Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanks for Broken Things--November 26, 2020

 Thanks for Broken Things--November 26, 2020

"While there were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom'." [Matthew 26:26-29]

I don't know that I had thought it this way before, but this probably wasn't the way Jesus would have wanted to spend his holiday.  But it was necessary... for the sake of love.

Church folk are so used to hearing this story as the origin of what we call Holy Communion or the Lord's Supper, or we just leap past this story on the way to the cross, that we forget that Jesus was celebrating a holiday with his closest friends in this scene.  And not just any holiday, this was Passover--the central festival of Israel's religious, national, and cultural life.  Picture it like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one.  It's a big deal.  And of course the tradition was to eat the usual Passover Feast with your family, and to eat it with joyful remembrance.  You pulled out all the stops to make everything just right.  You joined with family and neighbors to have enough people around the table to eat the whole roasted lamb.  And as one of the festivals specifically prescribed in the Torah, it was a matter of faith to get it right.

And yet here was Jesus, knowing that it wasn't the way he would have wanted.  He knew it was mere hours before he would be abandoned by his followers.  He knew the sham trial was waiting, and torture by the state and the empire's cross after that.  He knew he wasn't going to be in his hometown.  He knew all the aunts and uncles and extended relatives wouldn't be there.  He knew they were putting it together as well as they could with a borrowed room in a strange city filled with tension in the streets.  And so as much as the calendar told them all it was a day for celebration, it was just obvious--this wasn't the way things were "supposed" to go.

And yet, Jesus bears with the needs of the circumstances... for the sake of love.  Things are different, but he is willing to let them be different--because the people he loves need it to be different.  He is headed to a cross--and for two millennia, Christians have dared to claim that he offered up his life out of love for all the world to redeem and rescue all of us.  Jesus also loved his disciples and didn't want them to misunderstand what was about to happen--he needed them to understand that the cross wasn't the empire's victory over him, but rather his subversive choice to break the power of death itself.  He wanted them to understand he wasn't a helpless victim caught up in the machinations of powers beyond his control, but his chosen surrender to set his people free--like the Passover lamb itself, whose blood on the doorpost guarded the Israelites from the power of death.

So he takes the bread, breaks it, and gives thanks for it in its brokenness, and tells his disciples it is his own body.  He takes the cup, meant to be celebrating the sweetness of freedom from slavery, and gives thanks that his own lifeblood can free the world anew.

He chooses to let this holiday celebration be different, for the sake of love.  He gives thanks--lifting up the bread and the cup--even though the thanksgiving is colored by sorrow and suffering.  Even though none of it is "the way it's supposed to be."  Even though it wasn't like any Passover they had ever celebrated before.  But love is worth letting the traditions change sometimes.  Love is willing to go to additional lengths, and often that means going out of our comfort zones.

By comparison, the ways this year's Thanksgiving will be different are small changes.  Yes, we are all making changes this year.  Yes, many of our gatherings are smaller and feel subdued.  Yes, the traditions change, and it's ok to name that it feels uncomfortable for things to be different.  Yes, we miss the face to face gatherings with the larger groups.  Yes, lots of things are different this year.  And "different," as an adjective by itself, is neither good nor bad.  The question is, "Why--why should things be different?"  And when the answer is, "love," well, then, maybe there is something beautiful in the difference this year, even in the bittersweetness. 

Jesus himself gives us a picture of how love sometimes leads you let the traditional celebration be different.  Sometimes circumstances and love require us to let go of the mental picture of "how it's supposed to be," and to do things in new ways, for the sake of others and their needs--whether they understand what we are doing for them or not, whether we can draw a straight line between our actions and their well-being or not, and whether we get to see the direct impact of our choices for love. Jesus, after all, allows his Passover celebration to be different because he intends to offer up his life for the world at the cross, and the rest of the watching world doesn't even understand what's happening.  He is willing to let things be different, even while the world remains blissfully ignorant.  He is willing to set aside his picture-perfect holiday celebration, because sometimes that's what love does.

Today, lots of folks are making small sacrifices for the sake of love.  Folks are not traveling or gathering in large crowds to avoid the possibility of spreading sickness.  Folks are working extra-long shifts at the hospital and at nursing facilities, risking exposure themselves.  Folks are trying extra hard to find new ways of being together... separately--dropping off meals at the homes of neighbors who could use a sign of care, making a phone call to someone who needs a reminder they are loved, writing a note card and taking the time to send it.  We are also having to learn to let go, for a time, of some of our pictures of "the way things are supposed to be," for the sake of love.  None of us is being asked to die on a cross for the sake of the world... but we are called to the same love.  And sometimes what the way of Jesus look like is to take broken things and thank God for them anyway, and to let love lead us to do things differently.

Today, in whatever ways you are giving thanks, and with whatever things feel different or out of sorts or even broken like bread, remember that there is something beautiful in the choice to let it be different for the sake of love.  Love turns broken bread and leftover wine into the very feast of God.

Lord Jesus, thank you for what you did for us... thank you for your presence with us... thank for the ways your love leads us still to face new situations in your goodness.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Conscious of Our Treasures--November 24, 2020

Conscious of Our Treasures--November 24, 2020

"Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." [Philippians 4:6]

If you want to be more fully alive, practice gratitude.


There's no ritual you have to follow.  No spiritual pilgrimage required.  No magic prayer to pray or mantra to recite.  But rather, the intentional, deliberate, conscious practice of appreciating what and who you have in this life, and saying thank you for them.  Giving thanks--both to the people for whom you are grateful, and to the God who puts them in your life--helps us to see what we have been blessed with and realize these things were not owed to us.  They are grace.

I am often reminded of the wisdom of Thornton Wilder on this subject, who wisely said, "We can only said to be alive when our hearts are conscious of their treasures."  And that's just it--gratitude is not merely about good manners (although good manners are a lovely and delightful thing, and I highly recommend them as opposed to being a jerk in life).  Gratitude opens our eyes to see and to appreciate what has been put in our hands, especially when we are tempted to take things for granted or look for things to grouse about. 

I want to be more fully alive, so I'm going to take Wilder's advice--because it is very much in keeping with the Apostle Paul's direction, too.  Thankfulness has a place in everything.  Even when I have needs that are urgent and I bring those to God in prayer, gratitude changes the conversation.  When I choose thankfulness in my prayers, I am reminded of why we can be confident God is listening.  The practice of giving thanks calls to mind all the answered prayers of the past and helps us to see that God has been good to us over and over and over again.  It gives me reason to keep bringing my needs to God, and gives me a peace in knowing that God has provided for my needs and graced me beyond my earning plenty of times before.

In other words, practicing gratitude in prayer isn't about trying to butter God up before we make our "big ask" of whatever the next thing is that we need.  It's not that God will be snitty if we forget to say "Thank you," but rather than without the regular practice of gratitude we start to lose our senses of all the blessings around us.  We forget that the smell of a wood fire on a cold day is special, or that the sound of rain is a thing of beauty.  We stop noticing the kindness of strangers or the effort friends and family make to brighten our days.  We take things for granted or find only complaints, and we become a little less alive.

So on a day like today... in the week that it is on the calendar... in the year that has been full of so much turmoil and disappointment, it is easy--but dangerous--to spend all of our attention on the things that didn't go our way.  Yes, we can name them.  And yes, we can be honest about them.  But it is worth taking the time to recognize the good, the beautiful, and the graceful that is all around us.  Yeah, maybe you don't get to have family over for Thanksgiving this year, or to travel to see whomever you might usually see on this day.  Yeah, there's much that is uncertain and frustrating these days.  Yeah, some days it is hard just to make ourselves watch or listen to the news for all the eye-rolling and head-shaking it makes us do.  But alongside all those things, you and I were given another day today.  You and I are blessed again with people who love us.  You and I have been given a love that will not let us go in Christ Jesus.  You and I get to eat today.  You and I are given the opportunity to be a part of this gorgeous, vibrant, vital world, we who live on this small blue planet in the vastness of a galaxy beyond our comprehension, which is only one of a countless host of other galaxies.  Seeing just the fact of our existence in the midst of the infinite expanse of the cosmos has a way of putting my petty complaints and grievances back into their proper place.

Maybe it just starts with the thoughtful sentence that begins, "Today, I am grateful for..." and to see where it goes.  And then we try it again tomorrow.  And the next day.  And the next.  And before long, we are recognizing grace and goodness that is lavished upon us all the time but that we had been too busy, too entitled, or too numb to notice.

See?  Being thankful really does make us more fully alive.  Thanks be to God for bringing us to life in new ways all the time.

Lord God, thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

When No One is Looking--November 23, 2020

When No One Is Looking--November 23, 2020

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me'." [Matthew 25:37-40]

The saints are blessedly clueless--Hallelujah!

This is one of the details I have come to treasure about the well-known parable Jesus tells which we call "The Sheep and the Goats."  It's that when Jesus highlights all the good that the "righteous" did, they didn't realize anybody was watching or do it in order to score points.  They were just doing it because that's what happens when you are captivated by the goodness of God.  They feed the hungry, they clothe the naked, the welcome the foreigner, and they care for the sick and imprisoned, not as a photo op, and not to earn a merit badge, but simply because that is what justice and righteousness look like (and, reminder here, the same word in the Greek carries both senses, "justice" and "righteousness").

In other words, they do good simply because it flows out of who they are, not because of what they can "get" for doing it if the right person notices.  The righteous have been caring for neighbors, not because they want it to be a headline in tomorrow's paper and they can get the credit, but because somehow they are most fully alive when they are showing love, justice, and goodness to any and to all--even the ones deemed "least."  And so they aren't even paying attention to who is watching or whether anyone else notices--they are blessedly clueless that it has been Jesus there all along.

This is something I think we need to let sink in for a moment here.  All this year, I hope it has been clear that we have been looking at how God brings us more fully to life--how little resurrections are happening all around us all the time in anticipation of God's work to bring all creation to new life at last.  And while our hope is for a day when all creation is made new, in the mean time, here and now, God makes us more fully alive in the ways we love others. Being fully alive is far less about having the right stuff, getting the right job, making your relationships or social life fit someone else's expectations, or looking the right way--and it has almost everything to do with how we live our lives oriented toward one another.  We are more fully ourselves, and more fully alive, when we are loving others--especially those who can't do a thing to pay us back or don't know we are doing it.  And when that happens, something wonderful and mysterious happens: we stop focusing on ourselves and almost forget ourselves.  The "righteous" in Jesus' story aren't thinking a great deal about getting the credit for what they do in life, and they aren't staging a scene so reporters will take their picture.  They are simply seeking to love--as they have been loved by God--and so they aren't nearly so worried about how their actions are viewed by anybody else.  And when you are less worried about what others think and can simply act in love, you are brought a little more authentically to life.

For too long, church folks have read this story of Jesus and made it into a list of requirements to earn your way into heaven, when instead, Jesus seems to think that people who "get" what matters to God will more and more fully do these kinds of things without a second thought of what reward they'll get or who is watching.  We'll simply love because, well, that's how we are most fully alive ourselves!  And if it turns out in glory that Jesus was present behind the scenes when you cared for a stranger, well, then hot diggity, we get to be blessedly clueless, too!

Today, let us dare to let God make us more fully alive, when we can at last get out of the way of ourselves and simply do good--that is to say, love and justice--for the folks around us.  And let's just see if we aren't more fully alive for having done it.

Go, dear ones.  Do justice and practice mercy.  Be fully alive.

Lord Jesus, make us fully alive and less worried about who is noticing as we give ourselves a way for the sake of doing justice and practicing mercy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Sublime Patchwork--November 19, 2020

 A Sublime Patchwork--November 19, 2020

"Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." [1 Corinthians 15:58]

It is worth it--the good that you do in this world.

The tiny gestures of decency and mercy that go unnoticed--they are worth doing, even if they do not register on someone else's radar or make a lasting impression in their memory.

The persistence you put in--small actions, day by day, that form a lifetime--it matters, and it is not lost, even if you are going through a time when you wonder if any of it makes a difference.  The effort you put in at work... the time you take with your children or grandchildren... the additional grace you extend to a stranger... the willingness to be put to a little bit of inconvenience in the hopes of helping someone else.... the energy you spent taking the time to speak kindly rather than rashly... these things are not lost in the great sweep of history, even when we can't see what any of it accomplished.

Or, as the apostle puts it succinctly, in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Now, to be clear, that doesn't mean the world around you will always recognize the value of what you do.  Our 24-hour-a-day news-cycle culture wants flashy, attention-getting, headline-making acts of heroics, and most of the good you and I can be a part of is, honestly, the stuff that is easily overlook-able.  You aren't likely to get a parade in your honor or a statue in your likeness set up somewhere, but that may be for the best anyway (Jesus seems pretty skeptical about the value of statues of anybody, it seems to me, and he knows how fickle the crowd at a parade can be, too, between a Sunday and a Friday).  

So as long as we understand that Paul isn't promising that the world will recognize your work and hand you a Nobel prize or Academy Award for it, we can trust Paul's point.  The world's big names and so-and-sos will always boast about crowd size, ratings, or numbers of social media followers they command, but the followers of Jesus aren't meant to be fooled by any of those metrics as the key to our worth.  For us who are disciples of the homeless, jobless, executed rabbi from a backwater town called Nazareth, we don't have to worry about who looks like a "winner," and we don't have to go blustering on about the legacies we will leave, or how much we have done in our time compared to anybody else.  

We just don't have to play those games, because we know better.  Or at least, we should.  We know that we don't have control over anybody else's estimation of the value of our work.  We know that the kind of work that really matters--the labor we call love--usually doesn't turn heads, sell newspapers, or get clicks.  But we do it anyway, because it is the work to which Jesus calls us.  And Jesus' work, in his divine creativity, takes all these small actions, these momentary graces we extend to others, and stitches them together into something beautiful and whole, like a quilter taking small scraps in all their different colors and arranging them into a pattern than creates a sublime patchwork.  

Like a weaver working individual threads into a tapestry, or like the countless drops of water in the river that carves a canyon out of the colored layers of rock, in Jesus, our small actions of love are not lost.  Sure, nobody sets up a plaque to commemorate the ten billionth drip in the stream, but you can see how its presence, together with all the others that flow into the river, make a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon.  The difference the droplet makes is in the canyon itself, and the way its presence ripples out to nudge other droplets as they smooth away the jagged edges of the shale is the legacy it leaves.  None of the droplets, none of the threads, none of the little squares and triangles of fabric, are meaningless.  Their presence is not in vain.

Maybe what it takes is a divine quilter like Christ to see the possibilities and beauty in each scrap, each thread, and to find ways to use what the world would discard.  But that is exactly what our hope is as Christians--that the small actions of love for neighbor, the small words of truth we insist on, the small commitments to justice and decency we muster in this life are not wasted, but are gathered up in the arms of Jesus himself, who stitches them together and incorporates them into the new creation.

Think of that--the good you do, the love you show, the grace you practice, and the welcome you offer, won't be lost even when the world's empires have crumbled and the universe itself has worn out.  They will be preserved in some way, and their impact will endure, like the river of the water of life carving a canyon into the bedrock in the new heaven and new earth.

Add a droplet.  Add a blue square or a purple triangle.  Add a golden thread.

Lord Jesus, take what we offer today and use it for good--even if we cannot yet see how it matters.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

How To Keep Going--November 18, 2020

 How To Keep Going--November 18, 2020

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God." [Hebrews 12:1-2]

Sometimes you just keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, and you call that a win for the day.  Honestly.

I know it's hard these days to keep up with all we are asked to do, with increasingly complicated circumstances to deal with, and to find the energy or the will to keep on going.  I know many have found their jobs keep changing as everybody lives with the challenges of responding to COVID, if they are lucky enough to have a job.  I know it's hard to keep finding joy when we are separated from one another.  I know it's hard being responsible and continuing to do what we are asked to do for the sake of our neighbors, from wearing masks to keeping distances to limiting gatherings.  I know it's hard to say "No" to things that seem fun, or that have been long-standing traditions.  I know it's hard to adapt.  And I know, when so many things feel like they have been brought to halt, canceled, or turned upside down, to dare to believe things really will get better sometime.  It's hard, in other words, to persevere.

And if we are going to be truly honest with one another, we should admit that it can be hard to hear the Scriptures call us to keep "running" with perseverance, because, hoo boy, we are tired already.  It's hard to be weary already from the marathon we've already been running, and then to be told, "Just keep on running."  And maybe, at first blush, that's all it sounds like we get here from the writer of Hebrews--just the sideline shouting of a track coach telling the runners to do more while they watch from the bleachers.

But perhaps it would be good to give this voice from Scripture the benefit of the doubt and see if there's good news to be heard here more than merely, "Keep on running with no end in sight."  Let's see if we can't wrestle a blessing out of this text, as they say.

First off, picture the scene that the writer of Hebrews describes.  It's not a solo marathon, really--it's like a relay race.  We are a part of a team, and that "great cloud of witnesses" who have gone before us (read all of Hebrews 11 to get a sort of run-through of saints and sojourners from the saga of God's people) are people who have run ahead of us.  In other words, yes, we are being called to run our part of a race--but it's not all on you or me.  We run together as part of a team, and others have gone ahead of us and done their part of the course.  Each of us has a leg of the race to run, but others have covered rough terrain before us already.  And those who have gone ahead of us are cheering for us, not rooting against us.  Neither are they just passively watching like mere spectators looking to be entertained--their voices encourage and inspire and propel us forward.  We don't race alone: Hebrews reminds us of that when it feels like you're the only one on the path.

Second, the writer of Hebrews invites us to run with greater freedom by letting go of the baggage and weight we thought we had to talk along with us.  As we keep on persevering in this life, there are so many voices telling us things we need to carry with us--the status that comes with our jobs, our worries over having more money than our neighbor, our hang-ups about our past, the ghosts of our mess-ups and failures, and the guilt and regret we each carry from things we wish we could take back or do over differently.  We are also lugging around a lot of other dead weight that ain't the gospel, either--the hatreds and fears we have had ingrained in us from childhood, the selfishness and narcissism we've been taught that says, "I've got to look out for Me-and-My-Group First!", and the assumptions we have been handed about what Respectable Religious people are supposed to do, or think, or look like, or act like.  All of that is extra weight that we don't need to be carrying, even though somebody along the way told us we had to strap it on our backs and carry it all.  The writer of Hebrews says, "No!   You don't need to carry anything else, so let go of the baggage, the weight, the sin, the hang-ups, the bent-in-on-self-ness that you were taught to pick up at some point.  You don't have to carry it any more."  So rather than hearing these verses like the writer is cracking the whip on us and endlessly telling us to run faster and harder, he's actually telling us to let go of the things that are weighing us down, things we didn't have to be carrying in the first place.  That makes the journey easier, not harder.

And ultimately, there is Jesus.  Jesus is really what makes the difference in all of this.  Because the secret that the writer of Hebrews is sharing with us is that the victory in this race is already accomplished.  We are on Jesus' team, and he has already broken the track record.  He has already won the race for the whole team, which means the pressure doesn't all rest on you or me alone to do a "good enough" job.  Jesus has already lapped the competition, and the race is won.  That's why the writer of Hebrews can call Jesus the "pioneer and perfecter of our faith."  Or, to be a little more literal with the Greek of the original, Jesus is "the inaugurator and the completer"--he's the first runner on this relay, and he's the one who has brought it to completion, too.  If this life's journey is a marathon relay race, Jesus was not only our first runner, but he's already crossed the line on our behalf, and our calling is just to keep going in confidence that the race is already won.  Not only that, but there is an end to this race, and we know it because Jesus has already crossed the finish line and sat down at the right hand of the Father.  The winning is over. Victory is assured and accomplished.  Now that the pressure is off, you and I are free just to run without worrying we'll let God down when we stumble, or fussing over how we compare to somebody else.  We don't have to worry about it at all.  Jesus has already triumphed.

If that's true, then it does change the way I face this day.  In a sense, my calling hasn't changed--we keep going, no matter what.  But in a different sense, everything has changed.  Because I no longer have to stay stuck in that rat-race mentality of our coworkers, neighbors, and friends who are constantly trying to "get ahead" so they can feel like they are "winning" at life by being better than somebody else.  We don't have to live with the hang-ups of worrying how we compare to someone, or fussing over if we have done enough.  We don't have to play those games or carry those loads anymore.  Our hands are free, since we've set all that competition-minded garbage thinking side, and with empty hands we can not only take the baton that's been passed to us, but use our freedom of motion to love the people around us. 

So if you find yourself, today or ever, feeling worn down in this daily race... if you find yourself feeling like you're alone... if you feel like you've been handed too much of a load to carry while you run a marathon with no end in sight, here is good news.  You are not alone, and you never were.  You don't have to carry the junk and baggage that other people hand to you.  And you don't have to worry that it all hangs on you being good enough, because Jesus has already won this race.

Your calling and mine is simply to keep putting one foot in front of another.  Even after it feels like we've taken a couple of steps backward, too.  Even if the only win for the day is one step's worth of movement.  Even if we are still tempted repeatedly to keep picking up old discarded bags and weights laying at the edge of the path.  We keep going, because Jesus has won the race already, and he picked you and me for his team.

Lord Jesus, help us to keep going today, but freely and without the weights and worries we are used to.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Better Than Great--November 17, 2020

Better than Great--November 17, 2020

"Praise the LORD!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
     for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
     he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted,
     and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of stars;
     he gives to all of them their names." [Psalm 147:1-4]

How amazing, isn't it, that God isn't too busy to tend to our broken hearts, wounded bodies, or tear-streaked faces?

How truly awesome that the Maker of the universe, who names and counts the stars, doesn't send us and our troubles away because he's got "more important things to do", you know?

This is the audacious claim that the writers of Scripture make: that the same God who is mindful of the vast and infinite reaches of the cosmos is also mindful of us.  Of you, in all of your you-ness. And of me, in all of my me-ness.  Not just when we're polished and put together, either, but on the days when we are broken up inside and disheveled, when our shirt-tails are hanging out and we've been wiping our runny noses on our sleeves.  

It says something truly beautiful about the God we meet in those Scriptures that God is never too busy or too proud to stoop with us and comfort us in our most difficult days.  That's what makes the God of Abraham and Sarah worth praising.  It's not just God's sheer power--but God's choice to be compassionate to us mortals who can't do a thing to pay God back in return. It's not just God's might, but God's mercy, that is worth singing a song about.

Think for a moment about how truly radical that is.  The ancient empires that surrounded Israel all had their own pantheon of gods, and they all sang their praises and offered prayers to those gods and goddesses.  And usually, those ancient songs of praise were focused on the power they imagined their gods to have.  If you were an ancient Canaanite, you praised Ba'al for controlling the storms, the lightning, and the thunder.  If you were an ancient Babylonian, you praised Marduk for being stronger than the chaos monster goddess Tiamat.  If you were an ancient Egyptian, you praised the power of the sun-god Ra (and you praised Pharaoh, too, because the pharaohs claimed to be the living embodiment of the sun-god) which could scorch a parched field or bring crops to life.  And if you were an ancient Roman, you praised Caesar himself as a god for his military might, imperial wealth, and the power he commanded that was conquering the known world.

Ancient Israel and Judah said something else about their God, Yahweh.   Yes, the God of Israel was strong.  Yes, their God was the almighty creator of the universe.  But more noteworthy was that this God was not merely content to be strong--Yahweh was compassionate.  Strength by itself wasn't enough to write a song about.  It was God's love for the lowly, God's mercy for the marginalized, God's empathy for the at-risk, that inspired songs and hymns and praises.  The ancient poets of Israel didn't simply praise Yahweh for being the biggest thing or strongest entity in the universe--they praised Yahweh because Yahweh was known to be compassionate for those whose hearts were broken and whose bodies were bruised.  The psalmist doesn't just praise God for being "great" but for being deeply good.  That makes all the difference.

In the end, I think what we usually think of as being "great" is overrated.  Sheer strength, after all, can be used to both good or destructive purposes.  The thing that makes God worthy of our praise isn't just God's mere muscle--it's the way God commits to sitting with the sorrowful and healing those who hurt.

It's an old adage that we become like the objects of our worship.  Maybe it's no wonder then that the Babylonians, Romans, or Egyptians all gave in to becoming cruel and dominating empires--they all assumed their gods were important solely on account of their power and strength.  But the people of Israel were supposed to be different, as are the followers of Jesus today, too.  Greatness isn't enough for us--at least it shouldn't be.  We are called to something better than the mere pursuit of what the world calls "great."  We are called to be good in the ways God is good--care for the brokenhearted among us, love for the wounded, mercy for the empty-handed and powerless.

In a world full of folks who are obsessed with making themselves look "great," but who are often too busy for the likes of us ordinary people, what a difference it is to know we are invited to bare our broken hearts to the God who made the universe, but is never too busy for you.  What a difference it makes to praise God, not just for being the biggest thing in the room, but for having the deepest love.  What hope is to be found from the assurance that God isn't just powerful, but compassionate.

Singing praise to that sort of God--and then being shaped by that God's character--is going to leave a mark on us.  We will become people who are more interested in being good than in looking "great." And we will become people whose choices arise from genuine love rather than a need to look powerful or impressive.  And honestly, amid all the fakers, pretenders, and charlatans out there, I am longing to be made into someone who loves genuinely rather than putting on a show. 

All praise to the God who gathers the outcasts of Israel--the God who is worthy of our songs because of God's love, more than just for brute force.  May our whole lives be a lived hymn to such a God, who is great, because he is good.

Lord God, you are worthy of our praise because you are good.  Let us praise you with lives shaped by your goodness to the lowly and the left out ones.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

A Just Hope--November 16, 2020


A Just Hope--November 16, 2020

"I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.  I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken." [Ezekiel 34:16, 20-24]

Getting back to normal isn't enough.

Just hitting "reset" to get things the way we think they "used to be" in our memories (even if there were such a reset button) won't make things right.

And merely making things predictable after a season of chaos isn't the same as making things good or right or whole.  The farmer can predict what will happen if a fox gets loose in the henhouse, after all, but isn't good.

No, the hope has to be bigger, deeper, more complete than just, "Can't we go back to the way it used to be?" because "the way it used to be" is what got us where we are.  Our hope has to be more more than just what's familiar or expected--we are called to something truly better, something good for all, something we have never fully known but always longed for.  The people of God are called to yearn for a just hope.

Ezekiel is teaching me that again.  These words--words that we'll hear this coming Sunday as part of what the church observes as Christ the King Sunday--speak to people who have been living in the turmoil and uncertainty of exile.  They have seen their government pulled down when the Babylonians installed a puppet king, only to have the same Babylonians decide that wasn't enough, and then destroy the capital, burn the city to its foundations, and raze the Temple to the ground.  They have seen their life as a nation utterly broken.  And they are longing for hope--the possibility of a new beginning on the other side of exile.

But it's important to note what the prophet offers as hope--and what he doesn't say.  Because as much as everybody seems to just want things to go back to "the way they used to be," Ezekiel doesn't quite promise that.  He offers hope, but more than that, he insists that the future God brings will mean justice for all people, even if that makes some of them uncomfortable.  

See, as Ezekiel tells it, the problem with "the way things used to be" before the exile was that the people of God were being terrible to one another.  The strong preyed upon the weak.  The rich preyed upon the poor.  The well-fed took advantage of the hungry.  And making it worse, the powerful and prosperous used the lie that their advantage must have been God's will and a sign of God's blessing because they were doing so well.  That was the system in Israel and Judah before the exile: the strong and the rich exploiting the weak and the poor.  But because they had all just gotten used to it and assumed it was "the way things are meant to be," everybody assumed that was all there ever could be.  This must be God's plan, after all, because this is how things have always been.

I am reminded of a line from Christopher Nolan's Batman movie, "The Dark Knight." In a climactic monologue, Heath Ledger's Joker says, "No one panics when things go 'according to plan'--even if the plan is horrifying!"  And isn't that just the truth?  If we have been taught that it's normal for people to go hungry or be homeless, we won't bat an eye when a neighbor family goes without food.  If we have been taught that racism, or hatred for our neighbors, or angry threats of violence when someone doesn't get their way, are all "just facts of life," we won't try to change them or call them out when we see them.  If I accept terrible things as just "part of the plan," we won't be troubled when those terrible things happen... as long as they happen to people I don't have to think about.

And this is where Ezekiel begs to differ.  More to the point, God begs to differ.

God doesn't have it mind just to bring the people back from Babylon so they can start stepping on each other all over again.  God isn't going to force Babylon to let the exiles come home just for them to oppress their neighbors like they always have.  God's vision of a future on the other side of exile doesn't merely hit the reset button on Israel's crookedness so they can take advantage of each other or ignore the needs of their neighbors all over again.  God's vision means justice.  And that means a hope, not just for the well-fed and well-heeled who want to get back to living the jet-setting glamorous lifestyles they were used to, but a hope for the people on the margins who had been treated like they didn't matter for too long.  God's vision isn't just of a market hitting record highs, but of a community where nobody has to go hungry anymore, and nobody gets elbowed out of the way because they are seen as expendable.

That's part of the sharp (but necessary) edge to Ezekiel's message here.  God will again gather the scattered people of Israel, like a shepherd gathering a lost flock.  But God will not let the powerful be bullies any longer.  God will not let the well-fed and aggressive one push the weak or the sick or the slow sleep aside, and God will not just return the exiled people back to the old order of the day, because it was never truly good for everyone.  God's vision is of justice, not merely familiarity.

If it makes us squirm to hear God say, "I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice," maybe we need to ask what makes us uncomfortable... and whether we are afraid of God actually rearranging our comfortable and familiar routines.  If we don't like God telling the "fat sheep" they they can't get away with pushing others out of their way because they were weak, maybe we need to ask why that is.  And maybe we will have to decide, at long last, whether we would rather have the familiarity of "the old normal" or the promise of a hope with justice.

In these late days of a turbulent year, of course we are all longing for what is familiar, what is comfortable, and what feels like "normal."  Of course.  We want our work lives and family situations to go back to what we remember.  We want the upheaval and ugliness from a nasty election season and its aftermath to settle down.  We want our lives back.  Of course.  But it's worth remembering that there have been some folks who were living with upheaval and ugliness thrown at the for a lot longer than we have.  And there are folks whose lives have been in turmoil and chaos for a lot longer than just what the pandemic has brought.  And it's just possible that a lot of us have just accepted all that brokenness of society because we were told it was just part of "the plan" and couldn't be avoided.  And when we clamor for the old "normal" we end up saying we're OK with all that old rottenness that came with it.

The prophets keep daring us to dream with them of something different--something better--and something that rings not only of peace but of true justice, too.  Yes, God will shepherd the people and gather the out of exile, but also this same God will keep the strong sheep from butting the weak out of the flock.  God will make a new order of things, where the weak, the lowly, the injured, the lost, and the left-out are included.  And instead of being upset that God won't just reinstitute the old normal, maybe we can rejoice that God has committed to a new kind of community, where nobody goes hungry, where justice is truly done, and where all are honored.

I can only barely even imagine it... but it seems worth hoping for.

Lord God, bring your Reign of justice--even where it unsettles our expectations and shakes up what we had accepted as normal.