Escape From the Advent Zombies

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Mark 13:24-37

“what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

 

Escape From the Advent Zombies

 “Keep Awake?” How dare a preacher stand up here in the busiest time of the year and intone, “Keep Awake,” when students work through caffeine-induced hallucinations to finish their final papers; when managers and labor work into the night to prepare their end-of-the year reports; and when parents fight the madness of the midnight shopping crowds to buy their child a PlayStation 4, braving even pepper-spray.

“Keep awake,” indeed.

That is more the world’s requirement than the way of Christ, don’t you think?

And keep awake for what? Haven’t we heard enough from the religious fringe of this eschatology, this end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it rhetoric? And haven’t they always been wrong?

And hey, Christmas is coming—angels, shepherds, baby in a manger with animals all around—why on earth does the church’s calendar of Bible readings give us all this stuff about the end of the world?

Then again, maybe this is exactly what we need to think about now, as scientists predict catastrophic climate change, as ISIS spreads their terror and influence from Syria to Iraq and Iran, and North Korea shoots off missiles between issuing threats to destroy the world with their nuclear capability.

The problem with passages such as the little apocalypse in Mark is that they have been used and abused as weapons of mass distraction. They have been used in our own day to frighten and threaten anyone who does not fall in line with a particular theology. They have even been used as contemporary political texts to threaten the righteous destruction of other nations.

So how do we pick through the rubble of mistaken predictions, misguided interpretation, and just plain rotten theology (am I a curmudgeon yet?) to assemble a responsible Christian proclamation of gospel, of good news, for Advent—and do so with the background music of Winter Wonderland?

Those of you who have been listening to me preach for lo these many years will know by now where I’m going—back to the original context of Mark’s writing of this passage.

It takes us back to about 70 A.D., forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, in the midst of, or in the immediate aftermath of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, including the temple. [Much of Mark may have been written earlier than that, but chapter 13 reflects the context of the siege of Jerusalem.] For the first century Jewish and Christian community, this was their 9-11 moment, their Pearl Harbor, and their Cuban Missile Crisis, all wrapped up in one event. The world as they knew it had, in fact, come to an end. As the dust of destruction billowed up and darkened the sky over Jerusalem, the words of Jesus came back to Mark, how the sun would be darkened and the moon would not give its light. The poetic language of stars falling and the powers of heaven being shaken took on a new and literal context. Their question was not when it would happen—for them, it already had. Their questions were, “What now? What next?”

In that context, the words of Mark 13 are not threats, but words of hope.

They reach back to the words of the psalm,

 God is our refuge and strength,

   a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

 In other words, God is still in charge.

No matter what happens, no matter what human failures we suffer through, God remains in charge of our ultimate destiny.

That is the apocalypse, which means, literally, an unveiling.

Mark’s apocalypse, his unveiling, or pulling back the curtain to show us what’s going on backstage, proclaims that even when it seems the world is falling apart, even when it seems life is falling apart, God is at work making a new heaven and a new earth, a place where God will wipe away every tear.

To those who feel that the burden of their family or their business, or the survival of the world is on their shoulders, the good news of apocalyptic hope is that God has not abandoned the world; God has not left us to our own devices.

There was a time, in the nineteenth century, when Protestant ministers preached these apocalyptic texts as descriptions of what human progress could accomplish. The industrial revolution and advances in science promised a new age, a day when illness could be eradicated and slavery and poverty abolished, if only we worked hard enough.

For those who harbored ultimate hope in human moral progress into the twentieth century, however, the mass destruction of WW I and WW II, along with the holocaust, and the ongoing scourge of sexual slavery destroyed any such illusion. Scientific progress, in the hands of human beings, did not and does not automatically lead us into the Kingdom of God.

Our hope, then, is not that we will create a new heaven and a new earth. It is not that you and I, through super-human effort, will bring ultimate reconciliation to all those around us in conflict, or bring about peace on earth.

Our hope, our vision, is the promise that God is leading us toward a new heaven and a new earth, and we get to be part of it. The paradox is that the work is God’s not ours, and we are relieved from the anxiety of our past failures; and yet, because the work is God’s, not ours, the work of reconciliation and generosity and peacemaking is not doomed to failure. It is meaningful.

Jesus said,

28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

Staying awake, staying alert, then, is not so much suffering the sleep deprivation of this busy time of year as it is keeping our eyes open for the signs of God’s grace breaking into the world.

A few years ago, there was an advertisement in a magazine for a beaded handbag costing thousands of dollars held by a model, eyes closed, looking beautiful but comatose. The banner read, “Comfort and joy.” [Thanks to Kathleen Norris in Christian Century for this.]

Staying awake, keeping alert, in the gospel’s word of hope, is the encouragement we need if we are to escape the fate of becoming Advent zombies. Instead, we can keep our eyes and ears open for God’s presence.

In 1993, John Prine released a different kind of Christmas album. Along with a few old standards like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause,” he also explores the shadow side of Christmas with a song called “Christmas in Prison.” At the beginning of the second song on the record, he tells a live audience a story before he sings. He says, “I got a kind of unusual gift for Christmas a couple of years back, I got a divorce for Christmas, so I really didn’t know what to do; so I went out and bought myself an electric train because I never had one before. And me and this friend of mine, we nailed it to the dining room table. Just ‘cause we could.”

After that, though, he sings a song he wrote for his ex in which he pokes fun at his own bitterness and finally sings, “I wish you love/ I wish you happiness/ I guess I wish you/ all the best.”

Ignace Yan Paderewski was a Russian composer-pianist who died in 1941. One evening he was scheduled to perform at a great concert hall. In the audience of black tuxedos and long evening gowns was a mother with her fidgety nine-year old son. His mother brought him in hopes her boy would be encouraged to practice the piano if he could just hear the immortal Paderewski. So, against his own wishes, he had come.

As the mother turned to talk with her friends before the concert began, the boy slipped from her side, and without much notice from the audience, he sat down at the stool, staring wide-eyed at the black and white keys, and he put his fingers on the keyboard. He began to play “Chopsticks.”  The roar of the crowd was hushed by hundreds of frowning faces turned in his direction. An angered audience began jeering at the boy, booing and hissing for him to be taken from the stage.

Backstage, Paderewski overheard the sounds out front and put together what was happening. He grabbed his coat and rushed toward the stage. Without one word of announcement, he stooped over the boy, reached around both sides and began to improvise a counter melody to harmonize and enhance the tune. As the two of them played together, Paderewski kept whispering in the boy’s ear:  “Keep going. Don’t quit son. Keep on playing. Don’t quit. I’m right here…don’t quit!” [Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson on Day 1 for this story].

Though our efforts to live out the grace and love and generosity of a crucified and risen Lord may be as “Chopsticks” next to the soaring music of Handel’s “Messiah,” yet we have this word of encouragement constantly in our ear. God is the composer, whispering in our ear, “Don’t quit, I’m right here, keep on, keep on, keep on.”

Thanks be to God.

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David LaMotte Is A Dangerous Man

WC101-cover-final-sm

Worldchanging 101: Challenging the Myth of Powerlessness, by David LaMotte

David LaMotte is a dangerous man. His demeanor is gentle. His acoustic guitar and singing voice depend on a microphone to be heard in a crowded room. His speaking voice has a velvet quality that you will hear through his writing whether or not you have ever heard him speak.

That’s what makes him so dangerous. Continue reading “David LaMotte Is A Dangerous Man”

Shocking, Scandalous, and Offensive, Just Like the Grace Of Jesus

91XD1k9kjoL._SL1500_Translating the Gospel into the language of one’s parishioners, whatever the context, presents the parish pastor with a daunting daily challenge. In Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of her struggle to find not just words, but just the right emotional tone to convey the shocking, scandalous, offensive, and wondrous grace of Jesus to a congregation of saints and sinners deeply aware of their brokenness.

Middle-class suburban mainline Protestants might mistake her theological reflection for the profane exclamations of the captain of a pirate ship, but within the context of her congregation, the House for All Sinners and Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ in bold and clear translation.

Were I to lead a study of this book with the over-eighty church ladies, I would be sure to come equipped with a supply of smelling salts in my communion kit for those few whose impaired sense of humor or heightened sense of decorum would lead them to faint on the floor should they hear their pastor read aloud one of his favorite passages, such as:

You hear a lot of nonsense in hospitals and funeral homes. God had a plan, we just don’t know what it is. Maybe God took your daughter because He needs another angel in heaven. But when I’ve experienced loss and felt so much pain that it feels like nothing else ever existed, the last thing I need is a well-meaning but vapid person saying that when God closes a door he opens a window. It makes me want to ask where exactly that window is so I can push him the fuck out of it. (Bolz-Weber, Nadia (2013-09-10). Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (p. 111). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.)

Once the eyebrows have been untangled from wigs, and the faint of heart have revived, even the shocked may also be awed by a starkly honest tale of grace and redemption—a prodigal daughter who returns to Jesus with a congregation of sinners and ragtag saints she picked up along the highways and byways at brothels, gay bars, dens of iniquity, and a pig sty, trailing behind.

A pastor with Nadia Bolz-Weber’s larger-than-life presence (if you only read one book this year by a six-foot-tall woman recovering from addiction, fundamentalism, and Grave’s disease, former Church of Christ now Lutheran pastor with a tattoo of Mary Magdalene, well . . .) has to struggle with the challenge to become transparent that others may see Jesus more clearly. She is an operatic figure turned loose on the world, and yet, somehow, she pulls the rug out from under her own grand personality to show us the radical grace of Jesus Christ.

Bolz-Weber’s confessional honesty, along with her self-described “misanthropic personality” provide a deep well of illustrative material for her theological proclamation of grace for all. Her prose dances with the rhythms of her former life as a stand-up comic, but her days of using comedy to distract herself and others from the darkness have passed. Her comedy now serves as a vehicle of the grace to which she, and all of us, cling. Her raw accounts of failure in every attempt to chart her own path of salvation will lead honest parish pastors to recognize ourselves, our self-deceiving fantasies of self-reliance and success through sheer competence, hard work, and charisma, and follow her into deep darkness where she points to the light of resurrection that no darkness can overcome.

This review was published originally in Seminary Ridge Review, the journal of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. Thanks to Poetry and Theology Editor Katy Giebenhain for the invitation to write it and permission to post here after publication.

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Grace Enough To Spare

I preached this sermon in 2011 when I was pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sherman, Texas. It is specific to that congregation, and dependent on the exegetical work of many different ministers, including Anna Carter Florence in Lectionary Homiletics.

“I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ Matthew 25:25

 

The easiest way to deal with a weapons-grade parable like this is to turn it into an allegory—turn it into a story in which each character stands in for someone and each thing stands in for something else. That way, when we get to the part about a worthless slave getting thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, we can make sure that the worthless slave is a stand-in for somebody else, not us.

The challenge we face, though, is that Jesus never took a course in literary forms of biblical literature; therefore, he felt free, and Matthew the writer of this parable felt free, to tell a story that sometimes works as an allegory and sometimes works as a parable.

“The Kingdom of heaven is as if . . .” That phrase begins a creative, imaginative story of a wealthy landowner, and we can easily make the connection, “O.K., wealthy powerful guy who owns everything, I know That Guy, it has to be God.”

We hear about the distribution of talents and we learn from the footnote that a talent is a huge measure of gold, but we make the automatic correlation with talents in the English language and think about the gifts God has entrusted to each of us.

We hear about the three slaves, two of whom do well and one who buries his talent in the ground and by this time, we’re on a roll, this is easy—that first guy is me, the good Christian, the second one is my friend, the first runner-up in the good Christian contest, and the third one, the one who deserves to be thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? As I heard someone say in a Bible study once, “I know that guy! He’s my no-good lazy ex-husband!”

That’s always a comfortable way to read scripture – to weaponize it and wield it against somebody else. It may be comfortable, but it doesn’t hold up to a close reading.

The problem begins to arise when we hear the slave’s description of the wealthy landowner, as someone who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter. Maybe the third slave is just mistaken, but that sure isn’t a description of God who created the heavens and the earth. And, at the end, when he tells the third slave he should have invested the talent in the bank to collect interest? Interest is an acceptable way of doing business now, but in the first century Jewish culture, it was strictly forbidden by God’s law. It makes no sense that a stand-in for God would advocate such a thing as the least you can do.

And then, the word “talent.” Our English word “talent” comes from the Greek language in which Matthew wrote, but Jesus did not tell this parable in Greek, (he would have used the Aramaic/Hebrew word kikkar) and besides, the English language had not yet been invented. In its original context, there was no automatic correlation between this weight of gold or silver, 3000 shekels, and our contemporary word for gifts and skills.

So, what’s going on here?

Let’s think about how the parable would have been heard by the gospel writer Matthew’s congregation. This is the second of three parables in the twenty-fifth chapter telling us about a community that is waiting for the return of someone, but they do not know the day or the hour.

For a community that had expected Jesus to return any day, and it had now been forty years, and almost all of the people who had walked with Jesus had died, these parables address the question, “What are we supposed to do now? What do we do while we wait around to die or see the end of the world as we know it?”

This parable, along with the other three parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 25, make this much clear: the Gospel has been given to us, but not for us to have and to hold. Jesus gave us stories that we would repeat them; Jesus gave us his life that we might live for others. He gave us the bread of life and the cup of salvation that we would eat and drink and remember his presence from one day to the next.

We read the slave’s declaration, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’” And we realize, yes, that slave got it wrong on two fronts.

First, the Master he describes is not the One who sent his only Son to die that we might live.

And second, his misplaced fear led him to do exactly the opposite of what the Master desired.

It is human nature to hoard what we value, to try to keep it, save it, preserve it. The surprise of this parable, maybe the shocking recognition, is that the last thing Jesus wants to hear when he walks through those doors and into this sanctuary is, “Look Jesus, we kept it for you just the way it was when you gave it to us!”

It takes energy, intelligence, imagination, and love and all the gifts of the spirit to do what God has called us to do, to put it all out there, to risk proclaiming the gospel with all the assets with which God has entrusted us, whether it is money, or this building, or the new building, or our emotional reserve, or our style of worship, or anything else. It does not happen by accident, it only happens through a commitment and intent to be obedient to Christ even when we are afraid.

Many, many years ago, when I was still the new pastor here, [Covenant Presbyterian in Sherman, Texas] and we did not yet know each other well, I got a phone call from a funeral home while I was on vacation at Nancy’s mother’s house in Pensacola. A family member of an immigrant Hindu family had died, and they wanted to do the funeral service in Sherman where their friends and colleagues could attend. Wynne Chapel was being remodeled, and several other churches with a sanctuary large enough to accommodate them had declined to host a funeral in the Hindu tradition.

I thought, this would be a great discussion for our session to have, but I was thirteen hours away, the clock was ticking, and there was no way to get the session together in time to make this decision. I had to make it, yes or no.

When I thought, “What would Jesus do?” it was very clear to me. The one who told the story of the kind Samaritan, the foreigner who showed kindness to the stranger in need regardless of their religious differences would not hesitate to give them comfort in their time of grief.

I thought of that and all kinds of other reasons that it was the right thing to do as a church, and I tried to anticipate all the reasons people might give for declining to have it here.

I told the funeral home we would be glad to do it, and I ran down to the coffee shop with wifi where I could get an email out to the session that just said I had to make this decision today, here’s what I told them, and here’s why I think it’s the right thing to do.

I did not yet know you well. I feared I might get fired. I thought someone on session might take some disciplinary action against me to the Presbytery’s committee on ministry. I did not know what might happen.

But, I’m not the hero of this story. You are.

Here’s what happened. It turns out I was foolish in my fears. Every single email that came back from the session members said the same thing, essentially: “Good decision, this is who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. We are a people with grace enough to spare.”

A few years later, our daughter Rachel asked me to come and pray and read scripture and pronounce a blessing as she and Lili promised each other that they would stay together as long as they both shall live.

You all know that my views on gay and lesbian partnerships is more liberal than the average Presbyterian. The Permanent Judicial Committee had ruled that Presbyterian clergy such as I could perform such a ceremony as long as I didn’t publicly refer to it as a wedding or a marriage, but we all knew what it was. It was my daughter’s wedding.

I know that many of you have strong feelings on the other side of this issue, just as strongly-held, just as theologically genuine as my own. So, when I wrote to you in the church newsletter [the web page did not yet exist] to let you know what our family was going to Florida to celebrate, I waited with some trepidation for the phone to ring on the day the newsletter hit the mailboxes.

And the phone began to ring. And every single person who called us, regardless of what they thought of gay marriage or ordination, was asking why we didn’t include an address for Rachel and Lili so they could send a gift.

Whatever else we may be here at Covenant, with all our imperfections and struggles, this is something I know for sure: we are a people with grace enough to spare.

There are many, many good things in this world that need our time, energy, prayers, and money. If we supported them all as we wish we could, I fear, perhaps foolishly, that there would be nothing left to live on.

Here’s what keeps me wanting to support the work of this congregation with more money, time, and energy than any other cause. I believe that the greatest need of this world is the grace of God in Jesus Christ; and, I have never known another congregation that is so generous, so profligate, so reckless and Christ-like in extending grace to a world in need.

So, friends, let’s put it all out there, with grace enough to spare. It’s who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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A Day of Wonder

I wonder.

Training for triathlon in this fall weather reminds me how much I love to run outside. After a rainy couple of days indoors on the dreadmill and the bicycle trainer, I shot out of the door today like a horse that’s been cooped up in the barn all winter. With temperatures in the Fahrenheit fifties and the sun shining, even the one-mile intervals at a speed too fast to talk while running feel like play, not training.

Doves fly around today with lowered anxiety since dove hunting season has passed. Deer season opened last week, so the deer creep warily out of the morning shadows, glance at me from too far away to see that I am unarmed, and then disappear into the brush.

A coyote crosses the road carrying a rabbit, or, to translate literally from the coyote language, breakfast.

mmm, breakfast
mmm, breakfast

On days like this, every breath brings thoughts full of wonder. How can the world contain so much beauty? How has nature wrought the complexity of a human body that can respond to the stress of training with adaptations of improved strength and speed? How has the ecosystem produced the balance of nature that yields rabbits slow enough to keep coyotes fed but fast enough to survive long enough to procreate? As a wannabe naturalist, I can explain the process of natural selection that has led to such a wonder as today, this moment right now, and all the things around me that are growing and dying and feeding new life and rising, but it is still a wonder.

Then, my knee begins to hurt.

And I catastrophize.

Maybe it’s not just sore. Maybe I have permanently damaged it and this is the last day of my life that I will ever be able to run.

The knee pain shifts my thoughts from Psalm 118,

This is the day that the Lord has made, Let us be glad and rejoice in it!

To Ecclesiastes 3,

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; 

as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath,

and humans have no advantage over the animals;

for all is vanity.

All go to one place;

all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.

That pain in my knee turns my wonder in the other direction: Why must there be so much suffering? Why must rabbits die for coyotes to eat? Why must our bodies deteriorate with time? Why must we die for worms to eat?

All is vanity and chasing after wind, says Ecclesiastes.

I walk a few steps, then stop and stretch. I touch my toes, then bend a knee and grab each ankle in turn and stretch out my quads. I lean against a mailbox and stretch out each of my calves.

I stride out a few steps, then a few more, and a little faster, and all is well, the pain is gone. I chase after the wind, and it feels good, so good.

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The Church Is Like A Family. Your Family.

“When I became an adult, I put away childish ways . . .” 1 Corinthians 13:11

Presbyterian Disaster Relief volunteers get playful.

If the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. breaks out of the doldrums and thrives for generations to come, she will do so because our generation answered God’s call to lead her members to a higher level of self-differentiation.

What is self-differentiation? It is the ability to think and act calmly and clearly according to one’s deepest values and principles even in the midst of a highly anxious emotional system. People who are highly differentiated can disagree with others over significant issues and still maintain a good relationship with them.

Years ago, I helped two different couples prepare for their marriages. One couple (The Stones) agreed with each other about all the major issues they could identify from religion and politics to child-rearing philosophy and money management. The other couple (The Golds) did not. She was raised Catholic, he was raised Jewish. She was Republican, he was a Democrat. She came of age in rural California, he came of age in urban Atlanta, the deep South.

Conventional pre-marriage counseling would have predicted that the Stones, having everything in common, had a far greater chance of staying married than the Golds. However, the Stones have divorced and the Golds continue to enjoy a very happy marriage. The missing question in conventional pre-marriage counseling is the level of self-differentiation of the couple. The predictive factor I did not include in the brief description of the couples above was how playful the Golds were around their disagreements and differences and how serious the Stones were about everything. The Golds continue to live comfortably with their disagreements and enjoy engaging and teasing one another about canceling out each others’ votes on election day. The Stones divorced because they could not accept each other’s differing views over the very small issues that inevitably showed up. Mr. Stone’s absent-minded habit of leaving the toilet lid up escalated into accusations of disrespect, a spiral of passive-aggressive behavior from both of them, followed by a yelling match that sent Mrs. Stone to the divorce lawyer.

In a counter-intuitive paradox, the playful people are the grown-ups.

What does this have to do with the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., or any other denomination?

I predict that after our disagreements over gay ordination, gay marriage and the Middle East calm down, we will find different divisive issues in the future (which is as risky a prediction as foretelling market volatility at some point in the future). The pendulum may swing back and forth between conservative and liberal, but we will never go to a General Assembly in which all the votes are unanimous. (How boring would that be?)

Our future health as a denomination does not depend so much on whether we can assume God-like power over the minds of others so that they agree with us and start acting and thinking right. It depends on our ability to love one another in the midst of our disagreements. It depends on our ability to win graciously and lose without resentment. It depends on our ability to speak, not in the tongues of mortals or of angels, but in the language of grown-ups who love each other.

When have you seen church leaders or members of your family acting in a highly self-differentiated way? How has that affected you and your family and/or church?