Monday, December 12, 2011

Choose Joy! 3rd Sunday of Advent

Scripture Reading
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSV
1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

As I read this passage I tried to imagine what it might feel like to be a person in exile, still grieving the loss of my home and everything dear to me, knowing that my ancestors were among the leaders, the wealthiest, the 1% if you will and that therefore their actions or lack thereof were at least partly responsible for Israel ending up in this situation. I am convinced that if I had the chance they had I surely wouldn’t make the same mistakes. I feel forsaken by my God. Is God not paying attention to our pain, our suffering, our fears? Then I imagine that I have heard Isaiah, who was truly the voice crying out in the wilderness of exile and pain, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s Favor. I heard him calling upon me to be joyous, to exult in my God, for I am of Israel. I am of a people whom the Lord has blessed.

Frankly, if I am one of the exiles in Babylon, I don’t feel all that blessed. Mostly I feel tired of waiting for God to swoop in and rescue us. I mean, can’t he hear our cries? Can’t he see the suffering of his people? Always before God has sent someone to lead Israel out of whatever mess she’d gotten herself into, but it’s been a long long time in exile. There’s no indication of a leader rising from among the people. Yet here is the prophet saying “Rejoice! You are going to bring healing to your land and your people. God has promised this and it is going to happen – soon!” I want to believe him. I surely hope he’s right. It’s just that it has been a long time so I’m really not sure what there is to rejoice about.

And yet, it happened just as Isaiah said it would. Cyrus the Great defeated Babylon, sent the exiles home and even helped rebuild the cities and the temple. From that time forward Cyrus was celebrated by Israel as a messiah, anointed of the Lord.

Six hundred or so years later the heavy foot of Rome is upon the land and has been for quite some time. Jesus has come and gone. He preached and died and was resurrected and arose into heaven, promising to return to us. The apostles told everyone that he was coming back, that he was coming into his kingdom, and that it would happen soon! Within the lifetimes of those who knew him. In the city of Thessalonica the people aren’t feeling very joyful. They’re tired of waiting. It’s been 20 years, half a lifetime since he ascended into heaven and he isn’t back yet. I imagine what it must have been like to be in that congregation, to be in the early church anywhere, wondering when Jesus will come, when the old ways will disappear and God’s kingdom will be established upon the earth.

Oh right. I really don’t have to imagine what that feels like, do I? Nearly 2,000 years have passed now. And still we wait. Each year we celebrate Advent – we wait. We tell ourselves he is coming! Emmanuel will come. The Messiah will come. It has been promised to us and we believe it is true. And yet we wonder, as did the church in Thessalonica, when is he coming? Can’t he hear the suffering? Can’t he see the pain of his people? When is he going to swoop in and save all of us?

Paul knew what the people were feeling. He felt it himself! He’d been so sure – they were all so sure that they would see Jesus return, coming down from the sky the very same way he left. But it’s been way longer than they expected. Paul starts to wonder if maybe they were mistaken in the way they interpreted Jesus’ words. Nevertheless, he knows his savior lives. He is confident that the kingdom of God will become a reality on the earth.

And so he tells the people, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “5:16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

Rejoice always! Not the easiest thing to do when life is not going well. The words of Psalm 137 keep coming back to me. How do we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? How do we rejoice when we can see so much pain and suffering in the world; in Kenya and California, in Darfur and Detroit, in Bosnia and Boston.

Give thanks in all circumstances! Really, Paul? I mean, I can see giving thanks for the things I have that are good. I have a job. I can pay my bills. I have a home to live in. There is food on my table. I’m pretty healthy right now and I have health insurance. I have a loving husband. I have friends I care about and who care about me. I am part of a caring, giving, doing community here at Delhaven Christian Church. I can give thanks for these and many other blessings. But giving thanks in all circumstances? How would that work, exactly?

Let’s see. I had that inflamed joint and it hurt a lot! But it forced me to allow others to help me. OK, I can give thanks for the injury. Our church secretary bought a home in Santa Cruz and is moving there next weekend. This is wonderful and I am really happy for her, but it leaves the church without a secretary and we lack the funds to hire another. Looking for something to be thankful for . . . ah yes, at least one person has volunteered to spend time in the church office every week so there will be someone here to give food to the hungry. Volunteering gives people an opportunity to serve the way Jesus directed us to serve, so I am thankful for that. Clearly, in many cases there is something for which I can be thankful.

Sometimes, however, there are circumstances that don’t seem to have a positive side. I thought of so many examples of terrible things that exist in our world, but I don’t have to list them for you. You know what the world is like today. The exiles in Babylon asked Isaiah and the Christians in Thessalonica asked Paul and we also ask: How do we rejoice in suffering? How do we give thanks in the face of tragedy? In light of all the terrible things that are going on in our lives and in our world how do we continue to wait for the coming of the Lord?

and both of them answered saying, Rejoice! Give thanks! For the Lord is faithful.

That’s it. It’s not things for which we are to be thankful. We aren’t being asked to rejoice over the bad things in our lives or even in spite of them. We are being reminded to rejoice in the Lord! We are being directed to give thanks to God for the love, compassion and forgiveness he showers upon us even, especially when we have done absolutely nothing to deserve it. We are being told, again, that our focus is always to be on God first and foremost, before any other consideration.

Paul said to rejoice always, give thanks for everything, pray unceasingly for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you... . hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

It is not that we are to rejoice and be thankful about the circumstances we find ourselves in, but that we are to rejoice and be thankful for God in us. In every circumstance, in every event of our lives, no matter where we find ourselves or how we feel about what’s happening in our lives and in our world, rejoice in the Lord! Every moment of every day, remember that we serve a living savior who is with us every moment of every day, who we can rely on to help us hold on when we feel ourselves slipping, and be thankful.

I got to this point in my writing and all I could think of were the words to hymns.
Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of Love.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king!

Paul said, do not quench the Spirit.
Do not allow the world to drag your heart down into despair and sin. Rejoice!
Rejoice, for ours is the God of love and light.
Rejoice, for God in Christ is always with us.
Rejoice, for God’s kingdom is coming.
We don’t know when.
We don’t know how.
But we do know that we can loudly proclaim,
Christians All Your Lord is Coming

Monday, December 05, 2011

Is this the way it's supposed to be?


Isaiah 40:1-11 NRSV
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

In Bible Study this week we read chapters 22-24 in Exodus. Among many other things God told the people of Israel these things, which are re-stated over and over again throughout the Old Testament: 21Don't mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. 22Don't treat any widow orphan badly. 23If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I'll hear their cry. 24I'll be furious, and I'll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.
25If you lend money to my people who are poor among you, don't be a creditor and charge them interest. 26If you take a piece of clothing from someone as a security deposit, you should return it before the sun goes down. 27His clothing may well be his only blanket to cover himself. What else will that person have to sleep in? And if he cries out to me, I'll listen, because I'm compassionate.

In those same passages it becomes clear that individuals can only prosper as long as the community is stable and working in balance. The laws allow for restitution, not retribution. There was no such thing as a giant lawsuit – the value of any item, injury or damage was known in advance.

In Exodus 22, in the middle of this list of laws and punishments God promises the people of Israel what sounds like the ultimate peace of heart. “25If you worship the LORD your God, the LORD will bless your bread and your water. I'll take sickness away from you, 26and no woman will miscarry or be infertile in your land. I'll let you live a full, long life.“ If you worship me, if you obey me, this is the peace of heart that will come again upon the people of Israel. Long healthy lives. Healthy babies and many of them. No enemies to worry about.

But . . .the leaders of Israel ignored those laws and because they did, because greed and the lust for power replaced the kind of balanced community the laws provided for, the entire nation was lost. They didn’t simply suffer military defeat as they had every other time they’d “done what was evil in the sight of God.” This time their temple was destroyed, the crops were burned in the fields, all the wealth of the nation was taken away and the leadership – the nobles and priests – were taken away into captivity. Their children are taken away and raised as Babylonians. Those who were left behind had to scratch out a living as best they could, for the bulk of their wealth – their crops, their herds, the very fish from the waters of Israel – went to support their overlords. All went to Babylon.

Israel has been punished for their pride and their disobedience. They have lost far more than just their wealth and power, status and prestige. They have lost their homeland and their children. They fear the loss of their language, their culture, their very identity as a people. They had lost hope. Psalm 137 makes their feelings very clear,

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked us for mirth,
saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

There was no peace in their hearts.

And now God says to Isaiah, “Comfort my people. Tell them the time of their imprisonment is over. Tell them to have peace in their hearts. Tell them they need have no more worries or concerns.” They will be returned to their home. They will liberated, even as they were liberated from slavery in Egypt. They will be returned to the land promised to their ancestors.

In a recent Christian Century magazine, Bill Goettler, assistant dean of ministerial studies at Yale Divinity School and co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church of New Haven told a story about a homeless man he has known for a couple of years. Danny slept in the doorway of a local business, careful to leave before anyone arrived for work in the morning so he didn’t frighten them. He could be seen around town selling newspapers, washing windows and collecting things to recycle. He worked hard to get the few dollars he needed for food. Sometimes he’d come around to the church asking for a bus pass or a few dollars or some food. And whenever he saw Goettler, he’d say “Reverend, Is this the way it’s supposed to be?”

The short answer is NO! It’s not supposed to be this way. It’s only this way when the leaders forget in whose name they are leading, who put them in positions of power and trust. It’s only this way when society becomes unbalanced. When it becomes clear to everyone that “winning” is more important than fairness or compassion or mercy or what’s good for the community. When a candidate for president claims that people who are poor and jobless have only themselves to blame. When the most popular TV shows feature groups of people placed in a difficult environment and, rather than being told to create the best community they can, are encouraged to manipulate each other, to lie, cheat and steal in order to win a large sum of money.

There is no peace when people have no place to sleep, no job or hope of one, no way to support themselves or their families. There is no peace when the wealthy have the power of life and death over the poor.

When Israel behaved this way God paid attention. God promised Israel more than just peace of heart if they worshipped their Lord. God promised destruction if they oppressed the powerless among them. “23If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I'll hear their cry. 24I'll be furious, and I'll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.”

I think God means it. And I think God’s promise to bring destruction upon those who oppress the powerless is beginning to come true here. Maybe destruction won’t come at the point of a sword but when I look at the news I am beginning to see an upswelling of rebellion against that lack of compassion and mercy that is a plague upon our nation. There’s the non-violent Occupy movement, of course, but there are other examples of civil disobedience that are as wonderful as they are unexpected.

In Atlanta this week, Chase Bank foreclosed upon a home and deputies were sent with a moving van and a writ of eviction. This is never an easy job for the police When they arrived and saw the homeowners they called their supervisor and said, “We’re not going to do this.” They could not in good conscience remove 103 year old Vida Lee Hall and her 83 year old daughter from the house they had called home for over 50 years. Their call was passed all the way up the chain of command to Sheriff Jackson, who backed them up in their refusal to obey the writ of eviction and called them back to their station. I first saw this story Wednesday on MSNBC, where Laurence O’Donnell said “Laws alone cannot make a Just society Laws must be tempered with mercy. We have a more just society because Sheriff Jackson of Atlanta followed his conscience instead of the law.” I think it is only right that Sheriff Jackson and his deputies chose to protect the powerless instead of serving the wealthy. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that those deputies went home that night with peace in their hearts.

Marine Corps Lance Corporal Scott Olson, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, appeared on the Rachel Maddow show on Thursday. You may know that he is the man who suffered a serious head injury at Occupy Oakland when the police were trying to move the protestors from their location. His story became the motivating force that reinvigorated the movement around the country and inspired even more people to actively participate. During that interview he said, “I want more than anything to see more people get involved. You can't effect change sitting at home. The occupy movement is about coming together and learning each others stories and creating community.”

And did you know that the Occupy movement is changing focus? As more cities are moving the Occupiers out of parks and other pubic spaces, people are now occupying properties where, for example, a single mother and her children are about to be evicted because, as in so many other cases, the bank wouldn’t negotiate her mortgage payments. Instead of occupying public property for all the 99%, they are occupying private property to help individual members of the community. This isn’t new. Communities did the same thing during the Great Depression, standing with their neighbors against the bankers.

When the people of Israel behaved as community, when they obeyed the laws that were intended to keep their society in balance, when they cared for the powerless among them with mercy and compassion, they had peace. Not just political and military peace, but peace that comes from within. When the people of Israel had this peace of heart, the kind of peace that is one of the blessings showered upon them by God, then they were free.

A friend of mine recently shared this quote from the Dalai Lama: “The basic foundation of humanity is compassion and love. This is why, if even a few individuals simply try to create mental peace and happiness within themselves and act responsibly and kind-heartedly towards others, they will have a positive influence in their community.”

Author and Holocaust Survivor Eli Wiesel said, “Peace is our gift to each other.”

The deputies in Georgia gave peace when they chose compassion over blind obedience to the law. The Occupiers seek peace by bringing international attention to the plight of the powerless, calling for the kind of economic justice that is rooted in compassion and mercy. As Christians we are required to love our neighbor, to bring that peace that surpasses all understanding into the lives we touch as we go about our daily business. This love, this peace-giving, is the form of worship that the prophet Micah declared God most desires of us, more than thousands of rams or rivers of oil or clouds of incense, but rather to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Blessed be the God of Israel!