"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jesus and stuff

So it's been awhile as I've been trying to find a new rhythm in a whole new way of life.  But it is my hope to work some things out here and not just keep them rattling around in my head.

Last week’s gospel reading in the lectionary was from the gospel of Luke and it describes Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry going into the synagogue in his home village and reading a short passage from the writings of the prophet Isaiah.  What he read was this:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

And then it says that Jesus proclaimed to the audience that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The inference here is that Jesus is claiming that Isaiah is referring to Jesus, ie that Jesus is the one anointed by God to lead the Judean people to a new relationship with God; that he (Jesus) is the long-anticipated Messiah.

So if that is true, then this passage serves as Jesus’ mission statement.  What is of interest to me is that Jesus’ self-described mission is not inherently religious, at least not in the way that we think of religion in this culture.  Jesus’ mission is primarily political; only the restoration of the blind’s sight is apolitical.  Though even there, we can look at how disabled persons are treated in first century Judea and construct a political subtext.  In other words, Jesus’ mission has nothing to do with going to heaven, or personal morality but instead has everything to do with creating a just society.

In comparing life in most modern industrialized societies to life in the Roman Empire, we live in paradise.  And American and European culture is inherently Christian in its assumptions and perspectives, that perhaps it is no surprise that institutional Christianity is on the wane – so much has already been accomplished.

Of course, that’s probably not true.  The Church thought it had accomplished Jesus’ mission back when the emperor Constantine came around to their way of thinking 1700 years ago.  The great historian of the church, Eusebius, implies just that and believes the takeover of the church by the imperial court was God’s greatest victory (mind you he saw it the other way ‘round).

But I do find it depressing, as a Christian, to see many of my so-called brothers and sisters leading the fight to maintain the old, unjust societal systems created to maintain hierarchies of privilege.  My reading of the bible does not lead me to see Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as something so small as a fear based system of moral rectitude designed to deliver me to some otherworldly realm of ease.  Rather, I see an invitation to immerse ourselves in the messy world so that we, emboldened and made fearless by Christ’s actions, can demand and implement changes in human society to create a more just world.

And by the way, the bible suggests that the return of Christ is the descent of heaven so that it and earth are one and the same.  Where do we get the idea that our destiny is a disembodied eternity?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

This was the sermon I preached at St Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church on the Epiphany.  Their pastor (Pastor Wanda Childs) and I did a pulpit swap.  It was a first and lot of fun for me to preside at a Lutheran service.  To see Pastor Wanda's sermon at my regular venue, you can find it here.

Epiphany, RCL year C, 2012

Today is Epiphany, and in this season we weave together the stories of the Magi and their gifts and the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan as we contemplate the heralding and announcement of the arrival of the Lord which we have anticipated in Advent.  At Christmas, God has become incarnate and now in Epiphany, that manifestation of God begins to affect our world.

Thought the Magi seek the King of the Judeans, they themselves are not followers of the One God, but their compulsion to follow that brilliant light in the sky to Bethlehem is the first sign that the arrival of the Messiah of Israel is an event of worldwide importance and cosmological magnitude. 
The savior of Israel, it says, is the savior of the world, the light over Bethelehem is meant for all eyes to see, it’s brilliance meant to chase away the shadows and darkness which enslave our world.

The whole effort of God’s Covenant with Israel, the thousands of years of waiting have been building to this, the Incarnation of God in Jesus.  And this God-child arrives in the most unlikely of places, born of a virgin in a stable, a helpless child born of poor parents far away from their small village.  The God of all that is, seen and unseen, arrives quietly in the margins of life.

And that God should come this way, quietly, at night, as a human child says something profound to us.  That our world is capable, and not just capable, but worthy – worthy of holding and nurturing the divine.

The Christ child is a bold pronouncement that we matter, our lives matter and that to be born and to live is an act of divine love.  And that this life is not something merely to be endured, some sort of cruel test to decide whether we get to wear wings and play harps for all eternity, but something to be savored and the very essence of God’s creative action in the universe.

We believe Jesus to be fully divine and FULLY human.  He was a man with dirty fingernails and callouses, who lived with all of the difficulties, troubles and annoyances which beset us.  And in the midst of a human life he still followed, wholly, God’s will, even though, as the gospels attest, he himself would have rather avoided it.

In the individual stories of the Bible we see the intersection of God and human lives and the human imagination.  And taken all together the Bible stories tell us the salvation story, the grand narrative of God’s efforts to create out of chaos and to gift life into the cosmos.
But for us, it can be hard to see God’s actions in our own lives.  It is easy to see faith as a response for something God did a long time ago.  In Christmas itself, we look back to events that occurred over two thousand years ago.  And truthfully, in our individual celebrations of Christmas, we are half living in the Christmases past, remembering the joys and losses of the Christmas seasons past.

And our lives in the church can be the same.  We remember how things used to be.  In too many churches we remember how much better things used to be.  But perhaps our memories are not so good as we might believe.  The four gospel writers don’t even agree on all the details of the birth of Jesus, Mark doesn’t even comment on it at all.  I suspect that if I were to poll everyone here today about the Christmas story, nearly all of us would mash together the individual gospel stories, plus some stuff from our hymns and maybe a TV Christmas special or two to come up “the Christmas story.”

But I suspect also, that by and large we would all come up with the salient points, that Jesus was born, that his arrival heralded great things, and that throughout, God was present and active.

And so it is with all of our faith stories, the details aren’t always as important as the great themes and the trajectory of the story.  I think it is important that there is no Book of Jesus.  Jesus left us no written works, no book of laws, no pithy sayings, nothing.  No, instead Jesus left us his friends.  And he commanded his friends to tell others and to have those others tell even more.  And so on and so on until someone told you and me about Jesus.

And that’s what church is about.  It’s a place where we discover our own story in the midst of God’s story.  And it’s the place where, hopefully, we gather the means and the courage to go and tell someone else.

And that’s what Epiphany means, revelation – the sharing and showing of something.  So we gather here, to remember certainly, but also to be reminded of God’s great care for us, God’s great love for us.

The arrival of Christ and his revelation to the world is a bold pronouncement that we need no longer live in fear of the powers of darkness which suffuse our world. It is meant to embolden us not to turn our backs on the world but to engage it fully, to take hold of it and to transform it in light of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, the Christ.  This Epiphany is our permission, no - our command to continue that pronouncement, that Revelation, that Life - so that one day, no one will live in fear but all will live within the hopefulness of Christ.  Amen.