Strange Angels: St. Michael & All Angels 2007

Genesis 28:10-17
Revelation 12:7-12
John 1:47-52

In our first reading from the book of Genesis, Jacob had a vision of angels which caused him to realize that he was in the presence of God, or as he said: “surely, the LORD is in this place.” The vision was accompanied by good news for Jacob, who responded by saying: “this is the gate of heaven.” Angels have been regarded in different ways around the world and throughout history: as troops in the armies of the spirit world; as fantastic creatures with lions’ bodies and eagles’ wings; as plump, smiling putti strumming lutes. The main consistency with which scripture regards angels is the idea that they are messengers of God, no matter what they look like or how they convey their message. Those are the good angels.

The book of Revelation, that we heard in our second reading, speaks of war in heaven between those good angels led by Michael, and the angels of the dragon (who is called Satan). Satan and his angels have also been envisioned many ways: as gruesome hairy monsters dripping venom from their fangs; as horned, hoofed tailed sprites carrying pitchforks; as Uncle Sam burned in effigy by rioting Iranians. As with the good angels, there is a consistent view in scripture of Satan – that of an accuser. The word “satan” actually means someone who gives false testimony. In our reading from revelation, the angels of God get tired of Satan’s false accusations and throw him and his angels out of heaven. Unfortunately, they landed on earth, and that will be dealt with later.

The stories of all these angels might seem strange to us today – they probably seemed strange when they were first told, but there is a theme to all the angel stories in the Bible, and it is the idea that God uses messengers to bring news (good news and bad news). What a joy to bring good news from God, and what a dreadful, but necessary task to bring bad news form God. In either instance, it is an honor to be God’s messenger, and it is an honor which all of us can have. We often think of the angel Gabriel saying to Mary: “You have found favor with God.”, but we all have the same opportunity to say to those around us: “You have found favor with God.” We may say it in different ways, but we still have the opportunity. We also have the opportunity, like the angels in Jacob’s dream, to show people that no matter where they are, God is in that place. By doing so, we can be the “gate of heaven”, pouring out God’s love to the world around us. We also might need to bring warnings to people (what they would consider bad news), such as the angels brought to Sodom: “The way you are treating people is unacceptable, and if you don’t put a stop to it, God will.”

We also have an opportunity to throw Satan out of our world, just like the angels threw Satan out of heaven. Whenever we encounter people burdened with false accusations such as: “God is not in this place with you.”, “You are not a child of God.”, or “God does not find favor with you”, we can counter those accusations with the truth of God’s love and total acceptance. Of course, in order to do that, we must believe in the truth of God’s love for ourselves, because we are often our own satans, teling ourselves that God could not and does not find us lovable. We must cast these satanic lies out of ourselves, as well as casting them out of the world around us. Perhaps to do this, we need only listen to the angels that God has sent to us – people near and far who love us and tell us so in different ways.

We may think ourselves unfit or unable to be an angel of the LORD bringing news of God’s love. In fact, it is difficult for some people to verbalize their love and concern for others. However, we can, each in our own unique way, show God’s love, so that working together, wherever we are, whomever we are with, we can let people know “surely God is in this place.” May God help us, and may we help each other, as we try to do just that. AMEN

Proper 7 Year C: Expletive Deleted

Zechariah 12:8-10,13:1
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 9:18-24

Occasionally, one finds a surprisingly wise person on television. One such person is Red Forman, a character on That 70s Show. His house is usually filled with high school kids doing typically foolish high school things, and he gets agitated at them and tries to set them straight before throwing them out of the house. He usually begins his wide sayings with a burst of profanity and ends them with ridicule of the person he is addressing, but rarely, the script writers give us a glimpse that the reason he says anything at all is because he really cares for all those kids, and deeply loves them. Of course, being a man of his era, he is not good at expressing his love in any way other than providing a house and food and punishment for bad behavior, but even so, he does his best in those areas. One of his wisest sayings was to a dope-smoking slacker (Hyde) who was being sullen at his own birthday party because he thought it was silly. Red knew that his wife and the other kids had put in a lot of work on the party, and seeing Hyde belittle their efforts made him angry. He took the guy aside and said to him: “(expletive deleted!) Being a man is all about doing things you don’t want to do.” He did not finish his speech, because what he really wanted to say was: “(expletive deleted!) Being a man is all about doing things you don’t want to do, because you love the people you are doing them for.”

Being a mature Christian as described by Paul in our second reading this morning from his letter to Galatia has a few things in common with the words of the prophet Red Forman. There is the obvious connection to doing things we don’t want to do because we love the people we are doing them for. We all know about that one – we do certain things when we are tired or would rather be doing something else because the task we are doing will make a better home or world for the people around us. Sometimes we are given the grace of a good attitude about it, sometimes we are not, but we do the tasks anyway, because our eternal love does not depend on our momentary attitude. Of course, the more often we do the actions, the more opportunity there is for the grace of a good attitude to be given to us by the Holy Spirit.

However, there is a less obvious connection between Red’s words to Hyde and Paul’s words to the Galatians. Being a man or a mature Christian sometimes involves doing things we don’t want to do simply because it takes so much effort to figure out what to do. We are no longer under law – we don’t have a convenient list of things to do and things to avoid. We are now in Christ, and Christ taught us that doing the right thing was a lot more complicated than just simply following a list of dos and don’ts. He also taught us that doing the right thing was a lot more satisfying for us and helpful for the world around us than just following a list of dos and don’ts. Basing our acts on faith is more work than basing them on law, because faith operates on love, and to love people we have to see them as Jesus sees them – as worthy enough to die for, as we heard in our gospel this morning. Basing our acts on love rather than law does not mean that we just do what we feel like. Love takes a long term approach to what is truly best for everyone, not just a short term solution so that everything is tidy and looks good for the neighbors. Living a life of love by faith does not include dismissing rules and regulations as irrelevant. Faith knows that rules and regulations exist to help us learn how to love, and so has the utmost respect for law, but faith also recognizes rules and regulations as only the beginning of love, not the fulfillment of love.

That is why mature faith takes a lot of work – we have to gratefully take the wisdom of laws learned from God and handed down to us by Godly, loving people in the past and use them as a basis for our own life of Godly love. We have to respectfully listen to Godly, loving people from other cultures, places, and points of view as they share their understanding of law and love so that we can learn from the Holy Spirit speaking through them, guiding us to mature decisions. We have to honestly search our own motives for everything we do, making sure they are based on a desire to serve God, rather than ourselves. Being a man is all about doing things we don’t want to do, because we love the people we are doing them for. Being a mature Christian is all about doing things we may or may not want to do, because we love our selves, our neighbors, and our God so much that we will do the work it takes to find out the right things to do. The more we do them, the more chance the Holy Spirit has of giving us the grace to want to do them, and the more we will learn to love doing them. But until then, we just have to be grown up and do them. So thank you, Red Forman, for loving those kids enough to get upset at them. May we work as hard at loving the people around us, but without the profanity.   AMEN

Easter VII Year C: Good Friend

Acts 16:16-34
Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20
John 20-26

Our first scripture reading from the Acts of the Apostles mentions two ways of dealing with inconveniences caused by other people either not doing what we want them to do, or doing what we don’t want them to do. The first way (one of dismay and disappointment) is shown by the reaction of the owners of the slave girl, out of whom Paul exorcised the fortune-telling demon. Instead of being happy for her freedom from demonic possession, her owners were upset at their loss of income. They were more interested in someone else making them comfortable that in the comfort of that someone, and their self-centeredness brought a lot of useless trouble and disturbance to many people, while never restoring their income from the slave. The second way (one of joy and happiness) is shown by the reaction of the jailor in charge of Paul and Silas when the earthquake opened the prison doors and unfastened the prisoners= chains. Although he was initially upset enough to consider suicide, once Paul convinced him that the prisoners were all still there, the jailor wanted to know how he could have a share in Paul and Silas’ saving God, and then he brought that salvation the rest of the people in his house, and the next day the prisoners’ cases were dealt with in a favorable manner. The jailor’s ultimate positive reaction to the freedom of his prisoners brought about a chain of good events.

Unfortunately, our reaction to other people’s good fortune is often that of the slave owners, because we tend to focus on our own inconveniences more than on the freedom of others. In the heat of the moment, we don’t usually stop and consider the fact that another person’s good fortune can only add to our good fortune in the long-run, even though it might be a block to reaching some of our short-term goals. We tend to be not only self-centered, but also short-sighted (and in fact, the two are the same). We all depend on each other, because that is the way God made us, and the true fulfillment of others can only be good for us and everyone else. Every person is equally loved by God, and so is deserving of our respect. By building up others, rather than tearing them down, we strengthen ourselves. By being joyful at others’ good fortune, no matter how it makes us feel initially, we only add to our joy and the joy of the world around us. A book in our library by Sister Ayya Khema calls this good reaction to others’ good fortune “sympathetic joy”, and she lists it as one of the four best friends we can have in life (the other three are loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity).

Sympathetic joy is difficult for us because we tend to falsely believe that we are the center of the universe, and so if we are not at the top of every heap, our universe is in danger of collapse. The truth is, that if we are the center of our universe, then our universe is already collapsing, whether or not we are the top of the visible heap. God is the true center of everything, and by allowing God to be our center, we are free to be our true selves (relieved of the burden of holding our universe together), and others are free to be themselves (relieved of the burden of propping up our false regimes). Others might do things or believe things or say things that make us uncomfortable, but that will be ok, because it won’t be a threat to our false godhood anymore.

God is God, and we are not. As we heard in our second scripture reading from the revelation to John, Jesus is the “Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Jesus will hold our world together and will be everything we need, so our legitimacy and integrity do not depend on how well others buttress our world view, beliefs, and desires. Our legitimacy and integrity spring from God, who says: “Come”, so that then we can say to others: “Come – let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” We are not given the option of deciding who does or does not get to come and drink. We are only given the option of being happy about it or not. Life is too short to choose unhappiness, and eternal life is too long to choose unhappiness. Sympathetic joy really is one of our best friends. AMEN

Within You And Without You: Dedication of the Abbey Church 2007

I Kings 8:22-30
I Peter 2:1-5,9-10
Matthew 21:12-16

Many people, on their first visit to St. Gregory’s, mention how the church seems bigger on the inside than on the outside. Of course, it is the same size inside and out, but even though people realize that, it still looks and feels larger once inside. That illusion of space and importance is sort of a good thing, because it reminds us that what we do in here is valuable. Our task in this building is to acknowledge the centrality of God in our own lives as well as in the functioning of the entire universe.

However, we must never succumb to the conclusion that it is ok for us to be bigger on the inside than on the outside. In other words, we must never live in such a way that our internal relationship with God grows while our external relationships with the people around us stagnate or shrink. Of course, to grow in love for God while not growing in love for the world around us in impossible; just like the church, we cannot be bigger on the inside than on the outside. The two dimensions are dependent on each other. We foster our relationship with God by fostering our relationship with our neighbors, and we learn to love our neighbors as we learn to love God.

Both internal and external growth come solely from God, but it is up to us to take that growth from him and apply it to our lives. Internally, that means being faithful to our task of prayer not only the corporate prayer here in the church, but also our daily private meditation time and daily scripture reading time. Externally, it means being faithful to our daily chores and helping to make the world a better place being where we are supposed to be when we are supposed to be there, and doing as good a job as we can. It is also important to do those things (internally and externally) especially when we do not want to, because learning the fact that our wants are not the driving force behind the universe is one of the most important keys to growth.

Since our growth comes from God, we can never think we have gotten as far as we can go. God is infinite, and we can never reach the end of God’s desire for us. We just have to be constant and faithful in our inner and outer work, never smugly thinking we can rest because we have grown more than others. We must also never despair because we think we are not growing. Only God really knows our progress; our job is merely to be faithful to our work and prayer. We are the temple of God, each of us individually and all of us collectively. May we do all we can to become as strong and as beautiful as we are meant to be, both on the inside as well as on the outside. Neither can be neglected, because both are equally important to God. AMEN

Easter III Year C: But Wait – There’s More!

Acts 9:1-20
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

If someone read the two verses that precede our gospel story this morning and did not already know anything else followed them, that person could close the book and think that was the end. But at least in the form in which it has come down to us today, the Gospel According to John has another chapter tacked on after that apparent ending, like coda at the end of a symphonic movement. That added chapter contains this morning’s gospel story, and if we read the whole chapter, we notice that it doesn’t really end; it just says that Jesus did and said so many things that they could not all be written down.

So the gospel about Jesus never ends – our author this morning just wrote down two endings and then gave up. As Jesus appeared to his disciples going about their business in our story this morning, so Jesus continues to be with all his disciples in their daily lives throughout history, until today, and will continue to be in our lives and the lives of his disciples who come after us, and the disciples who come after them. We could add new chapters every day.

Jesus is always with us, but we don’t always recognize him. Like the disciples fishing this morning, it took something out of the ordinary to make them finally realize that the man standing on the shore was Jesus; so it often takes a stroke of good fortune or a tragedy for us to either thank God for the good fortune or ask him why he allowed the tragedy to occur. There is nothing wrong with doing either of those things, but our lives would be much fuller if we recognized Jesus in our midst every moment of every day, rather than waiting for those special times to wake us up to his presence. If we did that, we would be more comfortable talking with him, and so we would be able to thank him not just for the unusually good things that come our way, but also for the usual daily goodness of simply being alive. We would also be more adept at thanking him for other people=s good fortune, instead of coveting it. The more we got used to having Jesus around, the more we would also be able to grieve with him at all the tragedies that occur in our lives and the lives of others, and the more boldly and intelligently would be our conversation with him about why those bad things happen.

One way to learn to see him always is to take the meal he offers us at this altar, and then remember at the next meal we eat, whether or not it is at home, or at a restaurant, or in our car, that Jesus is with us there, as well. If we do that enough, we will slowly start to remember that he is also with us when we do not eat. In a similar way, as we take Jesus into ourselves at this altar, we remember that the people up here with us are doing the same, so that whenever we see them, we know that Jesus is in them, as well as in us. If we do that enough, we get used to the fact that Jesus is with us whenever we are around others, and even when we are alone.

There are many other ways of getting used to sensing the presence of Jesus in our lives. As we get used to having Jesus around us in our lives, we grow to realize that he will also be with us in our deaths, so that most mysterious part of life loses much of its scary and unsettling aspects. We come to know that whatever awaits us in life or death will be ok, because Jesus will be there with us, always. As the Gospel According to John never really ends, so the Gospel According to Us need not end. Jesus is with us always. We just need to look up and see him. AMEN

Lent V Year C: Green, White, Checkered (with a few Yellows mixed in)

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:8-14
Luke 20:9-19

Humans usually physically experience time in only one direction. Most physicists don’t have an explanation for the single-directional arrow of time, but they do seem to agree that entropy plays a big part in the phenomenon. In other words – things fall apart. This universe we inhabit is constructed in such a way that everything is getting further apart and colder, and so we just ride along that wave of expanding spacetime and decreasing energy, never able to turn around and go back to the cozier days of the big bang when everything was closer and warmer.

Of course, since God transcends the universe of time, space, and matter, entropy is not a problem for God. God is the creator, and since God is eternal, that means God is always the creator. Things can be just as new or old to God as God wants. Isaiah reminds us of this in our first reading this morning. He says God is about to do a new thing, and there is no need for us to dwell in the past. The new thing that Isaiah is talking about is the return of exiles to their home. Part of the newness that Isaiah emphasizes is the fact that this new home will not be secured through political pacts and military strength (because those things slowly fell apart and caused them to lose their home the first time – entropy at play); instead, it will be secured through reliance on God alone (who cannot fall apart).

Paul, in our second reading, shows us how his personal life fell apart, because even though it was based on sincere religious respect of God, it was not based on God. Now Paul has based his life on God alone, so it can not fall apart (no entropy in God). The problem with Paul’s former way of life was not the particular religion he practiced; the problem was the fact that the religion was substituted for God. When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he did not become more or less religious or change religions, he merely changed the orientation of his life from religion to God. Jesus came to give us new lives, not new religions. There is nothing wrong with religion, but there is a wrong way of substituting it for God. With God as the center of and reason for our lives, our religion will help us become the wonderful people we are created to be and live peacefully with all the other wonderful people God creates. Without God as the center of and reason for our lives, our religion will stunt us and cause friction with the people around us.

That is why we have no need to throw away our religious beliefs and practices when we make God the sole focus of our lives. Instead, we need to examine them and use them to help us grow ever more into our fullness in God. We don’t need to dwell in the past, but we do need to learn from it; to bolster the good things and jettison the bad things. In God, we are eternal – our lives are eternally created, sustained, and redeemed. Our past can be redeemed in order to make us who we are now, and our present lives in God can be sustained and nurtured so that we never stop growing in the love, peace, and joy that comes only from God. Things fall apart, but never God. It is up to us to decide what will be the basis of our lives. May we choose God, and in so doing, never fall apart.   AMEN

Epiphany IV Year C: News Of The World

Jeremiah 1:4-10
I Corinthians 14:12b-20
Luke 4:21-32

Waiting in line for the cashier at the grocery store, one is confronted with a lot of alternative newspapers: “Weekly World news”, “National Enquirer”, “The Star”. Many times, the front pages of these papers are filled with predictions for the coming year, and they are often listed as “prophecies to be fulfilled”. But contrary to the way the word “prophecy” is used by these newspapers, biblical prophecy does not mean predicting the future. Scriptural prophecy is about God speaking through humans. Occasionally, prophecy might have some predictions for the future, such as the prophet warning people that if they continue on the course they have plotted, bad things will come of it, but if they repent and change directions, they will be headed for good things. But overall, prophecy is about God using humans to make God’s will known to other humans.

Our first scripture reading today is about one of the more famous of the biblical prophets – Jeremiah – whom God used to let the people of Judah know that Babylon would soon conquer them and lead their government into exile, but not to worry about it or resist it, because God was going to use the Babylonian victory for the good of the people of Judah, and eventually for the whole world. We just heard about God letting Jeremiah know that he was to be God’s prophet, and about Jeremiah protesting that he was “only a boy”. We might say the very same thing, or something similar, if we were in that situation. Moses told God that he could not be a prophet because he was not an eloquent speaker. Isaiah said that he was a man of “unclean lips”. In all three situations, God sent them anyway, because God is bigger than all of those problems, and God is bigger than any problem we might bring up in order to get out of our own calling as prophets.

And we are all called to be prophets, even though most of the time it won’t be like Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Paul talks about this in our second reading from his letter to the Christians in Corinth. He reminds them, and us, that we are all given gifts from God, and that we need to make sure we use those gifts to help everyone, rather than using them simply to gratify our own desires. Not all prophecy comes in spoken words. Often, the strongest prophecy is simply living the way one ought to live regardless of how easy it would be to live another way, even if the majority of society is not living righteously. Of course, that backfires and becomes blasphemy if the ones living righteously look down upon those not living righteously. It also turns from prophecy to blasphemy if the words we speak in God’s name or the way we live in God’s name are actually based on our own desires and neuroses, instead of really being God’s ways and words. That is why we always need a lot of prayer and self-examination to make sure all our thoughts, words, and deeds are coming from God as the center of our lives, rather than from ourselves trying to run things.

That is also why we need to make sure to listen to and watch the prophets God sends to us – the people sitting around us now and the people with whom we live and work. Of course there will be false prophets among us, just as we are sometimes all false prophets. But that doesn’t take away our responsibility to be prophets, nor does it take away our responsibility to heed the prophets around us. Just because the people around us are humans like us who make mistakes and sin and aren’t perfect, that does not negate their prophetic function. Even Jesus (who did not sin) was not heeded by the people in his hometown of Nazareth. They even tried to throw him off a cliff, as we heard in our gospel story this morning. So just because the people around us seem too common to be prophets, we need to remember just how common Jesus was, or Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Moses were, and yet how much the world needed to listen to them. In the same way, we need to listen to God speaking through the common people around us, and we need to allow God to fill us so that our own words and actions are reflections of his love for the world. We may never be on the headlines of those newspapers in the checkout line (hopefully we will never be), but we can be prophets – letting the world know that God has more and better things in store for us than we could ever imagine or could ever procure ourselves. God has called us, and even though we will fail God, God will never fail us.   AMEN

Christmas I Year C: Christmas Gifts

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7
John 1:1-18

The opening of the Gospel according to John is read and heard a lot during Christmas time. It reminds us of the cosmic and universal aspects of the birth of Jesus, just as Matthew and Luke remind us of the personal and national aspects of his birth. One particular verse in this part of John’s gospel calls to mind some of the philosophy books in our library describing the attributes of God. Along with eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, and others, most authors also mention an aspect of God that is sometimes termed “absolute”, and other times called “necessary”. Along with God’s “absolute” or “necessary” nature comes the fact that everything else is “conditional” or “contingent”, at least in the philosophical structures of those authors. What they mean is: “if there is a God, then only God must exist, and everything else exists only because God makes it so.” Only God is absolute and necessary, everything else is contingent and conditional. This is what we get in the third verse of our gospel reading today: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

God is existence; God is being; God is life – that is the God of the philosophers. But we also say that God is love – that is the God of Jesus. God is love, and so gives existence, being, and life to others. We must always remember that those things are gifts; we can create nothing by our own power – not life or love or happiness or prosperity or people who act the way we want them to or situations that turn out the way we want them to. Since everything is a gift from God, we can only be stewards of the things around us. (Maybe “only” is not a good word to use, because it is a great honor to be caretakers of anything God makes.)

We can stop worrying about things, because nothing is under our control. That does not mean we can be lazy, because we can and should do our best to take care of the people, things, and events God has entrusted to us. In fact, realizing that God has given us the world around us to take care of should make us very careful of the work we put into our guardianship of the things around us. But after that, we can do nothing to control the results of our work. Knowing that takes a burden off of our shoulders, because we can only do our best – no more and no less – and after that everything is up to God. We are free to be stewards of the universe, and we are free to be under other people’s stewardship. In fact the honor of caring for others and being under other people’s care is so great that God chose to experience it as a child under the care of Joseph and Mary, and then as a master caring for his disciples.

The universe is a wonderful gift. Our lives are wonderful gifts. The people around us are wonderful gifts. We have everything to be thankful for, because we have a lifetime of unwrapping presents ahead of us.   AMEN

Advent III Year C: It’s Up To You

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-9
Luke 3:7-18

Our first two scripture readings this morning tell us to rejoice, because God is among us. The prophet Zephaniah tells his listeners twice that God is in their midst and will rescue them from all the bad things going on around them. The letter from Paul to Philippi says that not only is the Lord near, but also if we live in peace and love, God is already with us. These two parts of scripture are actually used a lot, and are familiar to many people: Zephaniah is often read during Advent, and is one of the many scripture passages used during this time of year that talk about “daughter Zion” and “daughter Jerusalem” singing and rejoicing after a long period of mourning; Paul’s advice to the Philippians is read and meditated over and memorized by many people as a help in changing negative attitudes into positive ones. This particular part of Zephaniah actually calls to mind a piece of music we learned in sixth grade orchestra by Handel or Haydn (or some composer whose name begins with “h”), whose melody was an aria about daughter Zion singing with joy. And whenever I hear this part of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, it reminds me of advice from a former music teacher: “negative thoughts eat your brain”. Some other people might be reminded of the song: “Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative”.

Whatever these two first scripture passages might call to mind, it is probably joyful for most people. And then we have the story from the gospel about John the Baptist – a figure (rightly or wrongly) not usually associated with rejoicing – and in the story this morning he lives up to his somber reputation. He says that the Lord is coming, but he doesn’t do it with the happy tone of our first two scriptures. He calls his listeners a bunch of snakes and says that when God gets here, it will be to chop down and burn up them and their wicked deeds, so they better get busy and clean up their lives. These words of John the Baptist are as famous as our earlier scriptures, but they are rarely used as the basis for elementary school orchestra songs or as aids by positive thinking gurus (although they do show up in a Bob Marley song about the destruction of the workers of iniquity).

However, John really doesn’t deserve his joyless reputation, because he was merely telling the truth, and it is a truth that needs to be heard; the truth of God chopping down and burning up our wicked deeds should be more joyful to us than we make it out to be, because all of those sins are not proper to our true identities as images of God. Even though we have numbed ourselves into thinking that all our little sins are pleasurable, they are actually barriers to true pleasure and fulfillment in God. We come to identify ourselves with our sins, when in reality they are foreign to the true nature of humanity as created by God. God does not want to chop us down and burn us up in his wrath; God wants to clear out the things that hinder our true personalities, and God’s wrath is directed against those barriers to our fulfillment, not toward us. Unfortunately, if we choose to cling to our sin, it only follows that we indeed will feel the axe intended for them, but that is our choice, not God’s.

The only way to make sure that we get out of the way of the axe is to admit and confess our sins so that we can see them for what they are: freely chosen actions that are not proper to us as children of God. Most people are not crooked government officials or extorting soldiers like John describes. Instead, most of us are hobbled by our own list of sad little sins that includes greed, superior attitudes, judgementalism, holding grudges, desiring revenge, or always wanting to say “I told you so!”. It is scary to have all these things so dear to us burned up, but God is too good and loving to let us continue to live that way – crippled by our own pettiness. We can start the process now of shedding our sins, but even that is frightening (at least on the surface), because in order to do so, we have to admit that we are just as petty as everyone else. But as we confess our sinfulness, we are slowly given the realization that we are also just as good as everyone else, and so we are worth the effort it takes to admit our sins and use the gift of God’s grace to repent and live differently.

The axe is at the tree, as John the Baptist says. It is up to us whether or not to rejoice in that fact, knowing God is cutting things away so that we may be healed and cured of our blindness so that we can see God and the world in their true beauty, or to resist it so that we can futilely try to hang on to the fake self-centered world we surrounded ourselves with. It is up to us whether to be joyful at the news of God’s presence, like Zephaniah and Paul, or to be frightened of it, like many of John the Baptist’s listeners. May we choose the health, life and truth offered by God, and may we help others do the same.   AMEN

Proper 28 Year B: And Then The Reading Ends

Daniel 12:1-13
Hebrews 10:31-39
Mark 13:14-23

Our scripture readings today have caused a lot of confusion and anxiety for many people, because they are often interpreted as a prediction of future calamities and the end of the world as we know it. However, even if these scriptures are about future calamities and the end of the world, we don’t need to be worried.

The first reading from the book of Daniel is the strangest of our three readings today, but that is to be expected because Daniel is one of the strangest books in the Bible. The passage we just heard is part of a longer story describing a vision Daniel had that lasts for three chapters. The vision happens in the third year of the Persian shah Cyrus (which means that Daniel is an extremely old man when it happened), and it involves future Iranian and Greek kings, as well as someone identified as the ‘king of the south’. Other characters include angels and a shiny guy with a loud voice and a woman used as part of a plot to destroy a kingdom. The vision also includes a list of destructive wars between all these kings. When Daniel asks about the outcome of the destruction, he is told to keep silent about it, and that good people will come out of it ok, but the bad people will not, so he is advised to persevere in doing good even though times are hard, because someone is coming to the rescue of all the good people. So Daniel, after being told to keep silent about it, writes it down in a book. Maybe he feels that is not really disobedient as long as he does not read the book out loud to anyone.

Moving on to the New Testament, the author of our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews is reminding his listeners of the struggles they have had in the past, and how they kept good attitudes throughout their problems. He encourages them to remain confident until someone comes to the rescue of those who have faithfully endured. Then in our gospel story, Jesus is warning his disciples that bad times are coming. He even quotes a phrase from the book of Daniel describing how bad it will be. He says that people will be duped into following false hopes of rescue, but we do not need to be fooled by them, because he has told us everything.

And then the reading ends! What has he told us that will save us? He goes on after our reading stops and says that he will send his angels to gather his chosen, but how are we to endure until that happens? What has he told us that will save us? He gives no secret timetables of the end of the world (unlike what many tv preachers say). In fact, his description of events leading up to the end of the world sounds very ordinary and no different that what has always been happening: wars, earthquakes, people doing business and getting married. When have those things not happened? Maybe what he is saying is this: the world will continue as it always has; people will be just as cruel and petty as they always have been, and it is up to you to remain faithful to and endure in my way until the end of time. His way is the way of compassion, kindness, joy, peace, and forgiveness. We are to live this way even with all the hardships we encounter. We are to live by faith, not by sight or by emotion – abiding in the love, joy, and peace of Jesus no matter what is going on in our world, and passing that love, joy, and peace on to others around us.

It is not always easy, but we are to do it anyway, whether or not help comes to end the hardship around us. We are safe in God’s hands no matter our situation or the situation of the world around us, and we can faithfully endure all things because Jesus endures them with us. Our job is not to worry about if, how, or when we will be saved; our job is to trust in God, because by trusting in God, we are saved. So there is really no need to worry, even if these and other scriptures are frightening – nothing can take us out of God’s hands except our own decision to go it alone, thinking we can take care of things better than God can. But God knows our situation better than we ever could, so the safest place to be as the world falls apart around us is in God, trusting him with our lives. There will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and global warming, debates about the number of planets in the solar system and celebrity couples getting married and divorced, business mergers and bankruptcies, but God is eternal, and in God, so are we.   AMEN