Fruit of the Month Club

I’ve read Revelation, but if I’m honest, I’ve never really studied it much. We dabbled in it in seminary, but it was really high level stuff. If I spent a little time on it, I could probably remember the key players and symbols that help inform how we read John’s Revelation not with the terrible theology of the Left Behind series ruining it for us.

I’ve been reminded of my lack of deep knowledge on Revelation of late because in Year C, we read portions of the book during Eastertide. It’s way easier to preach John or Acts, so nobody in my congregation has heard anything about John’s great vision, but as I read the lesson appointed for Easter 6C, I couldn’t help be smile at the image of the new Jerusalem that John sees.

Stuck in the midst of this grand vision of a world in which there is no longer night, which can’t be heaven, in my opinion, is this description of the Tree of Life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

This image of the Tree of Life producing its own fruit of the month club has me thinking about the abundance of the Kingdom of God. From my white, middle class, American perspective, I imagine the fruit to be grapes one month, apples another, and strawberries the month after that, but the reality is there is probably lychee, mangos, monk fruit, and maybe even durian.

The fruit that God offers to those who seek after the restoration of the world is going to look a lot like the fruit that challenges our tastes, those things that we give priority to in order to perpetuate our own comfort and sense of normalcy, and invites us to experience what brings joy to those around us, those we don’t know, those whose experiences have been marginalized. It’ll be ever changing, always challenging, and, it is important to remember, always life giving.

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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?

Stay Awake

I’m feeling really sluggish today.  It can’t be that I didn’t sleep well.  It isn’t that I’m stressed.  It is likely the result of my first fall in a decade, the histamine power of that classic fall forest-floor smell.  No matter what it is, I can tell today is going to be one of those days where I have to actively work at getting myself to do anything productive.  I would much rather space out scrolling through memes trolling the University of Tennessee Football debacle than come up with words to say about St. Andrew or a rough outline for my Advent teaching series.  As I read Sunday’s Gospel lesson through my droopy eyelids, tempted to pick up my phone, Jesus’ words hit me right between my itchy eye.

Keep Awake!

We may have switched Gospels for the start of a new Church Year, but our lesson is still situated on Tuesday in Holy Week.  Jesus, knowing what is to come, is preparing his disciples for not only his second coming, but his initial departure.  Things are fixin’ to get pretty awful, and being awake and alert, able to remember that which he has already clearly taught them, will prove helpful.  Of course, we who know the story, know that staying awake will proved difficult.  On Thursday night, after supper and a few glasses of wine, Jesus will ask them to pray in the Garden while he goes off for some one-on-one time with the Father, and they will fail.  Their eyes will get heavy, and they will fall asleep.

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But this isn’t just a literal word for sleepy disciples, it is also a metaphorical word for all of us who continue to follow the resurrected and ascended Jesus.  We have to sleep, our bodies require it.  Staying awake, as the Season of Advent begins, means putting aside the temptations and distractions and focusing on the Kingdom of God.  It means living as though Jesus will return tomorrow, expecting us to be actively engaged in the work of his Kingdom.  It means caring for the poor, protecting the environment, making room for the marginalized to have a voice, and creating space for all God’s children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

In a world full of distraction, technological, physiological, and otherwise, it can be difficult to keep awake and stay alert, but it is God’s will for us that we put aside the devices and desires of our own hearts and follow after the one who will come at an unexpected hour.

In service of the King

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If you spend much time in liturgical churches, you will no doubt see the three letters at the center of the cross in the above picture.  IHS is a Latin-scripted contracted version of the all-capitalized Greek rendering of Jesus IHΣΟΥΣ, which is to say, all IHS really means, historically is the first three letters of the name Jesus.  Over time, and especially after the Protestant Reformation cut off most Church history prior to 1617, the meaning of many symbols morphed into something else or disappeared all together, such that for many American Christians IHS means “In His Service.”

This is, of course, not inherently a bad thing.  To have Christians living by a motto like “In His Service” could prove fruitful in a world hell-bent on the service of self, and what better time to consider our service of Jesus than on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, which in many Episcopal Churches is called “Christ the King.”  The Gospel lesson appointed for Year A is comprised of Jesus’ final image of the eschaton.  I would title it “the sheep and the goats,” but after twenty minutes for frantic searching during my General Ordination Exams, I now know that the HarperCollins Study Bible calls it “The Judgement of the Gentiles,” even though Gentiles aren’t mentioned in it once. (The digressions are coming fast and furious this Monday, please accept my apologies.)

In this vision of the final judgment, Jesus offers as clear a statement on what is expected of his followers.  I’m thankful to my friend, Evan Garner, for reminding me of the context of all of Jesus’ teaching on the End Times.  “These three judgment parables are not spoken to the crowds or to Jesus’ opponents but to Jesus’ closest friends. They already know what it means to belong to God as God’s beloved children. He’s not telling them what it takes to get into the kingdom of God. He’s inviting them to see what is required to live within that kingdom.”  We, who follow in the Apostolic Tradition, should read these words similarly.  This isn’t a judgment upon those who do not know Jesus, but a clear testimony of what life should look like for those who claim Jesus as Lord.

Our lives are best lived in the service of the King.  IHS might not have always meant “In His Service,” but it is a helpful reminder that our proper response tot he love of God is to reach out in loving service to those he came to save.  We who are bold enough to claim a place in the Kingdom of God bring honor to the King when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, and visit the incarcerated.  When, at the end, it comes time to determine whose lives were lived in allegiance to the King of kings, our service of the King will be the opportunity for judgment.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth – Oh My!

I would guess that the average Episcopalian is cool with the Parable of the Talents all the way up to the final verse.  Sure, there are some who will embrace the imagery of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, just as there are some Socialist Episcopalians who will balk at the whole premise of this parable, but, by and large, most of us feel like we can understand what Jesus is up to until we hear those words of judgment.  It is there that we get fidgety.

Now, I’m not so sure we feel uncomfortable about the imagery that Jesus uses because we are afraid that we’ll end up there.  I think it is probably more likely that our discomfort comes when we think of those whom we think might find themselves there someday, and we instantly become uncomfortable.  Episcopalians tend to be pretty willing to let the whole hell thing go.  But I’m not so sure that’s helpful.

Let’s be clear, this particular set of images for what eternal damnation might look like are nearly exclusive to Matthew.  The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears seven times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  Six of those occurrences are in Matthew.  We are clearly getting some of Matthew’s theology thrown in here, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the whole image away.  Instead, I think it is helpful to spend some time pondering what this image is intended to convey.  Three times it is combined with the outer darkness.  Twice it is used in conjunction with the furnace of fire.  The other use speaks of where the hypocrites are.  The image is meant to convey a place of isolation, like the Jewish concept of Gehenna or the burning place, where those who were judged to be worthless, wicked, and lazy will end up in the final judgment.

This is not what Dante created for us in his Inferno, but it is still very much a place in which no one would like to end up, and that is exactly why we need to talk about it.  Not to scare anyone into belief, but to be honest about the fact that our decisions have ramifications.  Until we are willing to talk honestly about sin and about how the broken relationships that sin creates have long-lasting, even eternal, impact, we are failing to help our people understand the fullness of the grace of God.  Rather, the image that many of our people have been given is that their faith doesn’t really matter, how they live their live is without impact, and that hell is only a place “they” use to force conversion.

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Another chance to bring up our poorly worded value statement. Huzzah!

Without judgment, there is no true grace.  While we need not be known as a church of judgment, we should be clear that all of humanity stands under the judgment of God and that, at least for us, the path to restored relationship is through live-changing faith in Jesus Christ, and this Sunday offers the preacher a chance to name that reality with hope, with grace, with good theology, and, we hope, with tact.

Staying Awake is Prayer and Action

I’ve written so many of these posts over the years that I’m tired.  So tired, in fact, that I contemplated not doing it.  You no doubt noticed that I skipped it yesterday.  I just couldn’t bring myself to write another post about another mass shooting.  I was on vacation the week that Las Vegas happened.  I posted on Facebook, but didn’t have a chance to write anything here.

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But honestly, after Sandy Hook and the Pulse Nightclub, I really thought I had written my last post about people being slaughtered in a place where they should have been safe from the evils of anger, mental illness, domestic violence, and semi-automatic machine guns.  And then Sunday happened, and while the people of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs were saying their prayers, at least 27 of them were killed by an angry white man hellbent on destroying the world as he had come to understand it.

The doors of FBC Sutherland Springs are red, just like the doors of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green and thousands of others around the world.  The red doors can symbolize many things, from a mortgage free church to a welcoming congregation, but if you ask around, you are most likely to hear that it means a place of sanctuary.  Soldiers and law enforcement, it is said, are unable to pursue someone inside the red doors of a church.  It is supposed to be a place of safety.  While harm has come to worshipers inside the safety of the red doors before, this time, we have a 24 hour news cycle and social media to ensure that every person on the planet knows that it happened.  And, as if like clockwork, the various sides began to circle their wagons.

As has been a growing trend of late, the zero sum game between those who would offer prayer and those who would work for change has come to the forefront in the aftermath of Sunday’s tragedy.  It has become as if praying for the victims of such events is now offensive while only those who are actively working for reasonable gun control are real disciples of Jesus.  This is, of course, absurd.  The zero sum game between prayer and work is a falsehood, most likely handed to us by the devil himself, to make sure Christians continue to present in the wider culture as angry, ill mannered, and hypocritical.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson invites us to consider that famous seminary phrase, “both/and.”  In the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In it, Jesus seemingly admonishes his disciples to not be like either set of bridesmaids, since they all fell asleep, but rather, we are called to keep awake for the return of the bridegroom.  For those who know the larger story, this will immediately bring to mind the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night Jesus was arrested.  Despite Jesus imploring them to keep awake and pray with him, they fell asleep.  Three times, they failed to stay awake.

In times like these, disciples of Jesus are certainly called to stay awake and pray, but I think we are also called to the obvious meaning of the parable as well.  In order to be like the wise bridesmaids, we are called to do the work required to be ready when Jesus comes.  That work of preparation means working toward just solutions on topics like common sense gun control, funding for mental health, social safety nets, and quality public education.  Can we just pray?  Probably not.  Can we just call our Senators?  No, that won’t work either.  It is only through both prayer and work that we will be able to join with God in building the Kingdom Jesus describes in his parables.

[Don’t] Get Caught Up

Last week, I noted that the Revelation of John is very rarely preached on in Episcopal congregations.  As it is with evangelism, the call to repentance, and discipleship, the lack of attention we Episcopalians give to the eschaton is to our detriment.  Rather that offering a positive glimpse into what God might have to say about sin, salvation, and the end times, we instead focus on not being “like them.”  We castigate the bad theology of rapture preachers, while offering little, if any, in the way of a coherent theology of the final judgment. This Sunday, as our congregations hear Paul’s description of the final hours from 1 Thessalonians, their minds will immediately gravitate toward that bumper sticker they might have seen on their way to work last week, and we will have nothing to offer them.

 

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What if preachers did take some time to carefully consider the final days?  What if, instead of laughing at those who read the Left Behind series and take is seriously, we presented an alternative vision of the triumphant return of Christ?  What if, instead of simply lamenting the clothesline theology of apocalyptic preachers, we offered a glimpse into the hope we confess at least once, and often twice, each Sunday, that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead?

Remember that Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament writings that we have.  In this first generation after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the prevailing wisdom was that Jesus would be coming back, like, tomorrow.  When he didn’t, and when people of the Way began dying, their fellow Christians weren’t quite sure what to do.  These words from Paul are a pastoral response.  Unlike Daniel or John, Paul is not writing from visions, but is offering, as best he can understand it, an idea of how God might handle the problem of “the quick and the dead.”  As William Barclay notes in his commentary, “It is not the details which are important.  What is important is that in life and in death Christians are in Christ – and that is a union which nothing can break.” (p. 235)

Two thousand years later, our people still wonder about these things.  As I noted above, we say we believe that Christ will come again every Sunday (and at least twice a day if we follow the Daily Office), but what does that mean in a world where some say we might we swept up into heaven with no warning?  It means that God’s grace covers us.  It means that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.  It means that when Jesus does return, whether today or a million years from now, we who call on his name have nothing to worry about.  So don’t get caught up in the rapture hype, but certainly, get caught up in the salvation that belongs to our God.