Come, Lord Jesus

Advent 1   Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37

This week we begin the all-too-short journey toward Advent, that season when the Church’s prayer is the urgent and expectant: “Come, Lord Jesus.” For most folks, the Advent hymns and prayers invoking Emmanuel, God-with-us, conjure up domesticated images of babies, a glowing virgin mother, and churches gathered to sing carols and raise candles high into the air. These are comfortable images for us. We like to be in control of our lives and our futures—and this Christmas story is one that we’ve long had our hands on. Jesus the baby does not threaten us. And so, because we’ve already got this part of the story down pat, we use these 4 weeks of Advent to do more important things – like shop, cook, clean, and party. We’ve got Advent under control; we could do the season on auto-pilot. Yes, Come Lord Jesus, so we can finally open our presents. Read more

Pledging Allegiance

modern painting of Christ on the cross in the midst of the struggles of the world

Ezekiel 34, Psalm 100 (Catholic: Psalm 23), Ephesians 1:15-23 (Catholic: 1 Cor 15: 20-28), Matthew 25:31-46

1925. In the wake of an unimaginably destructive World War, surrounded by rising totalitarian powers, and as the “civilized” military nation-states partied their way toward financial ruin, Pope Pius declared a new feast in honor of Christ the King, a celebration intended to habitually remind Christians of their primary and ultimate allegiance.

2008. In the (we hope) waning months of a disastrous war, surrounded by accelerating world divisions, and as the “developed” military nation-states prop up a teetering world financial system, Christians liturgically re-member their primary and ultimate allegiance. Now observed by many Western Churches (though often renamed “Christ’s Reign,”) the Sunday has become, in the words of one blogger:

…the day when Episcopalians and Methodists celebrate a 20th-century Roman Catholic feast by singing a hymn (All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name) written by a particularly obnoxious Baptist (Edward Perronet–ex-Methodist and all-out dissenter who launched vicious attacks on John Wesley). In other words, a truly ecumenical occasion.

I needn’t rehearse Sunday’s gospel; we’ve all heard it often enough to imagine knowing it by heart. In this post-election secular season, when I’m increasingly uncertain about nearly everything and more unqualified to play exegete than usual, I’ll just make a few observations.

The king isn’t elected. He’s king, literally by divine right, surrounded by angels and sitting on his throne. I’m fairly confident my priest will once again remind us this Sunday that “we need to use other metaphors for God” in an age when monarchies and patriarchies have no purchase on the imagination. I’m not so sure. In fact, the primary theological problem now and at any time in my life is that God is God and I missed the vote. In the same way, I find myself wincing when, in the Lord’s Prayer, we say, with feigned disregard for our own desires and plans, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Creation is no democracy. I have to remind myself that’s a good thing.

Gathered before Him are all the nations. All pretenders to earthly sovereignty will be judged, from the most powerful government to the least person. I suppose that’s a good thing; at least we’re all in this together.

Neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they were doing. Cognitive awareness of serving the Lord appears irrelevant in this account of salvation. Perhaps that’s why, four chapters earlier, Matthew’s Jesus announces, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom before you.” Now substitute “tax collectors and prostitutes” with the object of your own righteous anger – and please, be brutally honest with yourself. Doesn’t feel that good, does it?

In Matthew’s gospel, the “Great Judgment” story is followed immediately by Jesus telling his disciples, “…the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Christ’s Kingdom has no Department of Homeland Security or Defense, no FBI and no CIA. In Bonhoeffer’s words, “When Christ call a man, he bids him come and die.” We’re all going to die, some more faithfully than others. Good news or not, a lifetime may be insufficient to learn so hard a lesson.

The Sunday following this one is the First Sunday in Advent, the start of a new church year. Jesus is coming. One day, perhaps, I’ll be graced to truly desire the coming of God’s kingdom, to recite the Shema Yisroel without crossing my fingers, to pledge my full allegiance to the One on the throne. Until then, I’ll need a lot of help, some good examples, an occasional word of encouragement. We’re all in this together – and that’s a good thing.

Give it All

Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents is for me about fear, or rather, about the ways we respond to fear. I have been attentive recently to how much of modern life is controlled, or at least infected, by fear. One reason for my attentiveness is because I am something of an expert where fear is concerned. It’s no secret to my friends and family that I am by nature given to sometimes obsessive worry, and over the years I have learned mostly to accept that it’s just something I have to live with.

Mostly, I do pretty well in that regard. I have learned to distinguish rational from irrational worries, worries I can control from those I cannot. I remind myself that this is usually familiar territory, and that whatever I happen to be worrying about at a given time will eventually fade away. Read more

Giving Jesus a Makeover

a yellow flower on an orange backgroundMany years ago a dear Christian sister told me she was convinced that if Jesus appeared in our day, he would surely be a fire and brimstone Baptist preacher. As you might imagine, she admired Baptist preachers who preached hell and judgment. She made Jesus over into an image that suited her own faith and worldview.

She isn’t the first. Human beings were made in the image of God. Yet ever since our creation, we have been returning the favor in a twisted way—making God over into our own image. We all do this. In fact, it is one of our greatest sins. Read more

Cynical/Dreams

It’s hard to be cynical today.

It may be easier tomorrow, next week, or next month—it almost certainly will be. But today is a day for head-shaking wonder at what transpired on Nov. 4.

Even though it wasn’t a surprise, the election of Barack Obama is epic for all the reasons the pundits have waxed eloquent about during the last twenty-four hours, and the margin of his victory is ample evidence that Senator McCain didn’t lose the election: Senator Obama won it, and decisively. Read more

Wisdom and Folly

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13 (32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

At first glance the gospel lesson this week seems to encourage the kind of smug dualism that has characterized this long electoral season. (Can it really be coming to an end this week?): Some people are wise and some are foolish and thank God I’m among the wise ones.

Such readings (of political campaigns, of scriptural texts) do more to entrench our worst tendencies toward self-righteousness (and disdain for others) than to illuminate the larger complexities of life in a polis or the Gospel’s good news for all people. Read more

Blessed Are They

Matthew 5:1-12

This year for All Saints’ Sunday, I am hearing differently Jesus’ famous Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. In previous years, I would quickly leap to associating the saints who have gone before us with those whom Jesus calls blessed. My line of thinking would go something like this; it is the witness of the faithful in the history of Christianity and in our lives that demonstrates to us what poverty of spirit and meekness look like. It is the peacemaking “giants” of the past and present who show us what it means to be children of God. As disciples we are simply called to follow their example, to cultivate within us the attitudes these saints so courageously exhibit, and we too shall be called blessed. This year, however, I am hearing Jesus differently. Read more

Leadership by Imitation

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (24th Sunday after Pentecost)

It seems that wherever you turn these days the buzz word on the street is “leadership.” The failure of the financial market, when not being blamed on minorities or the poor, is blamed on a failure of leadership in government and industry. For too long the standard of worth for CEOs and economic strategists has been a cut-throat measure of greed and self-interest. In the religious world, too, the decline in attendance and influence of mainline congregations and denominations has been attributed to a lack of effective pastoral leadership. Books filled with strategies and tactics (Is there really a difference?) on the subject of effective leadership fill the shelves of bookstores, both sacred and secular, with the promise that the right organization and charisma can lead even a failed organization or congregation strongly into the future. Read more

What God Intends

Milton Wright was a Bishop in the Church of the Brethren, traveling throughout his denomination until his death in 1917. He is reported to have said that if God intended human beings to fly, he would have given us wings. We know from history that his sons, Orville and Wilbur, thought otherwise.

At times, I find myself thinking this way. I think that if God intended us to have this or that new technology, surely God would have provided it. For example, I care little for cell phones, and only own one jointly with Gayle. If God intended us to talk anywhere, any time, surely we’d have “blue tooth” phones fitted to our ears when we were born. And I find myself thinking this way when it comes to oil and coal. I figure that if God intended us to put carbon into the air, then God surely would not have taken so long and worked so hard to fold these materials deep into the earth. I wonder if God really wants them to be taken from the bowels of the earth and used as we use them.

There I go, thinking like Bishop Wright again. Read more

No Small Change

I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22 (23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

One of the grim realities of the financial markets meltdown is the loss in trillions of dollars in retirement accounts like 401(k)s. It’s no small matter that many people close to retirement may be in quite a fix. And it seems reasonable to ask, if such a vast sum is indeed lost, can’t someone figure out how and where we might find it? Where the heck did all that money go? Read more