Archive for December 2018

Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52
As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Paul tells us to "clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience."(Colossians 3:12). Sounds like good advice for the new year. But how do we do that? I think there are three simple rules for bringing our lives into alignment with what Paul is talking about: 
1st Rule) Always be compassionate.
2nd Rule) Awareness beats ignorance (or always try to understand as much as you can).
3rd Rule) The ends never justify the means (Don't forsake your principles or good behavior to get your own way).

That's it. Just three rules and you can live 2019 with the peace of Christ in your heart. Let me show how each of these rules is demonstrated at this holiday time.

First, Always (yes Always) be compassionate. Christ came into our world as a living, breathing, demonstration of God's compassion. He lives where we live, sharing our joys and our sorrows. As Christ's brothers and sisters, we should always seek to understand the experiences and difficulties of others and live compassionately.

Second, Awareness beats ignorance. It's a lazy and dangerous thing to depend upon others to know things that you should know. You have a right to know what our politicians are doing in our name around the world. Are we bringing the peace that the angels sang of, or are we letting someone with the morals of King Herod set our foreign policy? In matters of religion, you should never be content to let your pastor know more about spiritual things than you do. The bible is an open book. Read it. When Jesus was 12, he went to the temple and questioned the elders. I don't think this means that he came into this world with all the answers crammed into his head. God gave his son an inquiring and intuitive mind. He gave one to you too. Have you lost it?

The third rule you've probably heard many times before. The ends never justify the means. But have you ever thought about it? At Christmastime we tell our kid that they can be honest about their ends, or the gifts that they want (tell Santa your ends/wants). But we caution them that the only way to get what they want is to "be good." Being good is the means to getting your ends. What we don't tell our kids is that "being good" is a pretty good "means" or process for life. There are certain means or processes that simply work. If I want to make rice, the process involves measuring the rice, measuring the water, and measuring the cooking time. If I get rushed or lazy, if I let some other end dictate what I'm doing, the rice burns, ends up sticky or soupy. If I let the end of wanting the rice served in half the time ruin my cooking behavior, my end will justify a set of bad means. And bad means always lead to trouble.

When will we learn this? Taken together, the three rules are a process or means for having a good new year. The process begins with compassion. It continues on with seeking to understand. It comes to maturity with examining the behaviors and means that we take in living every day. There are no short-cuts to character. Good character is built, one faithful process and well ordered day at a time. The recipe for next year involves discipleship. Learning how to do things right. Seeking to know what lies behind everything. And always, being compassionate.

God with us is God being compassionate
Christmastide 1
Luke 1:46-55
God has filled the hungry with good things

Karl Barth, the most prominent theologian of the most violent century of recorded human history (let us hope that our current century doesn’t take that honor from the twentieth century), was concerned about the church becoming too churchy. Most congregations in the 1950s & 60s were attempting to isolate their worship services from what was happening in the world around them. Then as today, violence was being fostered by our government officials. There was hatred, racism, and unnecessary poverty on the rise in our community. But the wisdom from most denominational leaders was, and is today, “Mind your own business and you’ll grow as a church.” In contrast, Barth says, “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need… the Bible and the Newspaper” [in our worship].

But you don’t care what Karl Barth says. Do you care what Mary, the young girl chosen to give birth to the son of God in our world says? She could have turned inward and focused on her personal feelings about the miracle of Christ's birth. She could have forgotten the violence and class warfare of her nation. Mary did not expect to give birth to Jesus in a vacuum. She has this clear insight; Immanuel, God with us, breathes the same fetid air that we do. 

So, she sings a song of warning and a prayer to God. She sings a song that shows her hope that God will not restrain his son or keep the activities of this special child isolated within a pristine bubble of religion. She sings:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

(Luke 1:52-53)

The world that Jesus came into had a religious problem set in a social context which should sound familiar. Israel's religious leaders, along with those who were wealthy, work together to form the local level of government. So, while the Romans owned the region and the family of Herod sat on the throne, it was the local priest, the wealthy landowner, and the Sanhedrin (seventy rich men) in Jerusalem, that had the greatest influence on how the widow in your village was treated, or who could be considered outcast and why. Even though they were not kings, the nation's religious leaders had great power. They could remind the people of God’s love for justice and the poor. They could read in public the words of Isaiah and the other prophets, where the foundation for a compassionate society is laid out. But instead, most religious leaders then spoke about lesser things; kosher laws, and the formulas surrounding a good temple sacrifice. Those entrusted with God’s word, divided their time between brown-nosing the secular rulers and blaming the poor for their poverty.

Jesus came at Christmastime to a world where religion no longer served the people. Mary sang her hope of a different order. What about today? We live in a time of social upheaval and political polarization of equal magnitude to that of the first century. We hear of wars around the planet fueled by causes that we haven’t taken the time to understand. We have conceded to social media the moral high ground that the ancient Sanhedrin in Jerusalem once occupied, and they have filled our cellphones with Russian trolls and spammy bots. We now find it reasonable for political leaders to lie all the time, and yet be very religious. In our news feeds and newspapers, we turn past the stories of children dying of thirst at our border, in order to read our horoscopes. Then after a week of this, we come to worship expecting to enjoy an hour of further isolation from reality and God's plan for a compassionate world. 

We need to really hear what Mary sang:

"My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; 

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, 

and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, 

and sent the rich away empty.

 

In Bible times, widows had to glean to find grain to eat
Advent 4
Philippians 4:4-7
Isaiah 9:2
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice

So, the Apostle Paul is in prison and he writes to people who care about him and know that he's getting a bum rap. I hear him saying, "Rejoice with me. Not because I think I'm getting out soon. I may die in here. The food here is consistently awful. It's damp and there are rats. But, Rejoice. Why? Jesus is near. And Jesus is coming again soon. And because right now in my prison cell he is near to me. I can rejoice even here." This is the deep message of Advent. One that so often gets lost in the tinsel and jingle of our holiday preparations. Jesus hasn't magically made things better. In fact, Paul was much worse off for having come to know Jesus. But, Jesus being near is our joy, our light in the darkness, our hope even in prison. 

This is the deep message of life. It is not our circumstances that make us joyful. It is our connection to what is life-giving, eternal, and true. When we find Jesus -- that is, really find Jesus, then our hope becomes real, even in a prison cell. We hear this in the prophets of old, a voice cries out of the dry, desolate, isolated, wilderness saying, "Comfort, comfort my people, God is near." That passage in Isaiah chapter 40, speaks of a road being built, a highway for our travel with God. It doesn't say that this smooth road already exists for us in our lives. We are still broken, desolate, separated from the things we think we need to have. We are still refugees in this world. But, God is near. 

And again, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned... [and they] rejoice." (Isaiah 9:2, 3). Paul has to acknowledge the reality of his prison cell. Isaiah has to admit that God's people are in darkness. We have to say that this is for many of us, the most depressing time of the year -- at least I find it the most inconvenient and disruptive time for my attempts to live within my means. Our spiritual lives are under brutal attack in these weeks before Christmas. But... Rejoice, Jesus is near. God is building a highway for us to travel with together with him.

Got that? Then you are ready to hear what Paul says next in Philippians 4. He says that we should become gentle people -- the Greek word here means to be persistently kind and compassionate. The kind of goodness that doesn't rub off no matter how badly people treat you. Why should we be this way? Paul says because, "the Lord is near." One translation puts it "at hand." So hold out your arm. Look how close that hand is to you. Jesus is at your hand. Rejoice. Be unstoppably gentle. 

Joyful words written from Jail
Advent 3
Remember those in Prison
Malachi 3:1-4
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap.

The Jesus we think of as we prepare for Christmas is always meek and mild. But the Jesus that the prophets predict is a bit more apocalyptic.  Malachi asks the question. "Who can survive his coming?" How do we reconcile the Jesus of "O little town of Bethlehem" and the claim that God's incarnation will be like "A refiner's fire"? As we do our advent candles are we counting down the weeks until we get beaten, bleached, into put hot water like laundry? Jesus will come this Christmas like a man doing laundry the old fashion way. Back in bible times, the "fuller" that we hear Jesus referred to, took the new wool cloth from the loom and boiled it with alkali and ash until all the vermin were dead. Then he beat the cloth on the rocks by the river until it was fluffy and full (why he's called a fuller) and then let it bake dry in the hot sun. That's how you take the matted hair of the sheep that grows all year in the dust and dung of the wilderness and make it fit for a king to wear. Jesus comes to prepare us for the kingdom of God. Jesus did not come into our world to give us a cute Christmas story. He came to save sinners, of which I am a good example. And he came to transform the world. Not an easy task when the world we have settled for loves the glitz and glitter of the commercial Christmas. Our world is corrupt, ignores the cries of the poor, and makes compromises with the truth. Jesus isn't going to be meek and mild this Advent.

How is Jesus like a refiner's fire or the fuller's wash-tub? In my own life Jesus appears as the refiner's fire when my problems and misdeeds have become too great for me to ignore. It is like what they say at AA, "I've come to believe that it will take a power greater than myself to restore me to sanity." That's when Malachi's Jesus becomes good news.

This got me thinking of the words of Scott Peck, "It is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually."

Jesus comes as the refiner's fire and the fuller's washing machine to get us to face our problems head on. Advent is a time of sober reflection. We say yes to the coming of our higher power.

Will we see the Refiner's fire this Advent?
Advent 2