Sunday, November 29, 2015

“Can’t You See?” (Luke 21:25-36)

Since the turn of the century it has been predicted at least 30 times according Wikipedia . . . or at least twice a year since the year 2000.  That is how many times apocalyptic events have been predicted . . . end-of-the-world times . . . and, we are still here.  Our scripture reading this morning centers upon what many scholars have deemed to be Jesus’ mini-apocalypse.  Here in the 21st chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is sharing “signs” of the end of the age . . . he speaks of wars between nations, natural disasters, persecution . . . and, in our reading this morning, “signs”: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars.  On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.  Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”

In listening to this list of “signs” it is not that difficult to equate it to our own day and age.  We have wars between nations.  We have all sorts of natural disasters of the magnitude our generation has never seen.  We have persecution as we witness millions of people fleeing their homelands to seek safety wherever they can find it.  We have all sorts of natural signs—most recently, the sign of the “blood moons”.  Surely the end must be near . . . we have all the signs; and, yet, we are still here.

One thing that is fairly sure and certain is the fact that these “signs”—these pointers to the end times—have been present in each and every generation.  No generation has been hand-picked over any other generation for the privilege of encountering the end . . . at least not yet.  Signs that the end is coming has been present in all generations.  Even Jesus admitted that no one knows for certain when the end will come, not even he himself . . . but, that the end would come.  Thus he kept telling his disciples and followers to keep their eyes open . . . to be alert, stay awake, and keep on plugging away at the purpose and mission of his ministry . . . love God and one another.

This scripture reading seems to be an ominous way of kicking off the season of Advent . . . the season in which we are preparing for the arrival of the “gift” of Christ into the world.  End times do not seem to equate to the idea of hope, they are more along the line of destruction, wailing, and despair.  Yet, it is an appropriate reading for the start of Advent.  The writer of the Gospel of Luke is not too concerned with the “when will these things happen” as much as he is concerned with the same concern Jesus has . . . “how shall we live in the meantime?”  Everyone knows it is going to happen, so what is everyone going to do in the meantime until it does happen?  That is what Jesus is concerned with . . . especially when one considers that these “signs” have been present in every generation . . . and, considering we are all still here.

As a pastor I have had the privilege and honor to walk with many people and families in times of grave illnesses and death.  I have been with individuals and families when “bad news” has been dumped upon them . . . news about incurable illnesses and pending deaths.  And, I have walked with them through these difficult times.  Odds are that many of you have had the same experience with family or friends in your own lives.  It is an honor and a privilege, but even more importantly it is a time of learning and reminder.

It is a time of learning because I have witnessed the change that comes over people when they begin to realize that their days are numbered . . . that the end is coming . . . and, that life as they have known it is done.  I have witnessed them go from living life as if it would never end to embracing each and every day as a gift to be lived in its fullest.   The realization that it is the present moment that matters . . . can’t change yesterday, can’t predict the future, only today is what is real.  I have learned that for them . . . and, for all of us . . . that is what is important, that is what matters.  To be in the present moment and to live life to its fullest in that moment.

It has also been a reminder.  Each and every time that I have been blessed to journey with these individuals and families, I have been witnessed to this truth about the “present moment” as being life . . . as being call and purpose.  As I witness these individuals and families make this journey of living one day at a time . . . of embracing the present, I am reminded that all of us should live life in such a manner.  Funny thing, I think we all forget it despite knowing it.

Jesus confronts this when he gives to his disciples and followers the instructions that he does.  He does not want us to dwell on trying to figure out the end time.  It is a futile exercise as no one knows the day or the time, not even Jesus himself.  Besides, the “signs” have been there for us since the beginning.  Instead what Jesus tells us is to “stand up and lift your heads”, and “be always on the watch.”  Jesus is not concerned with the time that the end will come, he is concerned with what his followers are going to do until the end does come.

Because of this Jesus warns of two things: complacency and fear.  In complacency one gets a feeling of smugness or uncritical satisfaction that things are just fine, nothing is ever going to change, and so why do anything other than one has already been doing.  It is the good old “eat, drink, and be merry” view of life . . . it ain’t going to make any difference in the end, so why do anything else.  To become complacent is to ignore that which needs to be done today . . . to turn away from the stranger at the door, to walk away from the homeless person on the street, and to ignore those who are going hungry in our own communities.  It is not seeing the opportunities for practicing and living God’s call to love one another.  In complacency we miss the boat . . . we miss the “signs” . . . after all, the “signs” are all around us . . . because we have been too busy focusing on other things that really do not matter in the end.

Fear is a bigger problem than complacency.  We live in a time in which fear is taking over our lives . . . and, who could blame us if we did not view the world in which we live with fear.  Read the newspapers . . . watch the news . . . listen to the radio . . . these are scary times that we are living in.  Because of this fear is driving our lives and the way that we live them.  Fear drives us to forget who we are . . . makes us forget whose we are . . . and, we forget who our brothers and sisters are in God’s creation . . . makes us see the stranger and outsiders as enemies . . . makes us forget God’s call upon our lives to love others . . . to reach out in compassion in times of distress.  As one biblical scholar stated: “Fear is more dangerous than violence because fear can lead us to forget our deepest identity and betray our most cherished values.”

How many times did Jesus greet his disciples and followers by telling them to not be afraid?  How many times in the Gospel message are we reminded not to fear . . . told, “do not fear”? 
Complacency and fear take us away from the present moment . . . take us away from the opportunity to live in the present . . . thus it is that Jesus tells us to “stand up and lift your heads” to see the life that must be lived right now . . . right this moment.

Can’t you see?  “Look at the fig tree and all the trees.  When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.  Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the Kingdom of God is near.”  The “signs” are all around us . . . can’t you see?  The time is a coming . . .

. . . so, what are you going to do?  Are you going to be complacent and not do anything any different than you have always done?  Are you going to be fearful and stick your head in the ground?  Or, are you going to embrace the day for what it is . . . live it to the fullest . . . love the Lord . . . love others?  What are you going to do?

As we begin the season of Advent, we have the opportunity to learn and to be reminded.  We cannot change yesterday . . . we cannot predict tomorrow, but we can embrace the day and live it in such a way that we love God and one another.  In this we glimpse at the Kingdom of God.  In this we prepare for the gift that is to come.  In this we live.  Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

“Truth—Yours, Mine or Jesus’?” (John 18:33-37)

“What is truth?” Pilate asked.

If we were to read beyond where our scripture reading ended this morning, we would hear Pilate ask this question after his discourse with Jesus.  I do not think that Pilate was directing this question at Jesus as much as he was pondering the question himself.  He had been approached by those accusing Jesus of treason and blasphemy . . . they claimed to be the truth in the situation.  Pilate had questioned Jesus about these accusations . . . and, Jesus stated that his was the truth.  And, into this quandary, Pilate was on his own to determine what truth was . . . was it the words he heard from the disgruntled Jews who were fearful of this upstart preacher usurping their power . . . or was it the words of this mystic who spoke of other worldly things based on love for God and others . . . or was it the things he had learned and experienced in his own life.  Holding the life of a man in his hands, he pondered what truth really was.

In this age . . . don’t we all?  Don’t we all wonder what truth is in this age of shouting heads on the television . . . screaming voices on the radio . . . and, pictures and words thrown at us on the computer screen?  Each and every one claims to know the truth . . . few of them ever agree . . . and, we the people listening to and reading all of this are urged to embrace it all as being the truth.  It is enough to make one’s head spin . . . ask Pilate, he would know.

On this last Sunday of the liturgical year we are approaching the climax of the Christ story.  The end of Jesus’ earthly ministry is coming to a screeching halt . . . he has been arrested, beaten, tried, convicted, and now dragged before Pilate, the Roman consult, in hopes of being put to death.  Pilate has been asked to pronounce the death penalty upon Jesus . . . but, he is not sure that this is an up-and-up deal.  Pilate is not a stupid person, he knows that things are not adding up . . . and, he also knows that to understand any story, to gain any knowledge, one must always go back to the source . . . so, he summons Jesus.  He will question Jesus for himself.

Pilate gets straight to the point . . . “Are you the king of the Jews?”  That is the accusation from those in power . . . that Jesus is going around claiming to be the king of the Jews—which is obviously not the truth as Herod was the king of the Jews.  Thus Jesus was revolutionary practicing treason and raising the people against not only King Herod, but also the Romans who were their captors.  Pilate understood this, but he also understood the ploys of those who were afraid of losing power . . . they lied.  Thus he goes straight to the source and asks Jesus point blank, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Of course, Jesus asks Pilate whether this is his thoughts or the thoughts of others.  Jesus, too, wants to know where Pilate stands.  This makes Pilate mad and tells Jesus that these are the accusations from those who have had Jesus arrested . . . Pilate knows those who are in power and their play on words to twist and turn the truth to their advantage.  That is why he asks Jesus, “What is it that you have done?”

Jesus responds that the only thing he has done is to come and establish a kingdom that is not like any kingdom in the world . . . it is God’s kingdom.  With this explanation, Pilate is quick to point out to Jesus that he is then a king.  Jesus does not deny it, but at the same time he explains that it is not a kingdom that anyone on this planet had ever witnessed before—it is God’s kingdom.  And, to this he came to testify . . . to testify the truth. 

By this time Pilate’s head is spinning . . . and, in the verse we did not hear in our reading, he lets slip out what he is thinking: “What is the truth?”

We have all been in the shoes of Pilate.  We have all been where he is standing . . . standing in the midst of words and more words . . . all proclaiming to be the truth . . . all wanting our loyalty.  And, standing there with our heads spinning, we suddenly realize that we really are not sure what the truth is.

If I only get my news from one source on television . . . Fox News or one of the mainline stations like CBS or ABC . . . all accused of being bias towards the left or the right, liberal or conservative . . . then I have only heard what one side claims to be the truth.  If I only get my news from social media like Facebook or Twitter or any number of the Internet’s offerings . . . again, I only get one side of what is said to be the truth.  Same with the talking heads . . . liberal or conservative, left or right . . . either way, it is only one claim at the truth.  And, no matter what the case, whoever is presenting the truth is adamant about their truth.  But, is it the truth?

That is what Pilate wants to know!  Is it the Jews?  Is it the Romans?  Is it Jesus?

As the followers of Jesus . . . we know the answer.

Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

We know the answer and this is why Jesus said to Pilate: “Everyone on this side of truth listens to me.”  In other words, if we believe in Jesus . . . believe in what he taught and preached . . . believed in the way that he lived his life . . . we know the truth.  And, the truth is not of this world . . . the truth lies in Jesus and God’s Kingdom.  The truth is based on a simple premise . . . that we are to love the Lord with our whole being, and we are to love one another as we love ourselves.  In that premise those who we are to love are the others . . . our brother and sisters created in the image of God.  We are to love everyone.  Such a concept is not of this world . . . it is not of this world based on what we are being told is the truth in our age.

What we are being told is the truth only pits us against one another.  What we are being told is the truth only brings divisiveness and division.  What we are being told is the truth only creates animosity and violence.  What we are being told is the truth separates and creates hierarchies that are not fair or just.  The truth as Jesus knows it does none of this.  The truth as Jesus knows it creates unity and oneness . . . it creates family.  That is the truth.

So, what is truth?

Well, if we are the followers of Jesus, truth is life . . . life that brings us together as one, as the family of God . . . it brings us the Kingdom of God.  And, Jesus showed us the way . . . thus, he is the way. 

When Jesus wants to know from Pilate whether the accusations against him were Pilate’s or someone else’s ideas, Jesus really wants to know what Pilate thinks for himself.  In the end, this is what it all comes down to . . . is this what you think and feel and believe, or is it something someone else has told you is the truth?  In the end, it all comes down to you as an individual . . . not what someone else states is the truth, but what you—deep down in your own heart—believes is the truth.  Isn’t that the way it is when it comes to faith?  It is between us and God, with God desiring us to be open, honest, and truthful in our relationship with God.

So . . . what do you believe?  Not what your parents told you.  Not what your teachers told you.  Not what some book told you.  Not what some Sunday school teacher told you.  Not what some preacher spouted off from the pulpit.  Not what some talking head said on the television.  Not what you read in the newspaper.  Not what someone wrote on Facebook.  God wants to know what you believe.

What is the truth?

The truth is what you carry within your heart that makes you live your life the way that you live it each day.  As a follower of Jesus it should be a love and relationship with God that makes you want to love others . . . all others . . . that makes you want to be the family of God . . . that makes you embrace a kingdom not of this world.  Jesus showed us the way . . . he was the embodiment of truth.  He said so himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” 

That is the truth.  Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

“So Tired” (I Samuel 1:4-20)

There are two times in the Bible that people who are praying are mistaken as being drunk.  One is on the day of Pentecost when the apostles are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and they begin to speak in other languages.  Those around the apostles marveled that at 9 o’clock in the morning they were already sloshed.  The other time is when Hannah is on the threshold of the Temple of Shiloh, praying for a son.  The priest, Eli, accuses her of being drunk.

In either case, no one was drunk . . . they were praying.  They were praying . . . praying in ways that most of us would probably not consider to be praying . . . drunkenness—maybe, prayer—no.  But, they were praying.  The problem is not in our understanding of drunkenness; our problem is with our understanding in prayer.

Too often we make prayer out to be something that is primp and proper.  Something that is rote and routine.  Something flowery and poetic.  Something that sounds as if it is straight out of the King James Version of the Bible.  Prayer is something that should be taken seriously . . . taken with reverence . . . it should not be something that resembles drunkenness.

Hannah is praying . . . she is praying with all of her heart and soul . . . she is laying it on the line . . . she is not holding back.  Her lips are moving, the tears are flowing . . .  the anguish is being expressed.  Observing this, the priest Eli assumes that she is drunk and admonishes her to knock it off.

But she can’t . . . the prayer she shares pours out from the depths of her soul and her pain.  “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled.  I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord.  Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying her out of great anguish and grief.”

Many times I have shared M. Scott Peck’s words from the beginning of his book, The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult . . . the sooner we accept it, the easier it gets.”  As a psychiatrist and counselor, Peck knows what he is talking about.  And, we know what he is talking about . . . life is difficult  . . . life is hard.  We know and we know because of experience.  No one ever promised any of us that life would be easy, and we can all attest to that fact thanks to the many years we have all lived.

Hannah would vouch for the difficulty of life.

Hannah is one of two wives of Elkanah.  Elkanah is a man of prestige . . . he is from a distinguished family in the community . . . he a man of some means . . . as seen from the fact that he has two wives.  One wife, Peninah, was fairly prolific in bearing children, and she had several children in her relationship with Elkanah—including a couple of sons.  The other wife, Hannah, was barren . . . she had difficulty is conceiving any child, much less a son, in her relationship with Elkanah.

Being barren is not good in the time and place that this story takes place.  Being barren is a sign of disgrace . . . a sign of sinfulness, and Hannah lived under a cloud of shame.  Those around her probably wondered what she had done to deserve such a punishment . . . even the other wife of Elkanah wonders.  Peninah does not miss any opportunity in which she can remind Hannah of her barrenness and lower place in the marriage, family, and community.  Peninah makes Hannah’s life miserable.  Not quite the idyllic life one wants.

Having brought no children into the relationship—in particular, no sons—Hannah had another problem with life.  As we all know, even in the biblical times, children represent the future . . . represented life beyond the present generation.  Having no children—especially sons, was a problem.  Hannah’s future was up in the air.  If her husband died suddenly she would have nothing.  Having no sons, Hannah would find herself out on the street . . . homeless and poor.  This was because women did not inherit anything, only the sons could inherit . . . and, in this case, only the sons that Peninah had with Elkanah.  Seeing how the relationship between Hannah and Peninah was not a good one, I doubt if she could rely upon the mercy of those boys to keep her off the street.  Hannah was up the proverbial creek without a paddle. 

Again, not quite the life anyone would want.  If you would ask Hannah about her life, she would probably tell you that it sucked.  No children.  No future.  No hope.  It looked pretty bleak.  It was hard . . . it was difficult . . . and, it sucked.  In the story I imagine that the snippet we are witness to is the end of the rope for Hannah . . . she was tired . . . she was scared . . . and, she could not take it anymore . . .

. . . and it all comes pouring out as she is sitting outside of the Temple of Shiloh.  A heart-wrenching, straight from the depths on one’s pain and suffering, prayer.  It ain’t pretty.

Life isn’t always pretty.

What are any of us to do when we get to the end of our ropes?  What are any of us supposed to do when we are finally tired of being beaten down by life?  Where do we go?  Who do we turn to?  What do we do when we are sick and tired of being sick and tired?

I think we pray.  I think we pray from the depths of our souls . . . from the depths of our pain . . . from the depths of our grief . . . from that small place in which we can no longer tolerate the misery of it all.  We pray . . . not in fancy, poetic language, but in gritty, down-to-earth words that say it all bluntly and with deep emotion.  We lay it on the line . . . tears and all . . . gnashing of the teeth.  We let loose.  We pray in a way that most people will think that we are either drunk or crazy . . . but, we pray.  We pray honestly and openly.

And, we pray to a God who listens.  A God who wants a genuine relationship with us . . . a relationship that is open and honest . . . one in which no topic, no emotion, no feelings is taboo.  A God who wants us to unload it all . . . the good, the bad . . . the pretty and the ugly.  We pray to a God who wants a genuine, intimate relationship that leaves no part of who we are closed off from the one who loves us.  And, surprisingly, that prayer is not always pretty . . . nor is it what we or others expect.

Yet, God listens.

Hannah’s lot in life is not pretty.  It is a complicated story and position in life . . . enmeshed in an unjust system that seems to be working against at every turn as she strives and hopes for a better, more abundant life . . . she is taunted and belittled by her co-wife . . . a na├»ve husband who loves her, but has no idea how to help her . . . and an accusing priest who declares her drunk.  With nowhere to turn, she turns to God.

In her reaching out for help . . . in her desperate prayer . . . she tells her story.  As the priest, Eli, listens to her story he understands Hannah’s need for assurance . . . her need to be heard . . . not so much by him, but the God she is praying to.  In the end he blesses her: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” 

From there the story follows the pattern we might expect—Hannah goes home, has a child, dedicates him to the service of the Lord, and lives happily ever after.

Oh, how we wish it were so simple . . . so easy.  The fact is that it is rarely ever so simple or easy to climb out of the depths of our despair and grief . . . to climb out of the tiredness of life that weighs us down . . . to lift the burden of that weight off of our souls.  So, all we can do is pray . . . pray those deep from the pits of our soul prayers . . . those prayers of tears and anger . . . those prayers of grief and anguish . . . those prayers that we have been taught to suppress because they are not the ways we should pray . . . those prayers of tiredness.  We are to pray to God. 

God will listen . . . but, more importantly, God will sit with us . . . never abandon us . . . and, God will wait.  In the eye of the storm, this is the blessing.  This is the gift.  This is peace.  Yeah, life is difficult, but God never abandons us no matter how far down we seem to fall.  God is with us.  Amen.