Saturday, November 26, 2011


(We will view the beginning of Stephen Hawkins, Universe then listen to the Mark scripture.)

I’ve been spending time in the Clouds lately. Now that may evoke different images for you than what I mean.
The clouds I have visit on a regular basis are
iCloud, Amazon Cloud Music Player, & Dropbox; cloud storage.
The “Cloud” is where I store all my important documents now. This unseen internet-accessible storage means I can get to today’s sermon from any device that has internet access. It’s truly amazing, one might even say, miraculous, …but it’s not the cloud Jesus was referring to.

Jesus’ images of clouds as he speaks to his disciples in Mark’s gospel, are more likely to evoke pictures we have seen of the rapture rather than the words of ancient prophesy to which they actually refer. Hear these words from Daniel, chapter 7 that Jesus was recalling for them,

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (v. 13-14)
Today’s reality on the 1st day of Advent, 2011, is far different than Daniel’s or the context for either author of the texts we heard. In the section of Isaiah read earlier, God’s people had returned to Jerusalem from exile and were looking back thru their history to the time when God did awesome things, including their more recent liberation from Babylonian captivity. Their history of God’s awesome surprises gave them HOPE for the future they would build as they slowly restored the temple and religious life.

Jumping ahead to Mark’s gospel, it was written in another time of calamity during the rebellion, called the “Jewish Wars” of 66-74 CE when the streets were literally burning. Persecution, destruction, and death were the reality for everyone. Again people were looking back to remember God’s faithfulness in order to find HOPE for their future which appeared so bleak.

Some of my life tragedies seem small in comparison, but we have only to look at the news to know the world (as we know it) is often in dire straits. We need the reassurance of God’s action in history in order to find HOPE for OUR future.

Knowing even a little of biblical history, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that God’s surprises can be an apocalypse.
            We are used to apocalypse referring to the ‘total destruction or devastation of something’[i] but it’s other meaning is ‘a revelation concerning the future’.[ii] God’s surprises are always a revelation.
 Today we begin the journey of Advent which is a journey of apocalypse; God’s surprising revelation for humankind.

Christmas surprises are familiar to us.
            I remember the Christmas morning that the most beautiful bicycle in the world was leaning up against the fireplace. It was a miracle in my young world. The way-out-of-our price range, convertible, silver/blue bike that was my heart’s desire was waiting there for me on Christmas morning. It was a surprising revelation for which I hadn’t even dared to hope.

            Christmas surprises can be as wonderful as a Christmas Eve marriage proposal, or a surprise visit from friends, or even the miracle of a baby born on Christmas morning. They are good surprises to recall, because more often the surprises of our life are closer to the other definition of apocalypse – devastation.

Far too often I hear of surprises that result in hospitalizations or sudden loss.
One minute you are trying to plan another full week of work or school and the next there is a crash. . . And life is turned upside down.
When crisis comes and total devastation is our reality, we long for the awesome, creative miracles of God’s surprises that can turn the world – right-side-up.

At such times we echo the words from Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God, . .and make your name known.” At such times we understand and are one with ALL people who HOPE & wait, desperately - for God’s surprises to right the world.

The revelation we need is found in the story at the heart of Advent. It is the crisis & surprise of New Life, called birth.

I was reminded of the two-sided nature of beginning life at the Progressive Brethren Conference two weeks ago. Mary Cline Detrick and Carol Swaggy stood before us -together, giving thanks for all that had happened this summer at Annual Conference. – YES, they gave thanks, not because neither of them got elected as moderator of the Church of the Brethren, in spite of being the only 2 names on the ballot.   -And certainly not for the dismal reality of the shrinking place for women in our broader denomination, -- but they gave thanks for the affirmation that both have received since that day of defeat.

Mary said it was painful, very painful that day in July, not for her to lose, but for both of them to lose (to a man nominated from the floor) because the majority of delegates voted against a woman in leadership. Reaction to such denial of basic personhood, (in the name of biblical authority) was at the heart of the birth of the Progressive Brethren Conference four years ago. Seeing it – no, feeling it-- is an apocalypse, both a sad revelation and a devastation.
I’ve learned that standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted, while a good thing, is nothing compared to feeling the oppression directed at you. (and many people have been feeling such oppression all their lives.)
These women FELT the pain – and yet, standing before us, they spoke of HOPE in this upside-down surprise. Mary called it ‘birth pangs.’ (Paul’s language for the persecution in the early church.) She said these ‘Birth pangs’ are bringing forth new life for the Church of the Brethren and new hope for people of all genders, sexual orientation, and races.

When it’s our future that seems too dismal to face, and changes are causing the destruction of our way of living, we need the HOPE they found. We are a people in need of God’s surprises!

It may seem strange to look back to the ancient prophets to find words of HOPE but these special people were given revelations of what would be - but was not yet. And it is this -‘already/but not yet’- which is the promise of Jesus’ surprising kingdom, -born at Christmas.

Another prophet, Zechariah relates a conversation with God that we need to hear,
“Thus says, the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts?” (Zechariah 8:6)

We may cry out, “How long O God, how long?” yet God answers with these words of promise Zechariah heard, 
“I will save my people from the east and from the west. . . They shall be my people and I will be their God, ------ in faithfulness and in righteousness.” (Zechariah 8:7-8)
And yet we have forgotten how to expect surprise?
This is the promise of Advent; GOD WITH US.
These are words of HOPE revealed in this season.
Why is it such a struggle to hear them?
Have we forgotten how to expect surprise? (like a child who waits for Christmas morning?)
Has our life of busy-ness, buying, and boredom lulled us to sleep?

You would think most of us are more likely to be losing sleep than sleeping too much. . But are we awake to what is really important? . .These Advent scriptures “read us, not the other way around. [because] ..we are indeed asleep to much of what matters.”[iii]

We should be clear, (as one commentator wrote) “while the world’s busyness may seem to be pointed toward Christmas, it is seldom pointed toward the coming Christ child.”[iv] How might we recapture a sense of expectation? the thrill that God will come and surprise us-with . . .-with God's very presence, incarnate in human life.

Perhaps we must first confess to sometimes thinking of God as Santa, there to provide for every little wish on our list. This is where a surprising picture of the breath of the universe can move us from self-centered concern -to the awe-inspiring revelation of the One who Created it all.

We need Mark’s wake up call to remind us that God's surprises are way beyond our imagining.
We need Advent’s unique range of scriptures to help us recall all that we have in common with God’s people thru the centuries who have cried out seeking HOPE for the future.

We even need the apocalyptic vision to tell us again -even tho “the rebellion against God’s reign is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. [and] things will [likely] get worse before they get better, we should hang on just a little longer, God WILL intervene to turn the world right-side-up.!”[v]

“Apocalyptic visions are always available to be recycled and applied to new situations.” Commentator Christopher Hutson reminds, “The point is not to predict specific events in the future. Rather, [we who seek to learn from scripture must] look to understand God’s mighty acts in the past as a framework for understanding how the people of God should respond to the present.”[vi]
It is here, looking back at the stories of Advent that we find HOPE for tomorrow.

“Amid the smoke of battle, or the fog of politics, or the confusion of economic distress”, he says, and in the “babble of would-be leaders wearing God masks and claiming divine authority, [we may not know] which way to turn. [Advent stories remind us that we] should not be surprised [by the world] because Jesus warned us such things would happen.” -- We may have been lulled to sleep by the powers that be as they reassured us that they have our best interests at heart, stirring up our fears, our prejudices, our self-interests.[vii]

The Advent message is to WAKE UP, STAY ALERT, WATCH OUT – we have been warned, -and instead recall God’s faithfulness so we can Wait in HOPE for God’s surprise -to turn the world right-side up, again.

Closing & Sending:
The poet, Cheryl Lawrie, described Advent like this:
Perhaps our mistake is thinking that love will always come in the shape we have known it:
-a happy ending -a new beginning
 -a Christ-child.
In this pregnant pause,
 while the earth holds its breath waiting for what it does not know,

let us have the faith
 that even we,
 with all our wise and cynical

[can] not imagine the shape that love will take and instead
just have faith 
that it will come.

[i] Encarta World English dictionary
[ii] ibid
[iii] Lillian Daniel Feasting on the Word – Year B, Pastoral  (Louisville: WJK 2008) 22
[iv] Lillian Daniel Feasting on the Word – Year B, Pastoral  (Louisville: WJK 2008) 20
[v] Christopher R. Hutson Feasting – Theological ibid p.22
[vi] ibid p.24
[vii] ibid paraphrased for perspective

Monday, November 21, 2011

Rejoice & Give Thanks

11/20/11 (Christ the King Sunday Year A)
Warning this sermon maybe too liberal for some Christians. It speaks of an all-inclusive God. . .

Perhaps the last real - paper & pen - letter you wrote was a thank you card. It takes a strong emotion like gratitude for me to search out a card & envelope (and use a PEN instead of a keyboard) to sit down to write.

This letter of scripture, written psuedographically in Paul’s name, is more than a thank you note, but it starts with gratitude for a whole congregation of people. The Author says,
“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” Then he goes on to write of his desire for the congregation’s growth in the journey of faith. - that God will grant them wisdom and enlightenment so they will hang onto hope - no matter what happens. Wouldn’t you enjoy getting a thank you card like that?

Next, the author gives a brief theological treatise on Christ’s mission and place in God’s realm. This entire letter plays a key role in Christian theology. We won’t deal with it all today, but it is always important to remember there is more than the few verses we pull out to examine at any one time.

I was pleased to see today's verses highlighted on our bulletin because ‘giving thanks’ is what we do this time of year.

We even ask each other what we’re thankful for, and take joy in the answers. Well, ...some of the answers... One of our teachers was relaying a story of asking 5-year-olds what they were thankful for. The budding theologian in her class answered, “I am thankful that Jesus died for my sins." ...from a 5 year old...
You may have heard my gut reaction to this shorthand statement before, in my mind it should never stand alone. (death needs resurrection) But from a 5-year-old it falls short of true thanksgiving because he doesn’t understand what it means.

Unlike the depth we could find later in this letter, the 5-year-old's simple words of thanks do not begin to explain God's saving work in Jesus.
Even if we understand the deeper theological theories, such shorthand ‘pat’ phrases can lead us into the trap of surface-only Christianity. You know - - that lip-service, restrictive ruled, exclusive brand of religion that passes for Christianity in all too many places.

You may know it better by the name, “Prosperity Christianity.” And it is more dangerous this week than any other because this week we do spend time counting our blessings & giving thanks.

Don’t misunderstand - There’s nothing wrong with counting our blessings.
We heard our thanksgiving expressed earlier, we are a blessed people. I Do not make light of it. And it is very good to take time to celebrate and give thanks.
I certainly give thanks for YOU, this congregation! You are a blessing for which I often say, ‘thank you God!”

Prosperity Christianity isn’t about giving thanks, it’s about hedging your bets by giving your money - usually to a high profile minister’s fund and then being promised a fine reward. It often begins with a personal prayer promised by that high-profile individual. Sermons usually promise that if you just pray hard enough and live good enough (and maybe give often enough) your life will be GOOD, really GOOD. You will prosper in all you do. The borders of your ‘territory’ will enlarge and you will never have to worry about money & security again.

The prosperity gospel is not the true ‘good news’ that the word, ‘gospel’ means. (and I’m sure it is not how you would define your faith.) The prosperity Gospel is not the good news that Jesus proclaimed in the beatitudes when he spoke about WHO is blessed.

And blessing - brings us back to this letter and the author’s words of blessing to the congregation.

The prosperity Ephesians promises is this,
that- “you may know what is the hope to which [Christ] has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

That’s just the beginning of the promise. Listen for the universal-inclusiveness of the rest,
“God put this power to work in Christ when he RAISED him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

“And God has put all things under his [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Can we hear these 'all-inclusive' words in a way that gives us the exuberance of the 5-year old who gave thanks that ‘Jesus died 4 my sins?’

Take a deep breath and plunge into a little theology with me- I'm sure we will discover plenty for which to give thanks. A deeper look at what we are promised quickly fills our cup with gratitude for our real blessings, not just the things we have.

Our thanksgiving occurs today partly because it is the last day of the year- -- the church year. On this day we proclaim Christ’s reign over all the cosmos. We take a quick look at the BIG PICTURE before we once again celebrate Jesus’ birth as a tiny human boy.

As Christians we accept that God offers salvation to ALL humanity thru Christ. And yet, “How do we proclaim or even hear such an exclusive claim” of inclusive salvation, in today’s multi-cultural, pluralist society?
Can we CHOOSE Christ as the way, the truth, and the life that is lived for everyone?
"is there a way we can understand this claim of Christ’s reign that is central to Christian faith without devaluing the practitioners of other ways?"

We have to ask, ‘Are we giving thanks today for a personal God, who has saved. ME, or US alone, or
Are we truly blessed by the ‘Master of the universe’ as is declared at the beginning of every Jewish prayer? Baruch atah adoni elohenu malech h’olam’ - blessed are you, Master of the Universe.
Here in Arl- in NoVa, we know we are blessed with a rich diversity that we often take for granted. We are surrounded by people of all kinds & nationalities.

3 of us returned from the Progressive Brethren Conference, held in Elgin last weekend, where God-given diversity was celebrated and thanksgiving was offered. It was a blessing to be there. It was also a safe place to talk about the struggle to open the eyes of the larger church to this NT message of Christ’s inclusion of ALL people.
What I have come to realize is -diversity, for some of our brethren churches- is simply discovering that’s there’s a presbyterian in the congregation. (If you grew up in one of those rural churches, you know exactly what I mean.)

Our experience here in Arlington, is just vastly different than anything many of our sisters and brothers have ever known. We live in a world of different kinds of people that allows us a fuller understanding of the word ‘ALL.’ What we need is to rediscover a bit of ancient theology that connects God's blessing that is for ALL & the way Jesus lived his life on earth, blessing others with his presence.

Theologians have struggled with the definition of ‘ALL’ for centuries. While many of the ancient church fathers gave thanks that “Jesus died for their sins”, “Ireneaus, the 2nd-century bishop of Lyons, emphasized the saving, reconciling, work of the incarnation itself. He stressed the life and obedience of the human Jesus, the Christ. For Ireneaus, Christ is head or Lord [of ALL] because he is the TRUE human, whose life restored humanity to its original intentions.” (almost sounds Brethren, doesn’t it?)

"the life of CHRIST showed us what the REIGN of Christ would be like. And now WE are to live it - just like he did- thru radical acts of solidarity with other human beings.”

We truly are blessed, just as Jesus said in Matthew, when we ‘continue his saving work’ of solidarity with the poor, the mourning, the meek and the merciful.
In order to really be part of the inclusive reign of Christ, we need to do more than open our doors to everyone, we must live a life that blesses everyone else. - the ALL - because Christ lived his life for us ALL.

When we CHOOSE to follow Christ by being baptized into his ‘body’ we choose to include EVERYONE in our circle of blessing. Christianity is meant to be INCLUSIVE, not exclusive - with the prosperity of rich blessing and community offered to ALL. Everyone is invited to participate in life the way God created us to live; helping each other, saving each other, blessing each other, even dying for each other. . . .And when we do. . when we live like Jesus did. .we are blessed to find we are already living in the Kingdom of God.

We really do have much for which to give thanks when we count these blessings. We can THANK GOD,
that WE are included in God's ALL,
that everyone around us is included in God's all,
that we follow One who stands in solidarity, not just with the 99% but with ALL humans - all kinds, all nationalities, in all places, all genders, all sexual orientations, all colors, all beliefs. - NOTHING can separate us from God’s love.

ALL really is the biggest blessing of ALL.
Thank God.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where did the green go?

I 'woke-up' to yellow leaves outside my window. In all fairness, they have been turning colors for some time now. In fact, they are beginning to fall quite rapidly, my husband raked a whole yard-full to the curb last night. Still, I realized that life has been so busy that I've barely stopped to notice the changes. I realized as I drove up to Union Bridge, MD on Sunday that I'd missed most of the fall colors. I don't drive much anymore, thanks to living so close to everything. When I do drive it's short jaunts of a mile or 2. It takes those long drives through the countryside to see the fall colors. Today I paid attention to the colors outside my window. Last time I remember having a few minutes to just enjoy the view, the leaves were mostly green. Now there there is only a hint of green overwhelmed by the yellow against a background of brown. It will soon be time for fires in the fireplace and bowls of soup and chili. (Tonight's supper)

Time is a precious thing. I don't know how this fall got so busy, but I think I will enjoy the last of it as I travel with friends to the Progressive Brethren Conference tomorrow and return on the train Monday. Perhaps this weekend will be good for 'taking stock' in many ways..and for listening to the leaves fall as I watch the last of the green disappear.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Haunted by your own sermon

I have that post-sermon feeling of wondering if it was 'right' or 'ok' or even a good idea. A little technical difficulty occurred, my own fault for not having the plug in completely. Then the WIFI signal dropped as I moved which I knew might happen. It left me without notes in a few places and speaking from memory and the slides alone. (I guess that was ok... just stressful.) I can think of all the, "I should have...." but the real question is, did it accomplish anything, true to the gospel, to share Amos' dire predictions? (If you want to see the show, scroll down to the link in the previous post for the slides, without animations.)
I enjoyed trying the slide-sermon. I learned something new about what you can present with pictures while your words are less severe. But I can't know what was actually heard.
Prophecy comes up again during Advent, this time a good news prophecy. (At least the way Christians interpret it looking back.) I always struggle with that re-interpretation and the traditional meaning that the prophets seemed to be foretelling. How can we know what they really 'fore-saw'? Relating it to Chris's birth seems like the 'same-old'. Even though the Christmas story is the same each year, I'd like to present it in a way that challenges us to commit again to follow the one who was born so long ago.
Oh well, back to Monday morning musings, I guess.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dire warning or Divine Demand?

(Can't remember where I got that title but it's not original. And normally I'm so good about attributing...)
This week I am worried about keeping people awake. We had our huge Soup & Pie Bazaar today and everyone came, worked and is tired. Assuming they make it tomorrow, if I move into the pulpit at sermon time, the eyes will droop and close. Not only that, I decided weeks ago to use the Amos 5 text that is highlighted on our Living Word Bulletin Covers. So I'm hitting a tired group with Amos 'dire' prophecy. Here's what I've decided to do. For the first time, I'm doing a complete sermon with a Keynote (powerpoint in mac) presentation. If I've done this right, here it is, minus my words.
Amos for Today

I hope I can then share the Matthew 25 story of sheep and goats from memory.
This is the plan. Assuming my WIFI connection cooperates, I plan to show the show from the iPad and control it from the iPhone. I even rigged up a hokey signal booster in the office to give me an extra couple of feet at the front of the sanctuary. I think I'd better take my macbook, just in case. This will be an adventure that will at least keep ME awake. Pray for me, or you could just come tomorrow and see how this all comes out...