Monday, December 15, 2014

stitches and seams and the poetry workshop's cutting room floor.

JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,  
     “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 
          ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” 
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

I am totally uninspired by this passage today.
I was even thinking that I might find some inspiration if I dragged my husband and kids out into the cold this past Friday night to attend a protest for Leon Ford and all the other victims of police brutality. But I really didn’t find any. We held a sign. We watched. We shouted that “black lives matter” along with the rest of the crowd. And then the kids got really cold. And Jonah had tons of questions. And we needed to stop at the Home Depot. And so we walked back to the car.
And then we woke up the next morning, and the house was still a mess, and the boys were still fussy, and I have no doubt that a bunch of black citizens were harassed by police officers all over this country while we slept.

This passage is like that - it’s that witnessing and testifying and proclaiming and hoping that things will change, but really, as John says, we’re all in the place where “Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

I guess too that this is really uninspiring because it’s just a bridge passage. It’s a bunch of verses cut and pasted to connect the beautiful hymn about Jesus being at the beginning of creation to the actual narrative of Jesus’ earthly life.

The very first verses of John’s Gospel are a hymn, a beautiful poem meant to mimic the first words in Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And the song goes on. Jesus was at the beginning of Time, co-creating with God. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Beautiful. Inspiring, even.

But then these verses are interrupted. Like a commercial break we are suddenly returned to the immediate, the now, the current, the action. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” And then lots of backflips and somersaults and pontificating about how John - like the droids in Star Wars - isn’t the one we’ve been looking for. He’s just a guy. A guy with a voice.

But then the commercial break is over, we’re on to Act 2, how “Jesus is the light of the world.” And “he lived among us, full of grace and truth.” 

And then, we’re interrupted by real life again. The night comes and John testifies. 
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. 

These beautiful verses about Jesus and light and creation and beginnings and hope keep getting interrupted by this testimony about John. By this ordinary guy who probably smells a little wilderness ripe and is wandering around looking a little bit crazy.

But these stitches are the verses we get this week, this third Sunday of Advent. We get the commercial breaks. The verses about the real life that is going on while some poet pontificates about truth and light and the Word and life.

This Sunday, we get the remnants, the castoffs from the editing room floor. Believe me, if the first 28 verses if the Gospel of John were presented in a poetry workshop, our verses for today would be the ones mercilessly x-ed out with bright red marker by the Gospel writer’s fellow grad students.

These verses are simply the ones needed to solve a controversy sometime around 90 AD, when some groups were getting John-the-Baptist confused with Jesus-the-Messiah.
They’re filler verses. Verses meant to simply clarify and make a point. Verses meant to solve a controversy from almost 2000 years ago.

These verses about John and his witness, these verses about the real, everyday, mundane reality, are the stitches. Like if you were to turn a shirt inside out or see the back side of a cross-stitch. These are the messy verses, the ones that show the knots and missteps and seam allowances between two pieces of fabric. 
This passage shows the seams, the marionettes’ strings, the man behind the curtain and the gears under the hood.
It’s not really a pretty passage. Not really that inspiring. It feels a little clunky. Like a freshman composition paper that’s trying too hard.

And these verses are like winter. Like the cold dark days of winter in Pittsburgh.
The trees have lost their leaves and we can see the limbs, bare, fragile, creaking in the wind.
The sky is a slate grey, and the air is cold and makes cracks in our ungloved hands.
The frost has covered the windshield and we have to sit in the cold with the defrosters on and wait for our view to clear.
We are very close to the longest night of the year. The Winter Solstice. The darkest night when the sun sets at 4:50 in the afternoon.
It’s an Advent passage.
A waiting time. A darkness time.
Jesus is here. And yet still hasn’t come.

This is an anxious time for me, Advent. And well, being in my mid-thirties, is too if I’m really being honest.
I’m no good at waiting, so I tend to fill my time with stuff to do. Stuff to buy and wrap. Stuff to clean. Stuff to bake and mail and return. Jobs to take and furniture to buy and basements to redo.

I get worried that if I stop and notice, if I take a minute to see those barren trees or hear those geese flying south I’ll get sucked in to all the grey and the cold and the long long darkness that covers this time of year.
I’ll enter in and then I’ll never get out.
I’ll be stuck in the longest night of the year and the dawn will never come.
I’ll be isolated and alone in the cold dark forever. 
The seams will swallow me whole.
Our verses for today are those seams, the transitions, the in-between spaces - neither Creation nor Redemption, neither the cross nor the resurrection, neither here nor there. It’s the wilderness. It’s the desert. It’s where there are no easy highways, no straight paths. It’s Pittsburgh roads and switchbacks and hollers. It’s the waiting place. 

Our verses today are about a man who is a whole bunch of “nots”, “neithers”, and “nors.” 
John is not the light.
He is not the Messiah.
He is not Elijah or the prophet.
He is not worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandal.
When he does respond with who he is, he says that he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.” - and these aren’t even his words. They’re Isaiah’s.
He doesn’t even get a body. He doesn’t get a complete identity. He is just a voice. Simply a voice.

John is nothing but a big arrow, a loud shout, pointing away from himself, away from his locusts and honey, away from his camels hair tunic, away from his dread locks and his callused feet and dirt-caked fingernails.

Like the dark black limbs that point straight up into the cold dark sky, John is pointing towards a light on the darkest night of the year.
John is pointing towards a light in the middle of civil unrest and oppression of the poor.
He is coming out of the wilderness of desert and wandering and danger into a wilderness of a few people with a lot of power and a lot of money directing the lives and futures of a whole lot of people who have no hope, people who are barely surviving, people who are living in the dark.

Sounds kinda familiar, eh?
And John isn’t there to fix anything.
He’s just an arrow pointing in the dark.
He is pointing to the one who stands among us whom we do not know.

Because we are so engrossed in our own darkness, in our own cold and grey, in our own waiting for our windshields to clear that we don’t even see the one standing among us.

We are surrounded by so much darkness.
By big companies drilling and wrecking and slugging and dumping.
By innocents murdered.
By corporations that claim they are people, and by people who are treated like animals and machines.
We are surrounded by systems of injustice and we have no idea how to dismantle them.
We are surrounded.
And so we keep our heads down and brace ourselves against the cold.
We rush from one store to the next, from one thing to another, just to stay a little ahead of the feeling that the walls are closing in around us.
We don’t want to notice the darkness, we don’t want to step in, for fear that we’ll get sucked down deep.

This in-between space is so hard. And yet, that’s where I think we are most of the time.
We are living in the seams between Jesus’ coming and his “not-yet-here”ness.

We are a whole bunch of “nots”
We are not the Messiah.
We are not Elijah.
Not the prophet. 

The darkness tells us that we are not good enough.
Not rich enough.
Not strong enough.
We are not busy enough.
We are not prepared or ready or smart enough.
We are not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.

And yet, we are called, called by the light, by the one who formed us in the deep darkness, by the one who is true light of true light to testify.
We are called to see.
To witness.
To point to the one standing among us, here and now.

Could it be that Jesus is among us, standing among us, and we do not even know?

I think part of living in the stitches, in the seams, is to notice, to testify, to witness, to tell the story, even when we’re not sure. Even when we are living in a space of not-knowing.
I guess that’s why I took my kids out to East Liberty in the cold and dark. I wanted to show them the power of witness. That there is power in just watching and waiting in the dark. That they can be an arrow that points to the one whom they do not know.
Maybe if we enter in to the darkness, if we step in to the mess and the seams and the grey and the cold, we’ll really see, we’ll really be able to tell the story, to witness to what has been there all along. 

Our passage today shows that John is the voice in the wilderness. John the Voice is a bridge to the incarnation. He is a bridge because it is still hard. It is still hard to see Jesus in the tinsel and the reindeer, in the poverty and the ebola outbreaks. It’s still so hard to see the one whom the world does not know in the drones and the bombings and the beheadings and the state-sponsored torture. 
So John is a voice crying out in all that violent, frightening, overwhelming wilderness, to tell the story of the one who is coming and who is already here among us. 

John is a man living in the seams. Living in the in-between space of the wilderness - of the winter - where we wait and hope and exhale clouds of breath in the cold. 
John is a man living in Advent. 
And we are to do what he does. 
We watch and we wait.
We will witness and cry out and tell the story. The story of the one among us whom we do not even know is there.

This Advent, let us be arrows that point to the one whom we do not know is among us. Because he is here, with us, among us, and through us and in us, even when we don’t know it, even when we’re not sure, even when all we have is grey skies and the crunch of frozen leaves below our feet. Let us cry out in the wilderness, even when we are afraid that we’ll be stuck in all the darkness. When we do, when we testify and witness and cry out, we’ll tell the story of the light. We’ll see it. We’ll bring it into focus. We’ll be warmed by its light. 

I guess that is pretty inspiring.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Getting Our Tears Back.

MARK 1:1-8
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in he prophet Isaiah, 
     “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, 
          who will prepare your way; 
3   the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 
          ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 
          make his paths straight,’” 
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The beginning of the good news of Travon Martin, a son of God.
The beginning of the good news of Michael Brown, a son of God.
The beginning of the good news of John Crawford, a son of God.
The beginning of the good news of Tamir Rice, a son of god.
The beginning of the good news of Eric Garner, a son of god.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Listen to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark with first century ears. Ears of those who have seen and heard the crucifixion of Jesus. Ears of those who are as intimately connected to what happened on Calvary that dark Friday afternoon as we are to what is happening and has happened in Ferguson, in New York City, in Pittsburgh.

They would respond just as uncomfortably to these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” as we have reacted to this very short list of African American men and boys, gunned down in our cities, in our time, and we feel it straight to the gut.

The good news? Is Mark crazy? This guy Jesus ended up getting himself crucified! He was killed by the Roman guards for sedition, and now these first century Christians are in the middle of a war against that same state and he wants them to believe that this is good news? 
And it sounds so pollyannaish - so trite and easy - or maybe just simply wrong, to proclaim “the good news” of any of these young men, killed too soon, killed, simply, it seems to me,  because they are black. The good news? These young men were killed because of racist systems that have oppressed all of us since the founding of this country.

But it doesn’t seem quite so naive — at least I want so badly to believe it — it doesn’t seem so blindly, falsely optimistic if we remember that Jesus was killed in such an unjust way, too.

And it doesn’t seem so, if we remember that this death, its unjust circumstances, and the terrifying situation that our first century hearers are living in, is the context for which the writer of our Gospel of Mark proclaims, “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” 

But it’s not good news unless we do the dangerous and heartbreaking work of proclaiming it to be so.
It’s not good news unless we become prophets who cry out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 

It’s the worst news, news as bad as a dead savior, unless we wait in the darkness, all the way to the end of the night, unless we wait and we cry and we hold on until the dawn.

Our bodies are wracked from all the wandering, all the doing. All the moving and the arguing and the striving and the facebooking.
We come out of the wilderness, out of the darkness, and all we’ve got left are our tears.

Biblical scholar, Walter Bruggeman, says, “The Gospel is a very dangerous idea. We have to see how much of that dangerous idea we can perform in our own lives. There is nothing innocuous or safe about the Gospel. Jesus did not get crucified because he was a nice man.”

Jesus was crucified because he was a minority who pissed off the people in power.
He threatened the status quo.
He upended the tables of power and prestige.
He healed the sick and cured the blind and he mourned with the lost and demanded justice for the poor. 
He threw coins back into the faces of the rich.
He fed crowds and didn’t call it a handout. He called it grace. 
He said we could do all this too.

Jesus was there. He could have been selling cigarettes on the street. He could have been listening to his music too loudly. Could have been playing with a toy gun in the park. Could have been wearing a hoody and the “wrong” skin color.

And Jesus is still here.
Jesus stands in the protests blocking the highways in Ferguson and 376 W in Pittsburgh.
He shouts for justice in the crowds in New York City.
He weeps over the death of these sons with their wives and mothers and children.

A friend of mine went to a protest in North Carolina the other day. And this is what she said, “Last night I was civilly disobedient for the first time. I'm not sure what shutting down the Durham Freeway in protest of police brutality and in remembrance of Eric Garner really does. But I know what it did for me - I got a tiny flash, however passing, however stunted by my middle-class whiteness, of what it's like to be afraid of the police in the US.  And everything really did look different.”

And it is dangerous to proclaim the good news. It’s dangerous to see everything differently. Because it’s shouting into the dark. Into the wilderness. Into the barrel of a gun. 
It’s shouting and crying and protesting and resisting into the prisons and the soup kitchens and homeless camps. It’s crying - weeping even - into the tear gas and the flying batons and rubber bullets. Into the shouting and the fear. Into the brokenness and the faces hidden behind millions of dollars or jihadi masks or behind riot gear.

We are all called to be prophets, ones who enter the wilderness and get lost and do a lot of wandering and who come back to demand justice, who come back looking a little haggard, who come back a little broken, looking a little unsteady.  We’ve got that crazed John the Baptist look in our eye that people get when they have seen injustice and poverty and death straight on and we don’t quite know what to do with it. We’ve got calluses on our feet and blisters on our hands and sunburns even on our eyelids from the wandering and the searching and the getting lost and the coming back again. 

But is it too trite, is it too early to proclaim that the good news is that death and injustice and the tears don’t have the last word?
Is it too easy for me to say because it’s not my son under the ground, not my dad at the morgue? 
I don’t know.
All I know is that I have to hope. I have to hope in this good news. Because I just don’t know what else to do.
The good news is that God entered in to this world, weak and vulnerable and left this world just as weak and vulnerable. And then came back again. And still comes back again.

Back to Ferguson. Back to New York City. Back to Cleveland. 
It’s a coming back even as God has been there all along.

That’s Advent.
It’s a waiting for what is already here. 
It’s a waiting for the kingdom even as it is already at hand.
We’re not waiting on God. 
We’re waiting on US.
We’re waiting for us to prepare the way. To make straight the path so that God can come through. 
God is going to do what God does. The question is, will be able to see it? Will we be able to get out of our own way to let it happen in our lives, in our city, in our world?

So it’s an active waiting. 
It’s a crying into the wilderness. 
It’s a confessing of our sins and eating locusts and honey and dunking ourselves in rivers and rivers of tears.
It’s the subversive practice of sabbath as resistance.
Resistance to the anxiety and the coercion and exclusivism and the multitasking that keeps us from demanding justice. 

Weeping. Mourning. Crying out. This is true sabbath. A rest from all the doing. A living in to, and a full feeling of the horrors of this world and demanding “why?” demanding change, proclaiming that this is not the way God intends them to be.
Because only our tears will save us now.
Only the cry of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is an acceptable response to what has happened in our country, what happens in our city, in this very neighborhood, every damn day.

That’s the cry of a prophet. That’s the crying out into the darkness. Into the wilderness. 
It’s a weeping.
It’s a mourning.

Go into the wilderness and get your tears back. Get your tears back from the folks who told you to “man up” when you scraped your knee.
Get your tears back from the patriarchy that said that you were a baby, a weak little girl, when you cried about your lost doll.
Get your tears back from the stoic demands of our society that claims there is no time to mourn, only time to go and go and go and do and produce and make and earn and acquire and go and go again.
Get your tears back.

And then go and baptize each other with your tears. 
Cry together.
Come together for Sabbath and let us mourn. Let us lament. 
This is how we prepare the way. 
God is here. God is listening.
The tears are the beginning. 
This is the beginning of the good news of all these innocents, sons of God.
This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 

This is just the beginning.
It’s going to get darker.
It’s going to get harder.
You’ll feel lost in the wilderness.
We are so sad. So lost. So helpless.
We are weak and tired.
And the darkness is so terrifying.

But cry out. 
Cry into the darkness anyway.
Be a prophet. Prepare the way.
Cry out and march and shout and hold on.
Baptize each other with your tears.

This is just the beginning.
Hang on.
Wait. Prepare the way.
The dawn will come.

This is the beginning of the good news of the children of God.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Geep and the Shoats

MATTHEW 25:31-46
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I have this guilty pleasure. I am totally sucked in to the melodrama that is the CW. For those of you who actually do important things with your time, and for those of you who aren’t 14 and female, The CW is a television station that airs all kinds of dramas - mostly involving young romances between unnaturally beautiful people.  Well, one of these that I’m totally sucked in to is the show called “Reign.” It’s about the short reign of Mary Queen of Scots and Prince Francis of France, and I’m most taken with it because it stars Anne of Green Gables and totally ignores the fact that people back then rarely bathed or changed their clothes and frequently had nits in their wigs, but whatever. I suspend my disbelief long enough to get swept in by all the jewels, wine drinking, and fabulous hairstyles and the poorly done English accents. 
Anyway, that’s about as close as I can come to imagining kingship or royalty or monarchies. But Jesus as a young handsome prince determining the fate of thousands of French peasants with a gorgeous queen on his arm is hardly what he was talking about when he was talking about the coming kingdom of God.  And yet, here we are, Christ the King Sunday, or, for those of us more sensitive to the patriarchy and the relentlessness of male domination, this Sunday is also known as Reign of Christ Sunday. 

Theologian James Williams argues that because the idea of “reign” and monarchies and kings are so far removed from our everyday experience we should change the name to “Culture of Christ Sunday.”
It’s a day when we stop and remember how Christ has come and will come to make all things new - including our culture. Everything will be transformed. Maybe we could call it “Facebook of Christ Sunday” or “Starbucks of Christ Sunday.” Or maybe even “McDonald’s of Christ Sunday.” Just take what we already know, sprinkle on a little Jesus spice, and there we go, Reign of Christ Sunday.

But maybe it’s more than that. It’s more than an adjustment of our worldview. It’s more than adding a little tangy Jesus dipping sauce on the side of our culture nuggets. It’s more than a double shot of Jesus-Spice in our lattes. This is a total reorientation. This is unlike anything we’ve ever known, and yet, when it’s here, it feels so familiar.
This isn’t just the “new and improved” earth - like when they made “Pepsi Clear” or “New Coke”, or when they started adding frosting to Pop Tarts or when they made mcnuggets out of “all white meat” - this is a different meal entirely. This isn’t just Earth 2.0. This is a new heaven. A new earth. 

When God’s kingdom comes, our culture and God’s culture have intersected. 
The kingdom of God is at the center of the axis - at the cross - where the murder and violence and indifference and self-centeredness of goats collide with the grace, peace and forgiveness of sheep. It’s the intersection where full humanity collides with full divinity and neither are left the same. 
A Culture of Christ, the Kingdom of God is where we get to be fully human, fully embodied and living fully in to who we were created to be. 

So often this passage is simplified as a dualism - you’re either a goat or a sheep. Cut off entirely from God or welcomed in, and it all hinges on what you do or what you fail to do.

But I think it’s more complicated than that. I think that just as Jesus was fully human and fully divine, we are fully goats, and fully sheep. We are geep. We are shoats.

Back in the day, the shepherd would keep all the sheep and goats together in one flock. They’d graze the same grass, they’d trip over the same brambles, and the lambs and the kids would wander off and get lost together. It wasn’t until night time that the shepherd would separate them. The sheep could stay out because of their wool. But the goats had to go back inside, or else they’d freeze.

I think we’ve got both going on inside of us, all the time. Like sheep, we’ve got what we need to stay warm. And yet, like the goats, we are still so vulnerable. To be truly human is to be both. 
To be isolated and out in the cold. To be protected and included in the fold. 

Where Christ Reigns is where the truly human reigns. Where the “Son of Man” reigns - Where the truly human culture comes. 
And it’s a surprise to all of us. 

This isn’t a “do good” passage. It’s a grace passage.
If it were a do-good passage, the sheep wouldn’t be so surprised. They’d think, “well, of COURSE we got in, we did good.” 
But they don’t. They’re just as shocked as the goats…

See, just as I think Jesus carried both God and humanity in himself, we carry both sheep and goats in ourselves. We have both the capacity to serve Christ and the capacity to ignore him. We have the capacity - and the desire - to live in Christ’s culture - one of transformation, one where we realize that we are neither solely sheep nor solely goat. We are geeps. shoats. Embodied sinners and saints. Folks capable of amazing acts of charity who have an unbelievable need for grace. 

The sheep are welcomed in to eternal life.
The goats are cast in to eternal hell.

And I think Jesus has experienced both. He knows what it is like to be so close to God that his identity is merged to God’s, and he knows what it is like to be so far away as to call out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus has experienced the beauty of heaven on earth and the full connection between himself and God. And he’s experienced a separation so deep, so painful, a violence so profound, that we could only call it hell.
Jesus has been a sheep. And he knows what it’s like to suffer the consequences of being a goat. He becomes the needy, the hungry, the thirsty, the lost and the imprisoned. 

He becomes one whom most of us shout out to “just get a job” and “stop being so lazy.” He becomes the one whom we tell to “just get over it.” He becomes the one who knows what it is like to experience eternal hell. In short, he knows what it’s like to be a goat who has been left out in the cold to face the elements alone.

Jesus is the Lamb of God who becomes the goat so that we can be the sheep. He becomes the least of these so that we can serve him, so that we can be transformed, so that we can participate in the Culture of Christ, so that nothing can ever be the same again.

Jesus crosses the boundaries.
He becomes the vulnerable goat, left out in the cold, left out in the elements.
And he’s been the sheep, coming up to the least of these - to all of us goats - and he’s fed us, he’s clothed us, he’s been present with us in our darkest, coldest, most isolated hours.

Jesus asks us to do these unspectacular acts - feeding, clothing, visiting - not so that we can earn our way into heaven, but so that we can be like Christ - so that we can be a part of rewriting culture, so that we can bring about Christ’s reign here on earth.

And when we don’t treat each other like we’d treat Jesus, we end up in our own kind of hell - cold, and isolated.
We start to think we’re alone in this world. We start to get hard and bitter and fearful. We become vulnerable to the wind and the rain and the hellish realities of a culture hell-bent on violence and consumption and prejudice.

But we are capable of such amazing beauty. Such amazing grace. And our eyes get opened and we are able to do crazy, uncomplicated, unremarkable things with crazy, complicated, remarkable passion.

We’re such shoats. We’re geep. We’re sheep and we’re goats all in the same breath.

Every Tuesday and Thursday I drive across the Birmingham Bridge, usually going a little too fast, and as I’m listening to the latest atrocities happening in the world on NPR, I think to myself, “Well, at least I’m going somewhere where I can love people. ‘Cause I love people so much.  Boy do I love people. And I’m going to Hot Metal to serve a meal to the homeless and the lonely and the hungry and the lost because I love people so much.

And then after I’ve mopped up the third spilled cup of coffee, and after I’ve told Francine for the 27th time that no, she cannot have thirds on dessert, and after I’ve replaced the garbage bag in the men’s restroom for the fourth time because someone keeps taking it, I start to question what the hell I’m doing there. 

But on good nights, even though I can’t remember or believe or feel like I love people. On good nights, I remember or believe or feel or want to feel that I love Jesus. 

On good nights, when, inevitably, I will stop loving people, when I’ll turn into a goat, on good nights, some kind of grace comes in and reminds me that I love Jesus. Some kind of grace comes in and pulls me out of the goat pen and drops me back in to the sheepfold. 

And when it does happen, I’m just as surprised as those in our story for today. When was I really loving you, Jesus? When was I really serving you? 
And when I don’t end up there, when I’m not reminded of my love for Jesus, my pushing a broom and digging through bleach water and dirty silverware, my plunging of the ladies’ restroom toilet and my helping a homeless man pin up his pants looks a whole lot like eternal hellfire. When I don’t approach each person as if he or she were the face of Christ, the work exhausts me, makes me cynical, makes me hate the world. Makes me isolated and alone. Makes me feel like I’m being punished somehow.
But when my goaty self-centeredness intersects with Christ’s sheepish grace and peace and forgiveness, my whole reality is shifted. I am - even for just half a second - who I was created to be. A new culture is born. A new reign appears.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Fake Plastic (Fear) Trees

MATTHEW 25:14-30
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

You guys, today’s lectionary passage makes me crazy. I kinda even hate it. Am I allowed to say that about a Bible passage? Probably not. But there it is. 

It makes me feel yucky.

So here we have Donald Trump and the Koch Brothers and Bill Gates, all wrapped up in one guy, let’s call him “lord,” and he sends out his hedge fund managers to make even more cash to fill what I imagine to be their chinchilla fur and diamond lined pockets, all the while oppressing the poor tenant farmers whose land will be snagged out from under them when they can’t keep up with the 200% interest rates. 
And yay, hedge fund manager #1, you doubled your money! You took the equivalent of 75 years of wages of a laborer and doubled it! C’mon in! And well done, hedge fund manager #2, you’ve doubled yours, too! Now we’ve got 30 more years of wages to roll around in! Let’s go buy a yacht in the Cayman Islands so we can escape all those taxes! 
But to the guy who didn’t play the game, who didn’t go and invest the money in some sketchy pyramid scheme, you are now banished to the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 
Annnnd Scene.

And somehow this is supposed to be a description of what it’s going to be like at the end of all this. At the end of time. At the end of all this struggle and bill paying and time juggling and my husband and I being like two ships passing in the night just so that we can make ends meet, after all the mourning and the tears, and after all this feeding of the hungry and loving the lost and forgiving the broken - this is all we get? A broken capitalist system where the richest 1% in the world own half of the world’s wealth? 

After all the healing and the parables and the forgiving and the multiplying of the loaves and the fishes and all the sermons on the mounts, after all of our cancers and ebola breakouts and ISIS and Boku Haram and failed wars in Iraq and a gazillion years of fighting over the holy land, this is all we get? Is this it?

All this Jesusy talk about the end times just doesn’t jive with the Jesus we’ve come to know in the previous 24 chapters in Matthew. I mean, just 12 chapters earlier, we have a description of the kingdom of heaven that is like a treasure hidden in a field - a talent perhaps? - and the merchant buries the treasure, and then goes, sells all that he has and buys the field.

What gives, Jesus? First, the kingdom is like a guy who buries some really amazing treasure. And then, the kingdom is like a guy who gets his ass handed to him for burying some really amazing treasure. 
First, folks who are poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom. And then, those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  Seriously. What gives?

Unless. Well. Unless two different things are buried here. 
The merchant who buries his treasure and then buys his field does so out of the thrill of his find. He does so because his life will never be the same. He does what he does - he sells everything, risks everything - because he has been transformed. 

The hedge fund manager in our story today hides his treasure out of fear. He is terrified of Mr. DonaldTrumpKochGates, and so, in his fear, he sticks his head in the sand, along with all that cash, and all his insecurity and all his doubt and his insistence that the Lord is a terrifying money grubbing capitalist billionaire. All of it, buried in the dirt. He isn’t just burying his money so that he can claim it later; he’s not selling off his certificates of deposit and his savings bonds to get this land; he’s not risking everything he has for this treasure. This guy is consumed by fear. Frozen by fear. Overwhelmed into stagnation because of his fear. He might as well stick his head down where he’s buried that talent.

And I wonder if his fear is really warranted?
What would happen to those other hedge fund managers if they came back and said, well, Lord, I spent your money, I put it towards this thing that I really thought was going to work, but um, I kinda blew my church’s endowment. Or, I went to school and the degree didn’t pan out like I thought it would. The charity I thought was a good one turned out to be corrupt. I signed on to the mortgage with the interest rate that I thought I could handle, but it turns out I can’t. 
What would happen if the other servants came to the Lord and said,  “I screwed up. I took the risk. And it failed.”?

Would The Lord have been pissed? Would he have given his servants a sentence worse than being thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? 
Not if The Lord in this parable is supposed to represent God. At least, not if the previous 24 chapters of the book of Matthew are any indication. Not if the testimonies of the prophets, of Moses and Miriam, of Elijah and Aaron, of Eli and Solomon and David and Paul and Peter and Thomas and all the other failures are any indication. No. God is the God of failures. 
God is the God of the one who became the ultimate failure - who could have jumped off of that cross and blasted all those Romans and corrupt politicians to smithereens - but instead, didn’t. He suffered the ultimate price. The ultimate humiliation. That of death - even death on a cross. What a failure. 

Just a generation after Jesus was supposed to come in with his insurgency and his army and his new world order, after he was supposed to free the Jews and give them their own land and their own sovereignty, the Temple is destroyed, and Jesus’ followers are huddling together in their mud houses shaking in fear. 

No. Our God is a God who transforms failures. Who transforms sin and grief and pain and blindness into freedom and joy and peace and sight.
God is not the Walton family. God is not the Koch Brothers or Mark Zuckerberg.

But our anti-hero in our story only functions out of an intense, paralyzing fear - a fear that isn’t grounded in the true identity of our Lord. He thinks he’s serving Warren Buffett or Michael Bloomberg or Oprah Winfrey.
He is terrified, so he plants his talents in the ground. As if I could go outside this building, put a dollar in the ground and wait for a money tree to sprout come Springtime. 
Instead of planting things that can be transformed with time and nourishment and sun and rain, things like mustard seeds and crocus bulbs and compost and love and forgiveness and even our very selves, he plants things that are plastic, unchanging, that will never break down in a landfill or grow into a tree. 

It’s that Radiohead song: “He has a green plastic watering can for his fake Chinese rubber plant in the fake plastic earth that he bought from a rubber man.” It makes me think of those fake grass door mats with the daisies on them - makes me wonder, did they even try to make it look real? 

Or is that the point? To make it fake and plastic so that it never changes. It never dies. I never grows. It never surprises or fails.

He plants silk flowers and plastic trees and kills the weeds with Monsanto Round-Up because he’s afraid that if he plants the real things - the real seeds, the real flowers, the real trees - one day they’re going to shrivel up and die. One day they’re not going to look the same or be the same. And he doesn’t realize that the one who made all this real stuff, all this flesh and breath and compost and soil, the one who made the seed that must die in order to become something bigger, greater, more alive, this is God. God transforms, God renews, God breaks down in order to create something new.

I think we’re so afraid of living, of being transformed, so afraid of God, that we form little walls around ourselves, we put our heads in the sand, we refuse to change, we refuse to let the soil and the earth break down our carbon and water and iron and potassium that make up our bodies. 
We plant fruitless plastic trees into the ground because we are afraid that if we plant the real thing, we might get some rotten fruit, or we might have to deal with blight, or we might even have to chop the dying tree down and start over. 

But that’s it. That’s what it’s all about. The seed that dies so that it can become a tree. The transformation of our lives that may look like we’ve doubled our investment, or it may look like we’ve failed and lost it all. That’s what it’s about. The transformation. The changing and growing and getting dirty and maybe even failing. Maybe even dying. 

Let’s be transformed.
Let’s live. 
Let’s not be afraid.

Thanks be to God.