street, had an educational theme. What I remember is that at the end of the show, the host would take a mirror in her hand and the mirror was magic. As she looked into it, she would say, “I see ....” and then begin randomly to call out children’s names. I was not young enough to believe that she could actually see me in her mirror through the television, but I still loved to hear my name called, especially since my name is not Jennifer or Mary. “I see Leslie.”

Although I know that the Philadelphia of the text is not the Philadelphia where I make my home, there is something about having our name called as the name of one of the seven churches. There is something greater still about knowing that the same God who knew that Philadelphia church's works also knows ours. Now it is not lost on me that the fact that God knows our works can sometimes be disturbing and frightening, since not all of our works are good. Still, I am rejoicing that God really does see us. More than simply seeing us, though, God makes promises to us - an open door, a vindication of our cause, a conquering life, a new name. Hold fast, Philadelphia church, so that no one takes your crown.

Let anyone who has ears hear.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rejoice Again

Rejoice Again
Zephaniah 3:14-20 (with Philippians 4:1-7)

Again I say, Rejoice!

All around us there are announcements of joy. The most striking came to me in my inbox of a few days ago, presented as an equation: $30 off plus free shipping equals joy. I'm not going to tell you the name of the store because our thinking has become so commercialized, so commodified, so distorted that if I name the store you might actually get distracted with your lists of shopping duties. Joy, rejoicing, cheer. ‘Tis the season to be jolly Fa la la la la. Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Don’t think I have to tell you but that’s not joy.
Anything I can buy on the internet, wrap in a package, tie up in a bow, or try on in a dressing room is NOT joy.
And to the extent that our rejoicing in this season or in any season is rooted in or predicated on or even facilitated by a credit card our joy will of necessity will be short-lived and tied to interest rates, credit limits, and late fees.
If you have to wash it, fold it, dry clean it, paint it, then it's not joy.

Told Bible study group that I have long since given up on Christmas and traded it in for Advent, in part because I’m tired of FAKE JOY. The season of Advent does not offer us fake joy, no chestnuts roasting, no mistletoe, no reindeer, no revelry that we do not mean and can ill afford.
Does not ask us to pretend that everything is already all right.
Does not ask us to spend more than we can pay for.
Does not ask us to compete with our relatives for who can buy or get the best gift.

And even when it asks us, commands us, dares us to rejoice it does so against the backdrop of the truth of our lives (that all is not well, that every part of us is not yet saved), the truth of our families (that they are all in their own way dysfunctional), and even the truth of our churches (that Eudoia and Syntyche, those precious and useful sisters in the ministry, need to learn how to get along - to be of the same mind in the Lord). Again, I say anyway, St. Paul’s REJOICE.

Zephaniah’s prophecy is grounded in a real time and place - lengthy superscription at the beginning of the book of the prophet - the son of the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah. Real prophets speak to real times and real places and real issues and real hurts and real violations and real dangers. Yes, real prophets and poets speak to their own REAL times.

Yet when we read the words of chapter 3, they sound like they could be any time and any place.
Yes its words of disaster/condemnation could have been written at any time to any soiled, defiled, or oppressive city.
Not all officials are roaring lions all of the time, but at any given time in any city you'll find some who are.
Not all judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning, but at any time in any city you'll find some who are.
In any time and in any city, you can find prophets who are reckless, faithless persons.
And although there are some who honor the holiness of God and the wholeness of the people, in any given city you can find some priests who have profaned what is sacred and done violence to the law.
But the LORD within it is always righteous; God does no wrong. Every morning the Lord renders judgment, each dawn without fail; but the unjust knows no shame.

What I love about Advent, about the Scripture, about God, about Jesus and his story is that the REJOICING that elicits, commands, and dares is the joy that can speak the truth to us and about us.
In Jesus' story a YOUNG WOMAN has a pregnancy miraculous and inconvenient
In Jesus' story YOUNG MAN doing the right thing still ends up perplexed
THE BABY Jesus is watched over both by angels and by mooing cows
THE Christ CHILD is identified by the traveling star and visited by foreign princes bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh
But he also lies swaddled but in a manger with hay among animals and all they come with them
He was our hope, our peace, our strength, our salvation, our JOY 
AND we didn’t know who he was.
I'm saying that the Joy of the Bible is always complicated.

In Zephaniah the Lord speaks to the soiled, defiled, oppressive city and declares that there is coming a time of judgment. Advent is about judgment. We believe that nations, individuals, and congregations will assemble and will have to give an account. Advent is our opportunity to get ready for that day!

And just when you think that everything is only what we thought it was/saw it was then v. 14 speaks to us.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem. The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
That is the reality that we celebrate on this morning.
I say rejoice! Again rejoice
In the midst of the worst that we are - THE LORD IS
In the midst of the worst that we do - THE LORD IS
In the midst of the worst that is done to us - THE LORD IS

Even in the midst of the travesty and the agony that was/is the cross - THE LORD IS
The Lord was in the midst of the city of Jerusalem when they took Mary’s sweet baby and right before her eyes mocked him and spat on him and flogged him and lied on him and executed him. God was also in the midst of the tomb raising Jesus from the dead. And the Lord is in the midst of us.
Again, I say, Rejoice.

Some years ago during a time when our church was singing the chorus "This is the day that the Lord has made" one of the toddlers did what children do and mis-heard what we were saying. He began singing, "This is the day that the Lord has Me; I will rejoice and be glad in it." And then he sang, "This is the day that the Lord has mommy," and so on, adding all the people he loved to the song he sang about God's love. And although he was not singing the words to Psalm 118:24 correctly, he was singing the truth. The reason we rejoice is not because of what we have but because we know that God has us. This is the day that the Lord has me; I will rejoice and be glad in it. This is the day that the Lord has us; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

And again I say, Rejoice!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Who(m) Have I Hindered?

Matthew 23:13-26

What I love about the season of Advent is that it challenges us to examine ourselves and recognize the need we have for the coming of Christ. It pushes us beyond the trite and traditional -way beyond the commercial - emphases of the world around us. Occasionally, it asks us questions that stun us, such as the one the arises from the reading of our text today: Who have I hindered? (My cousin reminded me that grammatically this should read "whom" but that is not what I would say if I were talking to myself.)

Jesus in this passage offers the most strident condemnation of the religious leaders in his community, charging them with locking others out of the kingdom of heaven even as they themselves refuse to enter. It's not surprising that he accuses them of stubbornly refusing to live in the reality of God 's reign. After all, they have consistently rejected Jesus and his teaching. What is stunning is Jesus' statement that they "lock people out of the kingdom of heaven." Because they are leaders and teachers, when they refuse to enter the kingdom, they also keep others out. Their wrong has communal, not just personal implications and consequences. Jesus continues that their unbelief is virulent as they make converts of their way, actually converting others to the hell they are destined for.

Especially around the Martin Luther King holiday many soloists will strike up one of Dr. King's favorite hymns "If I Can Help Somebody." That hymn reminds us of our responsibility to assist others in finding the right way. Today, the scripture calls us to examine whether we have made converts in the other direction. When and where have our personal failings had communal consequences? Where has our hypocrisy, inconsistency, stubbornness, and wrongheadedness caused someone else to fall? Yes, I want to know whom I have helped, but I'm afraid to ask whom I have hindered. Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Practice and Teaching

Matthew 23:1-12

I decided that in advance of my "big" birthday, I would get a personal trainer. She has been torturing me.... I mean, we have been working out together for a few weeks now. There is much to like about my trainer but two things stand out. First, when I look at her I can tell she practices what she teaches. Although she is old enough to be my mother, the shape she's in makes me want to be just like her when I grow up. Second, she demonstrates every move she wants me to do. Not only does this reinforce proper form, helping me to imagine what the exercise should look like, it also reinforces the sense that if I want to be like her then these are the very practices I should engage in.

The text for today concerns teachers who did not practice. The Pharisees were fond of holding the position of teacher and dressing the part, sitting in the seat of the professor and wearing the gown, but they were completely inept and out of practice when it came to living the principles they taught. And because they never actually had to shoulder the weights they piled on their students, they could be increasingly strict about what they said, even as they were increasingly lax about what they did.

Jesus as teacher couldn't have been more different from the Pharisees. He did not simply sit in Moses' seat, he lived out and fulfilled the law, demonstrating to his disciples and to us the proper form. He didn't add weight to his disciples' load while he gave himself a pass. He shouldered the full weight of the cross before he gave the assignment to others.

There is one more thing I like about my personal trainer and this training: I am beginning to see some results. As I follow her and do what she shows me, I am making progress. My prayer is that in Advent, I too will see some changes, not on the outside but on the inside.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

That's It

Matthew 22:34-40

I have always loved words. I like to read, to talk, to write, to do word puzzles. I enjoy beautiful turns of phrase. I love sentences. And I especially appreciate the gift that some people have of summing things up, getting to the point. Give it to me straight; don't beat around the bush.

The teachers of the law who Jesus encountered in our text were known for their love of the sound of their own voices. They loved their own words far more than they loved the word of God, which is why when the Living Word was in their midst they hated him. By the time our reading begins in v. 34, Jesus has already silenced the questions of the Sadducees and the Pharisees are taking their turn in trying to stump Jesus. "Rank the laws," they challenge him, expecting him to begin rambling as they would have done. Jesus bests them by answering the question they didn't ask: How do all the individual laws work towards a larger purpose? Love the Lord with everything. That's first. Love your neighbor as yourself. That's second. That's it!

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Price of Freedom

Revelation 1:1-8

Sacrifice is something that previous generations understood intimately. On this the 7th of December, we might remember the sacrifices of US citizens during the World War II era as soldiers went to war and those who were left at home experienced rationing and other deprivations. Everyone in that generation knew that there was a price for the preservation of freedom. One of the challenges that we have now as a nation at war is that we at home find ourselves so disconnected that the fighting doesn't seem real to us, unless we have a relative who is actually deployed. (For Bob Herbert's discussion of the particular impact on the children of those deployed, click here.) Even those who make the political decisions that lead to military action are unlikely to have sons or daughters whose necks will be on the line once the decision is made. The cost is so abstract for us, that we forget that there is a price.

The message of Revelation 1 is multifaceted, but it like the rest of the book is designed to reorient our thinking about the past, present, and future. The revelation or "unveiling" comes from God to the angel to John to the reader to the hearers to provide the blessing of insight that goes beyond human perception. And this first section about Jesus Christ is foundational to all of the rest of the discussion. Jesus is the faithful witness, the one whose record is true. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, the one who creates the pathway for all of us to follow into eternal life. Jesus is the prince over all the kings of the earth, the one before whom all the governors and potentates of this world will have to bow.

But none of those titles struck me as much as the phrase that followed them: To him who loved us and freed us from our sins with his blood.... Forgiveness and freedom are never cheap, even though sometimes we live as if they are. The breaches and the gaps and the problems that our sins cause for us and for others are not easily washed away. Loving us and making a way for us to worship God in spirit and in truth cost Jesus his life. Now we live as a community, a kingdom of priests unto God. This is no light thing.

As we share in this season of Advent, celebrating his coming, today we remember that the one who was born as a baby died on a rugged cross and will return as ruler of all. We remember also that the freedom we have become of his first advent was not cheap.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I Want to Be Ready

Malachi 3:1-4

With the first snow, or at least the threat of snow, came one of the annual winter rituals. In supermarkets all over the city, shoppers crowded lines and lanes stocking up, not necessarily because they believed the forecast but just in case. The meteorologist read the signs on the doppler radar and saw the signs of a snowstorm ahead. Why are you stocking up after hearing the reports? Not necessarily because I believe I will be snowed in; I want to be Ready. What I cannot understand is why we don’t stay ready. Winter comes around every year, and most years it brings snow.

The prophet Malachi, whose name means messenger acts as a kind of weather forecaster. His writings occurred during a time of restoration and rebuilding on one hand, and complacency and corruption on the other hand. The book of Malachi is designed as a series of statements followed by questions. It reads like a kind of argument between God and God's people in which the central question has to do with where divine justice and judgment are. This section of the book has come to be identified as a prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah and is taken up in the New Testament as a word about the coming of John the Baptist.

One thing is clear in the text: Eventually God always comes to claim what belongs to God. It seems that the corruption of the temple and the corruption of the worship have gone unnoticed by God, but things are not always as they seem. The prophet declares that God is sending a messenger ahead of God and that eventually God will come back and occupy God's temple. If you're waiting for justice, you hear this news with anticipation.

The question is Will I be ready? The Lord is, after all, like a refiner's fire and a fuller’s soap. Both refining and fulling have as their goal the removed of impurity. To refine silver and gold the refiner heats the metals to exactly the right tipping point to allow the impurities to burn away or be taken out. To full wool, the fuller uses special soap and often agitates the cloth in an effort both to cleanse and to thicken and strengthen it. In our lives, the Lord is really both the refiner and the fire, both the fuller and the soap. None of these processes is necessarily pleasant, but everything God does in our lives is purposeful.
The Lord who enters the temple come with his own tools for making it fit.

In Advent, let us hear anew the messenger and pray for our preparedness.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Amos 5:1-17

When I was an undergraduate, one of the largest courses at the college was a course taught by Michael J. Sandel, a professor and political philosopher, whose lectures consistently packed Sanders Theater with wide-eyed young adults who were entertained by his challenge to us to define Justice. I have had occasion to think of that course in recent days because Sandel, a lot grayer and balder than he was in those days, has just published a book and is hosting a PBS series on the subject matter of this course that he has now taught for more than 30 years. But as I think of Justice (the name by which this moral reasoning course was known) I am disturbed to realize how marginalized thoughts of real justice are. They are pushed aside, just as the people whose lives most cry out for justice are themselves so often far from the center of our thoughts or deliberations.

The text in Amos startles me as I ponder this because of the degree to which its condemnations seem contemporary. I know the locations Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba are far removed from us. But the condition of hardened hearts unwilling to receive the correction of true prophets who speak the truth about greed, mismanagement, theft, and poverty - all of that is as true in the 21st century urban world we inhabit as it was in the 8th century before Christ, when the prophet's words first were written. Worse still, in our times we experience the same kind of spiritual numbness and hypocrisy that allowed God's people to feel justified even as they exploited their kin (you know, God's other children). The message of the text is that the Lord will pass through, and how terrible will the day of the Lord be for those who fail to heed the righteous claims of those who cry out for justice.

For too long, the church has vacillated between a commitment to personal salvation and a commitment to social justice. To treat these foci as if they are incompatible and competing is to miss the point that Amos screams. To seek God we must also seek justice for those made in God's image. And on this 5th day of our Advent journey, the demand to make justice central is not merely an exercise in political philosophy for the entertainment of adolescents, it is God's call.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Attention Getter

Amos 4:6-13

There is a kind of chronic neurosis that long-time Christians often display: we look for the reason in everything. What I mean by that is that we look for the "cause" behind every difficult or inexplicable thing that happens to us or to people close to us. The danger of that attitude is best exemplified biblically by the incorrect but firmly held convictions of Job's friends that Job must have done something to merit the disaster his life had become. It's good to read Job so that we know that there may not be answers to why calamity comes upon us, but we need to read Amos 4 to remember that sometimes we need to ask the question.

The prophet Amos, whose oracles regarding the injustice and evil in the community have inspired prophets centuries and continents removed from his context, speaks for a God who sometimes tries to get human beings' attention. Hunger, drought, blight, pestilence, scarcity, war, devastation - all kinds of calamity in succession emerged to make the people stop and ask the question: Am I/are we living right? The God whom Amos quotes sounds almost perplexed, certainly frustrated at the hardness of the hearts and the dullness of the ears of people who should be able to recognize the signs of God's displeasure. "But you would not turn," God says almost incredulously.

As I read the text from Amos, my first inclination is to recoil from the image of a God who would withhold rain and send war. My own sense of justice is troubled by the certainty that in any national tragedy many innocents suffer, and I am disinclined to see God as the source. At the same time, something about this text speaks urgently to the individual and the community that has parted company with right and righteousness. We are not always innocent. And when we are wrong, what, if anything, can shock us enough to arrest our attention so that we can hear God say, "Repent"? When God snatches us like a brand out of the fire of our own or others' making, it's not always harmful to ask whether there's something God is trying to tell us.

Is God trying to tell you something? Is today's challenge God's way of getting your attention? Or not.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Happiness Is

Psalm 119:1-24

Who doesn't want to be happy? I know if you ask the children in your family what they want for Christmas, you'll get a list for Santa that would break the parents' bank. And if we're honest, most of us adults when asked what we want can go on and on with everything including having a material/financial needs met, having our relationships restructured, having our employment more adequately remunerated. Bottom line: we'd give the kids a run for their money in making our lists. But wait, what about happiness? Oh... yeah... that. I think we think that if we get the rundown of our lists, then happiness surely will follow. I mean what's missing from our bank accounts, our ideal homes, and our work life is the sum total of what keeps us from being happy. Right?

The Psalmist wouldn't agree. By his accounting, happiness is actually knowing what is right (the Lord's precepts) and doing it. The people who know the Lord's law and who walk in God's ways, those are the happy people. They are the ones who are wiser than the years. They are the ones who are protected even under assault. They are the ones who have clear paths. They are the ones who live with consistency.

For many years, the Lord and I have been having an ongoing conversation in which I feed God my list of the things that will complete my life and fulfill my joy - legitimate longings and desires to have and be what I fantasize will make me happy. I am relentless in asking. And God's answer does not change: Trust me. Seek my face. Find joy and gratitude in the life you have. Watch it unfold. Be happy now. I guess Advent is time again to work on this.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

No Easy Answers

Psalm 10

There really is significant biblical precedent for questioning God. I know you would never guess it based on the conventional wisdom passed on through Sunday school lessons and sermons, but "Why" is very much a part of the faithful person's prayer lexicon.

Hear the Psalmist in the face of trouble asking God why God is on the sidelines instead of changing the course of the game. But don't rush to the end of the Psalm too quickly. Don't you do the disappearing act of hiding behind an affirmation of faith without fully exploring the painful space of "no easy answers." For a moment, let's just tell the truth. Doesn't it feel sometimes as if just at the moment when having an omnipotent God would be most helpful, God goes into hiding? I mean, you pray for a parking space and it appears almost like magic, but when you really need some help - poof, no God nowhere. All you see are the signs of your misery; all you hear are the taunts of the people who thought your faith was futile or silly anyway. What is there to say to God in that moment but "Why?"

This Advent journey does not promise easy answers to the whys and the whens of our lives. It doesn't even guarantee that by Christmas we'll be sure we know where the Christ child lays. What it does is to invite us to take our own questions seriously and to bring them in the raw honesty to the place of worship.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Help Me Make it Through the Night

Isaiah 2:1-5

With all the emphasis that we place on individual piety, salvation, and holiness, we sometimes forget that this spiritual journey was never designed to be a solitary walk. When we are remade in Christ, we become parts of a whole body, members of a family, ambassadors and citizens of a kingdom. Our successes are not ours alone, and we are not the only ones who live with the consequences of our failures.

The future that Isaiah envisioned which provides our Advent reading for Day 2 occurs during a period of decline for Israel and Judah, symbolized in darkness. Yet the prophet imagined not only the restoration of the local and nationalistic fortunes of Israel and Judah, nor even just the reunion of these estranged family members. No, he imagines a restoration of universal significance, centralized in the image of light that comes from the mountain of the Lord. This new kingdom has a just sovereign who will make things right, making it safe for nations to retrofit their weapons and turn them into tools, and put war strategists permanently out of business.

But it's this last sentence that strikes a chord with me today as I spend time thinking about Christian community. "Let us walk in the light of the Lord." It's the message I think we're supposed to take from Advent. If we really catch the vision of the future that God promises, we can walk now in the light of it and encourage each other to do the same. Even if we're in the dark, if we can see the light ahead and continuously point it out to one another, we can make it through the night.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Love Letters

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

I miss letters. Although I am fond of phone conversations, emails, and texting, I miss getting mail that is not bills. I miss seeing familiar handwriting on the envelope, the anticipation of hearing the news and reading the sentiments of those I love. I miss update letters - especially those that are individually written and not a form sent to everyone - telling me what I've missed since the last time we spoke. I miss make up letters, first steps to reconciliation. I miss love letters, missives that detail in writing and thus concretize emotions deeply felt. I miss letters. What I miss most about letter writing is the ability to run across the letter after months or years of not having read it and remembering again the emotions that the first reading elicited.

It is instructive, I think, to remember that the biblical books we describe with the technical word epistles are actually letters. They were in most instances written by an author and intended to be read aloud in a community to communicate the author's perspective, theology, and even emotions. Taken this way, the section from 1 Thessalonians that we read in this first Sunday of Advent is actually a love letter and a make-up letter. First, it comes from Paul, whose relationship with the saints at Thessalonica was tenuous, or at least so he feared. He tested the waters through his emissary Timothy and discovered that all was well. Hang in there, he wrote. I can't wait to see you.

Indirectly, though I am reading this and other Advent lessons as letters from a more intimate and much more deeply awaited source, that is, Jesus himself. Through Paul and sometimes through preachers, Jesus sends his message of love by emissaries, not because he doesn't already know where we stand but because he wants to reopen communication. He too is saying, "I can't wait to see you." And I hear him saying, "I am coming to see you." At once, I am elated and petrified.

Paul again steps in. If you want to be ready for your Beloved's appearance, then get your heart right. No need to fear. This is a love letter.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Family Table

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Baptist Church, 1000 Wallace St. Philadelphia PA 9 August 2009

The Family Table
John 6

In the hustle and bustle of contemporary life, many of us hurry through
everything, including our meals. We “grab” something and “wolf” it down in the
midst of or while in transit to something else. More and more, this unhealthy
behavior characterizes the eating habits of children as well as those of busy
adults. Yet within the past several years, research has emerged that links
positive outcomes socially, emotionally, and physically with the experience of
regularly dining at the family table. Not only do children eat a more balanced
diet, with more fruit and vegetables, but there is evidence that they are also
less likely to engage in delinquent social behaviors when they sit down with
their parents for bonding time at meals.
 The article continues, "Just the act of eating together is on some level beneficial." (Click here for complete NY Times Article.)

The scenes of this entire chapter take place was by the Sea of Galilee, the site where Jesus had originally called some of his disciples and where he had attracted great crowds because of the miraculous signs that he performed on behalf of the sick.
The time was near the Passover feast, itself the family meal that commemorated God’s rescue of the Israelites from slavery. Spending time with his disciples, Jesus notices the crowds coming from the distance. The ever observant Jesus perceived the condition of the approaching masses and in it a teachable moment for his disciples. “Where shall we buy bread for the crowd that's on its way?” he asked his crew.

What followed was yet another demonstration of human limitation overcome by divine providence. Philip the questioning disciple focused on their limitations. Andrew looked at the situation with a different eye. He had taken account of the boy with a lunch. "I don't know what we can do with it, but there is a boy who has a lunch," Andrew said. By the end of the story, there was enough
 and more than enough to feed all who took a portion until they had all that they
wanted and were satisfied.

What is striking about Jesus’ distribution of the resources is that he gave away
nothing before the people sat down. Before he gave thanks, broke the bread, or
distributed the fish, Jesus commanded that the great crowds come to rest. The
lesson, of course, is one of obedience. The disciples cannot be used if they will not obey. In fact, they are not even disciples at all if they won’t FOLLOW. The crowds cannot be fed unless they accede to the command to sit down. We have but little distance to walk to discover that the satisfaction of the Christian life is elusive if we do not take heed to Christ’s voice.

But there is significance in the content of the command to be seated. In bringing order and quiet to those who would dine through his miraculous provision, Jesus instituted and presided over the family table, prefiguring the table he prepared at the Passover with his own broken body and shed blood.

Not long ago, President Obama invited two men who were having a very public, acrimonious dispute,Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley, over to the White House for a beer. Let’s come together on common ground the president said. Let’s sit down at the table. Let’s look at one another and have conversation. Coming from different backgrounds and experiences, encountering on another first in the contentious context of mistaken identity - now let’s come together in table fellowship. The beer? Just a little something for attitude adjustment, a drink in common to bring us to a compatible level. Now you have to know that Gates and Crowley would likely never have come together for a beer or anything else on their own. But because the President called and invited them to the White House, they responded to the specialness of the President's invitation.

I hear the Savior say “I am the bread of life.” And while I wouldn’t mind an invitation to the White House to sit down to the table either inside the house or on the White House lawn. While I wouldn’t mind having a tomato plucked from the white house vegetable garden. While I would mind dining off the fine china from which presidents and heads of state have eaten, I recognize the greater privilege and the more nourishing meal is the one I share with my brothers and sisters every 2nd Sunday morning at St. Paul’s Baptist Church.

I hear the Savior say, Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry. Anyone who believes in me will never be thirsty. I am the living bread who comes down from heaven. My flesh is real food. My blood is real drink.
Jesus knows even better than we do how different we are: ages, status, gender, nature, tastes, desires : This is my body which is for YOU (pl.) Do this and think about me. This is my blood shed for YOU for the forgiveness of sins. Do this and think about me. Just as the passover was celebrated with a family meal, so also our deliverance is celebrated with a meal. And if a beer between enemies can lead to common ground, how much more can the bread of life shared among sisters and brothers?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Young Enough to Do Something Different

Today marked another first for me in my new ministry as pastor of the St. Paul's Baptist Church. Although I was the officiating minister for a funeral last Saturday, today I gave my first eulogy as pastor. Mrs. Clara Gilliam Lightfoot was born in 1912 and had been a member of St. Paul's for 70 years. She had not been able to come to church for some time, but she did have the opportunity to vote in the pastoral election a few weeks ago. The deacon who provided her with the absentee ballot remarked that although she knew that her vote was by secret ballot and therefore confidential, after seh placed her marked ballot in the envelope she volunteered, "Clara Lightfoot has done something different. I just voted for the woman."

Of course I smiled to know that Mrs. Lightfoot would have been pleased with the pastor at her funeral, but more than that I was struck by what extraordinary liveliness she had even in her last weeks. If anyone has an excuse for holding on to the familiar and maintaining the status quo it is the person who has lived for 97 years. But I am thinking that the willingness to embrace new things, a delight in doing "something different" (especially when that something is a good and right thing) may very well be the reason why Mrs. Lightfoot lived as long as she did.

This week I heard several moving and challenging sermons and lectures at the Hampton Ministers' Conference. I felt convicted and encouraged by the sermons of Dr. Claudette Copeland. I reflected and repented because of the word placed in Dr. Renita Weems's mouth. And I recommitted to preaching with boldness because of what Dr. William Curtis preached. But as Dr. Copeland herself made clear in her sermon on Wednesday, sometimes the prophetic is mediated through a life. In Mrs. Lightfoot's final act as a member of St. Paul's Baptist Church, God spoke to me: No matter how old we get, we're always young enough to do something different. Message taken.

Monday, June 1, 2009

It's Time

Pentecost Sunday at 10th and Wallace was a special occasion because it marked my first Sunday there as pastor of St. Paul's Baptist Church. Here's the basic sermon I preached.

It’s Time
Acts 2:1-21

In one of the most famous passages in all of Holy Scripture, the Preacher says, To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. Text from Ecclesiastes so much lives up to the wisdom tradition that its sentiment is borrowed, its phrases cribbed and cited in everything from wedding and funeral rites to Pete Seeger lyrics. You don’t have to be spiritually astute to observe its truth. We all know that life is seasonal.

Generally, when all our seasons seem to flow predictably, the seasonal nature of life feels easy, commonplace. Peaks and troughs, ups and downs – after winter comes the spring, after spring comes summer, after summer comes fall, after fall comes winter, and then we do it all again.
But at are other times where there is breakdown, disruption, death, and destruction, then the words of the Preacher, either the biblical one or even the local ones in our pulpits seem empty.

Easy to rejoice in the cycle of seasons when the season you’re in is fruitful. But when you’re in a drought, in a desert, in the midst of the famine –
When the grass is withered and the flowers have fallen
When the leaves are brown and the trees are bare
When the ground is hard and the springs are dry
When the harvest is past and the summer has ended and we are not saved
Sometimes the winter lasts longer than three months
In those times, to hear that life is seasonal is cold comfort indeed.

Remember last year at the first signs of financial trouble? Analysts and pundits observed the declining market and described it as “correcting”. Don’t worry, they said, the economy has natural peaks and troughs. John McCain, the Republican nominee, could without shame declare himself basically ignorant about the economy and still hope to be elected president by reason of his expertise in the truly important matters, such as national security. But by the fall, when the downturn and potential recession threatened to devolve into an out and out depression, suddenly the cycle of economic seasons didn’t seem so natural, and John McCain the presidential candidate had to “suspend” his campaign to attend to economic matters. When blue-chip stock sells for a penny we realize that there are seasons and then there are CATASTROPHES.

In catastrophic times, when someone declares “Your season is coming” – nothing drowns out the demand of the question “But when?”

Nothing prompts ask the question “when” as much as our acknowledgment of a promise from God. In fact, one way to know that we really believe that God has made us a promise is that we become anxious and impatient for the promise to be fulfilled. More than the question of what, where, who, or even why or how, whenever the promise of God comes to us, it the question of when that dominates

When will I (fill in the blank)
When will we (fill in the blank)
When will the church ever (fill in the blank)

This question of when in the minds of Jesus’ disciples forms the backdrop to this morning’s text. Having seen God do the extraordinary in Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples actually grasp that God had been making them a promise that God intended to fulfill, and so they ask, “When will the restoration be?” Jesus’ instruction to them is embodied in the command for them to stay in Jerusalem and WAIT. But I can hear them traveling back to Jerusalem and spending all their time between the ascension and Pentecost asking the question, “Is it time yet?”

Time is by definition: A nonspatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future.
In God’s timing there is a the story of previous deliverance and salvation interwoven into the promise. There’s always a past. After all, God has been working in us for so long. And even the present glory is linked to past deliverance.
Pentecost was an ancient feast celebrating harvest, the feast of weeks measured from the barley harvest (at Passover) to the harvest of wheat (at Pentecost) also commemorating the giving of Torah (divine law)

After the disciples had gathered in obedience and handled the business of replacing Judas in their number, then the Spirit declared, “It’s time.” And I came to announce to St. Paul’s on this Pentecost Sunday that “It’s time!”

I want to make clear that there are some signs that the announcement of God’s working in our time is true. For the announcement that God is at work to be the truth then there are three things that must accompany the announcement.

First, there is divine visitation – I am so grateful that all of us have gathered this morning in the house of worship. I’m thankful for the deacons in their place, the ushers in theirs, the choir in theirs, the musicians in theirs. I’m thankful for my friends who have traveled and for this congregation who have come together in this one place and with one accord, but if GOD doesn’t show up in the building, our gathering is in vain. What we have come to do is to prepare the altar and to bring the living sacrifices of our whole selves. But we need is for God to send the fire.

When I was growing up, we sang a chorus that declared, “O Lord I come, withholding nothing. And I have but one desire. All I have is on the altar. And I pray, Lord, send the fire.”

People manufacture fire but it’s not God’s fire. People blow hot air but it’s not God wind. God’s wind blows where it wills and we hear its sound, but we cannot control it and we cannot even predict it. In fact, no matter how long we have been waiting for it, whenever it comes it still feels “sudden.”

Second, there is supernatural communication. The tongues divide and the disciples are given supernatural utterance, both the ability to speak and the words to say. Then the multicultural crowds of those who hear them are able to hear in their own languages God’s marvelous deeds of power. Some people say that the miracle was a miracle of speech, in that the disciples were ecstatically enabled to communicate in a language they had not studied. Others say the miracle was in the hearing of the listeners, that the Spirit translated for them. I am clear that real communication requires both speech and hearing, both articulation and understanding. And when God’s Spirit decides that “It’s time” God fills the spaces and makes communication across cultures and other divides possible.

This does not mean that the scene was without confusion and disbelief. God’s timing, vision, and presence activated among us will sometimes cause people to think we’ve lost our minds. But there will be others – sometimes a few, sometimes the many – who will hear for themselves and take hold of God’s promise.

Finally, the third sign of God’s timing is Christ-centered proclamation. God pours God’s Spirit out on all flesh to enable us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a divine vision for humanity, embodied and enfleshed in the life of Jesus Christ. We tell that story about his birth in Bethlehem, his openness to the outcast, his care for those who were left out. We tell the story of how much he loved us. We tell that he gave his life on Calvary, but that his story does not end on Golgatha nor in Joseph’s new tomb, but on that first Easter he arose with power. And his story still has not ended.

It’s time.
It’s God’s time.
It’s our time.
When is the time of restoration? Now is the acceptable time. When is the day of salvation? Today, is the day of salvation. And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

PENTECOST WAS A COMMENCEMENT – the first Sunday in a great new era.
Not only is there a past (history), a present (opportunity), in God alone it can be said that there is always a future (hope). Spirit that brooded over creation now dwelling in the disciples prompts us to ask “What plan is God hatching?”

The reality is that there is a cry louder and more significant even than our own cries for a change of seasons. There is a community that has looked upon the buildings called churches and community centers and perceived in them a promise from God.

Hungry ask when will be fed
Naked ask when will we be clothed
Homeless ask when will we have homes
Broken ask when will we be mended
The poor ask when will we have provisions
The oppressed ask when will we be freed
The imprisoned ask when will we be visited
The children ask when will we be educated
And our answer in the name of the Lord is “It’s time”

Yes, St. Paul’s it’s time
It’s praying time
It’s preaching time
Praising time
Planting time
Healing time
Building time
Laughing time
Gathering time
Searching time
Keeping time
Mending time
Singing time
Dancing time
Working time
Serving time
It’s time for justice, mercy, walking humbly
It’s my time, it’s your time, it’s our time, and it’s the time.
It’s time for the wind and for the fire
It’s God’s time
It’s just time.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Real Fast

Isaiah 58:1-12
Here we are at Lent again. And this year I have to say that while I knew I needed it, I wasn't in a hurry to get started on the Fast. I even admitted to a congregation where I was preaching that I was eating everything that wasn't nailed down in advance of the Lenten fast. Somehow, I think that probably was not the best physical or spiritual decision. But my own lack of moderation does bring me to this Lenten season with the useful reminder that I need to fast to get me off of the treadmill of self-destructiveness.

The truth is that I had been eating everything that wasn't nailed down for months. The approach of Ash Wednesday didn't really change my eating habits; it simply made me aware of them. Even before the beginning of my Lenten fast, the self-evaluation that Lent brings was already at work to help me see how out of control I was. Thank God!

What I am praying for, then, in this season is that the analysis will go deeper than the issue of what I eat or don't eat. I am praying that just as the Lenten fast has already broken the chains of overeating, especially desserts, that it will also reveal and break other habits and attitudes that keep me from the best that God has for my life and for my relationships in community.

This is the point of the text from Isaiah in which God makes clear to self-indulgent people that abstinence from certain foods and other comforts is not a real fast, or at least not the fast that pleases God. The real fast happens when our awareness goes deeper and our behavior changes. If we fast but do not see, then what kind of fast are we really on? If we fast while we quarrel, then who does the fast really bless? Our choice to go without is not important if it is not accompanied by a will to make sure that everyone has what she/he needs. Our willingness to starve ourselves for a day or even forty means little when we are inattentive to the people who are starved daily because greed and injustice.

I am praying that this Lenten fast develops into a real fast that heeds the call to get right with God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Thank God!