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.