God Only Knows

The following sermon was modified from a sermon that was to be preached at Connecting Point Presbyterian Church and was snowed out.  It is presented to you with y’all as the congregation.

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When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:1-12

 

When I was in the last year of seminary I got a few gems I held on to.  One was enjoy that final year together with those folks that walked alongside of me the past two years.  I did enjoy them.  Between ordination exams, scrambling for what would be next, and writing those papers I should have at the beginning of the semester I savored the presence of these saints.  We held court nightly at the local watering hole.  We sang karaoke and tried bánh mì for the first time.  We explored Austin with a newfound passion.  We knew that our time here with each other, this special place that shaped us and forged a mind and heart of God that we trusted would carry us away from each other and towards the “not yet.”  I have never had a moment of time like that again.

 

I was also told to practice good self-care.  The physical, mental, and spiritual pressures that ravaged my body for three years did indeed take its toll.  I put on over 70 pounds, got pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, addiction problems, and an academic non-emotional faith.  Towards the end of seminary I did manage to join a gym, watch my diet (some), and quit smoking.  This did little to curb my appetite for destruction.  Much of this pursuit may have more to do with me getting married a week after graduation.

 

The last gem was that 50% of my classmates and cross-denominational colleagues would not make it past five years of service in ministry.  I always knew I would have to trail blaze a path towards the church I felt called to be a part of.  I imagined I was prepared for that.  I also did not worry, as I was going to pursue social work.

 

Colleagues prepared for parish ministry, sought work in parish ministry, or worried; I got in to social work school and scored a scholarship.  We moved to Louisville and things went array.  I stumbled into ministry and found myself abandoning my social work dreams.

 

The last gem of a 50% ministry dropout rate was replaced with ass scrambling to figure out how to transform and equip a congregation to move towards the emerging spaces of missional ministry.  With a largely senior population and with a motivated group of members we had some interesting experiences.  Moments of growth and moments of devastating loss.  For three years I grew, the congregation grew.  Then it came time for us to part ways.

 

Leaving was emotional.  I was not prepared for this transition.  I lost myself and woke up in darkness.  I hurt and could not shake it.  This was a moment I realized that I could not do this by myself.  I was isolated, felt alone, and scared about what lie ahead.  I was one of those that dropped out of ministry within five years of graduation.  I felt like a failure.  I proved all the naysayers correct.  I pondered if I was ever really called at all.  I lamented the debt I hold sans a viable vocational career.  I was low.  I was in Lo-debar.

 

I reached out to y’all.  I asked for prayers.  I vented.  I wrestled publicly with faith.  I lashed out and bit those I love.  I was a sour, salty piece of work.  Here is when I became aware of, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Here is when my poverty bound spirit received a gift of ears that hear and eyes that see.

 

A mentor of mine lovingly shared with me the pain of his life.  This was during a seminary-sponsored event of family celebration and welcome.  We sat there in his library, just around the corner of stories of misadventures and missteps.  He spoke kindness to me.  I listened with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.  I felt, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Comfort washed over me.  My warming heart knew I was not alone.  Courage began to creep in to my depressed and anxious soul.

 

Gone was the uninformed bravado of a green horned pastor of privilege.  The fainted victim posture gave way to something new.  I was naked.  All I had left was a trust that God was still here and wanted to chat.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

 

I have never seen the difference between humility and meekness.  I have always seen meekness as weakness.  Humility was prostration before God.  In reality it was more of a deflecting all good and bad comments and praise away from me and towards God.  I could not dare allow for any praise or criticism to penetrate the armor of God.  A good solider keeps a tight defense and a watchful eye.

 

I would also include any emotions in this.  I could not let love or trust in as that would lead to disappointment and hurt.  God does not want me to hurt nor does God want me to have obstacles.  This was the good things happens to good people and good people are Godly people theology of my youth.  It is false and a cheap theology of an immature faith.

 

I used to believe that I had to guard my heart and mind from knowledge.  That the devil was bound up and hiding in progressive/liberal ideas.  I did not trust my mind to engage divine ways.  In seminary I awakened to, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  I was told that I was smart for the first time in seminary.  I was encouraged to study and equipped with skills to research, study, critically think, and to listen.  My hunger for knowledge was no longer guarded.  A cocktail of Shiner Bock and cheese fries vanquished that dragon of doubt and fear as we argued and celebrated at “The Crown”, our other seminary classroom.

 

I fought the love of others for a long time.  I hardened my heart and was an unkind, masked fool.  When I began to receive the freely offered love of others, trust arrived, as did mercy.  For the first time in my life I was washed in the blood of the lamb (figuratively of course) as I read, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

 

Mercy…grace…forgiveness…love.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  I did see God. Not in my pursuit to shed the human inside me but in the imperfect communities that loved me in spite of my shortcomings and embraced me because I was me.  Pure in heart was not a procedure as much as it was a diagnosis.

 

The symptoms include loving kindness, loving mercy, and humbly walking with God.  Treatment includes community, relationships, loving the stranger, and seeing God everywhere you go.

 

Then you get, “Blessed are the cheese makers…This is not meant to be taken literally, but refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.” 

 

The Beatitudes are not meant to be a checklist of shit to do in order to get a blessing.  The beatitudes are a path towards being a blessing to others.  The heavenly reward can be debated.  In all honesty, I do not believe in heaven.  If I did my heaven would be Sam Cooke playing a set & welcoming Pete Seeger up to play along.  Thomas Merton & Dorothy Day occupy a table in the crowd & sing along.  James Brown is backstage warming up with Johnny Cash.  Sam Kinison is working the bar, as Judas orders another PBR.

 

The Cliff Notes version is blessed are those that bless the Other.  The bottom line is be kind to others, be kind to yourself.  Love others, love yourself.  The church is all fucked up and broken.  It is in decline and that 30-40 year career you dreamed of is not getting good odds from Vegas bookmakers.  Resources are dwindling.  It is tough to be the young adult representation and the pastor.  Everyone knows change needs to come but no one will take the first step.  Parish ministry seems more like hospital chaplaincy.  The connectional church feels more like the dysfunctional church.  The good news is that the church is so broken that we cannot make it any worse.  Whatever you are doing is better than what is going on now.  “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  You are fearfully and wonderfully made creature of God.  Go and be your bad self.  And remember the self-care.  That’s important.

The Harder They Come

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Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.  Matthew 4:12-23

Last week we heard Jesus say, “Come and See.”  Which we learned that Jesus was ultimately saying, “Let’s hang out and experience each other.  And we will change this world together.”  This makes the most sense if one believes that this world is indeed in need of change.

One would need to accept the idea of sin as inequality, injustice, and oppression within human systems that impede The Kingdom of God from full manifestation in the world right here, right now.  This is generally more pressing for those that are being oppressed, experiencing injustice, or bound in those human systems that deny full equality.  Those that are bound in these human systems are separated and dominated for the benefit of power.  This power is what Jesus was offered from Satan when he was in the wilderness after his baptism.  This power is privilege and privilege is the root of sin.

Today we encounter Jesus telling more folks to, “Come and See.”  He is continuing his counter cultural march towards his ultimate death in Jerusalem.  He is calculated and unflinching in his action.  On his march towards the cross, Jesus is challenging power and privilege along the way.  Jesus is pushing back against the religious elite of his day making way for a new path for God to emerge.

What Jesus is doing screams in the face of how it’s always been.  Jesus rebukes tradition and demands that the power tied up in leadership be disseminated broadly.  Now replace First Century Palestine with Twenty First Century US and Disciples, Pharisees, and Sadducees with Presbyterians, Lutherans, or Methodists.

Jesus turns over the moneychangers tables in the temple declaring that these wolves have invaded the House of God with greed.  Peter affirms the place of Gentiles in the church and challenges the primacy of Jewish authority.  Paul abandons his role as part of the religious elite to minister to Gentiles and grow the church away from Palestine.  The church splits to East and West over doctrinal differences, each pointing fingers of disapproval.  Iconoclasts are displeased with the religious art and imagery of the Iconodules.  Re-baptizers muddy the church waters with demands of higher righteousness.  Martin Luther nails 95 theses on a door and transforms the church.  Reformers break off further over music, sacraments, and organizational structures.  From Palestine to North Africa to Constantinople to Rome to Avignon to Canterbury to New York to Dallas to Mexico City to São Paulo to Accra to Nairobi to Kerala to Beijing…the church keeps turning.  This is the church reformed, always reforming.

Change is part of our DNA.  Change is something that our faith is rooted in.  Jesus prescribes change at all levels of society.  The Gospel at its core is change embodied, a road map of change.  We see in today’s Gospel, change is something we participate in.  We are change agents.  Change begins when we drop what we are doing and follow Jesus.

Accepting the call to follow Jesus in change is about the last time we have full control over anything.  We do not get to dictate what that change will be.  As Christians this change is laid out before us.  As agents of change we are actors in the grand reclamation of the beautiful intimacy between Creator and creation.

Jesus will use whom ever he choses to bring about change.  More often than not, Jesus uses the outsiders of society, the broken, the lame, and the lost.  Jesus reclaims the brokenness bound up in income disparity.  Jesus convicts the religious elite by offering wholeness outside of its control.  Jesus proclaims that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Jesus calls a few fishermen and a tax collector to be the inner circle of the Kingdom of God here on earth.

From the ranks of the disenfranchised, the hopeless, the faithful, and the downtrodden come prophets, priests, and workers that transform this world as we hurl towards the promise of a new day.  We look to the hills, desperate for help.  Faithful we have been.  For 30, 40, 50, and sometimes 60 years we darkened the halls of church.  We have filled that pew and dedicated our life to the ways of God.  Sometimes that change feels like we are being left behind.

No one likes to be left behind or forgotten.  When we feel left behind or forgotten we may close ourselves off from the very thing that God is working in us.  We build up walls to those that seem different than us.  We isolate ourselves.  We may become judgmental of those engaging in change.  We forget the grace we have received and move away from that pool of grace we once calmly waded in.  The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating.  By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

You see we are called to be love in the world, love that illuminates the saving grace of the Christ.  If we feel left behind by the changes happening around us, perhaps it is a call to affirm the good works of today with the story of the good works of yesterday.  Church is not a monolithic statue to our Beloved Creator but a diverse and complex witness of faith of all saints that strive and have strove to be lights of the Kingdom of God.  Dr. King said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.  He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.  There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”

Change is gonna come.  How do we engage change in a manner that no one is left behind?  Community is the answer.  We offer space to those that feel left behind or tired from the long journey here.  We offer space to listen to those with energy and creativity that will take us in to tomorrow.  We couple the us and them and fashion a we.  Everyone has a place in church for There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Many Rivers To Cross

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The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’  I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, teacher, “Where are you staying?”  He said to them, “Come and see.”

They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.  It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.  One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Anointed One.  He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Peter.”

John 1:29-42

 

 “What are you looking for?”  This is not a casual inquiry.  Jesus is not “wazzup’ng” these two disciples.  Jesus is investigating the seriousness of their interest.  They respond, “Where are you staying?”  They are interested and intrigued.  Perhaps they are even afraid.  Jesus then invites them past the fear and in to an intimate encounter with, “Come and see.”

 

Jesus is inviting them to get lost in each other’s company.  This is a mutual experience with each person offering themselves to the collective proximity of fellowship.  In this fellowship stories are shared, hope is garnished, and joys are celebrated.  Intimacy is fashioned with laughter, familiarity, and companionship.  This is not merely hangeroners sitting at the feet of Jesus, the emerging Christ.  This is a two-way street of intimate encounter.  This is the fully incarnate and realized Christ.

 

Come and see.  Jesus is literally saying, “Let’s hang out and experience each other.”  This is the invitation to peel back the fronts and masks that we use to insulate ourselves from each other.  This is an invitation to see each other through the eyes of God.  To see the divine profanity that lies in the finite, wicked hearts of creation.  When we see each other with the divine eyes of God we begin the physical journey from the here and travel together towards the not yet.

 

Taste and see that the Lord is good.  Taste the sweetness of God’s goodness.  It is this goodness that draws us nearer unto God and each other.  The sweetness of creation is the sweetness of the Christ.  Taste the bitterness of death.  The bitterness of death is real.  We are reminded that the bitterness of death is not the last course.  There is an eternal banquet awaiting us all.  Taste the sourness of humanity’s sin.  The acidic annoyance of sin moves us towards that savory supper in the hall of Christ.  Taste the saltiness of faith.  The salt of faith awakens the senses as it prepares us to experience the fullness of God if life and in death.

 

Hear the Word of the Lord.  To hear the Word is to listen to and absorb the transformative nature of the Emmanuel, the God with us.  The great street court hustler, Sidney Deane, of White Men Can’t Jump tells us, “Y’all can listen to Jimi but you can’t hear him…Just because you’re listening to him doesn’t mean you’re hearing him.”  The same can be said about God.  You might be listening to the Word of God.  To hear the Word of God is to be transformed by it; to understand, sympathize with, and to live in the context of the People of God.  Listening to the Word of God is not hearing the Word.  You know when you hear the Word of God when you are moved to action, convicted by it, and are transformed by hearing the Word of God.

 

Smell the aroma of Christ, a fragrance that comes from knowing God.  I was working with a client a few weeks ago.  They were down on their luck and wrestling with some heavy things.  Mental illness, substance abuse, the loss of their children to the State, and depression had overcome them.  They let go of personal hygiene.  They came in to my office and smelled something awful.  A sour stench of anguish and apathy filled the air.  I choked back my breath, afraid to breathe them in.  I focused on the foul odor.  I let myself slip.  I did my job and collected information.  I assessed their progress.  Meanwhile I gasped for breath.  Then they shared that their dog had 5 puppies.  Then a smile appeared on their face.  The air was not clear but a light shone through the cloud.  These puppies needed someone to care for them.  They found purpose in this.  We discussed the hygiene issue and they responded with understanding and awareness of the need to care for themselves so that they could care for the puppies.  The aroma of Christ was a foul smelling, sour stench that delivered us both to new realities.

 

Touch the hem of his garment and be made well.  Jesus’ public ministry was one of breaking down power and privilege.  He challenged the status quo and turned the world on its head.  He did this with touch.  He touched the sick, the outcast, and the forgotten.  He embraced them as his family.  He emptied his privilege to dine with sinners.  He used his power to awaken concern for the outcast.  He touched those that no one touched before.  Jesus used touch as a path towards transformation.

 

“What are you looking for?”  What is it that you desire?  What is missing from your life?  And Jesus says, “Let’s hang out and experience each other.”  And we will change this world together.

Pressure Drop

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Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”             Matthew 3:13-17

It was a chilly, overcast morning in 1975.  The fog hugged the neighborhood in a blanket of silencing stillness.  The birds were quiet and the families that occupied the colorful homes were beginning to stir.  They prepared to visit the cemeteries and place flowers on the graves of their loved ones.  The picnics and parties would follow as fog lifted and the day move along.

In your average looking Presbyterian Church with simple stained glass windows a baptism was taking place.  The family had gathered in their clean Sunday’s best.  Mother and father standing with children and godparents filled up the space.  The Spirit of God expected to descend and on their heads, rest.  It was Dia De Los Muertos in north LA.  My fortune would never be the same.

This was the first time I was baptized.  I was almost 8 months old.  This began my journey towards identity and who or what I was in this world.  It delivered me through Catholic elementary school, Lutheran middle school, evangelical street preacher, Presbyterian inquirer, and on to an agnostic pastor.

Baptism was a process for me to enter in to close proximity to God.  It was a physical rite that cast away who I was, for who I hoped to be.  I have a weakness for altar calls and baptism.  I have answered countless altar calls as I sought to be washed in the cleansing blood of the Lamb.  I have been baptized three times in a similar pursuit, one that resembles a roller coaster of highs and lows of finding and forgetting Jesus.

The second time I was baptized I was at the beach with the evangelical church that my girlfriend was part of.  We went there for Easter service and I became overcome with joy, the Spirit, and a desire to be worthy to be the husband of this young woman I was with.  I waded out in to the waters of the Pacific Ocean and said yes to Jesus, again.  I soon fell out of the faith and blindly searched for the real me.  The third time was in the backyard of the pastor of the charismatic Hispanic church that I was part of.  We ate carne asada and I found myself in the shallow end of the pool again proclaiming that I wanted Jesus Christ to be my Lord and Savior.  Within a few weeks I departed the Spirit-filled light and wandered the earth as a pseudo-Christian version of Kwai Chang Caine seeking the meaning of life.

There was a fourth time I went to get baptized.  In the wake of a horrible break-up I went back to church.  It was a huge mega church with 2,000-3,000 members worshipping each Sunday.  There was an alter call to get saved and I answered it.  They took me to the back and prayed with me to received the Lord and the pastor asked me, “son, have you been baptized before?”

I told him, “Three times but this one will stick.”

He replied, “You don’t need baptism.  You need to get serious.”  He then prayed with me and they took me to the side where I watched the others get dunked.  I was upset.  I was disappointed.  I felt rejected.  I walked away that day and did not set foot in church again for another two years.

It has taken me almost fifteen years to get what he was talking about.  What he was saying was, “You need to get serious and love yourself.  You need to love yourself like God loves you.  You need to spend time with yourself.  You need to get comfortable in your own skin.  You need to get familiar with your own body.”

Baptism was a drug, an addiction.  I was addicted to the sacramental practice of being made whole.  I was not able to see beyond the sacramental act of wholeness and live as a fully integrated, fully realized and differentiated being.  That part was harder for me to embrace.

Jesus was not addicted to any sacrament, nor was the Christ self-medicating the wounds of dysfunctional family relations.  Jesus was proclaiming his wholeness as fully human and fully divine.  He entered the River Jordan as a man and as God.  He exited the river as an outwardly integrated and realized Christ.  Jesus revealed the path of reconciliation through the fragmented faithful path of his day.  Jesus rising out of the waters hears, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  A voice from Heaven proclaims pleasure and affirms the fully realized self of divine humanity.

Jesus got serious.  Jesus spent a lot of time wandering this world looking for who he was.  One just needs to read Christopher Moore’s book, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, to ponder what was Jesus before he got baptized and after he was born.

If Jesus was in deed fully human and fully divine then it is not that hard to imagine that Jesus also wrestled with the realities of being human.  There are numerous accounts in apocryphal and deuterocanonical letters that share stories of Jesus’ “silent years.”

It is human to desire identity.  It is human to hunger for belonging.  It is human to journey towards understanding.  Jesus knew this and Jesus got serious.  When Jesus got serious about who he was and spent some time with himself he grew to love himself.  When he loved himself he got comfortable with who he was, who he is.  When Jesus gets comfortable with who he is, we get the invitation to reconciliation and we are shown the way to familiarity of the Body.

The body matters and baptism is a path towards familiarity with who we are and that eventual reckoning of what we are in Christ.  Baptism is a beginning.  It is not the end.  Baptism is the first step in a journey of 10,000 miles.  Baptism is the outfitters that shall equip you for life.

Right after Jesus gets baptized he is thrust in to the wilderness to be tempted by the world.  In the wilderness Jesus continues to challenge the norms that we bear.  Jesus’ ministry in an assault on human systems of power and wealth as he calls on us, the Children of God, to live life in that familiar way he displayed when he got baptized.  Jesus’ beginning in those baptismal waters is the beginning of something that we have yet to realize, Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done…On Earth As It Is, In Heaven…

St. Thomas Merton offers us a prayer in which the certainty most of us seek is reframed under the light of Christ’s action, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.”  Baptism is the beginning of this road.  The road to which we travel, not with certainty but with faith.  A faith that allows for divinity in the face of the profane.  Purpose in the mundane.  A faith of clarity amongst the chaos.

You cannot love others if you do not love yourself.  You cannot accept others if you do not accept yourself.  You cannot honor others if you do not honor yourself.  You cannot take others seriously if you do not take yourself seriously.  You cannot be familiar with others if you are not familiar with yourself.

We live life in the here and now as fully embodied humanity we continue to work towards the marks of Church and seek to glorify and enjoy God.  We do justice, we love kindness, and we walk humbly with our God.  When doing justice, loving kindness, and humbly walking with God we embark on some rather serious business.

Welcome To The Jungle

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In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”  Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

 

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Matthew 3:1-12

I am not a fan of Advent.  I respect its place in the hierarchy of the liturgical calendar.  I appreciate its contemplative holding pattern before the Christmas miracle of Emmanuel.  I try to get pumped up about Advent.  I am impatient and hate surprises.  Also, I suspect that when we talk about Advent we are really talking about is “pre-Christmas.”

You know Christmas trees in our living rooms, strings of lights illuminating our homes, and the BC Clark jingle.  We seek to give and hope to receive that perfect gift.  We unlock chocolates from their captive foiled dens, gaze upon the beauty of the nativity, and visit the memories of Christmases past, and the sounds and spirit of the season consume us.

Yup, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas—in our homes, in our churches, in our communities.   And with all the tinsel, Christmas cards, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, we begin to think a lot like Christmas, too.  Christmas is here.  Frosty, Charlie Brown and gang, and the army of Clauses that fill the malls signal it is indeed Christmas.

Christians do it differently.  We have Advent.  We are expected to slow our roll and savor the moment prior to the savior being laid in a manger in swaddling cloths.  Advent is a time of anticipation, a period of waiting.  We get bombarded with the “Spirit of Christmas” in a seemingly relentless wave of commercialism and consumer one-upmanship.  We are offered formula after formula as to how we can claim happiness and glee.  Rather, we get further in to debt as these systems of bondage increase.  This bondage challenges the liberation of Jesus the Christ.  A vapid church loses steam in a culture of young adults rapidly drowning in a climate of hopelessness and unrealized dreams.

The crash of cymbals, the sounding of an alarm, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene, bucket in hand, dousing us with cold water, rudely awakening us from our quest for consumer victory and visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads.   His austere manner, frugality in dress, and OG Mediterranean diet, he lacks any obvious Christmas cheer.  John is more Grinch than Father Christmas.  And the midst of all this preparing the way, John seems conspicuously and embarrassingly in the way.

John would not be very welcome at most of our holiday festivities.  Imagine him at Best Buy warning the folks that waited in line that they needed to repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  There’s John yelling warnings, in between nibbles of crickets and slurps of honey, at the streaming parade of people holding giant inflatable cartoon characters.  John the Baptist is a pain the…you know.

But the gospel—neh, the entire Bible—is filled with people who are, at best—difficult to be around.  People we might describe as kill-joys or wet-blankets.  People who tell us exactly what we are doing wrong and how mad God is going to be.  They usually emerge right about the time things are starting to get fun and the good times roll.

We have a name for these kinds of people—prophets.  Prophets have the daunting task of being the mouthpiece of God and are called to communicate a message from God to the wider world.   But prophets are not cheerleaders or life coaches or therapists—they are more like Bob or Jillian on the “Biggest Loser”—charged with the task to preach a message of reconciliation and repentance.  Generally, God sends a prophet to tell people that they are on the fast track to ruin.  And so, prophets do not have the luxury to mince words or to put a positive spin on the message.  When judgment and punishment is at hand, there’s no time for flowery sentiment—it’s time to cut to the chase.

For John the Baptist, time was at a premium, because Jesus was just around the corner.  His message was urgent—don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, don’t pack your bags or kiss your family goodbye—there is not time for dawdling—you must drop everything and Repent!  Confess your sins, repent, and be baptized!  Because there is no other acceptable way to prepare yourselves for the coming of the Christ.

So here we are…Advent.  The church seeks a tender moment of reflection.  We pine for those White Christmas’, just like the one’s we used to know.  We shun the prophet’s cry to repent and point the finger towards the other brood of vipers.  We fall victim to the warned path and stray from the victorious road of liberated mercy and skip out on the getting ready.  Too busy getting ready for Christmas, we overlook Advent.  We grab nostalgia instead of change.

You see what John is calling us to, what Advent calls us to, is to repent and to repent is to change.  Repenting is changing the way you approach the world.  Repenting is changing the way you engage each other.  Repenting is changing the world to embody “thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Change is the reason for the season and Jesus is the impetus behind that change.  But we are not there yet.

The church is in a season of change.  It is no longer the axis to which this Nation revolves.  Gone is the monopoly in which the spiritual wellbeing of our Nation is entrusted to the Christian God.  We the church must contend with the reality that as the prophets spoke we chose to secure our treasures, rather than sell all we have to give to the poor.

The wealth of a nation sits broadly in the hands of a few.  Poverty rises as justice and equality is withheld due to a persons love, skin color, nation of origin, and gender.  Change swirls around us.  John warns us to repent.  He calls us to change.  Change always blurs the like between prophet, priest, and people.  Change can bring out the best and worst in us.

Just ask the Pharisees and Sadducees.  “You brood of vipers!” John exclaims, driving them out of the water, creating such a torrent of crashing waves that the men are soaked from head to toe, wringing their tunics out on the river’s bank.  “Unless you are serious about change, get out of my sight!”  Disgusted and embarrassed, the Pharisees and Sadducees turn their heels, get back into their shiny car, and flee the scene.

So what was it about the Pharisees and the Sadducees that caused John to pull a Jekyll and Hyde?  Why did John deny them baptism and the chance to change? If John was calling all people to change, then why were some left out in the cold? Shouldn’t it mean something that they bothered to show up in the first place?

It’s easy to paint John in the same picture as just another insane, self-conversing prophet.  A lunatic.  A outside agitator.   John took his job as prophet very seriously.  He knew that the difference between being angry and prophetic is love.  His job was not only to baptize those who sought baptism—his job was to love people towards change.  His job was to love people into the coming of Christ.  And the best way to prepare for change is through the act of repentance as delivered in love.

We toss around the word “repent” a lot in church; we hear it most Sundays, we read it in the Bible.  Repenting means that we own the times in our lives when we do not live up to God’s expectations of us and we make a concerted effort not to do those things again.  This is why it is difficult to fully embrace Advent and why the Holy of Christmas is so alluring.

It doesn’t matter if we repent, because we can just confess our sins, God will forgive us, and life will be good again.  I have asked God for forgiveness of and repentance for all kinds of sin.  Tim may have shared a few of those stories with you.  And here I am, unlikely that I have ever repented from everything.

Repentance is less about the sin itself and more about the posture of the sinner.  No matter how much we try, no matter how much we pray and confess to God, we are going to keep sinning.  That’s just the reality of the human condition.  As Christians, our job is not to eradicate every bit of sin from our lives, but to do our best to sin less and to make a concerted effort to live as a Child of God.  We are to be changing.

And this is where the Pharisees and Sadducees got it wrong and why John sent them running from the river.  They didn’t give a lick about change.  They were fine, going through the motions, because it was what everybody else was doing.  But they had no intention on re-ordering their lives as baptized, forgiven creatures entering the changing process.  John has little tolerance for those who are not serious about committing their entire lives to Jesus the Christ.

Repentance is a change in our identity because repenting means that we are no longer bound to sin, as prisoners of a world ruled by oppression and violence.  Repentance means that we pledge allegiance not to systems that oppress, but to the Kingdom of God.  The Pharisees & Sadducees and other members of the religious establishment were willing to pay lip service to repentance, but had no intention of changing their basic identity and pledging allegiance to anyone or any system other than themselves.  John knew this, and loudly rebuked them for their misguided religious showboating.

Change is a communal act, as much as it is an individual act.  Change is not just about you, or me—it’s about us, as individuals, as a community—living into our TRUE identity as the body of Christ and citizens of the Kingdom of God.  If we as a church would focus on the contemplation, the reflection, the prayer, the discernment, THE CHANGE I could and would be a fan of Advent.  But as I said earlier, I suspect that when we talk about Advent what we are really talking about is pre-Christmas.

It’s tempting for us to skip over this uncomfortable talk about repentance and change.  We want to jump right to the “good stuff” of Christmas.  But in order for us to celebrate the birth of Christ, we must first make the conscious decision to pledge our faithfulness to Christ and Christ alone.   That’s what these weeks of Advent are for—it’s a period of discernment, for prayer and reflection.  It is a period of change.