Since we’ve been so busy around here, I’m just dumping the rest in this one post, making it painfully long, but what can you do? Here goes . . .
December 7, 2014 – Advent 2 – In the beginning, until it’s our turn
“Oooooh, you shouldn’t have done that.” Almost all of us have had that thought race through our heads at one time or another. Most people have one or two moments in their lives that bring to them thoughts of shame and a fear of that one moment being exposed to others.
Even pastors. There’s probably something in each of our pasts that we don’t even let our spouses know. It might be a time of great trauma or something we actually did; it might be something that just happened, you know the way some things just happen.
For many of us it is an act of cowardice, when we should have acted one way and failed. I don’t mean some action-movie kind of bravery involving terrorist plots and split-second timing. I mean telling someone the truth when they will hate you for it, or defending someone being abused when you can certainly get away with it but it will leave you exposed.
I would suspect, using nothing more than my own past as a guide, that most of what causes the specter of shame to arise in us are the acts of omission, “what we have left undone” as we confess each Sunday morning. Those are the places where our inner darkness is at its deepest. Those are the times when we most wished to do the right thing, but could not summon the goodness from inside us.
I think this is most prevalent in the current climate of dissent and dissatisfaction, with protesters marching in the streets and blocking freeway traffic. It would appear from some of the news outlets that there is a rash of armed black folks being gunned down by the police, or if you tend toward the other news outlets, there seems to be a lot of media hype about no trend at all, just a way of whipping up ratings by demonizing the noble peacekeeping efforts of the legitimate authorities.
I honestly do not care on which side of that divide you fall because no matter which side it is, you are wrong. If our confession tells us anything it tells us that we are wrong more often than we’d care to admit.
How many of us are willing to step up and make the nuanced argument? How many of us have the courage to allow, for example, that giving a thirteen year-old boy in a rough neighborhood an imitation assault rifle is probably perpetuating a climate of violence and placing that child in danger?
Or how about this one? Would you be willing to allow that someone with a military police background in a war zone might very well need a little extra psychological screening than the average sheriff’s deputy recruit to make sure they are patrolling our streets and not those in Fallujah?
What if we went a little farther and asked why the school system is seemingly so willing to expel students and then drag their feet in reassigning them to recovery schools, allowing them to roam the streets unattended instead of educating them?
Everyone wants to be on the side of the angels. Everyone wants the people they love to be the good guys but we are a confessional people and if even we cannot admit that there are no angels, then we are stuck trying to rationalize away the facts in our faces because we are not brave enough to risk a few friendships for the sake of the truth.
Each of the three perspectives mentioned above, in reference, in case you have a short memory, to the Andy Lopez shooting, will lose you some friends. Some folks cannot let themselves believe that one or another of the factors contributed to his death.
But the truth is, the thing we hate to admit, is that we are all, to some extent, culpable of for no other reason than that we do not demand a better world and the n work to build that world at the risk of our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor like it says in the Declaration of Independence.
Why is it that the death of a Latino boy has less impact in Bennett Valley than it does in Roseland? He wasn’t undocumented, he was an American, so that isn’t the problem. But just asking that question makes us all squirm a little so we don’t ask it.
The first step of the twelve steps is to admit you have a problem.
We have a problem, as a society.
Can we ask hard question in the hope of making the world a better place? Can we admit that if it as easy as it seems to find examples of unarmed black men being shot by the police that there might be a problem? Can we come to grips with the notion that the police are human beings, not heroes, not idols for us to worship but regular people who make regular people mistakes from time to time?
Can we admit, finally, after decades of research telling us so, that our culture of violence breeds in us harder attitudes about life and death, that if we make it a game we might just have a hard time taking it seriously when it is not a game?
Can we stop expecting the schools to raise our children for us and yank up our bootstraps and take some responsibility for how our kids are doing, what our kids are doing, and caring a bit about our neighbor’s children in the process?
All of these things take courage.
But all of them take mercy also, and forgiveness as well.
If we cannot admit that the police occasionally make a mistake, then we will have no mercy on them when they do because they have not just committed an error, they have betrayed our image of them and that we will not allow. If we cannot admit that policemen are human beings; albeit well-trained, well-armed human beings, then we will not be able to forgive the human being making the mistake.
We will be where we are, police and society, trying to pretend that the mistakes do not happen, circling the wagons to prevent the truth from shattering our misconceptions.
Prevent the truth from shaking our view of the world.
I thought Jesus was the truth, the Way, the Truth and the Life? Right? Is there some way we can invite Jesus into this conversation?
The other side of the argument, by the way is equally flawed. The police are not brutal, jackbooted thugs out merely to express their own aggressions on the populace in increasingly militaristic ways.
The truth, as I have mentioned from this place a fair number of times, is complicated.
But the world will never get any better unless we summon the courage to face the truth because only in facing the truth can we start to fix it, can we fulfill our callings and start to build a better world in Jesus name.
And it begins with you. It begins when you take a good look at the span of your life, the great days, like weddings or the birth of a child; the lousy days, like the loss of a friend, a loved-one, a marriage. Look back at the things you’ve done and thought and take pride in the good you have done, even if only you will ever know about it, it is just fine to feel good about doing good.
But where you find fear, or shame, that moment when your resolve failed, when you could not contain your tongue and were needlessly cruel to someone, when you lashed out in anger, when you erred.
We’ve all got one, at least one. We’ve all got something buried, maybe a sin of omission, of failing to act, but also maybe a sin of commission something we actually did that we deeply regret.
If we are to be able to embrace the humanity of those around us, their flaws and their strengths alike and to start to build a better world with and for them, then we will need to start closer to home by letting go of the shame and the hurt, old grudges long since devoid of meaning, fears and long ago sins.
This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
I am so very glad that we have entered into the second year of the Lectionary Cycle. As I have mentioned many times before, Mark if my favorite Gospel and the first sentence in this morning’s scripture is one of the reasons.
This is the beginning, this moment right now, not just when Mark wrote those words, but every time they are read, every time we remember our baptisms, every time we look up to the cross and are reminded of how much was given in exchange for our salvation, that moment is the beginning of the good news.
And the ending is not in sight. Peter reminds us that the Lord will not come at an appointed time, but like a thief in the night so there is no point in predicting a day, of waiting to forgive yourself, to release yourself until just the right moment. This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and so this is just the right moment.
That’s why I like Mark. It’s about Jesus starting the tide of salvation, the tide of good news for all mankind but then, at the end, there is no ending only these verses, spoken to Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and to Salome, “But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
It is up to us to finish the story.
But you cannot finish a story until you begin it.
The issues that face us, that cry out for the mercy, the grace and the forgiveness of Christ are too complicated for us to be afraid to speak the truth; that nobody’s hands are clean and that we all need to show mercy as well as receive it, need forgiveness as much as we need to forgive.
If we cannot forgive ourselves then we will have precious little chance answering the hard questions and forgiving the rest of the world, of showing God’s mercy, precious little chance of moving forward into a better tomorrow, the Kingdom of God not in some faraway heaven but here, in the fellowship of the Body of Christ, in the creation that was in the beginning, deemed good by the God who created it all and placed us in it.
That is what is on offer in the gospel of Christ, that every day can be a new beginning; that every breath offers the chance to stand up and allow the fetters to fall from your body and to proclaim that Christ hat set you free and then to gird up your loins and start a’ proclaiming boys and girls, the gospel will not spread itself, it requires the voices of those who have been set free and who have learned to forgive.
This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
December 14, 2014 – Advent 3 – There is no excuse
I am not the messiah, I am not Elijah or Moses or John the Baptist. I am a forty-eight year-old, overweight, sleepy father of one, husband only once Pastor in Northern California, which means at present that I am trying to dry off after a long postponed shower.
I am not the messiah, but that is no excuse.
I think back to a lyric from Pink Floyd’s first album after the immense success of The Wall. In the song “Your Possible Pasts” is the line, “I was just a child then, now I’m only a man.” And whenever I hear someone tell me why something will not work, cannot happen or is just an idealist’s dream, that lyric pops into my head.
There is a gap, you see, between what we would want and what we are willing to build, willing to risk everything to make happen; between our vision and our expectation.
And we can come up with the most wonderful excuses. I can’t change the world, I’m just a kid! I’m only a man, what can I do?
We seem to spend a lot of time working on excuses and that time could be more profitably spent, don’t you think?
But that’s the gap. That’s the distance we maintain. Between us and the things we might want to see happen.
I think the term for it is “safe distance.” That’s a good term if you are working for the bomb squad or in a lab with radiation, or trying to figure out if you want to go out into the streets when one segment or other of the population is expressing their displeasure with the way things are.
Safe distance is what you maintain between yourself and danger.
So tell me why again do we maintain the same kind of distance between where we live, what we are used to, what we expect; and the world we’d like to live in, the world we could use right about now, the world we dream about? What are we protecting ourselves from? In the first cases I understand, there is danger and we must protect ourselves, but when did we decide that risk was danger, that hope was danger, that it was better to hunker down where we are than reach for the stars?
What are we afraid of?
I don’t think it is notoriety; we seem to have developed a taste for that in our culture of late. I cannot imagine wanting to be on television so badly that I would participate in the soul crushing awesomeness that is Honey Boo Boo, or Duck Dynasty or other pillars of the American Television experience.
I thought that the daytime talk shows, the Jerry Springers, the Morton Downey Juniors, the Sally Jesse Rafaels of the world were bad enough at airing the dirtiest of laundry a society could possibly create, but then someone in an office somewhere decided that we should give each contestant in the shameless Olympics their own half hour to state their piece, but let’s make sure nobody is well educated, nobody has high aspirations, nobody we put on is anything but laughable.
We revel as they wallow so I don’t think it is notoriety we fear; I asked some kids in one of Caitlyn’s classes a couple of years ago what they wanted to be when they grew up and four of them said, simply, “famous.” Notoriety is its own thing now, ask Paris Hilton or Kim Kardasian.
But how can you be known as the repairers of the breach, the builders of ancient cities, the raisers of the former devastations if you fear stepping out in the name of your dreams, of the vision you have in your head of the world as it might be, if you are afraid of putting your values where your mouth is?
I think we are waiting for the Lord to do it for us, not realizing that the Lord is doing it with us or without us and that finding out how God is on the move, how God is already at work in our neighborhoods, cities and in our world is the only way we are ever going to lay claim to the mantle of disciples of Christ and step out of the “safe distance” into the blessings of God.
And not being the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet is no excuse. John wasn’t any of those things, and yet he is known and celebrated as the herald who proclaimed the dawning of the coming of Christ.
You are not the Messiah, but that is no excuse.
So what is it, if not notoriety, that holds us back, that keeps us at a safe distance?
Because we all see the things that are wrong, and if we don’t see them it is not for lack of the world trying to show them to us, the world makes a great effort to tell us time and time again, over and over how messed up the world is, how terrible things are, how far from Eden we have fallen. The maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads” pretty much sums up news coverage these days. Many, many peaceful protests have happened over the past two months, but the film of something on fire makes better news, scenes of people in handcuffs is more compelling, so it would seem.
We see the things that are wrong, but keep the world at a “safe distance” and in so doing, never step out and try to make it any better.
I might be fear of failing. Sometimes you don’t want to take a risk to make things different because it might not work out. I serve on a couple of non-profit boards and the number of times I have heard the phrases “can we risk it?” or “should we try that?” or “We tried that once and it didn’t work” astonishes me.
But ask any successful person, any successful person and they will that they have failed many times on the way to success and that if they had been afraid to fail, then they never would have succeeded.
But here’s the thing, if things are already not the way we would like, what do we have to lose? I suppose that things could get worse, but does that mean we just sit at home, keep a safe distance and let other people try and make the world reflect their values?
Whatever happened to Matthew 28 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father . . .” and the other two as well? Where is the safe distance in that fairly clear mission of Christ and of the people who lay claim to His name?
You are not the Messiah, but that is no excuse.
A value not defended, not expressed, not carried into the world is not a value, it is a hobby and discipleship is no hobby. We are a people of values but unless we express them, unless we invade the safe distance, unless we seek to remake the whole world in the image, not of our particular brand of Christianity, not of our peculiar version of faith, but in the image of our values, justice, mercy, forgiveness, grace, then we run the risk of being nothing more than another disappearing social club, having out-lasted our calling; a gathering of like-minded friends, looking for a reason to hang out together.
There needs to be the vision, the dream of a world that Christ came to build, not for us but with us. A Kingdom of God, if you will, where justice rolls on like a river, where there are no more men or women, slave nor free Jew nor Greek (black nor white may we ask)?
And then, married to that vision there has to be the willingness to speak, to work, to do and to live as if the vision were already true, as if the world were already the peaceable kingdom and all the prisoners were already free.
Safe distance is only safe so long as we can maintain it, but the world will not just leave us alone while we wait for things to blow over; or rather, exactly that will happen, they will leave us alone, an increasingly meaningless anachronism, a club of people singing and praying for things to get better while watching all the time from a safe distance of course, while things get worse.
I think the thing we are afraid of is the only thing that really matters.
We have heard from common wisdom, from old sayings and from numerous aphorisms how dangerous power is and we want none of it. “Power corrupts,” we hear, “abuse of power,” is a crime in this country, “power went to his head,” they say.
I’d be willing to bet that the people spreading those “old sayings” have power, they like it, they are fashioning the world according to their own values and they’d prefer you didn’t get in the way, so they spin tales of how dangerous power is.
So we learn to avoid it, to fear it. We keep a safe distance from it because if we touch it, if we learn its ways we are going to get caught out, like all of the people that the news loves to follow, the ones who got power, and then did something stupid.
The difference we seem to forget, the crucial difference that the church desperately needs to remember, desperately if it ever hopes to participate in God’s Kingdom is that it is not our power that moves, not our power we call upon and lay claim to and use to motivate, energize and guide us.
Our power is not ours, it is God’s, and God’s power is not afraid. God’s power keeps no safe distance because in God’s power there is safety aplenty and the chance to act boldly and without fear for the sake of our neighbors and for the sake of God’s world.
We in the western world seem to have forgotten how we got just as blessed as we are, “all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed,” says Isaiah, but we seem to have glossed over in our minds the centuries of struggle and faith, of community and of vision. We cling to the rhetoric of those centuries, like the children of the princes of the earth, as if we were entitled to live by our own definitions no matter what the truth is, no matter what the world has become while we were being known as all blessed and stuff.
We, especially the church, seem to have forgotten that the vision before us is not of war, but a vision of peace; it is not a news program showing protests against injustice, it is a vision of justice rolling like a river. We seem to have forgotten that the vision before us is not of our making, and could never be fashioned by our hands alone.
The power should cause us no fear, for it is the power of God, our inheritance through Christ and will not and cannot be used for evil, cannot fail, cannot bring about anything other than the Kingdom of God.
It also cannot be grasped from a safe distance.
You have to get up close, you have to be bold, you have to want to build God’s Kingdom, according to the values we hear and know from Jesus, our Messiah, and from Elijah and the Prophet Isaiah, always Isaiah.
You are not the Messiah, but that is no excuse.
John wasn’t the Messiah either but they write an awful lot about him. John heard the calling of God and saw the vision that God laid out before us all through the scriptures and he set his feet upon the path, even though he was not the Messiah; and he spoke the words that the Lord called upon Him to speak, even though he was not the Messiah; and he lived as if the Kingdom of God was already his, even though he was not the Messiah.
That is not what is being asked of you, not that you be the messiah, simply that you receive the one who is and allow His power to be your power, your vision, your ground and goal.
You are not the Messiah, not worthy to untie the thong of His sandal. What you are is the inheritor of His mission, His rule and His power. It is His will that we live in the Kingdom of God. Or would you rather keep a safe distance?
The fourth Sunday in Advent was performed by the church youth as their pageant and Christmas eve and Christmas morning were preached off the cuff, alas there is no record . . .