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.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dancing in the Dark***

MATTHEW 25:1-13
1“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
So we’ve got these ten bridesmaids. Ten young girls in their fanciest dresses, their hair perfectly set, their feet crammed in the daintiest of shoes. Ten girls waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom.  They're waiting for the haggling over the gifts to be done. Waiting for the groom and the bride’s relatives to come to some sort of agreement. 
The night begins with anticipation and excitement. It’s a celebration!  A party! 
But then the waiting comes. And more waiting. Ten anxious and excited young girls get tired, and they fall asleep.  The bridegroom is delayed. And the excitement dwindles. 
And the doubt comes in. Will he ever come? Where is he? What has taken him so long? 
The lamps grow dim and the darkness descends. 

Imagine the deep darkness of a town before electricity and streetlights, before light pollution and headlights, before the glow of television and computer screens through living room windows. Imagine the heavy, deep darkness. The girls’ eyes are straining to decipher every shadow in the darkness, their ears aching over every crack of leaves and fallen branches underfoot, every shift in the wind that might indicate that their groom is coming. 

But their limbs grow heavy and their eyes grow weak. It’s too much to ask that a group of young girls stay awake any longer. 

And they all fall asleep.

And the bridegroom comes, and they all startle awake, scrambling to smooth their dresses, tuck their hair back in their bobby pins, and grab their lamps, ready to escort the groom to the party. 

And five have enough light. And five do not. 
Five planned ahead. 

They were like those moms on the playground who always have a snack and extra wipes and those tiny bottles of hand sanitizer.
They were like those folks who carry an extra cell phone battery in their glove compartment and always refill their gas before it goes below a quarter of a tank.
They’re the folks who do their homework right when they get home from school and make outlines of their papers before they start writing.
These are the ones who have retirement plans and extra pairs of socks and never run out of clean underwear.

Considering the fact that it is 10:03 on a Saturday night, and I’m still working on this sermon, I suppose you could guess that I am not one of those people. 

It’s a win if I can get my kids out the door with shoes on the right feet and teeth brushed. It’s a win if I don’t have to ask for the extension and I actually do something with the potatoes I bought instead of letting them rot on the kitchen counter. I’m happy if I leave a conversation not feeling like an idiot, and I’m really proud of myself if I can go home and not rewind the tape of the day over and over in my head, trying to figure out how I can do better next time.

I usually don’t eat until I’m famished, so then I cram the closest, quickest thing into my mouth, usually from somewhere in the sugar and caffeine food group. 
I drink too much coffee and not enough water. 
And the laundry always piles up until I have to stay up until midnight waiting for the last load that has the spiderman socks and the not-itchy pants and the ninja turtle t-shirt that is the right color green.
I forget the preschool snack until 8:45 that morning, and I always pay my bills on the 31st.

I ran out of oil a long time ago.

I ran out of oil when my Young Life leader told me that the Muslims in Africa were going to hell.
I ran out of oil when the boy I had a crush on in eleventh grade wouldn’t date me because my boobs weren’t big enough.
I ran out when my parents almost got divorced when I was in fourth grade, and my brother was killed when I was in sixth.
I ran out after the miscarriage and after they rushed my son to the NICU. 
I ran out of oil when my roommate in college told me that the only reason I was depressed was because I wasn’t praying enough.
I ran out of oil because I’ve asked for more -- more faith, more energy, more hope, more commitment, and I was told to go down the street, pray the right prayer, believe the right things, go to the right church, and buy it.

I am no wise bridesmaid.

I’m wandering in the dark.
I’ve run out of oil and my dress is wrinkled and covered in dried leaves and moss and my hair is ratty and I have no idea where I’m going.

Maybe the wise ones have it all together and they have planned for the future and they’re the patient ones who brought the steam iron and the extra bobby pins and their faith is just right and they can stand up and say the Nicene Creed without flinching over the virgin birth -- but they, too, have forgotten where light comes from.

The wise are busy - busy making plans and lists and lists of plans, busy plugging every possible hole and organizing for every possible contingency. They worry about filling the pews and doing the programs. They worry about having enough pot roast at the pot luck and enough bakers for the bake sales. 
And these are all really important things. But that’s not where our light comes from. 

Maybe it’s not about having light at all. Maybe it simply about being able to dance in the dark. Being able to trust that the Bridegroom is there, leading you, instead of the other way around.

Most scholars claim that this is a simple “parousia” parable - a parable about the end times and the waiting for when Jesus comes back. Jesus is praising the wise ones and rebuking the foolish ones. It reminds me of this song the church choir used to sing when I was growing up: “be watchful, be ready, for you know not when the Son of Man is coming” and then they’d end it with this deep baritone solo: “Heeeeeeeee’s Commmmmminnnnngggg!” It was creepy, really. Matthew wants to tell the Christians who are still waiting for Jesus to come back to wait a little bit longer, to be ready, to do good works and fill up their lamps with love and kindness and faith and justice. "I know it's been 25, maybe 50 years after Jesus' death, but hang in there - He's coming.
And that’s all good and well. It’s great even.

But we’re still waiting. It's been 2000 years now, and it’s still dark. And so now the parable must mean something else for us. 
It means that we’re all running out of oil. We’ve all started to forget where our light comes from, and we’re all running low, and we’re all rushing from one thing to the next trying to keep our lamps full, trying to do the right thing and say the right words and come up with the perfect program that will finally get people in these doors. 

But I don’t think it’s about all the stuff, or the plans, or our perfection. It’s not about the oil anymore. 

Jesus has been gone for 2000 years. And he’s coming. Someday. Probably. I mean. I hope.

Or. Maybe he’s already here, dancing with us in the dark.

I’m out of oil, but I’m not going back in to town. 
I’m not going to miss it when the groom comes by.
I’m going to sit here in the dark, and feel it deep into my bones.
I’m going to wander and feel lost and a little bit scared in this heavy darkness.
I’m going to breathe it in. 
I’m not leaving this place to find some artificial light to light my way.
I’m going to stumble over tree roots and uneven sidewalks and fear all that unknown all around me. 

Jesus said he was coming, and I guess he still is. 
Meanwhile, I’m going to try to dance in the dark.
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep searching for the bridegroom even though I have no idea where I’m going. I’m going to follow the glimmer of the ones ahead of me, the ones who did bring enough oil, and I’m going to make it to the party.

Mother Teresa once wrote: "If I ever become a Saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness,’”… "I will continually be absent from Heaven—to (light) the light of those in darkness on earth.” “Darkness is such that I really do not see — neither with my mind nor with my reason — the place of God in my soul is blank — There is no God in me — when the pain of longing is so great — I just long and long for God.”

Just long and long for God. 
Learn to dance in the dark.
So that when the bridegroom comes, you’re not off on some wild goose chase for some fake light. You’re out there, wandering, searching for God, dancing in the dark because you know that you’re already in, you’re already at the party.

Thanks be to God.

     ***The image and focus of girls dancing in the dark has been shamelessly stolen from a sermon on this passage by Angela Hancock. Seriously, y'all, she's the real thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Phylacteries Broad and Fringes Long

MATTHEW 23:1-12
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
So the other day I was inspired for this sermon by a bumper sticker on a car I saw on the corner of East Liberty and Negley Avenue. It said, “If you’re following me, you’re lost, too.” Ha. I thought about that in direct relationship to my role here at Greenfield. If you’re following me, you’re lost too…

If I were to tell you the truth, I’d tell you that you should do what I say, but not necessarily what I do. I mean, really, I write sermons because I’m a little bit narcissistic. I write sermons so I can hear what I need to hear. So I can tell myself to do what I need to do. 

So often I talk about grace and freedom and letting go of perfectionism and finding time to BE and to sit in God’s lap and to soak up God’s love and to work for justice and to be the hands and feet of Christ…

And then I get so distracted that I leave my coffee mug on the roof of my car and I always say I’ll start exercising tomorrow, which will match my new “quiet time” regimen, and I’ll have a cleaning schedule that would include scrubbing my kitchen floor twice a week. 

I’ll stop buying Starbucks and new pairs of jeans that I don’t really need even though they were 870% off and I’ll be more patient with the folks who come to The Table and I’ll spend more time really listening to my kids. Heck, I’ll put down my computer and the Lindsay Lohan rumor website and bend down to look in their eyes to really get what they’re saying to me. I’ll start my sermons on Tuesday morning.

Friends. Do what I say, not what I do.

And I think it’s so easy to demonize these Pharisees. They’re the ones who parade around the town and are the religious leaders and who know all the answers and have enough money and are the elite in the Jewish world. 
They wear Nikes and eat Big Macs and drink Starbucks and have houses with backyards and college degrees. Not their houses, they’d have the degrees. 

The Pharisees were the ones who helped interpret The Law for the common folks, they were popular, they had a lot of followers and actually were trying to make The Law accessible and relevant to their contemporary culture. 

They weren’t bad. They were just the ones with the two car garages and the steady incomes and the educations. 

You guys. I hate to tell you this. But. They were us. 

And Jesus tells the crowds, the huddled masses of hungry and poor and homeless and weak and bleeding and blind and broken - do what they say, but not what they do. 

They walk around with phylacteries broad and fringes long.

Now, phylacteries are these boxes - usually containing Bible verses - that are worn either around the arm, or around the forehead. It’s a commandment mentioned in four different passages in the Torah, Deuteronomy 6 and 11, and twice in Exodus. You are to wear God’s word as an emblem on your forehead. 

They walk around with phylacteries broad and fringes long.

They are walking around with boxes blocking their view and tassels on the ends of their robes, tripping them up.

They’re walking around so focused on the “right” things - the right law, the right words, the right places and people - that they’re tripping and blind. And they’re bringing everyone else down with them.

Do as they say, but not as they do. 

Sure. We’ve got a lot of good ideas. A lot of good intentions. 
But maybe we’re tripping over our own tassels. Maybe we’re walking around a bit blind ourselves.

But I think the only real thing that Jesus criticizes here, is that the Pharisees are going around acting like they’ve got 20/20 vision, like they’re graceful dancers, or those runway models who never have to practice walking in their high heels before they go out in public.  They think they’re seeing everything clearly and they’re walking a straight line.

But they’re not, Jesus says.

And neither are the crowds all around them. 
And neither are we.
But do we know it? Do we know how very blind we are? Do we know how very clumsy? 

If you’re following me, you’re lost, too.

Imagine how this would sound to the crowds, to the ailing and the mourning and the lost and the hungry who gather around Jesus, looking for answers, seeking truth and healing and hope from him. Imagine hearing that they and the almighty, all-knowing, respected Pharisees are cut from the same cloth. We’re all hungry. We’re all lost. We’re all blind and tripping over ourselves. 

Jesus has torn down the dividing walls of class and education and self-righteousness. 
He has brought the haughty down low, and raised the oppressed. 

Mahatma Gandhi was quoted once as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” 

Maybe we’ve been tripping over our tassels and we’ve been walking around with only half our sight? Maybe we’ve been acting so unlike our Christ.
Maybe as one of my commentaries states, “Lacking confidence in the divine ‘yes,’ we hypocrites make masks or broadcast our piety in order to win a human ‘yes.’” 

Maybe we’re bringing others down with us because we act like we’ve got it all together. We keep up appearances. We wouldn’t dare being vulnerable with one another.

If you’re following me, you’re lost, too. 
But do you know it?  Do you realize what is tripping you up and making you walk into trees? 
That’s the only difference between us and the crowds surrounding Jesus. They’re a wreck, but at least they know it. At least they admit it. At least they’re not alone in their self righteousness. 

I think Jesus wants us to join the crowds. To realize how very blind and hungry and clumsy and lost we are. Join the crowds that follow him around and beg for his healing and his answers and his forgiveness and his love. Join the crowds and defy the authorities that want to keep us in line, want to keep us on their broken paths. He wants us to quit the robes and the Global Positioning Systems and the Googling and the lattes  and the car payments and follow him. Quit trusting in broken systems of power and oppression. 

It’ll feel like we’re lost. It’ll feel like we’ve made some wrong turns and like we need to get our prescriptions checked at the optometrist’s. 

We’ll be questioning the very people we’ve been told we’re supposed to trust.
We’ll be subverting authority and questioning the status quo.

We’ll not just feed the hungry, but we’ll ask why they’re hungry in the first place.
We’ll not just send a check to the United Way to help support after school programs for kids, but we’ll demand answers for why young black men are dying in the streets.
We’ll not just talk about equality, but we’ll go out into the streets and demand it.
We’ll not just say that everyone needs a roof over his or her head, but we’ll grab a hammer and we’ll start building them.
We’d not just smile and nod at each other on Sunday mornings and be glad that things are as they have always been, but we’d get in the thick of it. Instead of pulpits and altar cloths and thimblefuls of grape juice, we’d share hunks of bread and be vulnerable with each other. We’d build community. Not more buildings. And we’d do church differently.
We’ll not just post political websites and Daily Show episodes on Facebook, but we’ll share a meal with folks who don’t agree with us. We’ll talk out our differences. 
We won’t just proclaim all the right answers and then go home to dinner on the table and extra blankets on our beds. We might have some awkward Thanksgiving dinners with the in-laws, and we might have to worry about getting lice from the homeless man we just hugged. 
We’ll get a little dirty. 
We might get some bruises. Or tear gas in our eyes. We might even go to jail. We’d question authority and do acts of civil disobedience. We’ll get our hearts broken. We might end up crucified, like Christ. 

But we’d know that God is our true Father and Christ our true brother. We’d be empowered to be lost, just like those who gathered around Jesus 2,000 years ago. We’d look beyond the distractions of life and sanctuaries and old crumbling church buildings and see, really see, what God has in store for us. We might have a revolution. We’d be transformed. We’d be resurrected.

Oh God. May they do what I say. And not what I do.

Thanks be to God.