In the Midst of the Present

Advent 1 -Isaiah 2:1-5

Back when Manny was little, Becky and I vowed that we would never buy him a toy gun. He could play with trucks or dolls or whatever he wanted, except guns. We wanted to raise our child in a non-violent environment. But in our passion to raise passive child, we forgot about human nature. You see, when Manny was still a toddler, we were playing with him outside, and in the midst of our game, he picked up a crooked stick, and began to shoot me. And shortly thereafter, he made himself a gun out of Legos. I believe the current phraseology for this is “epic fail.” And I was reminded of this episode again last year as I was building a Nerf gun arsenal in his closet!

Now, as we come to Isaiah’s vision of a non-violent world today, I wonder if he too was hamstrung by human nature. I mean, he offers us a hopeful image of a world where swords are hammered into plowshares; where instruments of war are transformed into tools of agriculture; where the violence of the sword is reconfigured into a life-giving instrument of peace. What a beautiful image.

But here’s my question: If Isaiah was right, how come we still have swords? Why is violence, and hate-filled rhetoric, and the demonization of “the other” …the other race, the other religion, the other national origin; why are these things still present in our world? Was Isaiah over optimistic? Too Pollyannic? Did Isaiah misjudge the power of our human propensity toward violence? Or is there something else going on here?

I don’t know, but there are some clues in this brief text that may help us to see Isaiah’s vision in a different light. I mean, did you notice how he began speaking about this vision? “In the days to come…” Now, it may seem to our post-modern ears like he’s predicting the future, right? “In the days to come…” But the literal translation from Hebrew is a bit more nuanced. The more precise beginning of Isaiah’s vision literally reads, “In the midst of the present.” Think about that for a second. “In the midst of the present.” You see, Isaiah isn’t fortunetelling here, but instead, he’s suggesting that the present moment is ripe, or to use an appropriate Advent term, pregnant with God’s presence. [i]

Yes, we humans have a violent nature, we turn bent stick and Legos into guns, but we also have the capacity overcome our nature; we have the capacity to life non-violently, peacefully. But, Isaiah, and Jesus for that matter, realized that is a long process. Learning the ways of a non-violent existence is an on-going event in the evolution of humanity. And of course, across our history there have been ebbs and tides, sometimes it even seems like we’ve gone backwards. But for every step back, I think, we’ve taken two steps forward. Now, we’re not there yet, but if we consider where humanity, and by extension the Church, have been in the past, perhaps Isaiah’s vision of peace is slowly coming into focus.

Gandhi seemed to affirm this when he said, We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in thought, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress towards it.[ii]

Ya know, it’s not unlike the story of the preschool child who had made a ceramic figure of a camel in Sunday School. The figure was to be taken home as a gift for his parents on the last day of class before Christmas and when the boy saw his parents in the hallway he began to run toward them. However, in his haste, he tripped and fell sending the fragile camel flying through the air, shattering into a hundred tiny pieces as it hit the wall. And of course, the boy was devastated. His father tried to pacify him by saying, “It’s all right, it doesn’t matter.” But the his mother, wiser in such things, quickly corrected the father. “Oh, no,” she said. “It does matter.” And she began to weep with her son. [iii]

On this first Sunday in Advent, the prophet Isaiah is telling those who are listening, including us, that what happens in this world does matter. God has set a beautiful vision peace and tranquility before us even though it’s in our nature to mess it up. Why? Because even in our brokenness, despite our tendency toward violence, God loves us; God cares what happens to us; and God challenges each of us to care about what happens to our neighbor.

Advent is a season when we watch for, prepare for, hope for, work for God’s Reign of Justice, Love and Peace…right here in our time; right here “in the midst of the present.”

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Ted Smith Later Days (Day1.org) 2013

[ii] Phil Milam God Inspired Joy (birchwoodhome.blog.com) 2018

[iii] Stephen Montgomery Closer That You Think (Day1.org) 2010

Joy to the World

As we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”  -Desmond Tutu

“Joy to the World,” the beloved Christmas classic, turns 300 this year. Composer Isaac Watt’s interpretation of Psalm 98 invites us to sing a “new song”–and it is a powerful cosmic performance of all creation being renewed and freed. Rather than “joy” being yet another word for “happiness,” we will discover that the depths of joy can be found especially in the midst of suffering, the work of justice, and the presence of compassion–all part of the coming of Jesus into this world with a message that we still so desperately need.

The movement of our Advent worship services this year will illuminate for us this depth of joy of which Desmond Tutu speaks. You see, if we consider the joy of being in community with God and with others as portal to finding our most authentic, best selves, then the work of justice, the practice of compassion, and the alleviation of suffering will become a part of the depth of our being; the depth of our joy.

I’m so excited as I begin the process of creating these worship experiences in concert with several church members. I’m excited because these Advent services, along with our Memorial Tree Lighting, Christmas Program, and Christmas Eve Service, provide a wonderful opportunity to invite our family, friends and neighbors to join us; to discover this deep sense of joy in their lives and along the way on their journey as well. Please consider inviting someone to church this Advent season.

Have a very Joyous Christmas and a blessed New Year.

Pastor Phil

The Dangerous Memory of Jesus

The Church came into existence as a community that preserved the dangerous memory of Jesus—the memory of his public crucifixion and his subsequent return among his frightened followers in a way that was utterly new and beyond anything that could have been previously imagined. And what emerged was a new concept of community; a community that has held together for over two thousand years. The Church, at its best, is a community based on mutual love and not on fear. The Church’s contemplation of this dangerous memory is what we call ‘theology’, which is actually founded on the marriage of Scripture with philosophy—particularly classical Greek philosophy. This is important. A religion that is without theology quickly becomes fundamentalist as it begins to interpret Scripture in a literal way, full of cultural bias and with little rational underpinning. Fundamentalism is always culture-bound, declaring itself “the only way” excluding all who might see God through a different lens. And although the story of Jesus is historical, set in a particular time, place and culture, his teaching is transcultural. So, too, should be the teaching of the Church.[i]

So, what does all this mean for us? Well, it means that the Church should not minimize the radically different nature of its revelation. Yes, Christian revelation is found in the person of Jesus who invites us into the freedom of God’s love, but revelation can also be found in nature, in relationship, in poetry, music, and art. The revelation of God is not limited to “my experience of God only,” but can be found in a variety experiences and in the diverse patchwork of life and faith found across many cultures. And it’s when we finally come to realize that there are many paths up the preverbal mountain, that we can begin to journey in earnest with our fellow sojourners, as we all seek to experience the Sacred Reality that is within and around us.

Now, as we continue this journey together, my prayer for all of us is that we will experience what the Celts called, “the thin places.” Those places where the veil between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, are thin. And as you experience God in these “thin” transformative ways, may you form a personal theology based in love and demonstrated through compassion; a theology that is ever-developing, ever-expanding to include all of God’s people and all of Creation. Many Blessings on the Journey.

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[i] Drawn from the work of Sebastian Moore, The Contagion of Jesus: Doing Theology as If It Mattered (Orbis Books: 2008), 59-60.

 

The Big Stuff

Luke 20:27-38

“An important discussion was taking place in the mid-priced hotel just five blocks from the church.  It wasn’t so much a deep theological discussion about atonement or predestination or the authority of Scripture, it wasn’t about the level of poverty in the inner-cities or the poor high school graduation rates of at-risk youth. Instead, it was about socks or no socks!  That’s right!  The clothing we wear next to our feet that keeps our skin from touching our shoes,” writes Robert Naylor, UCC pastor and father of two pre-teens. “It was an animated discussion,” he continues. “It was the Sunday of my interview and sermon to what would become my new call as Senior Pastor to a congregation in Connecticut. And, along with the worship leadership I had been asked to attend a coffee–a get-acquainted time, an hour and a half prior to the worship service.  The lively “sock” discussion was over whether our two children would wear socks with their dress clothes. It was all the fad–regardless of the season–to go sockless.  And since I believed good first impressions are made with socks–I was wearing them–therefore I thought it was even more important that my sons, in spite of their charming personalities, should also wear socks.  My wife was the mediator.  There became two options:  wear shocks and not go to the coffee hour before worship or wear no socks and go to both the welcoming coffee and the worship service. They attended both events wearing no socks and, believe it or not, I still got the job. I had raised my blood pressure unnecessarily and made the family less enthusiastic about attending the coffee. The lesson here, as I look back on that day, is this: Don’t sweat the stuff![I]

In our Scripture lesson from Luke it would seem that making all the small stuff into big stuff is part of the human DNA, at least in religious circles.  The Sadducees in an attempt to trap Jesus and brand him as a heretic, asked him a question about marriage and resurrection. That hypothetical sequence of marriages and deaths that we just heard about. But then of course, the real reason for the hypothetical: The trap if you will; the perplexing question.  “Since this woman was married to all seven brothers and had no sons with any of them, when she gets heaven, whose wife would she be?” But Jesus, as was often the case, didn’t answer the question directly. But instead he offered a theological reflection. In his answer to the Sadducees’ question about the nature of resurrection, Jesus proclaims that through his resurrection even death cannot separate the humanity from the sustaining presence of the Divine. In other words, Jesus reminds them that God is the God of the Living.

What a brilliant answer! Brilliant, because it “sterilized” their question.  Jesus took their loaded question, their attempt to undercut his authority, and turned it into a teaching moment. He was basically saying, “We shouldn’t be concerned about what happens after we die, instead, we should care about caring the living.”

Now, this message is just as important for us in our time as it was back then. It’s important because Jesus is calling us to focus our concern on the living. Not on some dusty old dogmatic creed, but on the needs of our fellow human beings. Jesus is in essence saying here that it’s not about getting people saved, worrying about who’s in and who’s out. Rather it’s about making this world a little better place.

Now, I think, the Gospel of Mark, as he described this same encounter, digs even deeper into the core of Jesus’ message here.  After Jesus had silenced the Sadducees with his theological response, Mark offers this additional exchange: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he had answered them well, he asked, “What commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love God and love neighbor!  Love God by loving your neighbor. My friends, that’s the big stuff!  Jesus says to his inquisitors that sharing the love of God, honoring relationships, having compassion and empathy, thinking of the other before self, these things are the big stuff!  And the sub-text here is that the overseers of the Law, the Sadducees in this case, spent too much time on the minutia of the Law by equating the two basic commandments with the other 600 or so laws that were on the books and by misunderstanding the meaning of resurrection.

You see, resurrection finally isn’t about who’s married to who in eternity, it isn’t about continuing the relationships we propagate here on earth, rather, it’s about living in perfect relationship with God, with each other, and with all of creation. I’m convinced that when Jesus talks about resurrection he isn’t talking about resuscitation; he isn’t talking about these bodies of ours popping up out of the ground someday. But rather, it’s more like what he taught us to say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” AND this heaven-like earth is brought about when we love God by loving our neighbor! If you want to usher in the Kingdom of God, you don’t have to cast your eyes toward heaven, instead, look across the street. Look at your neighbor! Look at the homeless veteran living under the bridge, look at the hungry child in the Guatemalan slum, look at the lonely elderly person next door, look at the family being denied asylum at the border, look at all of these neighbors… and then ACT! That’s the crux of Jesus’ teaching here! God is God of the living! God is the God of all humanity… ALL Humanity! And God is God of all of Creation. That’s the big stuff and that is our calling as people of faith.

One final thought this morning. I realize that I’m making it seem like loving one’s neighbor is a pretty simple thing. But I don’t think that’s really the case. If we’re honest with ourselves, loving our neighbor, the with whom we disagree, the neighbor who we suspect might be “playing the system”, loving the neighbor who’s just plain difficult to love; that ain’t easy. But Jesus reminds us, here in this text, that to God, “all are alive.” In other words, we must suspend our judgment of others because it’s finally God who does the judging. And Jesus insists that God is the God of the living, and since all are alive, God is the God of all people, no matter where they are on their journey, no matter what mistakes they, we, you, me… might have made in the past. God is the God of grace and forgiveness, of compassion and mercy. God is the God of me and you. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, an awesome thing; loving God and neighbor, that’s the best thing; that’s the Big Stuff!

So, socks or no socks, let us all come before the God of the Living, as we join in singing…

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[i] Robert Naylor Jesus Says Everything is Small Stuff, Except… (www.Day1.org) 2013