Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The end is near.
I'm not talking about the 42 days until end of Christmas shopping, or the 434 days until the end of the Bush administration, or the ten minutes until the end of this sermon.
I'm not talking about the end of your supervised ministry, or your wedding planning, or a bad year for crops;
I'm not talking about the end of any of the things that are on our minds each and every day.
I am talking about the end of all of them together.
I'm talking about the end of the world: the Kingdom of God is at hand.

We Episcopalians don't like to talk too much about the end of the world.
On average, we tend to do pretty well in the world as it is.
So the end of the world isn't a particularly comfortable or frankly welcome subject for us.
When we do talk about the end, we keep it at an intellectual distance, wrapped in fancy words like "Eschaton" to avoid blunt statements like "the end is near: the Kingdom of God is at hand."

And then there's the embarrassment factor.
I mean it's been almost 2000 years that we've been going on that the end is near.
How many times can you cry wolf and still have people listen?
We pride ourselves on being a church where you don't have to check your mind at the door; something doesn't sit right about making yet another claim that the end is near.

So what do we do?
Our choirs will sing anthems about the end times.
Bach's beautiful cantada "Wachet auf".
And that beautiful sequence from Mozart's Requiem, Dies Irae, sounds stunning.
And even better, it's in Latin, so we don't have to focus on the words: "Day of Wrath, that day when the world dissolves into ashes."
This is supposed to be good news?

What images does today's Gospel use to describe the end?
Matthew starts with the Flood.
For Noah, the Flood meant leaving behind everything he knew and being locked up in a crowded boat with a bunch of smelly animals for months.
And his family was the one with the happy ending; everyone else fared far worse.
And Matthew makes it clear that not everybody gets to play the role of Noah in re-enacting this story.
Doesn't sound like good news.

And then we hear that the coming of the kingdom is like a thief invading a home in the night.
Such pleasant images.
So we must be supposed to weep, not rejoice, when we hear that the end is near: the Kingdom of God is at hand.

But there's this pericope from Matthew's Gospel that gets proclaimed millions of times each day by Christians all around the world.
Depending on your translation, it starts something like this:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.
Thy kingdom come!

Now wait a minute, did we really just say that?
Was that really the second thing we prayed?
Before we asked for bread, before we asked for forgiveness, before we asked to be spared from trials and tribulations -- we ASKED for God's Kingdom to come?
That thief invading your home in the night, flood killing off most of mankind, world dissolving into ashes kingdom coming event?
We ask for this to happen?
Every time we gather to pray?
Are we nuts?

This thief in the night, this flood drowning humankind -- how is this something we want to pray for?
How is this an event for which we wait in joyful hope?
How could we possibly rejoice when we hear that the end is near: the Kingdom of God is at hand?

When you're drinking a really good thick chocolate milkshake, and you're savoring each drop of it, that echoing, resounding slurping sound you get when your straw hits an air pocket -- that's not good news.
It tells you that the end is near, and your good times are almost done.

How do we react when we hear that the end is near?
Are these words the slurping sound at the bottom of a milkshake?
Do we get upset because we are enjoying this world and hate to see it go?

That slurping sound is grace, then: grace to change our lives.

If we hear "the end is near" and think it means that our time of pleasure is done, we've been storing up treasure in the wrong place.
That slurping sound is a call to repent, to change our priorities.
Unwelcome though it may be, this is truly grace.

But when we're overwhelmed by trouble and cares, when suffering for the Gospel has us at the breaking point, when all that we have taken on brings us to ask how much longer we can be asked to endure, the words "the end is near" take on an entirely different meaning.
We just need to be sure it's the right one.

When I was in high school, I ran cross country.
Our five kilometer home course ended by going up a steep hill right before the finish line.
If you knew the course well, you knew that when you came around a turn at the bottom of the hill, you had to pick up your feet and put them down only 300 more times.
It was all uphill, and you were exhausted, but there were only 300 steps left to go.
The end is near.
And what a welcome message that was.
"The end is near" was the encouragement you needed to give those last 300 steps every ounce of energy you had left.
You'd go up that last hill, maybe passing a few people on the way, and put all your heart and all your soul and all your strength into that last burst of glory toward the finish line.

Except once they hosted the state regional meet there.
They changed some of the turns to accommodate the larger crowd.
And as a result, the finish line got moved back about a quarter mile from its usual place at the top of the hill.
The turn at the bottom of the hill that usually sent the message "only 300 steps left" was cruelly misleading.
You put everything you had into those last 300 steps only to find that there was still another quarter mile to cover.

If we think "the end is near" means "start sprinting," the fact that we've been proclaiming it for almost 2000 years makes it a cruel joke.
If we understand "the end is near" to be a promise of rest coming in the next few minutes, days, months -- and that promise remains unfulfilled for two thousand years, this isn't comfort; it's brutality.

But today's Gospel stresses that God refuses to promise to come at a particular time.
God is near and will intervene, but on God's own timetable.
The promise of the end times is not a promise that we have only 300 steps left in the race.
It isn't a promise that we have to get up one more hill and then we can rest.
It IS a promise that God is near.
God is present.
And when God decides that all is done and it is time to complete the world God set in motion, God will.

Last month they called off the Chicago marathon after a few hours because of high temperatures.
After determining that conditions were unsafe for the race to continue, the organizers stepped in and said it was over.
Some runners were far from the finish line, but just like that, the race was done.
Despite being far from crossing the line, the end was near.

The end is near because God will complete this world and bring about the next at any moment God chooses.
The end is near because when the time is right, it takes no prelude.
It takes no warm-up.
When God the Father, who so loved the world that he sent his only son, determines that it is finished, then it is finished.

And so, we persist in doing what is right.
We proclaim Christ crucified.
We feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners.
We go and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
And we persist in the face of exhaustion.

Matthew's Gospel today makes it abundantly clear that we don't get a countdown to the end times.
"The end is near" doesn't mean we only have 300 steps to go.
But when we hear "The end is near" we know that at any time, at any moment, God is ready to step in say, "It is finished."
As soon as God thinks work in the world is done, it is.
The end is near -- not in terms of time, but in terms of causality.
The end is near because it will happen as soon as God wills it.

The end is near: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Come Lord Jesus!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Today is the feast of Saint James of Jerusalem.  Matthew's gospel calls him the brother of our Lord; Mark calls him the cousin, and other ancient texts refer to him as Jesus' half brother.  In any event, he would have known well the historic figure of Jesus of Nazareth.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he was not one of the Apostles; he wasn't even a disciple before the resurrection.  So the reading we heard today from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew seems, at first glance, to be an odd one for this feast: the reading is a passage from Jesus' instructions to the Apostles when he sent them out to minister during his lifetime.

Now one might try to justify this odd selection of readings by noting that the proper readings for Eucharist today took the most obvious choices of readings for Saint James of Jerusalem.  The office and the Eucharist are complements, not substitutes, and their Lectionaries are designed as such.  If you were here last night when we celebrated Eucharist for the feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, you heard the reading from Acts that recounted the Council of Jerusalem, that tense and vital time in the history of the Church when church leaders tried to grapple with the role of Gentiles in the emerging Christian community.  As the Church tried to settle the question of whether converts to Christianity had to become Jewish in order to become Christian, James played a vital mediating role.  The Gospel yesterday evening gave Matthew's account of James as one of the brothers of Jesus.  And the reading from Paul's letter to the Corrinthians, which we did not read in church but is still in the Lectionary for the Eucharist, told of Jesus' appearance to his brother James after his resurrection, which led James to join the church.

So if all these readings that actually mention James were taken, what's left for us to hear today?  We hear an account of Jesus' instructions to the Apostles.  Let's take a closer look at that reading.

Jesus had just finished calling the last of the twelve.  He sent them out in mission and gave them instructions (including the admonition not to wear sandals, in contrast with their instructions in Mark's gospel to wear sandals); today's reading is a warning of the persecutions they will face.

The thing is, while this reading is placed at this point in Matthew's gospel, before the confession of St. Peter, before the Transfiguration, before the Last Supper, there isn't really any evidence that the Apostles went out and were persecuted and dragged before governors and kings at this point in the story.  While the Apostles were dragged before governors and kings, and all but one martyred, we have no accounts of this happening until after the resurrection.  Matthew inserts this tale of commissioning here in the story, but the instructions and warnings apply as much if not more to the Apostles and indeed to all followers of Jesus who are sent out in mission after the resurrection.  And the admonition to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves surely describes James of Jerusalem.

James held his beliefs strongly, but was able to find common ground and preserve the unity of the Church in the midst of a doctrinal conflict that threatened to tear it apart.  James helped those who ministered among the Gentiles and those who ministered among the Jews listen to each other and to the voice of God.  The Church didn't compromise, but James helped it reflect and discern God's will at a time when tensions between factions might have torn the Church apart.  In the epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul writes that at the council he opposed St. Peter to his face, because Peter was wrong.  James' leadership in Jerusalem helped hold the Church together.  Wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.

James, in his zeal, won many converts to the faith, but managed to discreetly live a long life in Jerusalem after the resurrection.  Wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  He converted many just as he had himself converted to following Jesus, but he managed to avoid antagonizing the religious leaders of Jerusalem for a good thirty years.

But ultimately, James was martyred.  Because while he was a model of understanding, he knew and believed that ultimately, the faith cannot be compromised.  Ultimately, the Gospel will require our total devotion, and that devotion can consume our lives.  Today's reading reminds us that obedience to the Gospel will ultimately come before our friends and family, our safety, our homes, our freedom, and perhaps even our lives.  James of Jerusalem, in wisdom and innocence, did not seek this out.  He did not pick fights, and indeed, he avoided them as long as he could, in conscience.  But when he was forced to choose between saving his life by renouncing the faith and continuing to preach the Gospel, he preached the Gospel.  For this he was killed.  In today's reading, Jesus promises us that God will be with us in all our tribulations and that one who endures to the end will be saved.  Praise God for James of Jerusalem.  Praise God for those in every generation in whom Christ has been honored.  Pray that we may have the grace to glorify Christ in our own day.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

For over four hundred years, the house of David ruled the Kingdom of Judah from Jerusalem. For over four hundred years, the city of Jerusalem remained unconquered. For over four hundred years, the people of Judah believed that as the Lord’s chosen people, they would be ruled by the house of David forever. This was no small claim for a fairly minor kingdom nestled between the great empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria. Then, in 586 BCE, the unthinkable happened. The sky fell in. The Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem and forced many of its inhabitants to relocate to Babylon. This exile reduced to ruins not only their homes, their livelihoods, and their ordinary way of life, but also their very sense of identity relative to God and the rest of the world. Which brings us to where our lament opens today: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.

Exile. Prophets had warned that if Judah did not change its ways and more faithfully worship the Lord, evil would betide them, but this? A conquered people? Forced relocation to an alien land? Could this be the fate of the people the Lord freed from slavery in Egypt? The ones set up by the Lord as a free people, neither subject to an empire, nor ruling over one? How could they now be led away captive.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land!”

An alien land is not THE Land: The Land promised by the Lord to Abraham. The Land to which Moses led the people through the wilderness. The Land that the Lord promised to David his descendants would rule so long as they remained faithful. How could the Babylonians expect they could sing holy songs away from The Land that defined them and their relationship with the Lord?

Those Babylonians knew how to run an empire. All this forced relocation and exile – this wasn’t about extracting slave labor. And calling for mirth and songs wasn’t about taunting the prisoners. The Babylonians didn’t want an empire of conquered peoples, resentful and eager to break away from Babylon. The Babylonians wanted an empire of Babylonians. Conquering people and forcing them to relocate wasn’t about making them slaves; it was about making them Babylonians. Be happy. Enjoy your new home. Sure, sing one of those songs of Zion – let’s all sing songs of Zion. It’s about as relevant as “being Irish” is on March 17. Or being Christian on December 25. And so the people of Judah’s first reaction was to hang up their harps and refuse to sing at all. And by the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. The people of Judah did not forget. They were not assimilated. In all their grief and anger, they remembered.

Of course, they weren’t just sitting and weeping anywhere. Those waters of Babylon play a bigger role in our story. The waters of Babylon – the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – those were the rivers that watered the Garden of Eden. All of us share in this story of exile, because all people are exiled children of Eden. Just like Judah, we have a home from which we have been forcibly removed. We are in this world of sin and troubles, but we are not home here. We were not created for this world of sin; we are children of the Most High God, and we were created to tend the garden and dwell in paradise. We find ourselves far from our heavenly home, and under the same pressure to assimilate – to forget that we do not belong to the empires of this world, and to make ourselves at home here.

The siren song of the empires of sin tell us to forget Zion. Forget that we are free people in exile, and join in the empire. Be merry. Get ahead. Look out for number one.

Forget that as children of God, we might be called to live in very particular ways; that’s not how you get ahead. That’s now how you make it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, so do unto others before they do unto you. That’s what our leaders told us we had to do in Iraq – remember, they said we needed a preemptive strike so the smoking gun of their nuclear program wouldn’t be a mushroom cloud over one of our cities? Do unto others before they do unto you. And now by the waters of Babylon there is O so much weeping today. Soldiers far from their families. A whole country torn apart by war and devastation, with no promising hope of stability anytime in the foreseeable future. Sitting and weeping.

The siren song of Empire calls us to forget our identity as children of Eden and put our trust in the gun and the bomb. The siren song of empire tells us it is unpatriotic to challenge “our” leaders when “our” troops are at war. Because if we have been assimilated into the empire, our leader is in Washington and not in heaven, and our troops carry American flags and aren’t the host of angels, and there is no greater sin than “unpatriotism” (if that’s even a word). But when patriotism and reverence for the rulers of this world come before our obligations and identity with the kingdom of heaven, there’s a word for this: idolatry.

And whether you’re a pacifist or you believe in the Just War tradition, there’s no room in Christian ethics for a morally permissible war of aggression, which is what a preemptive invasion really is.

But I’m not cataloging our past silence so we can feel bad about it. I bring up the relative silence of the people of God – sure, some of us said something, but not enough – about the last war not so we can feel bad, but because the drums are already beating for the next war. The devastation in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t enough, apparently. Presidential candidates are already making threatening noises about the coming war with Iran. The drums are beating; can we followers of the Lord raise a different tune?

By the waters of Bablyon, we sat down and wept when we remembered you, O Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?

Beyond grief and anger (ten minutes is too short, but if we had longer, I’d love to unpack the last verses of this psalm with you all today), the people of Judah moved on to trying to sing the Lord’s song in an alien land. The curses they wished on themselves if they were to forget the Lord – the tongue cleaving to the roof of the mouth, the right hand forgetting its skill – this is all about playing the harp and singing. But how does one sing the Lord’s song in an alien land? For Judah, singing the Lord’s song had previously been all about the Promised Land. You just don’t sing the Lord’s song anywhere else. But the people of Judah decided to sing the Lord’s song, despite all that. The rest is all grace.

Somehow, against all likelihood, they managed to write down their stories, their traditions, their songs. Somehow, against all likelihood, they kept their identity as a people in the midst of the Babylonian empire. Somehow, they sang the songs of Zion not as a “once upon a time” story, but as something that defined them and their way of life right as they sang them. That “somehow” is by grace, and that grace made them ready for when deutero-Isaiah cried out “In the wilderness, prepare a highway for the Lord, or as Peter Gabriel put it, “Pack your things, I’ve come to take you home.” Return from exile couldn’t have happened without the grace to sing the Lord’s song in an alien land.

So how can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land? We exiled children of Eden, free children of God exiled to an empire of sin – how can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land and not succumb to the siren song of sin? Left to our own devices, we cannot.

But God’s grace is an active grace, seeking us out and teaching us to sing the Lord’s song. Teaching us to sing about God’s law, and not the laws of the world. The siren song of sin sings to us that our safety comes from mighty armies, from preemptive attacks against threats, from shock and awe at the destruction we can unleash, from the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air. God gives us the grace to sing that our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. The siren song of sin tells us that we cannot sleep at night unless we torture the bad guys to find our what they’re up to, but God gives us the grace to sing that we lie down in peace; at once we fall asleep for only in God do we rest in safety. The siren song of sin tells us to enlist in the armies of empire, and train to become a mighty warrior to defend our friends and neighbors, but God gives us the grace to sing that no greater love is there than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, and that the greatest power of all is vulnerable, self-emptying love.

This song is hard to sing! The songs of empire are catchier, and a lot less scary. How can we sing the Lord’s song in the face of all this? How can we possibly resist the drums of war, and I tell you they’re already beating again, when our song is so hard to hear?

Only by grace. Only by grace.

And that’s what God gives us. Hallelujah!