Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What More Do We Need?

Revelation 1: 4-8
There is an old English Proverb that goes like this, “All things must come to an end”.  You’ve probably heard it like spoken that way or maybe with the addition of the word good.  “All good things must come to an end”!  The show, Les Miserable came to an end on Broadway when the stage lights darkened in 2003 and although it survived a revival it finally packed its costume trunks and moved over to the London Theatre.  All good things must come to an end.

The same is true for many other Broadway shows, books on the NY Times Best Sellers list, even television shows.  The soap opera, the Guiding Light, its suds vanished after 72 years of radio and television broadcasts.   Sports teams have winning streaks, bull markets disperse dividends, bottles of wine finally are emptied and boxes of chocolate covered strawberries are devoured leaving only the frilly paper cups with merely a hint of the summer’s sweet bounty.  Ah yes, all things must come to an end, even Cinderella had to go home at the stroke of midnight.

Today is one of those days in the liturgical calendar year.  It’s an ending, it’s The Reign of Christ Sunday, which concludes 52 weeks of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and has taken us from Advent last year through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Ordinary Time.  It represents 52 weeks of hearing about Jesus life and learning about his ministry and then we wind up at the beginning.

Traversing the liturgical year is kind of like reading to a child her favorite book and just as soon as you say, ‘the end’, you’re your heart leaps for joy that it really is the end of this book that you have read umpty-nine times, the dear little one yells out, ‘again, again’ and of course you start all over from the beginning.  It was St. Benedict of Nursia who said in his monastic rule, “Always we begin again.”

For a Bible geek such as myself it’s fun and exciting to be able to change the color of my stole with the church seasons and to recognize the continuation of Christ’s life in mine.  Sometimes those changes come pretty quickly like, last week was green, this week white, the next two weeks purple, throw in a pink and a follow up purple back to white and then to green…all of this will happen by mid January. 

For those of us believers you see there really is a beginning when an ending occurs.  No liturgical season leaves us with a cliffhanger, they all evolve into something more beautiful, something more insightful or redeeming.  Always we begin again.  But before we flip the calendar to Advent let’s hover a few minutes on this Reign of Christ Sunday and what this awesome claim means for our lives.

It’s not too often that we read from the Book of Revelation.  Probably a good thing.  It’s rather scary with its images and predictions.   Yet there are some exquisite passages in this book.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…and I saw new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God...he will wipe away every tear…and death will be no more…for the first things have passed away”. (Rev 21:1-4)  So often this passage is of great comfort for people who are mourning the death of a loved one. 

Or another passage, “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  (Rev 22:2) 

So hopeful, so healing which is just what the early Christians living during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian for Christians living in Asia Minor. Now there is not much known about his short reign except to say he was a micro manager of the Empire’s economy and it was expected that the Roman Empire would be worshipped, and Domitian was "Lord."

You can begin to see the challenge for Christians who were trying to live out their faith in Jesus as ‘Lord’ and not the establishment’s vision of empire and kingdom.  They needed hope.  They needed to hear a voice of confident proclamation.

Hear now today’s passage from the first chapter:

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. 
Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. 
So it is to be. Amen.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.   Amen.

Always Christians have had a difficult time living in the world because of the nature of Christ and our specific summons to obedience, to justice, to love, to truth that Jesus calls us to.  He, himself, did not have an easy time living in a world dominated by oppressive political systems.  When Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate he was asked, ‘are you King of the Jews?’ to which Jesus answers, ‘my kingdom is not from this world’.  And again Pilate asks, ‘so, Jesus, are you a king?’ to which Jesus concedes, ‘you say that I am’.  Finally he did not deny his identity, who he really was.

Jesus tells the truth about himself at the end of his earthly life, not that he ever lied, he did not.  He chose to keep the truth shrouded until the right time to reveal his truth; that he is not from this world, that he is other worldly.   That his kingdom is not a dominating, tax-collecting, democracy starved kingdom, it is one in which peace and wholeness is dominant within us and within the forces of the world.  It is God’s peace, which passes all human understanding, that his reign and his kingdom is all about.  It is God’s kingdom that Jesus reveals in his truth telling moment.

So to answer the question must all good things come to an end?  Is this all there is?  Must the life and ministry of Christ end today with the triumphant reign of Christ?  The answer is no.  “As always we begin again.”  Revelation tells us that Christ is the Alpha and Omega.  When Jesus said that he was not suggesting that his life is finite -what he does mean is that there is totality and wholeness in him. 

His life and essence is a circuitous path that continually reminds us of the way in which God has intervened in the world and that the fullness of what life and death has to offer is accomplished in Jesus.  He who is, who was, and who is to come.  This is Christian Doctrine at its finest.

We can talk about doctrine but unless it doesn’t move you then so what?  Let’s talk about how you are spiritually moved by knowing Jesus, what are the ways that you would describe yourself being spiritually motivated as a Christian? How does your faith unearth and uplift you to feel a deeper connection to God for that is what spirituality means.

How do the stories and the life events of Jesus bring you closer to God and move you to a different place? 

When Mary heard that she was to bear a child in the direst of conditions might we not understand that God too will send a spark of life within us that will pull us up and out of the ominous places from our lives?  (Christmas)

When the Kings from the East followed that star might we not also understand that when we feel like we are completely outside and left behind that God will shine some light somewhere so that we can see clearly the path that we need to take to get home once again?  (Epiphany) 

When we put on the sackcloth and ashes and journey towards the Passion of Christ, that is his suffering and death might we not also understand that there will be times where we will have to deal with adversity, surrender our life and empty ourselves and our selfish ways in order to know that we are totally dependent on God for our every need?  (Lent) 

When Mary discovers an empty tomb and encounters the Risen Christ might we not see that our own spiritual suffering and possibly even death result in life once again, life renewed and infused with joy and God’s love.  (Easter)

When the disciples were gathered and locked up tight in that upper room and the wind of the spirit flew in and lighted upon their heads might not we understand that there is no where on earth that we can go that God will not also be and give us understanding to deal with the scariest circumstances of our lives? (Pentecost) 

When we hear the stories of blind Bartemaus or the Samaritan woman at the well, or the Parable of the Prodigal Son might we not believe that when we feel like we are the untouchables and that no one possibly cares for us we can believe that God is there to protect us and that healing will occur in the least probable places and times?  (Ordinary Time) 

All of these stories of Jesus, all 52 weeks of them enable our spirit to be lifted so that we can feel a connection with God and find truth and meaning in our lives.

Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the one who was, who is and who is to come.  He is the story of God’s love never ending.  Must all good things come to an end?  No!  “Always we begin again.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Heaven Knows!

Matthew 6:25-33
It was around Thanksgiving many years ago when I met a woman who lived in one of the Bridgeport shelters.  Alice was her name and Alice had come with the social worker to the church where I was working to pick up coats that we had collected for distribution.  After loading up the van Alice and I sat down for a cup of coffee and she began to tell me how much she appreciated the coats.

Her gratitude was overwhelming.  She kept saying over and over again, ‘you don’t know how thankful I am for this gift, you don’t know, you just don’t know how thankful I am for these coats. You know it’s supposed to get real cold this winter and you just don’t know how thankful I am.’

Later in the day I was thinking about our conversation.  She was spot on!  I don’t know.  I didn’t have a clue as to what it is like to not have a winter coat, or a roof over my head.  I don’t know what it is like to be homeless. I don’t know what it is like to be down to my last buck and having to rely on the shelter and the outpouring of others for my daily bread.  I don’t, at least in this moment, have these sorts of worries.  And I am thankful for that.

My life was blessed that day by Alice’s gratitude and thanks.  She ministered to me in a way that opened my eyes to God’s extraordinary benevolence in my life, for the way in which God zooms in and in unexpected ways helps to relieve me of my worries and concerns.  You see none of us are exempt from worry.  We just worry about different things.  She modeled for me a way in which I should be thanking God for my life.

Our text this morning finds Jesus in the upper Galilee, sitting on the grassy hillside with his disciples and hundreds of others.  Now these were not rich people.  They were fishers and farmers, those who struggled hard to put pita on the table.  They didn't have 401K's, or even checking accounts.  They too, had a lot to worry about; much that would keep them up at night. 

So Jesus begins to talk to this gathered group.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. (Matt 5:3)  Jesus has begun his Sermon up there on the Mount.  He continues his discourse interpreting and reinterpreting Judaic law.  He makes it plain and simple for these hard working folk.  “You are the salt of the earth”, (Matt 5:13); “You are the light of the world.” (Matt 5:14), “Give to everyone who begs from you”, (Matt 5:42), “Love your enemies”, (Matt 5:44), “Pray like this…Our Father in Heaven”, (Matt 6:9), “No one can serve two masters”, (Matt 6:24) and then Jesus says, “THEREFORE”.

Therefore do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body and what you put on it.  Heaven knows!  The big One up there in heaven knows exactly what you need and I’d add also what you want but that’s a whole other sermon.  If heaven can make sure that the little sparrows are fed without human intervention, and if heaven can expend all that energy to grow those stunningly gorgeous lilies and sunflowers that will wither and die tomorrow then don’t you think that your God in heaven knows what you need to live your life? 

Of course.  Of course heaven knows.

Jesus does not turn a blind eye to his followers concerns and worries.  He accepts them, in fact he embraces them, that’s what his life and his work and his ministry are also about. His human nature is in full gear; he knows all too well about the human capacity for excessive worry.  He knows exactly what we are about, he’s on to us!

Thursday – Thanksgiving Day – it’s a day for gratitude and goodies.  We will gather together to ask the Lord’s blessings around the Thanksgiving table. It will be warm, it will be satisfying, and we might feel as if we are the most blessed people on this planet without a care in this world.

Yet we know that’s not entirely the truth.  The Thanksgiving table is not only a place with fancy-schmancy decorations and flowers, succulent turkey, stuffing, pie and enumerating all of the good things about your life.  The Thanksgiving table is also the place we will bring our worries and concerns – you know how they follow us everywhere like catalogs that annoyingly arrive in the mail every fifteen minutes.

The Thanksgiving table is a place where you can recognize those worries, perhaps even give voice to them and then express your gratitude to God.  It’s a place where you can just look up to heaven and scream out thanks in total surrender! 

Cast all your burdens on the Lord and then say thanks!  Thank you God.  Thanks God for picking me up from that ally way, what was I thinking?  Thank you God for having my back.  Thank you God that my child didn’t get any sicker, thank you God that when that tree fell on my house I wasn’t hurt and I still have my house to live in. Thank you God.

I am reading Anne Lamott’s newest book, “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers”.  In it she says, ‘You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out, too’.  She says…. ‘My general-purpose go-to mystic Rumi said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”’[i]

She’s right.  She takes it us to the next level of gratitude.  We can express our gratitude to God for all those pick me ups, all of those close calls, all of those reprieves from a potentially bad situation, we can express our gratitude in so many more ways than solely around the proverbial Thanksgiving table once a year.  There really is more than one way to kiss the ground and there is more than one way to say thanks. 

We breathe in gratitude and when we breathe out our gratitude there is no other alternative than to put that gratitude into action.  Thank you God, now what can I do to help you out?  What can I do to help other people?  Heaven knows, the world does not lack for opportunities for us to give God gratitude and thanks way beyond Thanksgiving Day.  ‘A Day of Service’ that Kevin talked about is just one of them.

That’s the real gift of Thanksgiving.  It opens our eyes to the blessings we have and the blessing that we can be to others.

So on Thursday after we have given thanks to God for hearth and home, family and friends, let us also give thanks to God for knowing deeply and intimately our every worry and fear, our every anxiety and pain and for the reassurance that heaven knows all about them.  

Let us then resolve to exhale our profound gratitude in this world through our actions.  Thanks God.  No Really, Thanks!

[i] Anne Lamott, ‘Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers’. Penguin Books, 2012. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Trust and All Will Be Well

Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17
Ruth the Gleaner by Marc Chagall
As you know, I recently, very recently acquired a daughter-in-law and I became a mother-in-law.  After a decade of dating my son, she and I have entered into a new relationship so this story of Ruth and Naomi is rather timely.  Ironically though, I find myself reflecting upon my relationship with my former mother-in-law, Addie, more so.  My daughter-in-law and son are still on their honeymoon so I have a short reprieve before we begin anew. 

You see my relationship with Addie was never completely horrible per se, but there were some kinks, some challenging incidents that happened over the years like the time she announced our third pregnancy to the Town of Fairfield in her article, “Once Over Lightly” for the Fairfield Citizen-News, way before we had told anyone.  She wrote often about our children publically and it wasn’t always in the best vain although she was humorous, or so she thought. 

There were other times too when she really overstepped her boundaries like the time she tried to call the Fairfield Police because she thought someone had broken into our house and stole her reading glasses.

My own mother said I was going to be a saint when I died for all that she put us through.  Ironically though, when my mother died, and I was divorced from her son, Addie became more of a mother figure to me providing help with the children - although she did once dress our first son as a girl - and her carefree, Italian attitude towards life picked me up on more than one occasion.  Ah yes, mothers and daughters-in-law!  It’s complicated.

Last week Doug introduced us to Ruth and Naomi and their loyal in-law relationship with one another.  Naomi loses her husband, tragically her sons die too, and so she prepares to go back to the land of her ancestors in Bethlehem.  Widows lived on the edge of survival, the margins; they were the ‘untouchables’ of the ancient near east.  She was blessed in that her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, set out to go with her.

But at a certain point Naomi encourages them to go back to the land of Moab.  She knows that she has nothing to offer them in the way of stability or riches even in Bethlehem. Orpah returns but Ruth does not and says, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”  Naomi accepted Ruth’s insistence to stay and they return together to Bethlehem in Judah and back to her kinsman, Boaz.  A very rich man whose compassion for Naomi and Ruth is remarkable.

Today we continue on in the Book of Ruth, third chapter,

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’ She said to her, ‘All that you tell me I will do.’

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. Amen.
The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet
And you think modern day in-law relationships are complex!  At least we don’t have the overlay of the levirite marriage laws that mandate the brother of a deceased man marry his brother’s widow, which was the norm in the Ancient Near East. In spite of this dreadful law though, the Book of Ruth shows us that in-law relationships can be filled with selfless love, devotion and care.  And that there can be compassionate people living within a bad system.

I am well aware that you may have never heard such words of scripture from this pulpit, this meeting at the threshing floor and lying at someone’s feet; it sounds perhaps like some cheap and sordid romance novel.  But in order to comprehend, if we possibly can, God’s mighty hand in the grander scheme of things we need to look at how it can be accomplished through human lives in every day, ordinary experiences and these were the experiences of Ruth and Naomi.  Plus…it’s the recommended lectionary reading for today, so lucky me!

Without a doubt, Naomi worked the system. She was a woman living in a man’s world. She knew the law and she was wise.  She orchestrated a prosperous and safe future for Ruth first by sending her out to Boaz’s fields to glean the leftover grain, and then encouraging her to sleep with him and produce offspring.  And Naomi, by becoming the wet nurse for their child, secured her place as well.  Boaz and Ruth wed and they named their son Obed.

And Obed, became the father of Jesse, the father of David, the greatest Israelite king of all times, and from the house and lineage of King David comes Jesus, many generations later.  Ruth, a foreigner, Ruth, a widow, Ruth, who was just about as down and out on her luck as she possibly could get, had no idea that when she lay with Boaz she would be a direct descendant of Jesus.   There was a larger scheme in play.

Ruth trusted.  She trusted with all of her heart that sticking by Naomi’s side was the right thing to do for her own survival and for her devotion to Naomi. She displayed courage in a time of uncertainty and faithfulness to the one who cared for her the most at a really terrible time in her life. 

I want to talk with you today about trust because I’m sure that there have been times in your life or even in the life of this congregation that you have had to trust in what is to come; that you have had to trust in something that you could not yet quite vision. 

Trust - that a child going off to college will be all right and figure out that he could do his own laundry and can make good decisions.  Trust - that when you put your father into a nursing home that his welfare will be the utmost thing on the aids and workers minds.  Trust - that when given a diagnosis the doctor will proceed with the right course of action for your health and well-being.  Trust - that with every ending comes a beginning and that that beginning will be grander than what was. 

Trust takes almost all of our being to believe that an outcome will be good for us even if we don’t quite know what it will be and even if it was not something that we had planned on.

But there is responsibility – you will still need to call your son each week – you will still need to check up on your father in the nursing home – you will need to follow the course of action that the doctor prescribed – you will still need to prepare your heart and mind for a new beginning. 

Ruth trusted that sleeping with Boaz was the right thing to do and my friends, that’s a real tall order.  But she believed Naomi and she trusted that Naomi would take care of her in any way that she possibly could.  I also believe that she had a deep faith in God, remember before when she said, “Your God will become my God”.

Because of faith you can trust in your future.  “Trust is the practical outworking of faith: it is when we trust God that we show our faith in God (sic) Him) is real.[i]”  And we know God is always in our corner, has got our back, and is our own private cheering section.
Tomorrow my son and daughter-in-law return from their honeymoon.  A new chapter will begin.  I trust that God will guide us to a clear understanding of this new relationship.  The future is ahead of you too.  May God increase your faith and trust that ‘all things will work together for the good.’ (Romans 8:28)
Rev. Suzanne E. Wagner
Wilton Congregational Church

[i] Ben Edington, 2004.  “Trust in the Lord with All of Your Heart”.