Proper 27 Year C: Trust

Job 19: 23-27a
II Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
Luke 20:27-38

Our scripture readings from Job and the Second Letter to the Thessalonians are both about trusting God. Paul talks about God a lot, but his words all boil down to two phrases near the end of the reading this morning: “the Lord is faithful” and “the steadfastness of Christ”. Job is a different character than Paul. In fact, Job leaves all the talk about God up to his friends, and instead, chooses to talk to and with God. Because of his relationship with God, Job is able to say that even with all his troubles and arguments with God, he knows that God lives and will hold him in life. The Sadducees in the gospel story (along with the Pharisees in most other gospel stories) have gotten an undeserved bad reputation. They did not mean or want to be stupid and evil, and the vast majority of them were not stupid and evil the vast majority of the time. They just wanted to understand God and live the way they understood God wanted them to live. Maybe the reason they got such a bad reputation in the gospel stories is because they spent so much time trying to analyze their relationship with God that they didn’t have any time left for an actual relationship.

We can so easily be like Job’s friends or the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Paul at his wordiest, spending so much time talking about God that we never get around talking to and with God. Of course, talk about God can and should be helpful – it is called theology, and there is nothing at all wrong with it. We just need to steer clear of substituting theology for relationship with God. In fact, Paul, most Sadducees and Pharisees, and probably Job’s friends, all had wonderful relationships with God, and those relationships were most likely helped and fueled by their theologizing. However, the Book of Job, the Gospels, and The Acts of The Apostles all show us how theology can never be a substitute for trust in God.

Jesus talked about God a lot, too, like the example in our gospel story this morning. But we must always remember that he also spent a lot of time talking with God. We need to follow his example, and discern the proper times for theology and the proper times for prayer. We need to be like Job, and know when it is more helpful to talk to God than to talk about God. We need to be like Paul and know when our words are getting in the way of our lives. And we need to be like all those good Sadducees and Pharisees, and allow our religion to help us and others around us.

God is the God of the living – living words and living relationships. Both are good, and both can help the other. May God help us to know which to turn to and when, and may we be open to God’s directions.   AMEN

Proper 24 Year C: Perseverance

Genesis 32: 3-8,22-30
II Timothy 3: 14-4:5
Luke 18: 1-8a

The first sentence of our gospel reading from Luke this morning sums up the basic idea from all our scripture lessons today: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Pray always + don’t lose heart = perseverance. That might seem easy for Jesus to say, because sometimes we have the mistaken notion that Jesus found it easy to pray. All we need to do to dispel that misconception is to read the story of the night in Gethsemene before his arrest. Knowing how difficult it was for Jesus to pray, we might wonder why he expects any of his disciples to pray, and we find an answer to that problem in the parable we just head from Luke.

Usually, the parable is interpreted in such a way that the corrupt judge represents God, and the widow represents us, and if we only nag God enough, we will finally get what we want. However, it might make better sense to see the judge as ourselves, and the widow as God expecting us to do the right thing, and persevering in that expectation. Megan McKenna explains it this way in a book in our library: “we see ourselves as the woman, the righteous one, demanding our rights from God, when prayer [should be] acknowledging we have no rights…We never think God might be the widow and the tables might be turned.” (Parables – The Arrows of God pp105-106).

In other words, we are not to pray in order to change God; we are to pray in order to let God change us, so that we can see the world as it truly is – as God sees it. Praying in order to change ourselves is much more difficult than praying in order to change God, because when we truly see ourselves and how much we need to change, we usually don’t like what we see and we often despair at the possibility of ever growing. That’s why the first sentence of our gospel reading this morning is so important: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” (Perseverance.) As Megan McKenna says in the book just quoted: “In Hebrew the word for prayer means to stand in the presence of God, to be seen for what we are, to be judged and not run away.” (p 109) We need to keep at it – to stand in the presence of God with nothing hidden, knowing that God loves us more than we ourselves or anyone else ever could, even though God knows all our secrets. God knows us best, yet God loves us most. God knows the wonderful people we can become if only we persevere in truthfully allowing God to change us. God knows firsthand, because God is one of us. Jesus persevered in prayer, as difficult as it was, and asks us to do the same.

Prayer is not the only thing that needs our persistence. We also need to persist in our work, as the other scriptures we heard this morning make clear. We heard Paul writing these words to Timothy: “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” Those instructions are for a pastor, but we are all called to be pastors in some way to the people around us in our everyday lives. Jesus worked and prayed as he fulfilled his calling, and we are to do the same. Every walk of life offers opportunities to bring God’s love, peace, and joy to the little part of the world around us. As Paul tells Timothy: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”

With all of this in mind, the strange story about Jacob from our Old Testament reading this morning might make a little more sense than it usually does. Jacob was not a good person. He was a cheat who was cheated and then cheated his cheater. Now he wants to change, to repent. He wants to turn around – to come back home and do the right thing, but he is scared of what his brother (whom he cheated) might do to him. Jacob is not used to doing the right thing, so he takes every precaution to protect his assets in case something goes wrong. The one person he can’t protect himself from is God, so finally God confronts him. Jacob perseveres in his encounter with God, and in doing so, is changed so much that he is given a new name. He also carries with him a wound from the struggle. So it is with us – we might be wounded from life’s struggles, but we can’t say we have truly lived until we have truly lived until we have had those struggles. And even though it often seems a struggle, like Jacob wrestling, it is only through perseverance in prayer that we can be changed, given a new name, and become a blessing to those around us.

So that is our job as Christians: to persevere in prayer (standing in the presence of God with nothing hidden, allowing God to make us into a new creation), and persevering in our work (bringing Jesus into our own world in our own way). It is not easy, and it never gets easier, but it is necessary.   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

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 11 Year C: In Due Season

Genesis 18:1-14
Colossians 1:21-29
Luke 10:38-42

We just heard three portions of scripture that discuss the importance of waiting. The story of Abraham and Sarah’s visitors gives us the sense that the couple had been waiting a long time for a child, so much that they had given up hope. Then, these visitors tell them to wait some more, and “in due season” a child would be given them. That announcement must have been frustrating, and who could blame Sarah for laughing? She should be applauded for not throwing the visitors off the premises for being so cocky. Instead, she and Abraham waited. It is a good thing they did, because “in due season” they did have a child.

Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae also talks about waiting. He is encouraging his readers to continue growing in Christ. He reminds them of where they started out, and of their eventual goal, and of the fact that the goal does not come automatically, but will take a lot of work. They started out being estranged from God, their goal is fullness in Christ, and the work involves being steadfast in faith, without shifting from hope – in other words, waiting. The steadfast kind of waiting that Paul talks about is not a passive thing. It takes work to wait in faith. It takes work to mature in Christ. Sometimes, it takes work just to have any faith that we will ever become more Christlike.

The gospel story about Mary and Martha is about two kinds of waiting – both of them good. We are not sure what kind of tasks were distracting Martha, but it is a good guess that she was busy waiting on Jesus by cleaning house and cooking food, while Mary was waiting on Jesus by simply being with him. Both of those types of waiting are good, but there are times when one is more appropriate than the other. Mary just happened to choose the right thing at the right time. It takes effort to know what type of waiting is the right thing to do: should we get up and do something, or should we let things be and enjoy them as they are, spending time resting in God’s lap? We need both of those things to be complete, and the people around us certainly need us to stop our frenzy and settle down sometimes, as much as they need us to get up and put in some work at other times.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of discerning what type our waiting should be is the fact that the proper response does not always coincide with our mental or physical states. Sometimes, we need to get up and do our chores when we are tired. Sometimes, we need to sit still and pray when our minds are racing. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s just the way it is. We simply need to honestly assess the situation and choose the appropriate response, whether or not it matches our state at the time. Some people do this by having a rule where they purposely set apart certain times of the day when they will be about their daily chores, and other times of the day when they will be still with God, and they stick to that plan. That is the kind of thing we do at the monastery. It is not always easy, but when freely chosen and followed with integrity, it is a path that has helped many on their road to maturity in Christ.

Maybe the reason that learning to wait patiently (especially when we don’t want to) is such a factor in our growth is because it teaches us that not even our time is under our control. When we stop trying to control it, then we can rely on God to use our time much more wisely than we ever could. Of course, giving up control is not the same thing as neglecting our stewardship – we need to manage our time wisely. The whole concept of giving up trying to control things and learning instead to be good stewards of them is an ongoing, important part of growing into our vocations as the body of Christ. None of us knows when we will reach our goal of maturity in Christ. We just have to wait. Perhaps we can not get there, since God is infinite, and therefore we can never reach the point where growth is not needed. On the other hand, since God is infinite, perhaps the fact that we are slowly on the way to maturity means that we have already reached the goal. We have a long way to go, but every time we take a step, we have arrived at both the center and the circumference of God. We must never despair on the way, and we must never be distracted by our many tasks. We can be sure things will happen, but we can=t be sure what those things will be or when they will occur. They will happen in due season. We must simply work and wait.   AMEN