Thursday, December 10, 2015

Devotion - Thursday, December 10

As the fall term comes to an end, I want to send you home with the assurance that you will be missed and that I will keep you in my prayers while we are apart.  I know that you are heading home, where you will be safe and loved and cared for.  (Though I do not mean to ignore those for whom a return home brings it's own anxieties.)  However, being separated also leaves open the door that something may happen to you or to me while we are not together.  I will pray that this does not happen.

The world around us appears to be spiraling downward into increased expressions of anger and mistrust and fear.  Do not let the world's attention to these things alter the way we have been invited to see that which God has created.  There is anger and mistrust and fear out there, but this is not the good creation which God makes and sets us in the middle of the garden.  Those expressions are the hidden corners of those who want what we were never intended to have. Those expressions are the underbelly of a desire to build towers that reach to the heavens (Genesis 11) or be recognized in the public square (Matthew 23).

Micah teaches us what we need to know:  Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

Matthew 23 instructs us: do not neglect the weightier matters of the law: Justice and mercy and faith.

I do not know how the anger and mistrust and fear of our world will be set aside and turned around.  But let's refuse to allow the world to turn us around and away from the way of God, from the way of justice and peace and kindness.

Be careful over the break.  Be careful as you travel and as you experience holiday cheer.  But above all be careful that you do not allow the chatter around you to distract you from what you have come to know and to affirm: God is good and the goodness of God's creation is found in all things.  Do not allow the world to turn you away from the weighty matters of God's Word.

PS:  I will be back with you come January 6.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Devotion - Wednesday, December 9

The cycle of readings I follow has me reading from Revelation.  In case you have not heard me say this before - Revelation is an extremely uplifting book, full of God's promise.  Those to whom the book were written were facing tremendous threats.  Those who read John's words for the first time were fearful for their lives and for their communities and for their way of life.  The letter John wrote them reminded them that God is near and that God will not allow their hopes to come to nothing.

The misinterpretation of these words from John begins when the interpreter realizes that he/she may be the oppressor in John's story.  Much like the Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes in the Gospel accounts - some interpreters perceive these things are about them.  

Revelation reminds us that God is in control and that nothing - nothing - can disrupt our relationship with him and our confidence in him.  The things which oppose us are powerless in comparison.  In Revelation, John encourages his readers to remain faithful.  To him this means not becoming angry or vindictive.  It means we see reality for what it is and that we don't allow our anxiety to cause us to forsake the persons God has called us to be.

There is way too much hate going around today.  There are far too many voices calling on us to label others as unacceptable.  There is no opening for God's people to participate in such talk.

We have a powerful witness to the eternal reign of God and we have complete assurance that Jesus' way is the way to follow.  We will identify evil as evil, but we will not repay evil with evil.

Reading Revelation reminds me of the perceived threats in past generations.  All of which have run their course and are gone.  Reading Revelation reminds me that my aim is to remain focused on the way of Christ and not allow loud voices to distract me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Devotion - Tuesday, Dec 8

Before coming to Clemson I was a pastor in Houghton, Michigan.  In that town, there were six different Lutheran denominations.  (Did you realize there are some 30+ Lutheran denominations in the US?)  Most of those Lutheran denominations did not have professional clergy.  In fact, they would repeat the Jesus statement about "the hired hand does not love the sheep" as justification for not having "professional" pastors.

Crazy, right?

But when I read the book of Amos (which is one of my favorites) I come up against the same argument.  Amos warned God's people about their complacency; the professional prophets (think clergy or teaching theologians in our day) said everything was fine.  These folks even tried to shew Amos away, telling him to "flee away to the land of Judah, and (make your living there)."  Amos 7:10-17 is the story.

Amos points out that he isn't interested in making a living.  That he makes his living as a day laborer.  This whole business of being a prophet is new to him.  Not a position he trained for or ever sought.  He is a layman; not a church professional.

Never become dependent upon folks like me to tell you everything you need to know about God and God's will in the world.  What do we call that?  "Drinking the cool-aid"?  Become and be your own prophet.  Now, I hope and pray you will do that with a great deal of reflection and study and prayer.  But trust what God is saying to you and speak that message to others.

Take a 20 minute study break and read the book  of Amos.  He is among the books called the "Minor Prophets," but his message scores major points.  The read will be well worth your time.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Devotion - Monday, December 7

Here in Clemson, we let yesterday pass without really talking about St. Nicholas.  Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in the 4th Century.  It was reported that he would slip out of his manse in the night and take gifts to those in need.  The red cope of a Bishop was reported to been seen by those who say the mysterious night visitor vanish after leaving his gift behind.

It is important to remember this tradition to reclaim the origins of "Santa Claus."  The parts of the story least likely to be emphasized is the nature of the gifts left by St. Nicholas.  They were sometimes life-saving.

I enjoy getting gifts.  The thoughtfulness of the one who shares with me is never lost.  In the same vein, it brings great joy to share with others.  But I pray that we might not forget the part of St. Nicholas' story which challenges us to remember that the plumb line set among God's people is one which reveals our care for the least among us.

Nothing like being a day late and a dollar short - but spend a few minutes today reading stories about St. Nicholas, and consider what this Saint might be directing you to do.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sermon - Advent 2, Year C

Luke 3:1-6 & 1:68-79 

Anyone who had been assigned to read the lessons on Pentecost Sunday or at an Easter Vigil liturgy had to smile a little smile this morning when you heard me stumbling over the names for the regions presided over by Philip, brother of Herod.  “Ituraea?”  “Trachonitis?”  “Abilene” is rather easy to pronounce, but what of the guy who was the ruler of this city – “Lysanias?”  Like the readings on Pentecost, these verses contain difficult names to pronounce, of places and people we have long since forgotten. 

Why are all those names included in Luke’s text?  I had this discussion with another preacher.  I asserted that these names were there in order to document the year when John begins his ministry.  “One reference would have done that,” was the reply.  Besides, this reference only confuses the time line.  While each of the persons mentioned eventually figures into the unfolding story, their reigns don’t align as perfectly as Luke 3 would have us believe.

“No.” my conversation partner insisted.  “They are mentioned so Luke can drive home the point that all these powerful people are passed over when God has a word to share.”  Look right there at the last phrase of verse 2.  The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  The word of God does not respect the structures or preferences of human design.  The word of God goes where it will – and at the time of Messiah’s arrival - God wills it to go to John, out there, in the wilderness.

Luke will employ such a tactic many times in his writings.  And we had all better get used to it, because we are in the year of Luke.  From now till next Christ the King Sunday, we will be reading from Luke on Sunday mornings.  And throughout Luke there is a theme of God passing over the rich and powerful in favor of the lowly and powerless.  Such a message was an added “good news” to Luke’s readers.  Remember that they were not members of Rome’s ruling majority nor were they Pharisees, Sadducees, High Priests, or scribes. 

I guess it is yet to be determined whether we will consider this aspect of Luke’s presentation as good news.

Emperor Tiberius, Governors Pontius Pilate and Herod and Philip; high priests Annas and Caiaphas – the word of God is spoken to them, but not by them.  The word of God is spoken by John, the guy living out there along the river bank.

Or I should say, it will be spoken by John, eventually.  Did you notice or realize that John doesn’t speak in today’s readings.  He is spoken about, but he does not speak.  Others speak about him.

The first to speak about him was his father.  Zechariah’s song is in Luke 1.  (Luke 1:68-79)  These verses serve as our Psalm for today.  I hope you listened carefully as they were read by the Lector.  The lines of this Zechariah’s song are unique, a collection of verses and thoughts from various Psalms.  The message is clear and straight forward – God has looked with favor upon His people and is sending to them one who will save them “from the hands of our enemies.”    

Zechariah’s speech is notable for other reasons.  Do you remember that when a messenger from God told him that he and Elizabeth would have a child; Zechariah doubted that such a thing was possible.  Elizabeth was old and considered barren.  When Zechariah doubted it was possible for God to send them a child, he lost his ability to speak.  It is only at the naming of the child, when Zechariah affirms that he is to be named “John” that Zechariah regains the ability to talk.  And Luke 1:68-79 is what he says.

Zechariah’s song affirms that God does see us and God remembers His promise to us.  God comes to us, giving us reason to hope - and then fulfilling our hopes.  Zechariah sings:   “The dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

That is what Zechariah has to say about John.  In Chapter 3, we read what Luke has to say about him.

These lines are also borrowed from elsewhere in our bibles.  Do you remember where?  Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:  The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  Prepare the way of the Lord.  Again, high hopes and welcomed promises.  Luke remembers the words of Isaiah, spoken to people who had lived through some of their darkest days.  Luke repeats Isaiah’s assurance that God will come and set them free from the hands of those who hate them, the tyranny of those who oppress them.

In Luke’s day, it was the ruler of Rome – all those folks mentioned in verse 1.  In the time of Isaiah, it was the Babylonians.

If you turn in your bibles to Isaiah 40, you might have footnote, similar to the one in my bible.  Isaiah 40 begins what is sometimes called Isaiah II.  There are three sections in Isaiah: one which speaks to the time just prior to their being overrun and carried off into exile; one (the one that begins at Chapter 40) which is offered during the time of transition in their fate; and a final section which speaks of the rebuilding of their lives and their religious practices.  Isaiah 40 was an assurance that God had not abandoned His people.  They were sitting in darkness and may have feared that they had lost their status in God’s eyes.  “Not so,” God assures them.

Same situation, same message, some six-hundred years later.  In Luke’s day it was Rome who rules over them.  Tiberius and Pilate and Herod and Lysanias and Annas and Caiaphas – these are not your liberators or redeemers.  The one who can save you is the one whom God is sending.

We are too often enamored with the power structures of our world.  We come to rely on the alliances we have made and the systems we have put into place.  They usually function very well – particularly for those who created them, because in the creation process we tend to make them favor us as much as possible.  But the message of Luke 1 and Luke 3 is to remind us that we cannot find our salvation, or our hope, or any reason to be encouraged in such structures.  The word of God goes to the wild-eyed guy living in the wilderness.  It goes to the one who cares not what happens to the rulers of the state or to the rulers of the religious structures.  It goes to the one who isolates themselves from all of that and listens for the word.

Is Christmas about what God did back there, in that place and time; or is Christmas the perpetual arrival of the One who turns the tables in the Temple, angers those in authority, upsets the social norms, and is eventually executed at the insistence of the crowd who had once welcomed his word but turned on him when they learned the ramifications of accepting that word?

I join the majority who like the way things are.  I live rather comfortably in the configuration as it is.  But all week I have struggled with the question of whether the rest of the world’s populations would accept my complacency. 

That list of difficult to pronounce names were the who’s who of Luke’s day.  All of them are gone.  The only reason their name are remembered is because they are included in someone else’s story.  The nations and regions they fought so desperately to control – wiped off the map and given different names by new rulers who were themselves eventually overthrown.

But the word of God continues. 

The word of God comes to those who listen for it and to it.  The word of God comes to those willing to allow their world to be turned on its head and re-established with God’s vision of justice enthroned.  The word of God is like no other word we will ever hear.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Devotion - Thursday, December 3

I remember the title of the book - but little of the content.  The title was powerful; and worth repeating.  "Amusing Ourselves to Death."  The concept is that we occupy ourselves with trivial games while participating in an un-examined system of destruction.

I have spent my share of time this week talking about Clemson's #1 ranking and the "largest pizza party".  Christmas is coming so my emails have included gift suggestions and plans for holiday gatherings.

Are we amusing ourselves to death?

Yesterday's shooting in California resulted in immediate and real deaths.  Cities like Chicago and Baltimore are erupting in violence over deaths which occurred in situations were safety and calm should have been expected.  

You are in the middle of final exams, and have plenty to keep you busy.  But there will always be some distraction.  There will always be something pressing for your attention.  

God has sent his servants into the world as peacemakers.  It is our responsibility to speak of God's will and to see that God's expectations come to God's creation.

Will you and I be able to stop the mass shootings and senseless deaths?  Yes.  We will be able to do so.  When enough of us shake the distractions from our minds and speak of what needs to change and how urgently that change is needed.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Devotion - Tuesday, December 2

At least part of our difficulty with Advent is the balancing act between eagerly looking for Messiah's arrival and realizing that we already have everything we need.

Christ has accomplished all things.  From the cross he proclaims "It is finished."  Our salvation is assured and there is nothing more God needs to do in order to claim us as children.

These assurances set us free to worry about the state of affairs in the world, rather than fretting about whether we will get to heaven.

And yet, we know there is more to come.  We realize that the fullness of God's reign has not come to all the earth and to all who dwell there.  We pray for and anticipate that fullness.

We practice keeping this balance during these weeks of Advent.  We speak to one another of the glorious presence of Christ in our world, even as we long for the time when more will experience it.

The days of Advent are a balancing act.  Use them wisely.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Devotion - Monday, December 1

The prophets served as court jesters - walking the line between speaking the painful truth and avoiding getting the King angry enough to silence them (usually by killing them.)  The prophets spoke poetically about the very real problems they saw.

These early days of Advent have me reading Amos.  I would encourage you to read along.  Amos speaks to the Kings, and to the loyal subjects, about the hope and promise God felt in establishing a chosen people.  That hope has been compromised; the promise has not come to every member of the family.

Systemic evil is more difficult to address than individual morality.  Talk of systemic evil does not allow us to say "The preacher is talking to someone else."  I realized this past summer, in response to a sermon I preached, that systemic evil is a subject we do not want to talk about in worship.

Systemic evil involves the structures and rules which protect the way of life of some while diminishing the lives of others.  Systemic evil quickly becomes political (remember that politics refers to the process of negotiating our course of action.  Politics only becomes partisan when we become ideologically blind.)

During the season of Advent, I hope you will examine the ways in which you could be more moral or ethical.  But the magnitude of the Christmas Story (star in the sky; astrologers from the East; angels singing to the shepherds) reminds us that Messiah's arrival is about much more than whether we use four-letter words to express ourselves.

The prophets saw how some were lying on beds of ivory while others were going hungry.  The prophets' words should help us see the realities of our world and time.