Sunday, November 29, 2009

Signs of Change: Sermon on Luke 21:25-36

I preached this morning with half a voice, owing to a nasty sinus infection taking out my vocal chords. I love Advent! The church looked so beautiful, with the greens hung and the Advent wreath.

Blessings to all in this holy season!


In 1947 a group of nuclear scientists at the University of Chicago created something they called the Doomsday Clock. In the wake of the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these scientists felt the world had entered a new era, an era when one could reliably deduce that the world itself was at risk of being destroyed. So they took the face of a clock and put hands on it representing the time “11:53 PM”; seven minutes to midnight, symbolic of the dangerous nearness of catastrophic global destruction.

In the years since the creation of the clock, the time has been moved back and forth, according to, not only the level of nuclear proliferation, but also according to threats to the environment, such as global warming. In 1984, in the midst of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the time moved all the way to 11:57: three minutes to midnight. In 1991, when those same two superpowers signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the time was turned all the way back to 11:43. As of today, it is 11:55. Five minutes to midnight. The nuclear scientists at the University of Chicago want us to know that, as they read the signs, the end is near, too near for comfort.

I’ve known about the Doomsday Clock for some time. Years, probably. And, honestly, it has never caused me to lose even a moment of sleep. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, in every single generation for the past 2000 years, the end of the world has been predicted. So, perhaps I am jaded by the knowledge that, despite all the dire predictions, no one has been right so far. Or, it may be a particular defect of my character, but I just can’t get too excited about things that are so utterly out of my control as the end of the world as we know it. (I do like that R. E. M. song.) Sometimes we need to hear the same message, from another source, before we are able to really absorb it, to take it seriously. This week someone said “the end is near” in such a way that I actually heard it. It was a minister, Brian Stoffregen, someone whose work I read regularly as I prepare my sermons. He is not a crazy, fringy person. He is a very level-headed guy, middle of the road, entirely orthodox in his interpretation of scripture. He said, “We need to consider ourselves as living in the ‘end times’ now; although it would appear that life on the planet will get worse before the end comes.” For some reason, Brian’s quiet sentence got to me in the way the vivid and scary imagery of the Doomsday Clock did not.

I think this kind of disconnect is going on in our passage from Luke this morning. Jesus is talking about big signs, scary signs…signs in the sun, moon and stars, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime signs. And at the same time he is talking about quiet signs, signs that are easily observed, if our eyes are open to them, in the most ordinary events taking place around us. When we are talking about end times, ultimate things, we need to be careful how we perceive and interpret each of these.

It is a new church year now, and so we say goodbye to the Gospel of Mark and hello to the Gospel of Luke. I love how the gospels tell the same essential story, but with the differences that come from the personalities of the authors, and the concerns of the early church communities they served. Mark’s gospel begins when Jesus is a man, and John the Baptist announces the coming kingdom of God. Luke’s gospel begins with the conception of John the Baptist, when Jesus just a glimmer in the Holy Spirit’s eye. Where Mark is lean and spare, Luke is expansive and poetic. Where Mark’s Jesus was somewhat of a loner, Luke’s Jesus will be spending a lot of time at dinner parties… a lot of time. But we are not introduced to the gospel of Luke from the beginning just yet. Every year the lectionary does this strange thing: it starts at the beginning by starting at the end. We begin our church year, and our observance of Advent, by focusing on end times, apocalypse.

It is the last week of Jesus’ life. He has made his way into Jerusalem surrounded by adoring crowds of followers. He has taken up a spot in the Temple and he has been teaching there. At one point, he overhears a conversation about the beauty of the Temple, its ornate stonework and lovely appointments. He remarks, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” [Luke 21:6]. This is a completely shocking statement… like someone saying, “The day will come when the beautiful church you love, the place where you go to find the presence of God, will just be a pile of rubble.” After Jesus’ listeners get their bearings, someone manages to ask Jesus a question. “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” [21:7]

Here are the signs, Jesus says. And the first things he mentions, in the verses before our reading begins, have to do with human activities—wars, insurrections, nation against nation, king against king. Persecution. Arrest. Scary stuff. Scary stuff that had already come to pass, in the First Roman-Jewish War, by the time the words of this gospel were committed to papyrus. Scary stuff, but the kinds of things people might have an idea they could influence or control. You say there will be war? How can we avoid it? What do our leaders have to know?

But at the beginning of our passage, Jesus moves on to talk about other kinds of signs, and these are the kinds of things that are truly out of our sphere of influence. We cannot hope to stop the stars moving in their courses. We cannot relight the sun if it should go out. We cannot stop the cycles of the moon, any more than the ancients could (although I understand we recently shot a missile at it. Yikes! What was that all about?).

And Jesus knows that these are the things of nightmares. He knows the visions he is describing are terrifying. The final image he throws into the mix is the vision of “the Son of Man, the Human One, coming in a cloud, with power and great glory.” And then Jesus says something curious. He says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” [21:27-28]

This is a shift in tone. Jesus has been describing frightening signs of change. But instead of telling us to get into the bomb shelters, or to duck and cover, or even to run right into the nearest church or synagogue, he says, stand up. Lift up your heads. This is when you can expect good things to begin happening again. In the face of what is stomach-churningly scary, Jesus offers words of comfort. That is what this passage is about. It is a passage meant to comfort those who hear it.

These words are part of what is called the “Apocalyptic discourse” in the gospel of Luke, a moment when Jesus’ words address a coming apocalypse. There is a particular, popular meaning that has been assigned to the word “apocalypse.” Because of years of one kind of interpretation getting a lot of airplay, most of us hear “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic,” and we hear something that feels designed to scare the daylights out of us: the word is overlaid with a thick coating of fear. But in its original meaning, the word means something rather simple: uncovering. That’s all. If you think about it, that’s what the word “revelation” means… that something is being revealed, uncovered. And it is clear from Jesus’ use of the word that what is being uncovered, what is being revealed is, in the end, something to give us great hope, and not fear. What is being uncovered is the Son of Man, the Human One. It is Jesus.

If it is Jesus who is being revealed, Jesus who is coming in power and glory, we have nothing to fear. That’s because, if it’s Jesus, it’s not the destruction of the world, but the healing of the world that is at hand. If there’s anything we know about Jesus, it’s that he is all about healing. Speaking for myself, that is something I would welcome. And I suspect I’m not alone in that. I suspect, for most of us, the healing presence of Jesus would be most welcome.

Jesus speaks of a time when the world is plunged into fear, and he urges us to not cower but to lift our heads, because the healing of the world will be at hand. Perhaps we need to lift our heads so that we can see what’s going on with the fig tree.

For people in ancient Palestine—or modern day Palestine, for that matter—the fig tree would be a very familiar sight, and one that would resonate with them emotionally. The fig tree, with its succulent fruit, is a symbol for well-being, for plenty. The prophet Isaiah lifts up the image of each son or daughter of Israel eating from their own vine and sitting peacefully under a fig tree, contented and unafraid. Jesus points out to his listeners the signs given by the fig tree… how it sprouts leaves, which can be taken as a sure sign of a very welcome change, the summer, the harvest, the delicious fruit that is promised.

For many of us, healing would be a welcome change. As we walk together into this season of Advent I invite you to reflect on the ways in which you would welcome the healing of Jesus. Do you desire the healing of a relationship? Do you crave the healing of your body? Do you long for the healing of the world, from violence, from every kind of hatred and prejudice, from every kind of horror and hurt? Do you hope for the healing of your hemorrhaging checking account, or your employment, or even your relationships with co-workers? Do you mourn a loss so deep you doubt there is any healing possible? Lift up your heads, Jesus says. Look at the fig tree. Look around you to see the signs… possibly infinitesimally small and modest, but there nevertheless… see the signs of change. Look for the figs… small but sweet, bite-sized pieces of grace. See the signs that your healing is begun, even in the very act of your longing for it. See the signs that Jesus’ presence is being uncovered for us, day by day, week by week, with the lighting of each candle. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Brian Stoffregen, “Luke 21:25-36, 1st Sunday in Advent, Year C,” in Brian C. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks Christmas Resources,

Jan. L. Richardson, “Advent 1: Practicing the Apocalypse,” in The Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas,

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Peculiar King: Sermon on Mark 14:1-9

About 388 years ago a large and motley group consisting of Plymouth colonists and Native Americans of the Wampanoag peoples, gathered together around tables. These tables groaned beneath the weight of a feast of waterfowl, cod, wild turkeys, eel, venison, pumpkins, Indian corn, onions, chestnuts and things we probably can’t even imagine. These people gathered to give thanks for a harvest—certainly not for the first time in human history, and not even for the first time on what would eventually be known as American soil. Nevertheless, their Thanksgiving gathering became iconic: it is the one we recall when we gather around our own groaning boards. And it is good for us to remember, on this day when our observance of Thanksgiving converges with that of the Reign of Christ, that the reason for the feast had to do with a particular group of people resenting the intrusion of a king in their lives.

The Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth were convinced that the Protestant Reformation had not gone far enough. Because they did not wish to be a part of a church that was far removed from their understanding of scripture, they became religious separatists, and because of their separatist views they attracted the wrath of King James I, and because they attracted his wrath, they found themselves, eventually, eating venison and eel on a very stony patch of beach on what would eventually be known as Cape Cod.

About 388 years ago, a group of people said, “Thanks be to God, we are rid of that king.”

The American psyche is no more comfortable at the thought of bowing to royalty today than our forbears were 388 years ago. Just this week our president was chastised in some quarters because he bowed deeply to the Emperor of Japan on a visit to that country. The word “groveling” was used. The argument was, Americans, especially American presidents, should not go around bowing to foreign rulers, foreign kings. We, as a nation, are so over kings.

About 1981 years ago, a motley group of people gathered around a table in Bethany, a village on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about a mile and a half from Jerusalem. This table was in the home of one Simon the Leper, but Jesus knew lots of people in Bethany, including his friend Lazarus, and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Perhaps they were there. The table was groaning with… we know not what. Felafel? Fish? Figs? Hummus and pita bread? Wine, of course. And the motley group gathered, two days before the Passover. Perhaps it was a reunion… Jesus had just returned to Jerusalem, after a long journey with his friends. Perhaps he was giving thanks for the presence of those he loved around him in the midst of what he knew to be the last week of his life.

As they sat at table—really, the idea that they “sat” is anachronistic; they would have reclined around the table, a low table, supported by cushions and rugs on the floor. As they reclined, then, a woman approached the table with an alabaster jar filled with costly perfume, oil of nard. Alabaster is a white material, a kind of stone, translucent when cut into thin sheets. It was highly valued in Jesus’ day as a material for perfume jars; one of the original meanings of the word may have been “vessel of the goddess.”

A woman approached Jesus, carrying an alabaster jar. We don’t know who the woman was, though Mary of Bethany is a good candidate. In another story, in the gospel of John, she is the woman with the oil of nard. The woman did not uncork the jar, or remove a wax seal. Rather, she broke the precious jar so that the even more precious oil might flow out of it and onto Jesus’ head. And by that bold and audacious action, the woman—whoever she was—sparked a debate among the dinner guests.

The intention of the woman was unmistakable. Everyone seated at that table would have understood anointing with oil as a sign that Jesus was being recognized as a king. But, curiously, those gathered that night were silent on that topic. No one said, “Hey, why did you just anoint Jesus king?” Instead, a debate ensued on the proper use of resources in providing assistance to those living in poverty.

A woman boldly walked up to Jesus and anointed him king. But that action made the dinner guests of Simon the Leper almost as uncomfortable as our president’s bow to Emperor Akihito made the folks at Fox News. Who wants a king? Who needs a king? In particular, who wants to bow to a king, to kneel before a king? Don’t we have more dignity than that? Aren’t we freer than that?

Mark’s gospel warns us from the very first chapter, with John the Baptist’s ecstatic proclamation: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” And he is talking about Jesus. There is something about Jesus that is going to usher in the very reign of God on earth. Jesus is the king he is talking about.

But what an odd king, what a peculiar king. A king who hangs around with a ragtag group of friends… fisherfolk, tax collectors. A king who breaks all the religious taboos by touching women and children as he heals them. A king who would eat dinner in the house of a leper, for heaven’s sake… and we know all about lepers and the chart of “Who’s Who” in ancient Palestine. Lepers aren’t even on the chart. What an odd king Jesus is.

There are all kinds of monarchies, all kinds of governments in which royalty figures, so coming up with hard and fast rules is a challenge. But there are a few things we can say about kings with some confidence. First, kings usually acquire that title by inheritance. In order to be king, your father must be king, or, as in the case of our friends across the pond, your mother. You are born into a family of royalty, and you are prepared your whole life for your rule.

Again… Jesus is so peculiar, when we hold this lens up to him. As Mark begins to tell the story of the good news, there is Jesus, coming up out of the water, the heavens being torn apart, the voice coming down from the clouds, “You are my Son, the Beloved…” There is no finer pedigree. But still… as our mothers used to say when they were mad at us for not closing the door behind us, he was born in a barn. He was born to parents of modest means at best. He was raised to be a son of the Law. All the preparation he needed to become king, Jesus must have acquired at his father’s side in his woodshop, or at the rabbi’s feet studying Torah, or somewhere deep inside where he communed with the Spirit of God.

The other thing we can say about kings is that they are in some way symbolic of their kingdom. “L’etat, c’est moi,” said Louis XIV. “I AM the state.” This has caused kings no end of problems as their personal lives have clashed with their public role as stand-in for their countries. When John yelled, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he meant to let everyone know that Jesus was both king and prime exemplar of all that kingdom stood for.

Jesus is such a strange and unexpected king. A king who welcomes children rather than letting his lieutenants shoo them away. A king who hosts large picnics on a shoestring budget. A king who is willing to die an ignominious death out of his love for his people.

This is the aspect of his kingship Jesus seized upon at that table at Simon the Leper’s house. When wagging tongues complained about the waste of that alabaster jar of oil, Jesus admonished them. Don’t pretend, my friends, that this one flask of perfume will solve the problem of poverty in this or any day. Don’t pretend that you are not called upon to work for the poor every day, but today you are using it as a distraction. This good woman has perfumed me, anointed me for my death. And wherever the good news is told, she will be a part of the story. Wherever the good news is shared, people will give thanks for her, for her prophetic action.

At the heart of our faith is a king who doesn’t look particularly kingly according to the expectations of either his world or ours. And yet, he pushes us to ponder what his kingship could mean for our world, if we were to really let loose his reign. One writer puts it this way:

In its simplest terms, the kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. Imagine if God ruled the nations, and not Obama, Medvedev, Kim Jong-il, Mugabe, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Every aspect of personal and communal life would experience a radical reversal. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless—peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, humility rather than hubris, embrace rather than exclusion, etc. The ancient Hebrews had a marvelous word for this, shalom, or human well-being.[i]

Shalom. Well-being. Peace. If every person who bowed their head over a meal this week—whether they sit at a table alone, or with one other person, or in a room crammed full with extra chairs and tables to accommodate the extended family—if every one of us could recognize within us God’s desire for shalom, peace, and well-being for our world—well, that would be quite a Thanksgiving. That is the Thanksgiving Christ our King wants for us, and with us, and in us. That is Thanksgiving as a call to action, to service of our brothers and sisters in the name of our servant Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Daniel Clendenin, “Can a Good Christian Be a Good Citizen? The Reign of Christ the King,” in The Journey With Jesus: Notes to Myself, Essay November 16, 2009.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Honest Prayers: Sermon on 1 Samuel 1:1-20

It’s Friday afternoon, time for me to start writing my sermon (past time, really… I’ve been noodling around on Facebook just a little too long). I’ve had my lunch, the dishes are done, there is coffee percolating on the stove (yes, I percolate my coffee at home… real cowboy coffee, my brother calls it). Time to write. Except, it occurs to me: I should take time to pray before I write. My sermon will undoubtedly be enriched if I pray first—open myself to the Spirit. And then I think: hey, I think I know how I’ll start the sermon… that crucial opening paragraph! And so… prayer averted. I sit down to the computer and start typing.

And there you have it, my friends, the true and unvarnished report on the state of your pastor’s prayer life. Why is it so hard sometimes, to simply sit down and … pray? We promise ourselves (and God) we will do it… sometimes we even manage to keep that promise for a little while. But the first errant thought, the first opportunity for distraction and diversion, and our promises evaporate. Unless… we are in one of those life situations that takes us to the extremes. You know the ones I mean. The extremes of joy or sorrow. The extremes of hope or despair. The extremes of reaching out in love or striking out in anger. For some reason, the every day, workaday practice of prayer feels not nearly so doable as the “Help me Lord, I’m hanging on by my fingernails” kind of prayer, or the “Hallelujah, praise the Lord!” kind of prayer. It has been said that we can basically boil down all prayer to “Thank you” and “Help.” We tend to get very, very good at praying when the prayer is “Help.”

Hannah is a woman living in one of those extremes, a time of extreme pain and distress. When we meet Hannah, her whole identity is swallowed up in her problem, her symptom. She “has no children,” in contrast with her husband’s other wife Peninnah, who has children in abundance. It’s hard to overstate the catastrophe, the sheer scandal that infertility is assumed to be in biblical literature. Fertility is always seen as a sign of divine favor—God, smiling down upon you. Infertility, predictably, is seen as a sign of divine judgment—God, closing the womb. Hannah is suffering as a result of her identity as a woman with no children: her rival taunts her, she weeps. Hannah has the love of her husband, Elkanah, but she is too miserable to eat the double portion he gives her. Elkanah, in a misguided effort to cheer her up, says just the wrong thing. “Hannah… Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he says. When, of course, the right thing to say would have been, “Hannah, you are more to me than ten sons.”

At this point in the story of salvation, there are many holy places, not just one, and so the whole family of Elkanah and Hannah and Penninah and all the kids go to the temple at Shiloh for their annual time of worship and sacrifice. And after the meal she cannot eat, Hannah rises and goes into the temple, and “presents herself to the Lord.” She “pours out her soul before the Lord.” If we could be flies on the wall of the temple… I wonder what the outpouring of that soul sounded like?

O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help.
like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. [Selah]
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. ~Psalm 88:1-9

There’s no emotion we can feel that we can’t find in the psalms. That is a portion of Psalm 88. It is probably the saddest, most hopeless psalm in the entire psalter. It ends as it begins, in unrelieved darkness.

I think it is an incredibly honest prayer. I suspect the outpouring of Hannah’s soul is something like this, the prayer she prays while weeping bitterly, so distraught and out of control that Eli the priest comes to believe she is drunk. Hannah presents herself before the Lord, and prays an honest prayer out of the deepest places of distress in her heart.

In some ways, this kind of prayer is the easy kind. The times when we say “help,” from the gut, with all our might, and we really mean it. When I think back on the various stages and seasons of my life, I know I prayed the best when things were hardest and scariest. And, by the “best,” I don’t mean high quality poetic prayers in Elizabethan English or even biblical Hebrew. By the “best”, I mean, most consistently. By the “best”, I mean, most honestly. By the “best”, I mean that, at those times, my prayer life was my relationship, my connection with God.

Prayer is a relationship. And all relationships thrive on consistency and honesty. It can be a simple thing to be honest when you are pain, terrified, desperate. Honesty can be… more complicated at other times. I am wondering what kind of prayer I might have prayed if I had sat down to pray before beginning my sermon:

“Well, here I am, God. Sort of perfunctorily checking in with you, in case you have anything good for me.” Yikes. That makes me cringe. That doesn’t feel very comfortable or comforting. I’ve prayed other uncomfortable prayers in my life, too. And I’ve encouraged others to pray uncomfortably. I encourage us all to pray uncomfortably.

I encourage us to say to God those things we think we cannot say to God, even things we don’t want to take up God’s time with. Things like,

Are you really there?

I don’t have time for this.

I’m so tired I could cry.

I’m so sad I could die.

I don’t know how to do this praying thing.

Let’s remind ourselves of something: God already knows it all anyway. God is already there, waiting for us to be willing to join in the conversation God has already begun with us. So, if God already knows it all—the anger, or the ennui, or the confusion, or the irritation, or the questioning—if God already knows it all, we have nothing to fear in articulating it. We have nothing to fear in pouring out the not terribly pious, not terribly articulate content of our souls. We have nothing to fear except this: being in a real, live, fully connected relationship with God. God is already speaking. In honest prayer we have an opportunity to turn a monologue into a relationship.

There is a story of a man who really had some struggles, much like Jim, whom I talked about last week. This man was deep in addiction, and his addiction had led to things like drunk driving arrests and jail time and abandoning his family and finally, under threat of real hard time in prison, rehab. When he came out of rehab, he felt fragile, like a newborn baby with the cold wind swirling all around him. Some of his old friends—the ones with whom he had indulged in his addiction—were having a party, right next door. He didn’t know what to do. He tried to call one of his new clean and sober friends for support, but couldn’t get through to them. Finally, he went home and went in his bedroom, and closed the door, and sat on his bed shaking. He looked up at the ceiling and said, “Well, Buddy, I guess it’s just you and me.” And that prayer—that honest, inarticulate, heartfelt prayer—changed everything. He says, “Believe it or not, it worked: those simple little words worked. Something happened: a little peace came over me.”

Hannah presented herself to the Lord. She in agony, and she prayed and wept bitterly. She was honest. She poured out her soul. She engaged in real conversation with God, a prayer from the heart. And, like her, when we are in agony, or like the man who was trying not to act on his addiction, when we are really frightened, those prayers can just roll out of us, just flow, and our pleas for “Help” fly into the heavens, weightless, direct to God.

The challenge for us is to learn to present ourselves to the Lord, to pour out our souls, in other kinds of situations as well. To present ourselves to God when we’re bored, or just tired, or when we don’t really feel like praying because we aren’t sure we will get anything back, get anything out of it. The challenge for us is to engage in the conversation when fifteen thousand other things are screaming for our attention—that little bit of work we want to finish, the laundry, the latest episode of “Glee.” The challenge for us is to engage in honest prayer when we don’t even know what we want to say, but we do it anyway, because that’s what you do when you’re in a relationship.

It has been said that prayer doesn’t change God, but it does change us. That is the promise of prayer: transformation. The answer to Hannah’s prayer is powerful and dramatic: God sends her the son she is longing for, and we have already prayed together her psalm of joy. For many of us, much of the time, we do not experience such dramatic answers to our prayer. Or, we experience what feels like a painful, wrenching “No.” But let’s not forget: for Hannah, the transformation comes before God’s “Yes.” She is able to return to her family and eat her dinner for the first time…. not at the guarantee of “yes,” but at the moment of pouring out her soul. We pray. Yes, we pray for that “yes,” but more than that, we pray to be in relationship with the One who created us, the One who redeemed us, the One who sustains us. God wants to be in relationship with us, in the heights of our joys, and in the depths of our sorrows, and in the mundane, Friday afternoon trying to get some work done times. God wants to be in relationship with us, whether our prayer is “Thank you,” or “Help,” or even just “Hi there.” God wants to be in relationship with us, and that is where we will find the transformation we really need. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Giving It All Away: Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

I am going to tell you a true story. It is about a man named Jim. That’s his real name, and I’m using it because, once upon a time, he gave me permission to tell his story.

I met Jim… I’m not exactly sure where. But at a certain time in my life—say, 15 years ago, he was sort of everywhere. When I looked out my window, there would be Jim, rolling his shopping cart down my street, and coming up on my porch to pick up a bag I had left there for him.

Jim was a small guy, perhaps in his sixties when we met, but he looked much, much older. He was wiry, and sort of bent over, and he didn’t have a lot of his original teeth left. He had a pack a day habit… these really nasty little cigars; I couldn’t stand the smell of them. I’m not sure whether it was the smoking that aged Jim or the drinking. Jim had a long career of hard drinking; but that was behind him now. When I knew him he was in recovery, a stalwart of the Thursday 8 PM AA meeting. He was so proud of his recovery. First he counted the days, then the months, and then the years. I was invited to go to the meetings in which Jim received his 10 year, his 11 year and his 12 year medallions.

When I first knew Jim, he was walking around the neighborhood, miles and miles of walking each day, to pick up cans and bottles, both those he’d pick out of the garbage or recycling, and those he’d get off the porches of friends who had saved them for him. I was in the latter category. For a long time… I’m not sure how many years… all my returnable bottles and cans went to Jim. It was convenient for me… no hauling them to the grocery store… and it was money Jim lived on. He was on disability because of his health, and he got a Social Security check every month. But the thing that allowed Jim to live in his little apartment on Main Street was collecting bottles and cans.

Jim kept track of his bottles and cans the way he kept track of his sobriety. Every once in a while, he’d give me a call, and ask me to drive him and a whole car load of returnables to the redemption center, and so I’d go, and we’d load them in the back of my car. Not everyone rinses out cans and bottles, especially the students at the frat houses who just put their stuff on the street. So inevitably my car would end up smelling like a brewery. It struck me as odd, maybe even tempting fate just a tiny bit, that Jim lived off beer bottles and cans. You know, given that beer almost killed him, and that he spent his days working very hard not to touch the stuff, to stay sober. But that smell never seemed to bother him… maybe the cigars had killed his sense of smell, I don’t know. But Jim, when we were driving to the redemption center, would say, “Well, last year I got all the way to $1800. It was a slow summer for some reason, I’m only at $1200 and it’s already Labor Day. But I think I can make it this year, if the kids have as many parties as they did last fall.”

To tell you the truth, I didn’t always look forward to Jim’s and my jaunts to the redemption center. I would get a message from Jim on my answering machine, and I’d think, Oh great, just what I need this week. I hated that smell in my car. And my kids were young, so I had to make sure someone was available to watch them, because I had a station wagon and we’d have to put the seat down. So I couldn’t bring them with me. It was kind of a pain in the neck sometimes. But then I’d be with Jim, driving to the redemption center, and, you know, he had this incredible optimism about him. I’d watch him walk, see how hard it was for him… I think his joints were painful, and he had emphysema… did I mention that? So… he’d get winded just going up a little set of three steps. So here was this guy… living alone in a tiny little apartment, living off social security and his can and bottle money, physically in pain a lot of the time… and he just was one of the most grateful people I’d ever known.

That was it. Jim was grateful. He was sober. He had that to be grateful about. He was able to not drink, one day at a time, as he often reminded me. And… in his recovery, he’d become interested in genealogy, so he spent a lot of time calling people, churches, cemeteries, trying to track down his ancestors. I think he had fully fleshed out family trees going back into the 16th century. He was so excited about his family history, and grateful for it. Sure, he was in a lot of pain, but he could still walk. He was grateful for that. And he loved those dreadful smelly little cigars. They just pleased him to no end. Jim was grateful.

Jim was a churchgoing man. That’s the other place I saw him. I was a director of Youth Ministries and Christian Education for a local Church, and Jim was a member. So I would see Jim there. Occasionally I’d hear his shopping cart squeaking down the hallway, and I’d know Jim was in the building. Jim could talk about his faith; he was an unusual person in that respect. He believed that God, working through AA, had saved his life. And he was grateful.

One fall the youth group decided to do a fundraiser. They wanted to buy gifts for the women and children who find themselves at Local Shelter over Christmas. As you may know, Local is a place for people who have experienced domestic violence, and who need a safe place. I don’t remember who thought of this as a mission project, but the kids were pretty pumped. This seemed like a worthwhile cause to them. They really wanted to help.

One of them got the idea to do a bottle and can drive, and the others all concurred that this would be a great, and relatively easy, fundraising project. All they’d need to do would be to remind the people at church to save bottles and cans for them, and then they’d bring them in, and, voila, easy money.

When you’re a youth leader, you really want to let the kids lead when they are excited about an idea. They really were excited about this idea, so I encouraged them. Sure! Absolutely. We can do this. And so the bulletin announcements were written, the signs were made… the word went out. We were collecting bottles and cans.

And, of course, I felt a little funny about this, as far as Jim was concerned. I was worried. Would we be cutting into Jim’s income? I knew he depended on his bottle and can money. I made a mental note to hold some of our family’s returnables aside for Jim…. maybe we could even try to drink some extra diet soda over the next month. I worried about the next time I would see Jim. Would he be upset? Would he be hurt? I didn’t look forward to our next encounter.

I was in my office one grey November day. I hadn’t seen Jim since the bottle and can drive had begun, but it was going well; I had an appointment to meet a youth group member and his mom to take two carloads to the supermarket to be redeemed. I don’t remember what I was working at, but I probably was on my computer. Then, I heard it: the familiar squeak of Jim’s shopping cart wheels coming down the hallway. I took a deep breath. I dreaded this meeting.

I stood up and poked my head out of my office door. “Hi,” he said. He had a raspy voice, a real smoker’s voice. “Can we talk? In private?”

“Sure Jim,” I said. “Do you want to come into my office?” Jim nodded, and he wheeled his cart just outside my door. He ambled in sort of slowly—he always moved slowly—and he let himself down in a chair while I closed the door.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this bottle drive, Jim,” I said. That was narrowly true. I’d had a sense I should talk to him. But, in my dread about hurt feelings and so forth, I’d not really made any effort to make it happen.

“That’s what I want to talk about,” Jim said. He reached into the pocket of his big parka— it was really too big for him. He pulled out a wet, folded up, wrinkled $20 bill.

I looked at him, blankly.

“This is for the bottle drive. I want you to put this towards whatever the kids make.” Then he paused. “I don’t want them to know it’s from me.”

It took me a moment to re-orient myself from the conversation I’d been anticipating. For some reason, the first words out of my mouth were, “Jim, you don’t need to do this.”

He looked at me, hard. “Oh yes I do,” he said. He paused again. “It should be a lot more, but this is all I can manage at the moment.”

I did a quick calculation. $20.00. That’s four hundred cans. I had some vivid mental snapshots of Jim walking slowly down a street in my neighborhood, of Jim climbing three stairs somewhere to retrieve a bag, of Jim excited and adding up the numbers as we drove to the redemption center. I knew exactly what those bottles and cans cost him.

“Jim,” I began, but I never finished.

“I have not always been the person I should have been, especially when I was drinking, especially where women are concerned. Just know that…” another pause… “I need to do this.”

His voice brightened up as he rose to leave my office. “Have a nice day!” he said. When Jim said that, he said it without a hint of sarcasm. He meant it.

He took hold of his cart, and I listened as its squeaky wheels rolled down the carpeted hallway.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Do This In Remembrance, Sermon on Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. ~ Rev. 21:1-6

I ask you this morning to do something that might be hard for you to do. I ask you to try, for a little while, to forget everything you have ever learned about the Book of Revelation. Images of Armageddon, or Sunday School pictures of the anti-Christ… planes, trains and automobiles left suddenly driver-less… a certain publishing juggernaut, those books with the lurid flame-colored covers that claim to tell us exactly what it all means, what we can all expect. I ask you this morning to do something that might be hard: forget all that. Put it away, put it aside, and, just for a little while, entertain this possibility: the Book of Revelation is a document that describes the attempts of a community to deal with unspeakable loss.

The community that first heard John’s Revelation was living in a world that probably felt apocalyptic for them… remember the hours after 9/11, or, for those of you whose memories are longer, the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor? Remember that feeling of suddenly living in a different, frightening world, a world that caused you to ask all sorts of questions you’d never faced before. What do we do now? My family, my community, those I love… are we safe? Will my son or daughter or spouse be shipped off to war? For the early Christian community, which we must remember was also, largely, a Jewish community, there was at least a twofold trauma: first, Roman armies had destroyed both the Temple and Jerusalem in August of the year 70 CE. And second, in the aftermath of that destruction, Romans especially singled out followers of Jesus for persecution.

This was a time of tremendous loss. The loss of the Temple was a kind of death. It was the symbolic destruction of more than 500 years of sacred ritual and prayer. It was the death of a way of life, the way of the Jewish priesthood offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. It was the loss of a place that had been central to Jesus and the culmination and goal of his ministry.

And the losses continued, extended into each home, each life. Parents, children, spouses, friends… everyone was touched by death. Everyone was touched by loss. Entire communities were struggling daily with the question of how to face yet another day of persecution, yet another day of uncertainty, yet another day of loss. The early followers of Jesus were suddenly living in a different, frightening world, a world that caused them to ask all sorts of questions they’d never faced before. What do we do now? My family, my community, those I love… are we safe? Will someone I love be snatched up and shipped off to war?

We don’t have to be touched by apocalyptic events to have our own experiences of deep loss. Someone played me a song this week. In a week when my mother has been much on my mind, and on my dad’s mind, it struck a chord. It’s called "Ghost In This House."

I don't pick up the mail

I don't pick up the phone

I don't answer the door

I'd just as soon be alone

I don't keep this place up

I just keep the lights down

I don't live in these rooms

I just rattle around

I'm just a ghost in this house

I'm just a shadow upon these walls

As quietly as a mouse I haunt these halls…

I don't care if it rains

I don't care if it's clear

I don't mind staying in

There's another ghost here

He sits down in your chair

And he shines with your light

And he lays down his head

On your pillow at night

I'm just a ghost in this house…[i]

To me, that song describes so powerfully what it can feel like when someone we have loved is missing from our presence. It can be so difficult and so painful to go on in the face of that kind of loss. But it can be good to recognize that loss is in a sense a part of the DNA of our faith. It was there from the beginning. Think of Jesus’ original friends and followers, watching with horror as his life ebbed away—despite his warnings to them that his death was coming, that it was inevitable. And even after the resurrection, he disappeared again from their sight. Their losses piled up, and they yearned for consolation, and some kind of promise of reconciliation and restoration. They longed for hope.

The Revelation to John is filled with images of hope. The more war-like images have captured our attention (and that of the people who are cashing in on one rather strange interpretation of this book), but to focus on them is to lose sight of the big picture. The entire book can be seen as a glorious worship service, a service enacting the whole of salvation history—the movements from creation, through loss, and on into ultimate redemption. In the face of their own losses, enormous, unbearable, unspeakable losses, the early followers of Jesus cast all their hopes on this glorious promise of heavenly worship in which, as one writer has cautioned, “A few are charged to do judgment; [but] everyone without exception is charged to show mercy.”[ii]

When we are feeling like our losses render us mere ghosts in our own houses, Revelation invites us to a great worship service where we too may hope to get a glimpse of the big picture. When we are oppressed by a sense that our losses are too much for us, Revelation beckons us to that place where we can find that we are already part of a new heaven and a new earth. But even in view of this promise, we are still called to remember. Built into the very DNA of our faith is a command to remember… it’s been there from the beginning. When we gather around the table to break the bread and to take the cup, we are gently reminded that even painful memories, even our most devastating losses, can be gathered together and made holy in community. They are made holy because, as Revelation reminds us, the home of God is among mortals. That is what our communion is about: we do this in remembrance of the One who suffered… who we lost… but who was raised again, and who lit for us the path to new life, life even after loss, life even after death.

I ask you this morning to do something that might be hard for you to do. I ask you try, for a little while, to gather up your memories… the memories of those you have lost, in whatever way you lost them, and I ask you to commend them into the hands of God, who has made a home with us, and in us. I ask you to join me in commending them into the care of the one who has promised to dwell with us as our God, so that we might be God’s people. I ask you to trust with me in the one who will wipe every tear from our eyes, promising that, in the long run, in the big picture, death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for God is making all things new. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Alison Krauss.

[ii] Christina Rosetti, The Face of the Deep, 292.