not your job

Sermon 5-24-2020

Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Luke 24:44-53

Maybe I’ve told this story before: when registering for my first year of seminary classes, every student had to choose between a “clinical” placement – as a chaplain in a hospital – or a “social” one – working in community services, homeless shelters, etc. To this day, I am not a fan of hospitals, but back then, they terrified me. I quickly checked the “social setting” box, hoping to avoid the intimidation of a giant institution, scary medical procedures and rules and regulations that I did not know about or understand.

A few weeks later, I received my assignment in the mail: I’d spend the year as a chaplain intern at Metro State Women’s Prison. It was like God saw my paperwork, chuckled, and sent me even deeper into the situations I declared that I did NOT want to experience (not, by the way, the last time that would happen).

At Metro, Chaplain Susan Bishop taught us newbies by the “sink or swim” method. We had a one day orientation that included a whirlwind tour, intense declaration of the federal laws we must understand and not break, and learning how to get through the multiple levels of barbed wire and locked doors. I was TERRIFIED of doing ministry in the prison. I wished, fervently, to be reassigned to a friendly hospital floor.

One of our requirements over the year spent as chaplain interns at Metro was to lead a Sunday evening worship service with the inmates. The women in charge of the gathering were just as regimented and traditional as any congregation you’ve been a part of: chairs arranged this way, leaders sat in this place, order of worship rarely deviated from the norm. When it was my turn to preach, I and several other of my fellow students showed up just in time, did our jobs and then stood, awkwardly, as the women mingled, chatted, and did the work of stacking chairs and sweeping floors.

Uncertain about our own role, now that the preaching was finished and the service was over, not sure if we were free to leave or should wait for Chaplain Bishop to escort us out to the front gate, we stood uneasily by the door. I got tired of standing still and watching others work and, formed deeply by the Brethren sense of service and working together, decided to make myself useful. I started stacking chairs. My fellow students joined in.

chairs

Chaplain Bishop, who had been deep in conversation with someone, noticed what we were doing, came across the room and told us to stop. “That is not your job,” she said, turning on her heel and returning to conversation.

Surprised and embarrassed, we students returned to standing around, awkwardly.

Later that week, in our classroom discussion, we asked Chaplain Bishop to explain what had happened. “You are not there to stack chairs,” she said. That’s actually a task required of these inmates. It’s part of their ability to attend church services and work with me in my office. Stacking chairs is NOT YOUR JOB. You’re there to be chaplains. Do THAT.

I think about that evening at Metro State a lot, especially over the last decade of ministry. I love working together. I like stacking chairs and sweeping floors. Painting chimneys, sorting sweet potatoes, walking in the CROP Walk, collecting disaster relief kits…these acts of service that we get to do together as a congregation are important! I learned about the value of service and the ways that relationships deepen over shared tasks long ago in the First Church of the Brethren kitchen. The ministry of stacking chairs is important.

But Chaplain Bishop was right: that was not my job in that moment. My job, as a chaplain intern in that prison where everyone had an agenda, a pile of paperwork to get done, a to-do list or a parole goal – a place where everyone’s interactions were filled with external expectations and processes was to be present. My job was to BE. My job was to pay attention, to listen, to show up as a witness without an agenda. My job was not to join in the busy-ness or the agenda-setting of the place; my job was to show up, wait for the Spirit, and pay attention when She showed up.

I did a lot of waiting and watching at Metro. I mostly felt like a useless presence and a burden while I was there: I couldn’t help inmates with their tasks and I made even more work for the employees who had to escort me and make exceptions for me and monitor my presence. I wished, every time I entered those gates, that I could be DOING something, stacking chairs or teaching classes or, for God’s sake, helping some of those women escape that awful place.

Instead, I showed up every Wednesday afternoon and sat, for four hours, without an agenda and without a to-do list. I showed up. Chaplain Bishop had left a list of women who might appreciate time with a chaplain. A guard called them up, one by one, and we sat in tiny cinder-block cells where I did nothing other than watch, wait, witness and listen.

Those hours in that tiny cinder block cell were excruciating, and they were deeply moving. I learned, that year, the importance of witness. Not preaching, not teaching, not leading, not even praying – though, if I did anything at Metro, it was that. Just being. Just watching, and waiting and listening. Showing up in the middle of a place where every single interaction seemed to be tinged with impatience, entitlement and agenda and attempting to inhabit a space without expectation, without agenda…just watching and waiting for the Spirit to move.

I learned to trust that She would.

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Today’s text is the very end of Luke’s gospel. We have been moving through the season of Easter these last few weeks, remembering Jesus’ appearances to his followers after the resurrection, reminding ourselves of the promises he gave at that Last Supper. Today, we arrive at the story of Ascension. The church celebrates this day as the one when Jesus – after being crucified, killed, and resurrected – returns, again, to heaven. Jesus ascended into heaven.

His friends, who had grieved his death, been astounded to witness his resurrection and spent these last days – weeks?- in his resurrected presence – are now faced with losing their lord and friend and savior…AGAIN.

Jesus has been trying to reassure his disciples, trying, again and again, to interpret the scriptures for them so that they will understand why he is leaving them.

And then he says “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

In other words: I’m leaving. The Spirit is coming. Stay here – wait and watch – until the Spirit arrives.”

We hear a lot about the Great Commission, and even just last week we remembered Jesus’ words that those who believed in him would DO greater things even than he did. We remember Jesus as commissioning his disciples – and us – to GET BUSY, to DO the WORK, to follow in his footsteps.

But we sometimes forget that what Jesus actually told his disciples, in the moments before he ascended into heaven, was to SIT STILL AND WAIT until the Spirit showed up to lead them.

Stay here, he said, until you have been clothed with power from on high.

Can you imagine? “You want us to…wait, Jesus? Shouldn’t we be evangelizing? Shouldn’t we be taking care of all your followers? Aren’t there orphans and widows and lepers who need help? Isn’t there a revolution to be organizing? Didn’t you want us to be offering cups of cold water? Aren’t we supposed to be SERVING?”

Nope, that’s not what Jesus said. He said “Wait until the Spirit shows up and leads you.”

Luke’s gospel is actually a two-part series. This passage today, at the end of Luke, is not the end of the story. The book of Acts is Luke’s second episode, and we learn, there, that the disciples obeyed Jesus. They stayed in Jerusalem. They gathered together and devoted themselves to prayer. They got themselves organized, calling a new disciple, but other than that they didn’t do much. They prayed. They waited. They sat. They watched.

We don’t know how long that time of waiting lasted. We don’t know if the disciples were sitting and watching for days or weeks or months before the Spirit finally showed up.

We know – from our vantage point of a couple thousand years later – that the Spirit did show up; that Jesus’ promise was fulfilled; that the Spirit led those scared disciples out into the world, all the way through Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria into Rome and across centuries and oceans. We know that we are gathered as part of Christ’s body today because those first disciples stayed, sat, waited and watched. We know how the story went on from that moment.

But they did not know. In that moment, when Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem and WAIT for the Spirit to show up and clothe them in power – which means, by the way, giving them a new identity as not only followers of Jesus but part of this mysterious divine relationship – in that moment, Jesus’ friends did not know how it would turn out. They did not know when or if the Spirit would arrive. They did not know what it meant to be clothed with Her power. They did not know what the Spirit would ask of them or what the Spirit would make possible. They did not know. They just knew that they trusted Jesus and Jesus had asked them to stay, watch, and wait before they did anything else.

//

I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at waiting. I get impatient. I want to GO. I want to DO. I want to SERVE. I want to collect food or deliver supplies or offer some kind of balm to the people who are lonely and in need. I want to be ACTIVE. Especially right now, especially after ten weeks of being stuck at home waiting and watching and wondering how much longer this time of staying-in-place is going to last, I would much rather be hearing a command from Jesus to “go into all the world,” to “visit the sick and those in prison.” I would much rather be receiving a word from the Lord to get in my car or hop on a couple of airplanes and go preach and lead across the country, like I had planned to be doing in this season.

I don’t know what you’d rather be doing right now, but I imagine that it has something to do with GOING and DOING and being done with all this WAITING and WATCHING.

And yet, here we are, in week 11 of this season of waiting, watching, and witnessing. There is good to be done – and we are doing it. Even those first disciples made sure that they were together, cared for, and in prayer. But Jesus told them to stay put, and so they did.

I wonder what Jesus is asking us to watch for, right now, when we are stuck in our homes, forced into slower rhythms, asked to live our lives by staying put. I suspect that Jesus is asking us the same thing he asked of those first disciples: wait for the Holy Spirit to show up, clothe you in power, and send you out into some unknown future.

We don’t know. Neither did they. But we do know that the faithfulness and obedience of those first disciples – their willingness to set aside their anxious energy, to settle in and stay put, to watch and wait in prayer, to submit their every action to the power and purpose of the coming Spirit – we KNOW that their faithfulness is the root and cause of our faith. If they hadn’t spent time watching & waiting then, committed to moving out into the world only when the Spirit compelled them to do so, we might not exist as followers of Jesus today.

So, friends, I am committing to another week of watching and waiting. I am entrusting my anxious energy and cabin-fever to the Lord. I will promise to be in prayer this week, to watch and wait for the Spirit to show up. Sometimes she takes a while. Sometimes the Spirit is a little slow-moving for our tastes. Sometimes we wish she’d hurry along and clothe us in power already so we can escape the prisons we make for ourselves.

But I am convinced that this is true: we are never abandoned. The Spirit always shows up. And when she does, man, you better watch out. Because being clothed in divine power is no small thing. When the Spirit shows up, we will be glad for all this time we’ve had to pray and discern and watch and wait and submit ourselves to the ways of God, extricating ourselves from the ways of the world. Because when the Spirit shows up, she’s gonna have WORK for us to do. We are going to be SWEPT up into the presence of a God on the move.

May we receive the gift of this time as just that – a gift. A command. An opportunity to obey the words of Jesus by staying put, waiting, watching and immersing ourselves in prayer. May we receive the gift of this time as an opportunity to prepare ourselves to be clothed in power. May we receive the gift of this time, knowing that we are not the first who have waited on the Spirit to move, and we will not be the last. May we receive the gift of this time in faith, in trust, and in gratitude. May it be so. Amen.

counterbalance

Thunder and lightning woke me from a dream this morning. I was dreaming that I was at the beach, in a big house with my whole family. That beach trip was an annual affair for most of my life, a regular reminder about where I belong; where I’m anchored. It doesn’t happen anymore – my family grew and got complicated, my grandparents slowed down and my grandpa Bobby died this winter. My grief over the loss of that beach vacation is bigger than I expected. We never did anything particularly special: just cooked and ate together, told stories and laughed, sat on the beach or played silly games. Lots of people do all that every day, in their own homes.
But I live alone. I have for most of my adult life; I prefer it. I’ve had roommates – good ones and bad ones – and I know the value of community and companionship. But I am an independent creature. I like my space. I prefer it this way. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m unaware of what’s missing. That week at the beach was something I relied on – a counterbalance to the rest of the year’s solitude. I had a good system in place, with ample time alone and just enough chaotic time together. When the counterbalance disappeared, I felt it deeply.
Love Feast has been a counterbalance, too. I am a pastor, so I’m usually speaking or leading or facilitating. Even when I’m not the one in charge in the room, I’m still the pastor which means I am still, in lots of unspoken and sometimes even unacknowledged ways, in a position of authority. It’s a mess, a tangled mash-up of theology and practice, both helpful and unhelpful. I work hard to assume the priesthood of all, to share authority, to invite others into leadership, but ministry is, by necessity, a lonely gig. No matter how much we talk about mutuality and community, when there’s one person (or two, or three) who are set-apart with the assumption of spiritual authority, there’s a hierarchy.
Love Feast – the day that we recreate Jesus’ last meal with his disciples – has always been a corrective. Yes, I usually plan or lead the service, but when it comes time to obey Jesus’ command to wash each others’ feet, things change. I am not up in the pulpit or leading a service anymore; I sit on the same folding chair in the same circle with everyone else. I take off my shoes and expose my feet – even the weird, misshapen nails on my pinky toes – and sit, quietly, awkwardly, while someone else ties a towel around their waist, kneels before me, and invites me to put my toes in the basin of cold, refreshing water.
Someone else touches my toes. They pour water over my cracked heels, and tenderly massage the arches. They pull my ankles out of the water, put my feet on their knee, one by one, and carefully pat each one dry. Sometimes, they’ll even make sure to draw the towel through the crevices between my toes, making sure my whole foot has been cared for. Then we’ll both stand up and that person will wrap me in a bear hug and whisper in my ear that they love me.
It is easy for me to kneel and wash someone else’s feet. It is powerful, and meaningful, and relatively easy to do. I am accustomed to inhabiting the posture of servant and the role of authority – both of which show up in the kneeling and washing. If I’m the one serving you, then I get to decide how it’s done. If I’m the one washing your feet, then I get to decide how intimate I want to be about it. Sometimes, choosing to serve is the same as choosing to be in control.
But when someone else kneels and washes my feet, I’m not the one in authority anymore. I don’t get to decide how closely or firmly or thoroughly this other person decides to touch me. I don’t get to decide what words of care they’ll whisper in my ear, and I am not the one orchestrating my own experience of worship or fellowship or revelation.
feet
That is terrifying. And for me – someone who lives alone and does things how she wants and when she wants to, someone whose schedule and plans are rarely interrupted by the preferences of others, someone who is often the authority figure in whatever room she shows up in, someone whose life includes a lot of in-control-serving but not much out-of-control receiving – it is deeply, deeply uncomfortable. And it is deeply, deeply necessary.
I am so sad today. I woke up from that dream about what used to be one of my life’s counterbalances, and then I remembered that another one has been violently cancelled, and I started crying. I cried while I walked the dog, I cried while I drank my coffee, and I am crying now, writing this.
A few weeks ago there was a poem by Lynn Ungar going around about how maybe we should treat this time of social distancing like the Jewish sabbath, and adopt the practices commanded by God:

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.

 

But what if the people to whom I have committed my life don’t live in my house? What if they are always hundreds of miles away or, right now, only a couple miles from me but barred from gathering tonight, not permitted to have their feet touched, prevented from washing mine?

 

There are a bunch of opportunities to remember Love Feast online today. I won’t be participating. I’m not going to give myself a pedicure or pretend to take communion alone in my empty house. I can’t bear to pretend that staring at a computer screen meets the need – my need – to be removed from control, humbled, touched, and loved. I long for the day that we can be together again. I pray that God will help me receive love in other ways, ways that I might come to recognize more readily because I have been shaped and formed by this one that I am grieving so powerfully.

the vulnerable savior

I spent most of last week in the desert of Scottsdale, Arizona at the COB Clergy Women’s Retreat. Over 60 women in ministry gathered for rest and renewal surrounded by cacti and images of Mary at a Franciscan Retreat Center.

desert

The desert was an odd place to be reflecting on this text filled with water. Matthew tells the story of Jesus baptism well into the scene of John hanging out by the Jordan River. John has been out here in the Galilee, baptizing people from Jerusalem and Judea and all over the region for, he is preaching, the repentance of sins. People streamed out to the river, confessed their sins, and waded into the healing waters of the Jordan. John has even had a run-in with the temple officials who heard about what he was doing and came down to the river to chastise him. John has been out here in the river for a while before Jesus shows up.

And when Jesus does show up, John is just as scandalized as everyone else. John has been preaching a baptism for THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. People have been drawn to his preaching because they have sensed a deep need to confess their brokenness, their inadequacies, all the ways that they have not lived up to what they’ve been taught that God expects of them. This baptism that John has been called to initiate has been a practice for HUMANS – limited, conditional, contradictory beings who feel their smallness way down deep inside.

This baptism of water for repentance is not for divine beings. John was announcing the coming of the Lord, the one much more powerful than he, the one who would baptize all those hateful temple officials and oppressive political leaders “not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John’s entire ministry has been about preparing the way for the Messiah, the one who has winnowing fork in hand, ready to separate the wheat from the chaff and burning up all the useless material with unquenchable fire.

That coming Lord is Jesus. John knows it – he encountered his own Lord while they were both in utero and their moms shared strength during difficult pregnancies. So when Jesus – the Lord, the one who is supposed to show up not TO BE baptized but to officiate an even more intense baptism himself – shows up down at the Jordan, John protests.

“I need to be baptized by YOU, Jesus! What are you doing getting in line and wading into this river with all these small humans?”

But Jesus – always the one to upend every possible expectation about what it is to be Lord and Savior – says “let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So, John consents, Jesus steps out into the water, and John prays over him and dunks him (there have literally been long, involved arguments about whether or not John would have dunked Jesus forward or backward, whether he would have immersed him once or twice or three times, or whether John just splashed Jesus a little over his head and called it good…).

Jesus – the coming King and Lord for whom John was preparing the way, the one whose SANDALS John felt unworthy to carry – asked John to baptize him…for the repentance of sins. And John, after protesting and arguing, agreed.

What is up with that? Why did Jesus get baptized? In this story from Matthew, Jesus hasn’t even reached the part of his life where public ministry is a thing – all we know about Jesus up to this point is a spectacular birth and a couple of glimpses of precocious childhood. Surely Jesus didn’t need to CONFESS any SINS, right? Why does he wade into the water and insist that John baptize him?

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Our leader at this week’s retreat was a pastor from Cincinnati named Mandy Smith. She led us through contemplating what it means to be vulnerable in ministry. Her book, The Vulnerable Pastor, is a reflection on all the ways that showing up as a woman in an industry and profession dominated by men has required her to come to terms with the blessings of vulnerability in leadership.

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At first glance, that seems contradictory: we don’t want our leaders to be vulnerable, right? We want strong, courageous, brave, bold, confident leaders. Go to the local bookstore and browse through the leadership section and you will not be likely to find much help understanding the value of vulnerable leadership.

Except church leaders – those of us who model our lives on the example of Jesus himself – aren’t necessarily tied to the assumptions about leadership put forth in the rest of the world,are we? Mandy told us this story about one situation where she was invited to understand the power of vulnerable leadership.

She is the lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, and one morning several years ago she had a very important meeting to lead, first thing in the morning. The meeting had to do with the future of the congregation, and all of her staff and leaders would be there. The week was a busy one and she hadn’t been able to prepare as much as she wanted ahead of time, but she figured she could come in early that day and get a couple of hours’ work in before anyone else arrived in the building.

Except on the morning of the very important meeting, Mandy had a rip-roaring fight with her husband at home. “We don’t fight very often,” she said, “so when we do, they’re real doozies.” She got to the building early, still hoping to do her meeting prep-work before anyone else arrived. But to her dismay, she walked in and immediately encountered her (male) associate pastor.

She mumbled a hello before grabbing tissues, eye drops and mascara and running to the bathroom. Her plan was to wash her face, remove all traces of the tears and puffiness from the morning argument, put her stiff upper lip in place, and fake composure through the meeting. But something stopped her. When she got to the bathroom, some compulsion toward authenticity and vulnerability turned her around. She walked back out into the hallway.

Her associate pastor noticed – how could he not – that she was upset. “Is there something I can help with?” he asked. She gave him the abbreviated version: a fight with her husband that morning left her upset, distracted, and ill-prepared for the very important meeting. The first thing her associate pastor did was ask if he could pray for her, and then he did, right then and there. And then, he said that he’d actually had a really great brainstorm about the impending meeting, and offered to take the lead in the very important meeting. Mandy agreed.

When she told this story, Mandy reflected that her uncomfortable choice to be honest and vulnerable with her associate pastor opened the door for at least three transformative things: first, he saw that she was not superhuman, that her family was just as complicated and difficult as everyone else’s. Second, the associate pastor had the opportunity to minister through prayer – and if you’ve had that opportunity to pray for someone else in the moment and in their presence, you know how much of a blessing and honor that can be. And, thirdly, Mandy realized that God – in God’s perfect wisdom – had the foresight to give the inspiration for the very important meeting not to her in the midst of argument, upset, and chaos, but to her associate pastor. By stepping out of the way, she had made room for God’s guidance to arrive as planned.

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When I heard Mandy tell that story, I thought about this morning’s scripture. Why in the world did Jesus – savior of the world, the one coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire – submit to John’s baptism?

Well, is there any greater example of a leader embracing vulnerability than the story of the God of the universe choosing to take on human form? Asking why Jesus got in line and waded into the Jordan with all those other broken Galilean humans, is really asking why God would become human at all.

Jesus’ insistence that John baptize him just like John baptized the rest of the people in line at the Jordan tells us a lot about the kind of Lord, savior and leader that he is. Jesus is a vulnerable leader – fully human, fully aware of the smallness of being in skin, fully feeling that kind of existential inadequacy that we feel when we think too hard about our place in the cosmic world. Jesus KNEW what all those other people were feeling there at the Jordan – and not in a disembodied, intellectual way. Jesus was also a small, broken human who understood what it felt like to have sensed a deep need to confess our brokenness, our inadequacies, all the ways that we have not lived up to what they’ve been taught that God expects of them. And Jesus understood the grace, the relief, the sense of salvation that comes from confession, repentance, and assurance that we are beloved no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

And here’s the grace of the story: because Jesus was willing to get in line and wade into the waters of baptism with us, we also get to share in God’s reaction to that vulnerable acknowledgement of feeling too small or too inadequate or not having lived up to what we think God expects of us.

Jesus emerges from those waters, the heavens open and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, swoops down and perches on his shoulder. And a voice, from heaven, says clearly: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

That’s what God says when Jesus stood in line, waded into the waters of the Jordan, asked John to baptize him, confessed, repented, acknowledged his human smallness and submitted to the inescapable vulnerability of living in skin and bones.

God isn’t disappointed that Jesus didn’t put on a stiff upper lip, gather his cloak and hightail it off to some far-away throne to rule from a distant place of power.

God isn’t upset that Jesus got all emotional instead of offering to relieve John of his post.

God is not pissed off that Jesus showed cracks in his armor of being Savior of the World.

No, instead, God is WELL PLEASED with this kind of behavior. God LOVES Jesus, and God LOVES us – not only when we succeed, not only when we are strong and courageous and in control, not only when we produce the best of our efforts, but also – maybe even especially – when we acknowledge our smallness, our brokenness, our inability to sustain ourselves.

God is well pleased in us when we admit our vulnerability, when we ask for help, when we move aside to see who else might have word of grace or assurance or pardon or guidance for us.

God is well pleased when we get in line with everyone else and expect to be simply a part of the crowd.

God is well pleased when we allow another to offer us care.

God is well pleased when we admit that we cannot do it all.

God is well pleased when we learn that we are contingent beings, dependent on God and on one another for every bit of our life.

And that is good news, my friends. Thanks be to God.

broods of vipers

Sermon 12-8-19

Peace Covenant CoB

Matthew 3:1-12

This week has included a lot of community connection time for your pastor. I met with Soyoun from EAPC to plan our joint worship service next week, with Pastor Anita from Parkwood UMC to plan our joint Christmas Eve service on the 24th, and spent Tuesday evening at the ParkTown Food Hub with friends and neighbors sitting in a bit of Advent silence and preparing food give-away boxes for their big distribution later this month.

But another conversation took place with the Alcoholics Anonymous group that started meeting here in the building back in January. If you remember, the folks involved in that meeting wanted a location to start a brand new meeting, and our space seemed like a great possibility. It turns out that this new meeting has been incredibly successful – the group started with a dozen folks, but doubled in size very quickly. Every Saturday morning for the last year, twenty or so people have met in this space to share their lives, speak truth, and witness one another’s journeys of sobriety.

In a few weeks, the group plans to cook a big breakfast here to celebrate their 1 year anniversary together.

This building partner is not one that we get to share potlucks or worship with. It is something of a silent partnership. But I am so grateful that in this congregation’s willingness to share space, we have been able to offer room for relationship, accountability, and truth telling.

When these folks approached us last year asking about sharing space, I started reading and learning a bit about AA. I know that addiction and recovery are very present realities in the lives of many. I know that AA has transformed many lives, and that it is also not the only path toward recovery. But until this last year, I hadn’t taken time to understand the inner workings.

I read the Big Book. Maybe you have read it, too. I am totally taken with the twelve steps toward recovery. They start this way:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

I have heard preachers say that AA does Christianity better than many churches. I think, at least, these first few steps could certainly be one way for us to understand John the Baptist’s call that we hear this morning for us to REPENT.

John the Baptist always shows up during Advent, and he’s always preaching – out there in the wilderness – about judgement. He calls people to repent and join him down in the Jordan River to confess their sins and be baptized. We understand that the people who were joining John down by the Jordan River were poor people, lay people, people who were suffering under Roman oppression and a religious power structure that was not offering them much hope of liberation.

But the religious leaders – the ones who are part of that power structure – show up out at the Jordan, too. We’re not sure why the Pharisees and the Sadducees journeyed out into the wilderness. The Greek is mysterious: they could have come FOR baptism, meaning that they wanted to repent and confess, themselves or – more likely – they could have come AGAINST baptism: the same Greek preposition can be translated either way. And, since John was explicitly going against the religious status quo, far away from the temple center of power, offering a ritual baptism that was not condoned by the priests, it’s pretty safe to assume that the religious leaders came out not because they were convicted far away in their temple seats but because they were fed up and wanted to put a STOP to what John was doing out there.

And when they show up, John does not mince his words

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

John is ANGRY at the religious leaders. He thinks that they are upholding unjust traditions and perpetuating evil systems. He does not meekly welcome the powerful into the crowd of poor and oppressed people who have heard hope in his preaching; he tells the truth about who they are and what they’re doing. John is out here in the wilderness and he is preaching about JUDGEMENT.

Even though we only read one scripture each Sunday, the lectionary offers us four different scriptures each week, and today, three of them have to do with judgement. Listen:

Isaiah 11:

“But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.”

Psalm 72:

“He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.”

These are not exactly the scriptures that we expect to hear on the second Sunday of Advent which is traditionally known as the Sunday of PEACE. Smiting, slaying, breaking in pieces…just like John’s image of trees being cut down and thrown into the fire, these are not exactly what we imagine when we think about “peacemaking.”

And yet, this theme of judgement is a thread throughout the Old and New Testaments. We cannot simply skip over God’s promises to “slay the wicked” or “separate the wheat from the chaff,” especially those of us who identify as peacemakers or are part of a “peace church.”

So often, we interpret God’s promises of judgement as rewarding the good people and punishing the bad people. But God’s judgement is always, always, always in concert with God’s mercy. God’s justice does not work like human judgement.

Scholar Matt Skinner, in studying the themes of judgement in the Gospel of Matthew, says it this way:

“Judgement doesn’t begin with God’s longing to punish or retribution. Judgement comes first and foremost out of God’s desire to make sure the truth is known. That truth is sometimes really bad news for you and sometimes is really good news for you. Sometimes it’s ‘look at all the people you have hurt’ and sometimes its ‘I see all the people who have hurt you.’ And both of those need to be healed. And both of those experiences are painful experiences.”1

God’s judgement is not about retribution; it is, first and foremost, about telling the truth.

So, when those religious leaders came to John out in the wilderness, he was preaching judgement. And Judgement meant that first and foremost, he had to make sure the truth was known. He needed those Pharisees and Sadducees to hear the truth about their actions: they were, he said, acting like a brood of vipers.

 

My friend Randall works at Camp Brethren Heights up in Michigan, and he loves snakes. He defends their beauty and utility and grace at every opportunity. He shared earlier this week on facebook that a “brood” is “a young family of freshly hatched animals… in this case pit vipers. They have lots of energy that must be harnessed by the ‘elder’ or parent vipers. The danger is in their numbers! These are not the same serpents that Jesus calls us to be in Matthew 10:16. Those are singular serpents that have the wisdom of knowing how and when to use its defense mechanism.”

So John is calling those religious leaders a young, misguided group of energetic and dangerous snakes. He is not saying that they are evil, exactly, or that they are beyond hope. John is, counter to our first impression, not condemning the Pharisees and Sadducees to eternal torment. He’s just telling the truth about what they are doing: hurting lots and lots of people. In need of instruction and correction.

We don’t know if John baptized the Pharisees and Sadducees that day. The story moves on before we get to the meat of their confrontation. But John does offer another metaphor in his description of God’s justice and God’s judgement:

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Again, our first impression of this image is that Jesus – the one with the winnowing fork in hand – will separate good people (wheat) from bad people (chaff), and send the bad people into unquenchable fire. But we only think that because most of us have never winnowed grain before.

“Every grain of wheat has a husk, and farmers (even today) use wind to separate these husks – collectively known as “chaff” – from the grain, the goal being, of course, to save every grain, not to separate the good grain from the bad grain.  This is a metaphor of preservation and purification, not division. What the wind and fire remove are the impurities: the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less just, or less respectful of others.”2

The Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said it this way: there is a line between good and evil, but it doesn’t run between groups; it runs through the heart of each person.

John is not preaching a judgement that separates us from one another; John is preaching a judgement that separates us from our own sin, addiction, apathy and greed.

Remember I said earlier that the lectionary gives us 4 scriptures each week? We’ve read from three of them; here’s the third, from Romans:

“4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.

That does not sound like separating ourselves out from the “bad” people. It does not sound like calling one another names or barring one another from participating fully in church. If judgement = truth telling, then it can be synonymous with welcome. It judgement = truth telling, then maybe Jesus DID baptize those Pharisee and Sadducee vipers that day. Maybe telling the truth is part of welcome.

During this season of Advent, we can hear John’s call to repentance as a call to truth-telling, both about the ways we hurt others and about the ways others hurt us.

And isn’t this what our friends in AA are practicing every Saturday morning right here in this space? Can’t we learn from them how to prepare the way for Christ’s second coming?

Here are the rest of the steps in that 12 step plan:

  1. Be entirely ready to have God remove all the defects of character.
  2. Humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.
  3. Make a list of all persons we had harmed and become willing to make amends
  4. Make direct amends wherever possible
  5. Continue to take personal inventory and, when we are wrong, admit it promptly
  6. Seek through prayer to improve conscious contact with God
  7. Try to carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs.

This morning, I am grateful for our AA building partners, beloved neighbors who practice and witness to the purifying power of repentance. And I am grateful for John the Baptist’s call, inviting us to practice justice by telling the truth.

May we be so bold.

greater grace

Virlina District Conference Sermon

11-8-19

1 Corinthians 1:18

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”

A few years ago, I had the chance to attend a writing workshop in Minnesota. It was a great opportunity. I was excited. Each participant had to submit a writing sample before the week-long workshop so that everyone else in the group could read it and be ready with suggestions, critique and encouragement.

I knew immediately which piece of writing I would submit: months earlier, I’d had one of the most…interesting experiences ever in ministry. A beloved member of the congregation I was serving – a man who loved people and was deeply loved by people wherever he went, a man who created community and knit people together in all kinds of situations – had died, and I had the privilege of helping to officiate at his funeral.

Except this funeral wasn’t like any other funeral I have done before or since. This beloved man had spent a good portion of his life participating in Civil War re-enactments: even though he was not from the South, had moved to Virginia after a lifetime of Yankee breeding, he had found a community and a hobby with the folks who re-enact Civil War battles. He researched and assumed a particular persona of a Confederate soldier, and made dozens and dozens of friends in the reenactment community.

Because his illness was a long one, he spent the last few months of his life planning his own funeral, and plan it, he did. The funeral was to be an all-out, as authentic as possible, Civil-War era event. It was…incredible.

At the visitation, women clad in black petticoats handed out sepia-tone photo buttons of the deceased – an antebellum tradition. The funeral home was packed with people in period dress (you could barely move through the hallways with all those crinolines and hoop skirts). Robert E. Lee delivered one of the eulogies. When we made it to the cemetery (yes, part of the Manassas Battlefield), pall bearers lifted the coffin out of the hearse and placed it in an antique, glass-walled caisson – basically, a wagon – pulled by horses. Mourners in period dress lined up behind the wagon and walked the last mile to the burial site.

The most bizarre image of the whole day was probably the funeral dinner back at the church, where dozens of people dressed straight out of 1863 milled around the fellowship hall eating potato salad and macaroni and cheese.

It was one of the most bizarre things I had ever participated in, so I wrote about it.

I wrote what I thought was a warm, funny piece that conveyed both the absurdity of the thing and the abundant love that this man’s community had for him – evident in their willingness to bring his funeral vision to reality, in the flocks of people who showed up and the dozens and dozens who stayed.

I thought it was a great piece of writing.

And then, I got to the writing workshop. Before anything even started, a few of us went for a walk and started chatting among ourselves. We moved to the subject of our writing. One of my fellow writers, J, turned to me.

“Oh,” she said. “You’re the one who wrote that Confederate funeral piece. I had a question for you about that.”

“Oh yeah?” I responded, ready to talk about how great my writing was, how funny that funeral had been, how amazing the church is.

“Are there any black people in your church?”

//

It’s hard to explain how I felt when J asked me that question. I was confused: I didn’t exactly understand why she would ask that question in particular, but I felt the weight of it, nonetheless. I was angry: didn’t she appreciate the humor and warmth of the essay? I was indignant: how dare she assume that she knew something about MY congregation that I didn’t? And, honestly, I was ashamed: clearly there was something about this conversation that I was missing, something I didn’t quite GET.

I did not want to have the conversation that J was asking me to have. I didn’t want to think about race. I didn’t want to entertain the possibility that the way I was telling the story might be hurting other people. I didn’t want to consider that there might be another way of seeing the situation – and that this funny and heart-warming story of ministry in the south might hold some other, darker meaning. I didn’t want to think about flags and symbols of the Confederacy – flags and symbols that I had grown up understanding as part of my proud identity as a Virginian and a southerner – as flags and symbols of anything else at all.

I did not want to have that conversation. And she didn’t press the issue – she saw my discomfort, and she moved on. But her question kick-started what I have come to understand as a process of conversion and redemption in me, a process that, it turns out, has an awful lot to do with Jesus and the cross.

//

In the verse that Brother Roy has chosen for our conference theme, Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the power of the cross. We are so familiar with the cross today – plastering it on brochures and t-shirts and jewelry – that we might be prone to forgetting what a strange and upside-down thing it would have been for Paul to travel around the Roman Empire preaching about its power. The cross was not a symbol of redemption or divinity: it actually wasn’t a symbol at all. The cross was the very real means by which the Empire executed criminals. It was a torture device. It was not something people discussed in polite company, and it was not something that any religiously observant Jew wanted to spend much time thinking about.

And yet, here is Paul, showing up in city after city, visiting in synagogue after synagogue, preaching and teaching and trying to convince all these people that the CROSS – that instrument of torture and death – is about salvation, resurrection, and redemption.

For the preaching of the cross,” Paul says, “is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”

Paul’s task was not an easy one. In fact, we learn in Acts 18 that when Paul first arrived in Corinth and started preaching in the synagogue there, the people scoffed, laughed and refused to hear anything he’d say. In Corinth, in fact, the religious people hated Paul’s disruptive message about some savior on some cross so much that they became, Acts says, “abusive.” They hurled insults, threatened violence, and ran Paul out of the sanctuary.

I imagine that for those devoutly religious folks in the synagogue in Corinth, people who were perfectly content with their faith, their practice, their just fine relationship to God and one another, having Paul show up and ask them to think about Jesus, a convicted criminal, as the savior of the world, must have felt a little like how I felt when J showed up and ruined what I assumed to be a perfectly good essay by asking me “are there any black people in your church?” It didn’t go over very well.

So, Paul quit trying to convince the “faithful” in the synagogue and moved next door, where a marginally religious guy invited him to preach out of his own living room. The people in Corinth who heard and believed the gospel were the people who were willing to entertain an idea that called into question everything they thought they knew. The people who became faithful to Jesus in Corinth were the ones who humbled themselves and agreed to have the conversations that no one wanted to have.

//

Since that conversation in Minnesota, I have been learning to understand the meaning of sin and salvation – the gospel of the cross that Paul preached over and over – in a new way. Do you know that verse from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation? We usually read that verse to mean that the person who has come to Christ is made new, and that’s not wrong. But the Greek in Paul’s sentence is a little ambiguous, and it also might mean that for the person who has come to Christ, the ENTIRE WORLD looks different.

That’s how I feel, these days. J’s question sent me searching for whatever it was that I was missing. I’ve spent the last few years reading, listening, and paying attention to how people of color in America see the world, and it turns out that nearly everything I thought I knew for sure is…at the very least, incomplete. I have had to revise a lot of what I thought about God. I have had to confess a lot of sinful racism and white supremacy that I didn’t even know was part of me. Everything looks different through the eyes of the crucified Christ.

The theologian James Cone says that “what is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people.” Because of the ways that American society and culture (and politics and economics and theology) have been structured, there are truths about the world that we white people are sheltered from and prevented from having to see.

//

That quote from James Cone comes from a book he wrote called “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” in that book, Cone asks Jesus’ followers to consider the ways that the lynching tree of American history is like the cross of Calvary, and the ways that we have hidden them both. Between 1880 and 1940, more than 4,000 black men, women and children were lynched. Lynchings during this era were public executions perpetrated by mobs of white citizens. They were public spectacles: people came out in droves to observe the executions. Lynchings were extrajudicial killings meant to keep black people – no longer enslaved but living under Jim Crow legal systems – afraid and “in their place.”

This is not a conversation anyone wants to have, but Cone says that the cross and the lynching tree are intimately linked. He says that American Christians, in order to fully confess our faith in Christ who died on the cross, need to grapple with our history and legacy of lynching. “The cross,” Cone says, “…is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.”1 In order to see with Christ’s eyes, we need to learn about and see from the perspective of those who suffered lynching in America.

Lynching stories are violent, grisly, and horrific – just like the story of the cross. They are stories we do not want to pay attention to, and stories that need to be reckoned with. Two black men were lynched right here in Roanoke – William Lavender in 1892 and Thomas Smith in 1893. Like the crowds that shouted “crucify! Crucify!,” both of these men where lynched at the demand of huge mobs. Like the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothing, both of these men’s bodies were desecrated after their death. The 4,000 people that came to view Thomas Smith’s body hanging the day after he died even cut pieces of the rope that hung him to take home as souvenirs.

This is not a conversation we want to have. But hiding the history that shapes our present is hiding the cross.

//

Another hidden story from this part of the world happened right down the road in Danville.

In 1963, Danville was, like most of Virginia, a segregated city. And, like many places in the south, black people were organizing massive, non-violent protests to confront segregation and white supremacy. Young people in Danville gathered to form the Danville Progressive Christian Association. It was supported by SNCC, the national Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Giants of the Civil Rights Movement – Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Zellner and Avon Rollins all visited Danville during the summer of 1963 when the movement was at its height.

During the summer of 1963, movement leaders organized a series of nonviolent protests in Danville. They orchestrated a sit-in at Howard Johnsons. They occupied City Hall. On June 10, during a march through downtown, thirty eight protestors were arrested. Later that evening, more than fifty folks gathered at the city jail to hold a prayer vigil for those arrested. When they arrived, police met them. The police were not alone: the town had deputized the white garbage collectors and armed them with billy clubs. The deputized garbage workers beat those gathered to pray with billy clubs, and the police attacked them with fire hoses. Sixty-five people were taken to the local segregated Danville hospital with injuries. Today, the events are remembered as “Bloody Monday.”

Danville-demonstrations-754x550Thurman Echols on Bloody Monday, 1963. Danville Register & Bee.

King continued to support the Danville movement. When he spoke at High Street later that summer, he admitted that the Danville police force was the most brutal and violent he had ever experienced. He planned to make Danville a center of his national campaign – though events in Birmingham that summer derailed those plans.

This summer, I got to meet some of the people who were singing hymns and praying when they got arrested that night in 1963. We sat in the fellowship hall of High Street Baptist Church and leaders from that freedom movement in the ’60s – Thurman Echols, Lawrence and Gloria Campbell, Carolyn Wilson – told us stories. Every black pastor in town was there.

One of our group asked Bishop Campbell, now a retired pastor but who had been, on that night in 1963, one of those praying protestors who ended up in the hospital: “did the white clergy support you?” His answer was swift and clear: “No. Not then, not now.”

The hypocrisy of the white church,” he said, “is even more insidious now than it was then.”

I tell you what: the hypocrisy of the white church is not a conversation I want to have. I am a pastor in the white church, and I am complicit and guilty of the hypocrisy that Bishop Campbell named. But refusing to have it is one more way that we hide the cross.

//

It is tempting to dismiss these stories as things that happened long, long ago, in the distant past.

I am tempted to dismiss J’s question and Cone’s theology and Bishop Campbell’s accusation as unimportant, irrelevant, not something I need to take seriously, having nothing to do with faithfulness – either my own of that of the church that shaped me. But when Christ claims us, when we start seeing all the ways that the cross is being hidden even here, even now, when we start seeing things from the perspective of the ones still being crucified, it gets harder and harder to dismiss these invitations to confession and repentance.

And that’s what they are: invitations. Sometimes, invitations to repentance feel like accusations. Sometimes, invitations to repentance make us defensive and angry and indignant. Sometimes, our responses to an invitation to repentance are to double down, to refuse to see, to shove those crosses even farther back in the dark, to keep it hidden a little while longer.

Lord, do I understand those responses. I have them all the time. I would rather be preaching a sermon on just about anything else in the world this evening,but God keeps inviting and insisting that THIS is the repentance and confession that he’s calling me to do. It seems to me that every time I think I’ve confessed all I can confess, repented of every last drop of white supremacy, rooted out every tiny bit of racism in my soul, every time I peel back a layer of sinfulness, I encounter an even thicker, more stubborn layer beneath it. I do not want to keep having this conversation.

And that is exactly why I need the cross, and why the cross IS good news: I cannot save myself. No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I learn, no matter how many books I read or people I meet, no matter how earnestly I confess and repent, no matter how many painstaking and upsetting sermons I preach: I am not capable of redeeming myself. Only Jesus can do that.

That’s the good news that has come right alongside all this learning of horrific, violent, awful bad news: Christ, on the cross and walking away from the empty tomb, is redeeming every sinful reality and transforming every painful moment of our history into something entirely new, entirely different, entirely made up of grace and beauty. Ephesians chapter 5 says that “everything exposed to the light is revealed by the light, and everything that is revealed by the light BECOMES light.”

Our sinfulness isn’t just forgiven and forgotten; in the process of being claimed in the cross, we are also claimed in the resurrection. We who have died with Christ have also risen with him. What we learn to be sinful is, as we confess and repent and find ourselves transformed, converted into something new, useful, and redemptive.

There’s this great line in Romans: “But where sin increased, grace was present in even greater abundance, so that just as Sin ruled by means of Death so Grace should rule through Righteousness and lead to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”

I think that our reluctance to have the hard conversations about the cross – the cross of Calvary as well as the lynching trees in downtown Roanoke, the firehoses in Danville and the Confederate flags all over our region – is a reluctance to face our own sin. That’s only natural. It’s uncomfortable and upsetting. But this is the promise of the gospel: where sin increased, grace is present in even greater abundance.

We have nothing to fear in facing our own sinfulness. We have nothing to fear in accepting all these uncomfortable invitations to repentance. Every time we do – each time we humble ourselves and lean into the hard work of attention, confession and repentance, Jesus is right there waiting for us, holding out grace in even greater abundance.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

1James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 156.

the return of the lamb

Sermon 5-12-19

Revelation 7

Jean Vanier had been a naval officer, completed a PhD and had a position teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto when he quit his job, bought a run-down house outside of Paris and invited two men with learning disabilities to live with him. Vanier had met the men, Raphael and Philippe, during visits to an asylum, a connection that he had made through his mentor Father Thomas Philippe, who had founded a community in France for searching young people.

That single decision – to live in community with men whose lives were being lived in sterile institutions – turned into a global movement. Today, L’Arche – which is the name for these intentional communities that include core members who live with physical and intellectual disabilities and their companions – has 150 communities in 38 countries. Over 3,500 people with disabilities live in community.

Vanier was not only a do-gooder; he wrote and spoke often about how this kind of life – so different from what his well-to-do Canadian family expected of him – transformed him. He not only believed and insisted that people with disabilities were intrinsically worthy of inclusion and care, he held that theirs was an essential contribution to a well-lived life:

“The cry of people with disabilities [was] a very simple cry: do you love me? That’s what they were asking. And that awoke something deep within me because that was also my fundamental cry…I began to understand that these people could help me grow in the wisdom of love. They would help me grow in a relationship with Jesus.”

“The mystery of people with disabilities is that they long for authentic and loving relationships more than for power.”

Those lines are from a book that Vanier co-wrote with the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, called “Living Gently in a Violent World.”

Jean Vanier died this week, at the age of 90. He lived in community in the original L’Arche community outside Paris until just a couple of weeks ago. In the wake of his death, many are reflecting on his impact. Krista Tippett, host of the radio show “On Being,” is one of them:

“Sitting with Jean was a transformative experience in and of itself,” Ms. Tippett wrote. “We called the show we created with him ‘The Wisdom of Tenderness’—a wisdom that radiated, [was] embodied, in his presence. Yet this tenderness was also a form of power, as paradoxical and true as the Gospel teaching the L’Arche communities took up as a way of life—that there is strength in weakness, light in darkness and beauty in what the world declares broken.”1

Jean Vanier knew that weakness was holy, that vulnerability was the way of Jesus, that the way of the cross is the way of tenderness and gentleness.

//

I’ve been thinking about Vanier this week, in part because I have shared part of his story at least three times each year for the last decade when I work with new volunteers entering Brethren Volunteer Service. Vanier’s story of taking a road less traveled, deciding to cast his allegiance and his life alongside the ones that the world deems broken, is instructive for young people, especially, who are entering into years of direct service with people that they have likely been disconnected from all their lives. Patience, gentleness, tenderness, celebration: these are virtues that are hard to practice in our world today. BVS asks volunteers to find time to nurture them. Vanier lived a life filled with them.

//

And, believe it or not, our text from Revelation today is filled with encouragement for those of us who strive to live these kind of gentle, vulnerable lives in the face of the overwhelming violence of the world today.

If you remember where we left off last week in our introduction to Revelation, John – whose vision we are experiencing – had been taken up into the Spirit and found himself in a dazzling throne room – filled with beasts and colors and gems and singing. And you remember that seated on that throne, the object of everyone’s intense devotion and worship was – surprisingly – a tiny, vulnerable, slaughtered lamb.

The lamb is the one who is able to open the seven seals that are keeping closed a very important scroll, and when the seals are opened, very, very strange visions ensue. Each scroll leads to a very trippy vision: different colored horses, with riders; a host of people who had lost their lives because of their witness, dressed in white robes and crying out for justice; an earthquake, during which

The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”

And then there is a very interesting vision where John sees exactly 144,000 people who are “sealed” as servants of God: 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. These 144,000 seem to be still on earth, and the “seal” seems to mean that they will not be harmed when great danger comes.

The book of Revelation has been used and abused in a lot of ways, and this particular passage, about 144,000 people who are sealed as God’s servants is no exception. You’ve probably heard some of the interpretations of this number: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the number means that exactly 144,000 faithful Christians from Pentecost until the present day will be resurrected to heaven – all other believers will get to live in a Paradise here on earth, but those 144,000 will live as priests and kings with God in heaven.

Another way of understanding the 144,000 is to believe that they are Jewish people who have converted to Christianity and will do the work of converting other gentiles on earth before the end of the world. There are a couple of problems with this idea: first, we learned last week that John, the author, was himself a Palestinian Jewish Christian – in those days, “christianity” was not a separate religion. Everyone was Jewish. Second, this line of thinking easily leads to antisemitism and supercessionist theology – which is a way of dismissing Judaism and the Jewish faith altogether by insisting that Christianity took over the place of Israel in being God’s special people. This is messy and complicated.

It is odd that John names such a specific number of people here, and links them directly to the twelve tribes of Israel. But just like he did before, when he set us up to see a fierce, conquering lion on the throne, John is about to surprise us again with God’s truth:

“After this,” he says, “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

Did you get that? A multitude so huge that no one can count it! It’s like John knew that people would get hung up on that 144,000 number, try to assign each one a specific identity, spend millenia deciding if WE are among that 144,000…and so he immediately turns us upside down: a huge multitude, from every nation, tribe, people and language. And all these people are dressed in white, and they are – get this – worshiping. Worshiping who? Right. The Lamb.

lamb

Detail from the triumphal arch mosaic of Santa Prassede in Rome. By Lawrence OP

One of the elders turns to John and asks him if he knows who all these diverse, white-robed worshipers are, and John says, “dude: YOU tell ME!” And the elder does:

These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,

they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

This multitude of white-robed heavenly worshipers are the ones who have been witnesses to the Lamb: not merely “believers,” but people who have endured tribulation because of their desire to follow in the way of the Lamb on the throne.

Because the lamb is not only the conquering Christ, worthy of praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength; the lamb is also the model and example, the way, the truth, and the life. To become witnesses to this conquering lamb, these worshipers in white robes have participated in the paradoxical power of vulnerability, gentleness, and tenderness. They have lived lives that emulated the slain lamb. And that – their commitment to the way of surprising tenderness in the face of great violence and tribulation – has led to persecution, oppression, pain and deep sadness.

I think this is important: following Jesus, the lamb on the throne, does not mean that life becomes easy. In fact, given all the ways that the path of the lamb is at odds with the prevailing culture of the world: tenderness in the face of callousness, gentleness in the face of violence, generosity in the face of rampant selfishness, peacefulness in the face of intractable conflict…following Jesus might make life harder.

And if anyone understands that, it is the lamb himself, who inhabits the throne not as a perfect, wooly specimen of health, but in the fullness of what happened to him – the lamb is on the throne, John says, “looking as if it were slain.” Just like Paul records, “my grace is sufficient, my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So, John sees the gathered multitude from all tribes and nations, people from every age and every background, every possible incarnation of human being, gathered around the throne of the Lamb, worshiping him. And the elder, who has revealed to John who they are, says that they are here so that the one

who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

John is quoting the prophet Isaiah, here. And he’s quoting specific portions of Isaiah, known as the “suffering servant” verses. These passages detail a Messiah who comes not as conquering war hero, but as suffering servant, the one who, as the beginning of the chapter quoted here says,

was despised and abhorred by the nation,
to the servant of rulers:”

God says to this suffering servant:
“Kings will see you and stand up,
princes will see and bow down,
because of the
Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

And so it is with the great multitude of diverse people – from every nation, tribe, age and place: they will find their place worshiping the conquering lamb who was slain, resting in the promise that never again will they face hunger or thirst, because the lamb – the wounded, suffering, slain lamb – has become their shepherd, and “he will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

P1091-jesus-christ-good-sheperd-hand-painted-icon

 

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The lamb becomes the shepherd. And the sheep, we know, recognize the sound of their shepherd’s voice. The sheep, we know, trust the shepherd to lead them to safety. The sheep fear no evil, because the shepherd’s rod and staff are our comfort.

When we start to see the lamb on the throne as our shepherd, when we begin to imagine ourselves as part of that great multitude that no one can count singing our praise to the conquering, slain lamb, perhaps we might discover, too, what John had revealed to him there in the throne room, which was the same truth Isaiah tried to make clear in his prophet’s vision, he same truth that Jean Vanier lived out in his lifetime of learning to value weakness and love the brokenness of humanity the same truth that Paul articulated over and over in his letters:

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

(1 Corinthians 1)

 

 

 

all hail the conquering fluffy

Sermon 5/5/19

Revelation 5:11-14

 

Have you ever experienced that kind of surprise of being caught off guard by God’s grace or the Holy Spirit’s power?

I am most comfortable when I know how things are going to happen – when there is a plan, and a clearly defined set of operating instructions. But divine power doesn’t often show up in the places where I am most comfortable – I have experienced God’s presence most powerfully in those times and spaces where I am pushed beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone, when I find myself in unknown territory, struggling to get my bearings.

Has that happened to you?

I can think of a dozen examples of this in my own life, unfamiliar places where I had unexpected and life-altering encounters with God, but this week, I was thinking about how the Spirit keeps showing up somewhere much closer to home: in our joint worship services with Emmanuel Antioch Presbyterian Church, like the one we had last Sunday.

I don’t know how you all experience these joint worship services, but they always have me a bit on edge: planning them is hard work. In addition to the language barrier, our congregations have very different worshipping styles, and significant theological differences. We have to search hard for hymns that both congregations know. I was surprised, last week, to see the rather intense audio set-up that EAPC uses every week in this very small space. Pastor Timothy is very clear that the call for both himself and his congregation is evangelism, and he shares the gospel in a way that is very, very different from how I do.

I am always on edge when we have these joint worship services – because I am out of my comfort zone. And, as your pastor, I also want to make sure that worship in this space and for this congregation is a place of honesty, that it represents, to the best of our ability, what we know and believe about God. When others – with differing worship styles, theologies and understandings of who God is – are in charge, well, there’s no way to know if that will happen or not.

There are always things that make me uncomfortable. And yet, every time we have shared worship, there have been moments of deep grace, moments when I have felt the Spirit move in ways that would be almost impossible if we did not make the move out of our comfort zones and into something unknown and a little threatening.

Those gigantic speakers project a kind of singing and praying that we do not practice regularly in this space. Singing together with EAPC is a joy. Listening to Soo Min translate for Pastor Timothy’s sermon is always amazing – her gift of proclamation reminds me of the gift of tongues given to the people in the book of Acts, of Moses’ brother Aaron, of all those prophets in scripture who are called and commanded to speak the words of God in ways that the people clan hear. And, of course, there’s always the bulgogi and the chap chae at the shared potluck afterward: as sure a sign of God’s grace as any I know.

I think there is something important about this: I – maybe all of us – are more likely to notice God at work when we are off-centered, out of our comfort zones, out of control.

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I’m grateful that our shared worship was just last week, because we are diving into a sermon series on the book of Revelation today, and Revelation is nothing if not DISTINCTLY outside of our comfort zones. And, the first passage from Revelation that we encounter this month is from Chapter 5, a vision of a heavenly worship experience that far exceeds any worship experience we’ve had here on earth.

The first glimpse of Revelation we see is a multitude (“myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands”) of every kind of creature – not just humans, but angels, animals, earthly and heavenly beings, gathered together from across innumerable boundaries and barriers surrounding the throne of the one who is worthy to open the seventh seal and SINGING together, singing, the text says, with full voice:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Worship is important in Revelation. There are more than fifteen hymns sung in the book, all of them hymns of encouragement to God’s people on earth.

But worship is probably not your first thought when you think of this weird, final book in the Bible. What comes to mind when you hear someone say “Revelation”?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be diving into Revelation a little deeper than usual. It’s so tempting to either ignore it altogether or to attempt to map Revelation’s powerful images onto the current realities of human history, but neither of those is a responsible way of reading Revelation.

Here are a few things that Revelation is NOT:

  • a horror movie script
  • a one-to-one correlation of over-the-top imagery to on-the-ground, present-day occurrences
  • a timeline for the end of the world
  • literal rendering of what judgement day will look like

Revelation belongs to a genre of literature called “apocalypse.” This book is not the only example of such strange, off-balance visions of the end time. And, unlike the big screen, bombastic, violent movies we tend to associate with the term apocalypse, it does not mean “end of the world.” Apocalypse means “uncovering.” It means, just as the title of the book implies, a “revealing.”

Revelation is the only apocalypse in the New Testament, but it was not the only apocalypse circulating at the time it was written.

There is a rich tradition of Jewish apocalyptic writing, in both the centuries before and after Jesus’ life. Apocalypses all have several things in common: they are revelations, set in a narrative framework. In apocalypses, an unveiling about the cosmic realities of the world are mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient.

In other words, apocalypses are stories that reveal a larger truth about reality by showing a human being guided through time and space by divine figures.

And apocalypses have a purpose: they are written in particular times and places, with specific intentions. Usually, the audience of an apocalyptic writing are people who are in seriously dangerous, traumatic, and unsettling times. Scholars suggest that the beginning of Jewish apocalyptic literature is in the late 6th century BCE, when the Israelites had been exiled from their home.

Apocalyptic literature lays out a structure of reality in which humans are not in charge: despite what might appear to be exile, defeat, crisis and trauma on the ground, apocalypses reveal another truth: that God is in control. “The function of the apocalyptic literature,” says John Collins, “is to shape one’s imaginative perception of a situation and so lay the basis for whatever course of action it exhorts.”

Apocalypses are written for people in crisis, reveal a larger truth about reality, and offer a deeper, visceral, imaginative option for what is possible, both now and in the future.

Revelation is an apocalypse. It was likely written by a Palestinian Jewish Christian between 66-73, during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans – a coordinated revolution against oppression that led to the Romans cracking down on Jewish people, destroying the Temple, and ending the revolutionary state. Revelation’s author was an exile of war, writing to other Jewish Christians who were experiencing the same kind of trauma and defeat.

Revelation is a vision that reveals a God who is worthy of worship, who has been and continues to be in charge of the world, despite what present circumstances may lead us to believe. And, like anything that gets us out of our comfort zones and into what is sometimes called “liminal space,” this uncovering involves some serious surprises, too.

The book begins with letters to seven churches, which is fairly familiar territory: didn’t Paul write letters to churches? Isn’t that what much of the New Testament is made of? But quickly, as soon as the letters are finished, John – who is writing from an isolated island called “Patmos” pulls us into an intense vision.

“After this,” he says, “I looked and a door to heaven stood open!” A voice calls to him and says “come up here! I have things to show you!” And, John says, immediately he was “in the spirit” and standing in a throne room.

This sounds, to me, an awful lot like the beginning of the Chronicles of Narnia series, where Lucy’s curiosity leads her and her siblings to step through the door of the enchanted wardrobe and encounter a whole new world. Or, maybe like Alice in Wonderland, when she travels through the looking glass into an upside down kingdom. Or, if you’ve read the Phantom Tollbooth, when Milo drives through the mysterious tollbooth in his toy car and enters the Kingdom of Wisdom.

One scholar likens the visions of Revelation to Charles’ Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: like Ebenezer Scrooge’s night full of cautionary dreams about what could happen if he doesn’t change his ways, Revelation is a lush, detailed vision of what might be, or maybe of what already is.

And this vision is filled with worship. Except right off the bat, John of Patmos delivers us one of those surprises that come when we are outside of our comfort zones: He has arrived here in the throne room, and listen to how he describes it”

And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

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

Whoa. And in the hand of the one seated on the throne is a scroll sealed with seven seals: clearly an important scroll! But no one seems to be able to open the scroll, to reveal what is written there, to unleash this important news that is held by the one on the throne, and John, who has gone through the looking glass, as it were, and ended up here in this jasper/carnelian/rainbow/ruby throne room filled with angels and beings all singing, begins to weep: he has arrived here for nothing, taken the leap only to be barred from hearing the good news.

But one of the elders looks at him with mercy and says: “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Ah, yes, the LION! This is an image familiar to John and to us. During Advent, our Sunday School class studied what are called the “O Antiphons” – the names for Christ. The Lion of Judah, the Root of David are two of those names. John surely recognized these names, too.

A lion, a conqueror, would make sense here. In other apocalypses, it is often fierce creatures like this – a roaring lion gripping the scroll in his claws – that advance the plot. In fact, in another apocalypse of the same time period, Second Esdras, the Messiah IS portrayed as a lion – roaring and prophesying judgement against Rome’s violence.

But when John looks over at the throne, it is not a lion that he sees there. Instead, he says, “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…”

And, interestingly, the Greek word here for “lamb” is not just “lamb” – it is arnion, which is more like “lambkin” or “little lamb” or “lamby.” One scholar translates the word as “Fluffy.”

 

Here, in the middle of this bombastic vision, in the rainbow-emerald throne room, on the thundering, flashing, flaming throne surrounded by creatures covered in eyes, is a tiny, slaughtered lamb – perhaps the most vulnerable creature we could imagine. This is a huge surprise. This does not follow the pattern of other apocalypses. This is a huge departure both from the genre and from the expectations that John has set up for us.

And this surprise, this unexpected lamb, this vulnerability seated on the throne of heaven: this is what will help us to understand the entire book of Revelation.

Because surrounding the throne are myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of creatures – earthly and heavenly, every creature on earth and under the earth and all that is in the sea are SINGING, worshipping, together, declaring:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Like those first hearers of the book of Revelation, we too find ourselves in certain kinds of exile and defeat. American politics holds up profit and oppression as the signs of victory. American economy says that the one who dies with the most accumulated wealth and possessions, wins. Even American religion tries to convince us that might makes right, political power is the way of Jesus, and violence is divine.

But here, we find another possibility, an assurance that despite how things might look to us on the ground, God is in control; that no matter what the ruling powers of the day say, the Lamb that was slaughtered – and not the lion who boasts his way to power – is the one and the only one worthy of power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. And so, with the gathered multitudes of Revelation, we join our singing and our worship, pledging our allegiance and our lives to THIS divine power, and this only.