Monday, November 19, 2012

It's not When, It's Who

In 1984 my college friend and I buried a Twinkie in the ground outside our dorm. At the height of the nuclear arms race period of our country’s history, pondering what would survive a nuclear holocaust, we’d heard it would be cockroaches and Twinkies. And if we survived we’d glow in the dark. Perhaps Twinkies contained so many preservatives they were indestructible. At year end, it was still there-untouched. Yet this past week the company that makes Twinkies announced its closing, apparently not as indestructible. For those who believe the Mayan calendar prediction that the end of the world is in less than a month, perhaps the death of the Twinkie is a sign. Who could imagine a world without Twinkies? 
The obsession with the fate of the Twinkie is perhaps a joking way to talk about our fears amidst turmoil and uncertainty engulfing us. Are we really on the eve of the Apocalypse, the end as we know it? And if so when? It’s the question of centuries. Lots of energy spent trying to be prepared or to master interpreting events, or lining up world events with the words in the Bible. This week we face looming fear of dangerous military action in the Gaza Strip in Israel, and the flood of cash to either Israel or the Palestinians. Many world economies teeter on disaster, with riots throughout parts of Europe, and our own incessant nattering about whether there will be a fall off of the fiscal cliff, and if so, how far? Or is it really only a slope? Will we bounce back or be stuck in the pit? 

Many parts of the world are in the grip of famine and drought, and the massive use of antibiotics in our food supply is rapidly rendering us incapable of fighting off infections. What about superbugs and superstorms? Are these the signs of the Apocalypse? Plenty to be afraid of as we wonder if this is the time of anguish such as we have never seen, or the beginning of the birth pangs. My Twinkie experiment aside, plenty of people worry about stockpiling money for economic collapse, the rest of the world be damned, and others who worry they will be found inadequate, allowing themselves to be convinced to send money to assure salvation, or to buy the set of books and DVDs that will help them prepare for the end while their clueless neighbors will be swept away. Hurry before it’s too late! Because “When” might be “now.” If we only knew…

Is this REALLY how we see our God??? Maybe the better conversation is not about when, but who.  Who is our God?  This may offer the best way to think about what it all means.

Next Sunday we again declare Christ is the ruler of all. The ruler whose apocalypse is coming. And for the record, “Apocalypse” is not a term about butt-kicking Jesus, it means “unveiling” or “revealing.” 

We’re waiting for the fullest revealing of God. While this may be horrific to those who would prefer to sacrifice us to their needs, and fear inducing to those who prefer domination and unrest, it is for them that the anguish comes.
What’s being revealed to us is not horrific tests of our loyalty but a loving God who says that offering up the same sacrifices and anxieties every day doesn’t change a thing.

That's actually good news. The good news is that we are not the authors of how God sees us. Jesus the Christ is.

While we live in a world that even today would scapegoat and kill such a Savior, the depth of the love of God is greater. So we can stop being consumers of worry and fear, and drink in this love of a God who promises to be a refuge and a protector and the light stronger than the darkness. This is God. And this is the light we can reflect. Just like we will experience when we light those candles we will hold on Christmas Eve and we sing of our Savior.

Still many will run after other sources of security and have their troubles multiplied. But even in the darkest of times, in all of the dark nights of our souls, Christ is our light, ready to guide us and teach us, and remind us. Follow me. Don’t be afraid. God’s ongoing message to us.

There’s a path of life, and joy and a promise of forever even in the storms and beyond. This is what we can share- there’s refuge from the storms of this age, and a light to warm and guide us here. Even when it seems that such a way and such a promise cannot possibly be so.  Hold onto the light and bear it here and wherever we go. To all the others in our world who long for it. And while today's moments matter, there’s more to God’s story.

This week as the world’s drama unfolded, closer to home a young person struggled with feelings of ending a life, and a mother discovered her child beaten by a gang. 

But a mom from our afterschool program told me she has passed her GED tests and thanked me for the prayer,  because the day before the fear was fierce. Still little glimmers of glowing light in the darkness. And so it goes. 

The writer Edith Wharton once wrote there are two ways of spreading light- to be the candle or to be the mirror that reflects it. We are blessed to be claimed by the light of a God who assures us that in all that seems uncertain, God’s love and will for us is certain.  And that in the face of all of our fears we have this light. A light that we can reflect in the midst of our darkness.  

Today I’m wearing that stole I told you my friend Julius wanted me to have. As he gave me the stole he shared with me the back story- that his father had tried to stop a time of great division in part of the church, heartbroken when factions would rather fight than even pray together. At the height of the conflict when the very world he had dedicated his life to was crumbling, when relationships were broken and turmoil was everywhere, he preached a sermon calling people to give thanks and bless God even though these thoughts seemed impossible. 
We listened to the tape of his words-
Bless the Lord and forget not all His benefits. The church and the world, though flawed in our hands, are a gift from God, like God’s holy word in Scripture. It was a beautiful and moving sermon- you could imagine the light and hope in the storm.  But it came from a man who was 87 and blind. He couldn’t even see the light anymore yet he reminded, encouraged and even provoked people to believe that God’s vision is bigger and beyond this time. Hold fast to the light of the Word, because God is faithful. All the more so when it seems that there’s little to hold onto.

In a moment we’ll sing our hymn for this day- right now, I invite you to listen as we pray some of its words- for all the places in our lives that feel just like the stories we heard in Scripture, places of longing and fear. Places where we need to see Jesus. Places where our world needs Jesus. 

Lord, the light of your love is shining, in the midst of our darkness, shining. Jesus, light of the world, shine upon us, set us free by the truth you now bring us.  Shine, Jesus, shine.  Fill this land with the Father’s glory. Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire. Flow rivers flow. Flood the nations with grace and mercy, send forth your Word, Lord and let there be light!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Living Saints

One of our youth attending Catholic school lamented having to read a book called “The Lives of the Saints.” Seemingly a boring book about old dead people. It would seem to me however, that such a book is one that is still being written. When I was in seminary I was blessed during internship to meet a saint named Julius. A fascinating man who was the black sheep of the family because in the midst of generations of sainted pastors, he cut loose and became a lawyer instead. I met him in the hospital and his situation was grave. After I chatted awhile with him and his family, they stepped out so Julius could speak to me the things he needed to say. Thus began a series of conversations about life and death and life eternal, reminding ourselves that God’s promises of resurrection and new life are true. Because it’s all theory until those moments we have to try to believe. Then sometimes we need help to live faith and say resurrection is a word we can believe. Julius didn’t seem long for this life, but he pulled through. Several times I visited him and Louise in their apartment crammed full of art collected in world travels, all of Julius’ books, and tangled up walkers and oxygen lines. Our conversations about faith and culture left me feeling I was far richer than they were by our encounters. But then Louise became ill and rather suddenly died. I was blessed to share in her service of resurrection victory, but when we arrived with family at the nursing home chapel, we learned Julius had himself taken a turn for the worse. We may in fact lose him that very day. How hard to finish that service wondering his fate. I wondered how hard it was for Jesus hearing of Lazarus.

In his room, Julius was pale and weak. We cried with him as he wondered how life could go on. And I made the sign of the cross on his head, commending him into the hands of his Savior expecting full well the imminent outcome. Amazingly he recuperated, but was weakened. But my last Sunday at the church, he insisted his son come and help him get up and bring him to worship. This blessed 95 year old saint put on a suit, held onto his walker, and came to hear God’s words and be revived. Since then I’ve heard from Julius three times. The most recent was this past week. The day after the hurricane came through. I’d come to the church with no power or heat, water in the basement and alarm systems screeching, wondering how long it would be like that and how hard it would be to recover. There at the church office, still wet from the day before was the mail. For a moment I paused and thought about our postal carrier Sandy and her faithful witness to be out when most of us had packed it in. Looking through the mail, I came across a letter, hand addressed, from Julius. In it he noted it’d been about a year since we’d last been in touch, and that he’s been praying for our ministry. Then he went on to say he wants to give me his father’s stole. What a blessing to be connected not only to Saint Julius but to a saint who shaped his life. At 98 years of age, Julius is still busy saint-ing. Helping others grow in faith and be strengthened as disciples, as those who believe in the resurrection AND in the life. That letter revived me.

Today we gather to praise God and to give thanks for the saints we’ve known, and the saints of every age. To linger over names spoken and ponder their faithful witness. And it’s perhaps a time of tears and thoughts of loss. Maybe even hard to say “I believe” to Jesus’s words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Surely we long for the beautiful words from Isaiah, echoed again in Revelation- a time without tears, when a new creation with God will come. Sometimes these words can seem like it’s just about remembering the past and waiting for the future.  But there is more. All Saints Day is about connecting to God’s story in the lives of saints departed and living, and helping each other try to live those words “I believe.”


Today we hear the story of Jesus and Lazarus and Mary. Before it though was the one about Jesus and Lazarus and Martha. Jesus learned Lazarus is ill and by the time he arrives, Martha meets him and tells him he’s too late. It’s all passed. To which Jesus asks-do you believe in resurrection? Martha responds with the theory about the future. Jesus then tells her resurrection and life are real in him. Now. He meets her and helps her say again, “I believe.” But when Jesus encounters Mary, she responds in different way. She cries. Rather than lecture her, Jesus cries with her and then instead of telling her about resurrection, he does it. Telling Lazarus to get up and keep living. Jesus not only offers a future, he restores their present. We are Marys and Marthas and Lazaruses.  Sometimes we need to talk and be reminded to believe, and sometimes we just want to cry, and sometimes we need to hear, “get up.” Jesus is present in all these moments, through saints living and past who show us resurrections start in this life. There will be losses and challenges, but yet God’s desire is that we be freed, and lifted up in this life. God uses us and fellow saints to show us this. Sometimes to help us believe, sometimes to comfort and sometimes to encourage us to get up and keep living.

For Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Jesus changed it all. But there would be many more moments of joy, fear and sadness where they probably took turns telling the story, walking together, pointing to Christ together. In their ordinary lives telling of the extra-ordinary power of Christ and trying to believe. We too are the very ordinary people God makes to be saints who take turns hearing and speaking across the ages as we all try to hold onto “I believe.” We have moments when we want to cry and when we hope to see. And moments when we need someone to unravel what is holding us down and help us get up. The saints across time were people with doubts, who needed to overcome sadness, who struggled. People whose lives had really lovely parts and a lot of other bits too. They were flawed, yet called saints and people of resurrection and life because Jesus said so. And this is also true for us, fellow saints. This is our common bond.

This is a place full of saints this day-as we are connected with the saints of every time through Christ, not only for a future day but so that we can live THIS life. Julius and I have taken turns reminding each other of this- Jesus is the resurrection- the promise of life eternal; and Jesus is the life-the power of resurrection starts now. And God continues to speak to, and to walk with, and to lift up to new life all of us, as people who by God’s hand, can “saint” others, and speak resurrection and new life together in God's story.

Let us give thanks for all who have blessed us, and share the rich story that God’s resurrection and life are words we can believe not only for the day when we will join the throng around the throne, but for today as we help each other live the words “I believe.”