Joyful Expectation

Audio and video of this will be available on the Christ Church website.


On the afternoon of April 23, 2017, Dennis Dickey and his pregnant wife journeyed out into the desert near Green Valley, Arizona with some family and friends excited to reveal whether the baby she was carrying was a boy or a girl.  This gender reveal party, and gosh am I glad my girls were born before these became a thing, was going to be unique.  Dennis Dickey was a US Border Patrol agent who used his skills to pack a small package full of a target practice material called tannerite.  From a safe distance away, Dickey shot the small package which exploded with a puff of blue  smoke.  For a moment, there must have been excitement and joy at the thought of welcoming a new baby boy into the family, but that quickly dissipated as the target’s fireball set the surrounding brush ablaze.  In a video made available by the US Forest Service, you can hear the tone quickly change to panic as they pack up their belongings and hit the road.  That small brush fire rapidly spread into the Coronado National Forest, and became known as the Sawmill Fire, burning almost forty-seven thousand acres.   For almost a week, firefighters from some 20 agencies fought the fire, which caused more than eight million dollars in damage.[1]  This September, Dennis Dickey plead guilty to a misdemeanor, was sentenced to five years’ probation, and has to pay almost $8.2 million in restitution.  So much for the joyful moment of expectation.

To me, Advent 1 kind of feels like that gender reveal party that went terribly wrong.  The whole world outside these walls is decorated for Christmas.  Trees, lights, and pictures with Santa, the season of joy and giving is upon us.  Yet, here in church on Sunday morning, we’re stuck listening to Jesus, once again, predicting the end of the world and warning of signs in the heavens, distress among the nations, and people literally fainting from fear and foreboding of what is to come.  As Becca said when we heard an almost identical lesson from Mark two weeks ago, where is the good news?  Where’s the hope?  Where’s the joy?  After another week of wars and rumors of wars, images of children running away from tear gas grenades, and an innocent black man who was the proverbial good guy with a gun being killed by police, can’t we just put up a tree, sing Joy to the World, click our heels together, and wish our way to Christmas?

Unfortunately, we cannot.  We are called to wait.  When Jesus told the crowd that “this generation” would not pass away before all these things came to pass, he wasn’t so much talking about the generation of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nathaniel, and Salome.  The Greek is more generic than simply meaning a 20-year period in which people are born.  This generation is an epoch, an era, or a season.  We are stuck here because here is where God is.  In the muck and mire, in the time in-between Jesus’ first coming – his incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension – and his second coming in a cloud with power and great glory to, as Billy reminded us last week, restore all things to their perfect state in God.  What defines this generation is our call to wait, not as idle observers, but as participants in the preparation: co-creators of the Kingdom of God.

Important things in life take time to plan, prepare, and bring to fruition.  Rome was not built in a day, and neither is Thanksgiving dinner.  It requires us to make a menu, develop a grocery list, and to know how long things take to cook.  You can’t pull a turkey out of the freezer at 9am on Thanksgiving Day and expect to sit down to a feast at 2.  The important things in life almost always take time, and then they are over in mere minutes.  Christmas takes at least a month of planning, shopping, and wrapping, and by 8am, the bags are filled with ripped paper and everybody is ready for a nap.  So too with the Kingdom of God.  Its arrival isn’t something that happens overnight.  Its preparation has taken two-thousand years.  It could take twenty-thousand more.

In the meantime, this generation, of which we are called to be a part, is one of waiting and preparation.  We are invited by Jesus to join with God in building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  “When you see these things begin to take place,” Jesus says, “stand up, and raise your hands.”  In the 2,000 or so years since Jesus said these words, there hasn’t been a time without war, famine, fear, and foreboding.  If one were watching out the window for the signs of the times, it might always look like Jesus is getting ready to hop on that cloud and enter with power and might.  Many have been made to shrink in fear that the end is nigh, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.

Disciples of Jesus are not able to sit idly by, fearfully waiting for the day of judgment.  Disciples of Jesus are called to lives of loving service while we wait.  We are called to avoid the causal anesthetics of this life.  Jesus calls them dissipation and drunkenness.  We might call them iPhones, Facebook arguments, cable news, or retail therapy.  Jesus warns us not to get so caught up in the here and now, be it the evil that we see around us, or the pacifiers we use to numb our fear-filled minds, that we lose sight of the bigger plan of restoration, renewal, and redemption.  It is easy to become numb to the bigger picture when all we see on a day-to-day basis are the painful realities of sin, but to get caught in the cycle of anger and fear or to allow ourselves to get drunk on groupthink and the comfort of being right is to lose focus on the signs that point to something larger, something more hopeful.

Just as the signs that Jesus talked about: wars, fear, and distress; have been around since the beginning, there have also always been signs of hope.  Even when things seem to be at their worst, we see people caring for those in need through acts of compassion and charity, strangers willing to love their unknown neighbor as themselves.  To borrow from Jesus’ metaphor, the fig tree has been coming into leaf for quite some time.  The Kingdom of God, even in our most godforsaken moments, is near at hand.  It has broken in through the birth of our Savior on Christmas and it will come to full fruit when Jesus returns with power and might.  In the meantime, as we long for moments of joy and hope amidst what can feel like the brushfire of everyday life, we are invited by Jesus to stand up, raise up our heads, roll up our sleeves, and get about the work of God: restoring all of humanity to right relationship with God and one another.  Are we willing to do that work? Will we be able to see that the great revealing that will take place isn’t meant to harm and destroy, but rather, to build and to restore?  Be on guard.  Be alert.  Get to work.  As we prepare for the coming of Christ, both as an infant born of Mary and as the King of kings on judgment day, we are invited to a season of joyful expectation, of hope for the future, and of God’s great gift for the world.  Amen.

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/27/us/arizona-gender-reveal-party-sawmill-wildfire-trnd/index.html

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Keep ya head up

In 2011, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the songs that in shaped rock.  The Guardian has called it one of thousand songs that everyone must hear.  And it has been running through my mind all week as I’ve read the Gospel lesson from Luke that is appointed for Advent 1C.  Tupac Shakur’s “Keep ya head up” is a song dedicated to black women, an anthem for the many who have been subjugated, violated, and treated as less than by men.  The album from which it comes is not a title I can share on this blog, but the song itself is quite clean, so I offer you the music video, should you be interested.

While it is the chorus, which features a sample from The Five Stairsteps “O-o-h Child” that has been my earworm for the week, the verses actually have something to say about apocalyptic vision that Jesus offers the crowd in Sunday’s lesson.  I’m especially drawn to these words:

It’s hard to be legit and still pay your rent
And in the end it seems I’m headin’ for the pen
I try and find my friends, but they’re blowin’ in the wind
Last night my buddy lost his whole family

It’s gonna take the man in me to conquer this insanity
It seems the rain’ll never let up
I try to keep my head up, and still keep from getting wetter
You know it’s funny when it rains, it pours

They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor
Said, there ain’t no hope for the youth
And the truth is, there ain’t no hope for the future

And then they wonder why we crazy
I blame my mother, for turnin’ my brother into a black baby
We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup
And even though you’re fed up

Huh, ya got to keep your head up

Read more: 2Pac – Keep Ya Head Up Lyrics | MetroLyrics

The world of East Harlem in the 1970s, the world in which Tupac was raised, was not that far removed from the vision that Jesus offers for the end times.  Fed up with racial profiling and police violence, the Black Panther Party, of which Tupac’s parents were both active members, was, at times, at war with the powers-that-be.  Much later in life, and now on the other side of the continent, Tupac wrote “Keep ya head up” in a situation in which not whole lot had changed.  The deck was still stacked against young African-Americans born into the poverty.  The men often took to the hustle to make enough money to eat and pay the rent.  Violence was a daily part of life.  Women, especially as featured in this song, were often left to raise children all on their own, either because the father was dead, could’t afford a baby, or had moved on to… less fertile pastures.

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Having come out of a world that seemed like the future was absolutely hopeless, Tupac Shakur chose to write a song about keeping your head up.  As Jesus looks upon a world that seems hellbent on its own destruction, where power and might are the only things that seem to actually mean anything or hold any value, it seems just as odd that he too might tell the oppressed and the downtrodden to, in the words of Tupac Shakur, “keep ya head up.”  Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus does.  For neither of them are these words meant to be platitudes, but rather, they speak to a deep truth that even when all hope seems lost, even when you’re fed up, the only real option is to keep your head up.  Keep striving for justice, for mercy, for righteousness.  Keep speaking truth to power.  Keep claiming your own dignity and worth.  Keep your head up, because the redemption of the world is drawing near.

Fun with Hebrew

There are many different names attributed to God in the Bible.  Often, they are associated with a particular action being attributed to God.  Amy Grant made “El Shaddai,” which roughly means “God Almighty” famous.  Speaking of which, this video is way to 1990s to not let you see it.

Yeshua, the Hebrew version of the name Jesus, means “God Saves.”  The list goes on.

Often in Scripture, the translators would keep the Hebrew word and then translate it for those of us not in the know, but that isn’t the case in the Jeremiah lesson appointed for Sunday, which caught my attention.  Here, the prophet is sharing God’s vision of a future restoration for Judah.  Verses 15 and 16 are almost identical to the same prophecy given several chapters earlier in 23:5-6.  In both cases, the NRSV, and several other English translations choose not to publish the two word Hebrew phrase, but rather the English equivalent.

And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

In doing a bit of digging, I came to realize a few things.  First, it seems the reason that the English translations don’t include the Hebrew original is because it includes the tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that make up the holy name of God, a name so holy that it ought not be spoken, but rather, is always replaced when read in Hebrew by “Adonai” or in our English translations by LORD in small caps that the WordPress editor doesn’t allow.

What I found even more interesting, and another reminder in how our English translations lack a lot being read some two to five thousand years removed from their original contexts, is that the word translated as righteousness is likely a play on words.  Tzedeq, according to my handy HarperCollins Study Bible, could be a wordplay on the name Zedekiah, which also means “the Lord is righteous” and happened to be the name given to the last King of Judah who was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon.  Tzedeq can also mean “legitimate,” which could very easily indicate that these parallel prophecies from Jeremiah are about a future king whose life and actions will indicate that the LORD is the legitimate King of Judah.

While it can be dangerous, and often self-serving, to read these prophecies backward through Jesus, that is what the RCL is inviting us to do by appointing Jeremiah 33:14-16 for the First Sunday of Advent.  The Branch, itself a word used to describe the Messiah, that will come and live a life showing the legitimate kingship of God is Jesus, whose birth and second coming we long for during this season of preparation.

Will it preach?  Maybe not, but just like Sheldon and Amy’s “Fun with Flags” series on “Big Band Theory” aren’t you glad you learned something today?

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The Signs of the Times

As I looked outside this morning, it was well past time for the sun to be up, but a lower, lingering gray continued to hold court in the sky.  Snow flurries were dancing along the tops of the leaves that are begging me to rake them toward their final resting place.  The trees, through which I’d normally see the sun coming over the horizon, are mostly bare, with only the last few holdouts just barely hanging on.  Looking outside, it wasn’t hard to tell that today was going to be a cold, wet, and dreary kind of day.  No matter how much I might wish for a sunny day in the mid-50s, it isn’t going to happen, and this morning’s snapshot out my front window betrays that reality.

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As a new Church Year begins, we move the focus of our Sunday Gospel lessons from Mark’s brevity to Luke’s more expansive theological story-telling style.  On this First Sunday of Advent, we jump deep into Holy Week for another foray into apocalyptic literature.  Unlike in Mark, where Jesus offered his eschatological reflections from the Mount of Olives to only a select few hearers, here, Jesus is in the Temple, talking to whomever will listen about what is to come.

“When you see the fig tree come into bloom, you know summer is at hand,” Jesus tells the crowded Temple court, “so pay attention, for you will see the signs of the times for the coming of the Kingdom of God.”  As with most visions of the End Times, Jesus’ imagery is full of war, famine, fear, are foreboding.  He tells the audience that in those moments, they shouldn’t cower in fear, but rather, “raise up your heads because your redemption is drawing near.”

In the 2,000 or so years since Jesus said these words, there hasn’t been a time without war, famine, fear, and foreboding.  If one were watching out the window for the signs of the times, it might always look like Jesus is getting ready to hop on that cloud and enter with power and might.  Many a charlatan, of the sort that Jesus warned the crowds about earlier in Luke (a version of which we heard from Mark two weeks ago), have made themselves rich and powerful by a false reading of these signs.  Many have been made to shrink in fear that the end is nigh, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.  In a world that constantly looks like it is coming to an end, and most often so due to the sinfulness of humanity, are we able to read the signs and raise up our heads?  Will we be willing to stand up and invite others to join in the work of restoration to which we are invited?  Are we able to see that the great revealing that will take place isn’t meant to harm and destroy, but rather, to build and restore?

Let’s be honest, the times don’t look that good these days.  Signs of the end are as prevalent as they’ve ever been.  Will we cower in fear?  Will we resign ourselves to anger and sadness?  Or, will we raise up our head, roll up our sleeves, and join with God’s redeeming work?

Caught Unexpectedly

I’ve long since decided that social media is bad for your health.  Yet, like my love for potato chips, I keep at it.  Day after day.  I scroll through my newsfeeds, filled with anger, arrogance, and vitriol.  It certainly doesn’t bring as much satisfaction as the crisp of a kettle cooked and salted to perfection chip, but addicted as I am, my thumb slides, almost as if uncontrolled by my brain, up, and up, and up.

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At some point, it seemed like I had seen it all.  Obama didn’t do this.  Trump did that.  Hilary and Mitch did this or that.  If I wasn’t addicted to the swipe, I’d certainly be hooked on the anger.  The rage cycle is designed to keep us coming back so that the advertisers can get eyeballs on their links.  I’d probably gotten to the point of ennui, If I’m honest.  I couldn’t get angry one more time.  I couldn’t be sad again.  It was all, in the great biblical euphemism, vanity.  Yet, like a dog to its own vomit, I keep going back.

And then it happened.  I was caught unexpectedly by the image of a mother and who two young children, running away from a grenade of billowing smoke designed to sear the eyes and lungs.  What do I do with this information?  How do I react?  What do I feel?  I had nothing.  I was angry, sad, horrified, and embarrassed all at the same time.  I knew as a leader of a faith community that I was being called to say something, but I had no idea what.  So I posted this:

When words fail, I’m grateful for the wisdom contained in our BCP:‬
‪“Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us…”‬
‪And if you could take away tear gas, that’d be good too.‬
‪Amen.‬

Then, I opened the readings for Sunday and I saw this warning from Jesus, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”  He is talking about the eschaton here, but I think maybe he’s talking generically as well.  Don’t let that day, or any day, catch you unexpectedly.  There will come times when your faith will lead to you question the world in which you live.  Don’t be weighed down by worry, frivolity, or the swipe of your right thumb.  Don’t be so used to the noise that you miss the cries of the oppressed.  I still don’t know what to do or what to say, but I know that I can still pray.

Almighty God, tear down the walls that separate us, human beings divided and enslaved by sin, and gather us up on the banner of your Son, the Prince of Peace, the King of kings, and the hope of all humanity.  Amen.

Reading the [fig] leaves

 

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is chronically difficult to deal with.  What did Jesus mean by signs in the sun, moon, and stars?  How do we handle Jesus’ promise that the generation would not pass away before these things took place?  Is Jesus suggesting that if we pray hard enough, we can be saved – isn’t that works righteousness?  What the hell does any of this have to do with Christmas?  I’m not preaching this week, and I haven’t done my homework on this difficult text, so I can’t really help you with any of that, but I have become particularly interested in Jesus’ mention of the fig leaves.

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In my neck of the woods, the harbinger of summer isn’t the fig tree; it is the pecan tree that tells us that winter is over.  I’m not sure how it knows, but the locals say that the pecan tree never buds before the last frost/freeze of the season.  When the pecan tree finally begins to bud, it is time to put away the winter gear because warmer weather is on its way.  Like I said, I’m not sure how the pecan tree knows, but we know from years and years of experience.  The data tells us, and so it has become a sign.

The problem with the second coming, which along with the annual remembrance of Christ’s incarnation, is part of what we long for this Advent season, is that there is no data.  There is only speculation, and any number of foolish souls who are eager to read the leaves: fig, pecan, or maybe even tea; and try to know something that Jesus told us will come unexpectedly.

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Rather than reading leaves, Jesus tells us that we should be about the work of the Kingdom.  This only makes sense, since it is the Kingdom we are waiting for anyway.  Wouldn’t it be better to be reaching out in love for our neighbor when God comes to bring about his reign of love full-time?  Wouldn’t it be better to better to develop a strong prayer life in preparation for the coming of the One to whom we pray?  Getting about the work of the Kingdom will take away from our ability to read the leaves, but it will make us all the more ready for when our prayer, the prayer that Jesus taught us, that the Kingdom might exist on earth as it does in heaven, finally comes to pass.  So, quit looking for signs in the heavens or for buds on the trees, roll up your sleeves, and get busy with Kingdom work.

Advent need not be dour

Before you read my post today, click here and read my friend, Evan Garner’s, excellent post from yesterday.

My Facebook Memories section this morning featured not one, not two, but three different blogposts on my discomfort with the season of Advent.  In 2008, 2010, and again in 2014, I discussed why I dislike this season so much.  It is partly because I find the music to be absolutely dreadful, but mostly because I have such a hard time disconnecting from the wider cultural impact of the Christmas season.  I get that Advent is now seen as “counter-cultural,” but the majority of my Facebook friends who comment on it “not being Christmas yet” just sound obnoxious, and the Good News of Jesus Christ was never meant to be obnoxious.

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So what are we to do with this season that if full of awful music and lessons about the end of the world while the rest of the world is doing the whole peace and joy thing that the Kingdom of God is supposed to be about?  How can the Church be counter the culture of rampant consumerism without the counter the culture of time spent with family, sharing cookies, and trying to make the world a better place?  Maybe we take the chance to preach from somewhere other than the Gospel lesson.  Let Jesus handle the “signs in the sun, moon, and stars” and instead focus on Paul’s summation of what this Seasons of Advent and Christmas should really be about.

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?… And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”

Let’s focus less on whether the altar should be blue or purple, less on whether we should say “Merry Christmas” before Christmas, less on the fact that the twelve days of Christmas don’t actually start until Christmas Day, and focus more on what it means to spend the next month and half rejoicing because Emmanuel has come and will come again to ransom us from bondage to sin and restore us to the everlasting life of peace, hope, and love, to paraphrase the only decent Advent hymn.

The Church doesn’t have to give up on Advent.  We don’t have to stop being countercultural in this season of excess, but we should probably quit the whole Debbie Downer routine and celebrate that for at least 30 days each year, the usually critical of religion world we live in embraces the core tenants of our faith.  We should pray, like Paul did, for an increase in love for one another and for all.  It seems to be what we say Christmas is all about, so why not live it, whether the Church calendar says its Christmas or not.