Sermon for 11-29-15 Luke 21:25-36 Advent 1

Maybe you’re just as confused as I am by this reading and why we are getting it now. It is, after all, the first Sunday in Advent. We want the story of the cute baby Jesus and the details leading up to his birth, right? We want to picture cute, tubby angelic cherubims singing and dancing for joy at the arrival of the Christ child. We want to put up the tree, sing carols, drink eggnog (or not), wrap presents and just get caught up in all that this season has to offer. We want to shop, bake, eat, travel, wonder, anticipate, and bask in the joy of holly and jolly. What we get instead is a reading about the end times. It is anything but joyful, holly, or jolly. But so it is with our reading from Luke. And so it is that we have the difficult task of talking about this scripture today in a time when we’d rather hear about baby Jesus. And maybe what we so desperately need to hear is stories of comfort in these times that already feel like the end times.

The last few weeks I’ve talked about fear and that it has become part of the reality of which we live. There are people, maybe even some of you included, that feel like we are already living in the end times, or at least coming close to it. I don’t want to try and negate those feelings. I understand. We are living in very uncertain times. We don’t know from day to day if we will be safe, secure, or protected. It seems that the enemy is moving closer every day. We no longer know what the enemy looks like. It can be someone who looks like you and me. That is enough to be scary. The rhetoric surrounding our security can also be scary. We need more guns. Or less. We need more nuclear weapons. Or less. We need more security. Or just different security. And what it comes down to is that fear is a very real and very palpable feeling in our society.

So perhaps you come to church for refuge. You come hoping to feel good. You come hoping to see familiar faces, talk about the “old times”, and laugh (because laughter has become a commodity). And this time of year, it’s especially nice to come to church as it’s all decorated and warm and we anticipate the birth of the Christ child. And so it is, perhaps, that while we often turn to the Bible (and books like Revelation) to point to the future, it is more than just a little unsettling to hear readings like the one we have today and realize that signs Jesus talks about could be the here and now. And maybe it’s not specifically our time and place that Jesus speaks of. But, Jesus could just be pointing to the way that the powers of this world can take hold and it is easy, almost too easy, for God’s message of love and redemption to be lost and go unheard over the sounds of shouting, protesting, bombing, crying, and ultimately, death at the hands of greed.

This reading comes on the heels of a story we heard a few weeks ago. It was a different Gospel, but the same story. The story was of a widow who put every last penny she owned into the treasury. She was practically shamed into it by a system of oppression. And Jesus warned the disciples about the end times; how no stone would remain unturned and there would be many false prophets. The disciples, much like many of us, want to know exactly when this time will come. Jesus tells the disciples that when the fig tree starts to sprout leaves that summer is near. Much like that, when there are signs in the sun, moon, and stars and distress among the nations that redemption is drawing near. Distress among the nations? Good thing we don’t have any of that.

I guess the frustrating part about this reading today is that Jesus could have been speaking of any time in history thus far. It could have been any war, any natural disaster, any national catastrophe, any single headline written on the pages of history. Did Jesus know that we would always struggle with worshipping power, privilege and greed instead of him? Did Jesus know that we would always struggle with identity, eager to group people into quick and easy categories of “us and them” instead of our universal identities as children of God? Did Jesus know how mightily we would struggle with loving ourselves (and find loving the “other” almost impossible)? So it seems, then, that the more things change the more things stay the same. And that is frustrating to me.

Our realities are all too grim. Too many of us will enter this holiday season with empty chairs at our tables. We may have less money in our bank accounts. We may have health issues that remain unresolved. We may fight demons to scary to even name out loud. Perhaps the idea of a revelation, of God’s inbreaking and coming into this world is almost a comfort. The idea of the reality that God has prepared for us is intoxicating. Yet we live in a very pregnant place. And I used that word on purpose. In this time of Advent, we live in the already but not yet. We journey, step by pregnant step with a young girl as she makes her way into the unknown. We know what is coming, but we have no idea how to prepare or what to expect. This is not the way many of us like to live. We’re planning people, you and I. And so to live in the “already but not yet” seems jarring. We live in our current reality and yet are very well aware of God’s vision for our future. Advent is the time of longing and yearning and waiting. We are confident in what is coming, and yet we have to wait anyway.

Maybe what comforts us in this time of pregnant waiting is knowing that God, unlike the world around us, does not change. God, unlike the world around us, is just, merciful, kind, and full of love and compassion. God, unlike the world around us, is unshakable. God, unlike the world around us, will not crumble. God, the ultimate power, comes to us in the most unlikely of places: a dirty barn, surrounded by smelly animals, to an unwed pregnant teenager. This baby will be born into a world set out to persecute and kill him. And they will be successful, for three days at least. God, who hung on a cross, who was buried behind a stone that was later rolled away, who appeared in the garden that early Easter morning, could not be restrained by death. The powers of this world, the powers that seem to be against us, are no match for our God. “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong take heart.”  

Sermon for 11-15-15; Mark 13:1-8

Dear God,

It’s me, your servant Jealaine. I am writing you a letter, God, because I figure you’re really busy with a lot of prayers right now. I don’t know that you will ever get this, but I needed a way to express myself, God and I figured a letter was just as good of a way as any. Dear God. That’s about all I can say right now. Dear God. Sometimes I think you like to make my job more difficult. People come to your house of worship week after week and they look to me to bring them the good news of Jesus who was crucified and resurrected for them. They look to me to tell them that even in times of darkness, you will be with us. Your people look to me hoping that I can assure them that everything will be okay, even if I don’t know for sure that it will be. But this week, God, it seems as if this is impossible. Dear God.

See, I had this pretty okay sermon about 80% written. You know my struggle. This was a tough text this week. Apocalyptic stories aren’t always feel good. And so I prayed that my fingers would move quickly across the keyboard. I prayed that the words you wanted me to share would come with ease. I prayed that whatever words were chosen that your message of love and forgiveness would be heard louder than anything else. I reached an impasse on Friday afternoon. It had been a long week, as you know God, with my stomach acting up again, making visits, and sharing holy moments with your people. I shut my computer, confident that you would send your Holy Spirit and the words to finish my sermon would come. Dear God, that didn’t happen.

Instead, Paris happened, God, as you know. Paris. The city that holds so much meaning for me and Chris. It was here we fell deeper in love. We ate the best nachos of our life at the Indian Cafe. We listened to an organ recital in the Notre Dame (don’t remind me, God, I know I dozed off…I was tired). We walked, hand in hand, Chris and I did, in front of the large music hall. We bought art from street vendors. We got swept up in all that Paris has to offer. And then, when our sunset cruise on the River Seine was done, we took the elevator up to the highest deck on the Eiffel Tower. And it was there that we became engaged. And we loved each other, and Paris, and it felt like, in that moment, that Paris loved us back, dear God.

I don’t blame you, God. Evil is what it is. Evil is a very present force in our lives. We all deal with evil in one way or another. Paris is just dealing with it on a very large scale. But that’s not all, is it, dear God? Japan experienced an earthquake; in Baghdad there was a funeral that was bombed; Beirut had a suicide bomber; and an earthquake in Mexico. 115,200 souls: all your beautiful creation, died in 24 hours. Forgive me, dear God, for not wanting to pray. Forgive me, dear God, for thinking that prayers sound really hollow right now. Forgive me, dear God, because of the amount of hate I have in my own heart for what is happening in this world. And forgive me, dear God, for thinking that it is all someone else’s problem and I don’t have the solution and can’t help. Dear God.

Dear God, my heart breaks. I went to a presentation at Northeast on Veteran’s Day, God. I heard a little girl ask the soldier “did you ever have to fight ISIS?” And it wasn’t my Ellen asking the question, dear God, but it might as well have been. No child should know about ISIS. No child should know that it is a real threat. No child should have to worry about something like that, but our children do, dear God, and we don’t know what to do.

How many more times will this be a headline in our nightly news stories? Dear God, forbid it from ever becoming the second, third, or fourth story. Forbid it from happening and us never hearing about it at all. Our world is broken, dear God. A broken place filled with broken people and after the past few days, broken hearts. And more times than not, dear God, people want to blame you. People want to blame those who we are scared of. We want to blame those who don’t look like us, talk like us, think like us, or even, dear God, we want to blame those who call on Allah as a way of calling on you. Soften our hearts, dear God. Xenophobia looks good on noone.

We do what we’re taught, dear God, and turn to you in prayer and read your holy Word looking for answers. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” This is what you have told us just today in Mark 13. And, honestly, dear God, I’m scared. If this is just the beginning, if the end is still to come, what else will happen? Never did we think that Christ coming again would look like this. Even now, dear God, your people are looking at me, hoping that I will have an answer, I will have words of wisdom and comfort, that I will assure them it’s okay. And I’ve got nothing.

Where is the good news? We could point to the stories of the hundreds of survivors but that’s just insinuating that you were only with certain people. We could point to the millions of people that turned to you in prayer; but again, what are we saying about You and our faith? Are we saying that in order to get people to turn to you, You create catastrophes? That’s not good news. So where, dear God, is the good news? The good news, I suppose, is that these forces of evil will be crushed. They will come toppling down like large buildings. They will be terminated under the forces of justice and your reign. Those who engage in evil, no matter what that may look like, will have to answer to you, dear God.

And I suppose the good news is this: you’re still here, dear God. We rest in the promise that you showed up here today and sent your spirit on this place and will go with us as we part from here. You are with those in hospital beds in Clinton, in New York, in Japan, and in Paris. You are with those who are being persecuted in Columbia Missouri, Baltimore, Chicago, Syria, and Palestine. You are with those who cry to you out of hunger, loneliness, depression, agony, and pain. You are with those who cry for death to come and with those who beg for death to stay away. And, in this meal, in our song, in our light and in our dark, you’re still here. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Make it be so. Dear God, make it be so.

Sermon for 11-8-15 Mark 12:38-44

The town I used to live in had a very large church attended by a lot of people. I am being vague on purpose here. This was the church in town. There was something every day of the week going on at that church. There were groups for every age and every walk of life. Their pastor was known not only throughout the state, but nationally as well. He had been interviewed on several news shows to give his “Gospel” opinion about various political issues. The time had come that this church was growing so much it needed to build an entirely new sanctuary. I don’t know why they couldn’t expand their current sanctuary, but that’s neither here nor there. After some research, they decided to not only build a new sanctuary, but an entirely new church. Well, this was the talk of the town. They drew up plans, got bids, and the final total needed for this new church was going to be something obnoxious like $7 million.

The first Sunday that the leadership approached the congregation about this new building and the funds needed, they received half of the money. They got half the money they needed the very first Sunday!! And where, oh where were they going to build this amazing new church? On a lovely piece of land they had already secured. And it was located right across from a city park. It was the city park where the homeless people of the town slept. Now, that’s not to say that this church didn’t do outreach, but I just got so frustrated thinking about how much they could have accomplished had they scaled their plans down, even just a little bit.

Often we hear today’s reading and might interpret it as a stewardship lesson. It’s a reading lifting up the poor widow and putting a shining light on her, right? Look at this woman, she gave all she could…why aren’t you?? That is not what this reading is about (so you can relax). In some ways, it is about stewardship. But, it’s not about stewardship in the traditional sense that you may think. Because this isn’t about money, but about care for this widow. Stewardship isn’t just about money. It’s about how we leverage the gifts, power, and privilege that God has given to us. This story today is actually kind of a older version of what we now call “keeping up with the Jones’.”

The scribes had put on a great show. They were all putting in large sums of money, wearing their fancy clothes, sitting in the highest of places. They were braggadocious. Whether they knew it or not, the scribes were shaming the widow. See, the scribes had contributed to a system, actually they had built the system, that made them rich and made her poor. They built systems that oppressed. They built systems that made sure that they got ahead and that they were made to look powerful. The scribes thought that this was part of Levitical law. They thought that these systems in place were God’s will. And boy, were they wrong. They had built up these systems not to praise God, but only for the glory of themselves.

These systems were in place and instead of caring for the widow or providing for her, they shamed her into giving all that she had. Instead of the woman being lauded for giving all she had, she should be pitied for being forced to live in a system that constantly oppresses her. This woman gave all that she had, insuring that she would go without food or other necessities for days. In fact, Jesus tells us, she put in “all she had to live on.” These systems are still in place today.

We have systems in this country that oppresses people, whether they were built that way or not. I believe that in this country we don’t have broken people, we have broken systems. We are one of the wealthiest nations in the country and yet, there are people who go without food, go without medicine, and go without the needed care they so desperately desire. And, contrary to what the media may have you believe, these are people just like you and me. These are our Veterans. These are our retirees. These are our neighbors. These are our friends. These are people who are just one or two paychecks away from being without a home, or insurance, or food. There is no reason, absolutely no reason, why anyone who lives in this country should have to choose between keeping the lights on or buying medicine. It is completely assign that this happens. We shouldn’t have elderly shut ins that eat cat food. We shouldn’t have Veterans that live under the south bridge. We shouldn’t have a homeless student coordinator in any of our school districts. But we do, because we have broken systems. I want to make sure you hear me: people are not broken, the systems are.

And we have the power to fix these broken systems. We can vote. We can advocate. We can protest. We can choose where and how we spend our money. We can participate in outreach. I know it can feel overwhelming because the systems seem so large and we are but one or two people. And if nothing else, we can lend our voice. We can shut down the naysayers when they start in on the harmful rhetoric that continues to victimize those who don’t really want to be in the positions they are in. You most likely have never met anyone whose life goal was to be homeless.

What can also give us hope is that God sees this all. God sees our suffering and God sees our pain. God built structures so that we would be equal and human hands cancelled that out. There are few places in this world where we see God’s equality. It is at the font and at the table. We can also hold on to the hope that this world will not be like this forever. When Jesus returns, the systems that oppress will be demolished. The people that oppress will have to answer for their actions. God’s will and God’s way will become perfectly clear. But for now what we have is this: water. This is the place we all come to be reminded that no matter what may keep us down, we belong to God. We belong to God and God’s redeeming word and love is stronger than anything or anyone that may oppress.

Sermon for 11-1-15 John 11:32-44 (All Saints Sunday)

When my mother-in-law died, she died suddenly and unexpectedly. We all were very raw with a myriad of emotions. I remember going to the grocery store the same day she died (because we needed something very logical but annoying like toilet paper) and I was so angry. I was angry that she died but I was also angry that the entire rest of the world was going on with their lives. Didn’t they know that this world had lost a bright light? I wanted to stand in the middle of the grocery store and yell for them to stop, pay attention, mourn, or anything. But instead, they were all going about their daily business, as people do when they are in the grocery store. And perhaps if you have lost someone you love you can relate to how I felt. I was mourning and so I wanted the entire universe to mourn with me. It was as if I wanted her life to matter to the entire world as much as it meant to me. And part of my grief over the days following her death was reconciling the fact that it’s not that the rest of the world didn’t care, it’s that that particular death didn’t matter to the world. It mattered to my world.

Maybe that’s how Mary felt when she threw herself onto Jesus’ feet. “Lord, if you had been here….” she starts out by saying. And with those 6 words, we start to glimpse the mourning that Mary is already doing over her brother Lazarus. I think sometimes we are quick to usher people through mourning. We don’t like watching other people grieve and be in pain. So, we offer words of condolences or we offer food. Anything to comfort the people who are grieving (or what we think as comfort). And instead of offering hollow statements, Jesus asks to see the deceased Lazarus and weeps himself. And isn’t that what we all kind of want in one way or another? We want people to cry with us. We want people to know our pain; not in a weird, uncomfortable way, but in a way that says “I understand your love for this person.”

As we mark All Saints day today, maybe that’s the best we can hope for. We can hope that people pause for a moment, no matter how brief, and remember how much our dearly departed were loved. How much they are still loved! It doesn’t matter if your loved one has been gone for just a few months, or it’s been years, you still love them. And what a gift it would be for someone else to recognize that as well! Because the truth is this: death is awful and terrible and it stinks (in our story today, it literally stinks). Even if your loved one had been ill for sometime and death, in a weird way, was welcomed, it is still terrible and awful. Someone we love is no longer physically with us and the pain of that loss is very real. At the same time, death is also part of our reality.

We all will die at some time. There’s no reason to tip-toe around this fact. Yet, many people are scared of death. It’s not like we can run from death. And at times, when death happens, it can be so painful that we just want to blame other people, especially God. How many times might we have been tempted to cry out “Lord, if you had only been here….” And how many times do we think “if I could just have one more moment….” Can you imagine if we were given the same opportunity as Mary? What would you do if just by calling their name our loved one, Jesus was able to bring back our loved ones? But the fact remains that death is harsh. It’s cruel. It’s painful. It stinks. And remember that Lazarus was not resurrected, but resuscitated. There’s a difference. Lazarus will die all over again.

And so what are we to do? We recognize the loss of our loved ones. We will pause and remember them. There also seems to be a fear that somehow, we will forget about those who have passed. But that won’t happen. But it is to us, as Christians, to speak the truth about death. Death is very painful. Death is very real. Death causes great anger, heartache, and suffering. Even when death is the answer to prayer, our hearts break and we weap and mourn. And for Christians, we must also speak another truth about death: it’s not the end. We can’t skip over death, but we have confidence that it is not the end. As I’ve said before, we cannot be Easter people without being Good Friday people as well.

Our hope is not on the things of this world. Our hope is in Christ Jesus and him crucified, buried, and resurrected. The Bible says that “heaven and earth will pass away” but Jesus’ words will not (see Mark 13:31 and/or Luke 21:33). Jesus promises us that whoever believes in him shall not die. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. (see John 11:25) We will all die a physical death. But, when Jesus comes again, we will all be resurrected and reunited with those who have gone before us. Do I know this for sure? No. But, God does not break God’s promises and the promise we have is that of Jesus. In Revelation, we are promised that “[God] will wipe every tear” from our eyes. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (21:4)

I could go on and on quoting Bible verses about death and what happens when Jesus comes again. That doesn’t change the fact that we are here and our loved ones are not. But, we take comfort in the resurrection promise. We take comfort in knowing that when we come up here to receive wine and bread, it is a foretaste of the feast to come. We take comfort in knowing that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And most of all, we take comfort in knowing that, thanks to the cross, death will never, ever be the final word.