Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Wednesday of Advent 2 -- Vespers Sermon

Electricity was out tonight so we did not have Vespers. Sorry if anyone came out to the church to find nothing there.

But here is the sermon I wrote for tonight's service.
Rev. 1:17-2:717When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

2“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

A few years ago my wife and I along with the boys traveled to Las Vegas, not as you might expect for a new seminar in a new strategy for growing church offerings, but for the high school graduation of my wife’s niece. We spent almost a full week there. I even had the opportunity to attend church (a Missouri Synod congregation even!). Given both the ELCA’s and Missouri Synod’s stance in social statements against institutionalized establishment of gambling (lotteries, table games, video poker, etc.) Mary Lynne and I wondered what it would be like to be a congregation whose offering plate is mostly full of gambling-related revenue. A good portion of the people living there exists to either serve the casinos directly, or indirectly, since without say, super markets, people would have a hard time living there. So people’s salaries were being paid directly or indirectly from the casinos and hence, directly or indirectly, weekly offering was coming from these grand temples of Chance.

And of course a great deal of secondary industry springs up around these temples, walk down the Strip without a child in hand and you will be given numerous cards advertising the strip clubs. Move a little farther out of town and you find places where things go beyond simply stripping, as if that wasn’t bad enough. The system is completely turned around and upside down. But what is a church to do? Do they refuse any offering connected to these industries? And how would they know what money was coming from where since the casino money would be funneled through legitimate jobs anyway?

For Christians in Ephesus, I might wonder the same. Except perhaps it was worse. Ephesus was one of, if not THE most important city in the Roman Empire, outside of Rome itself. Located at the exit of the Cayster River into the Mediterranean, Ephesus was a major commercial city. Vast amounts of goods, of all sorts, moved through Ephesus. The temple of the goddess Artemis was there as well, which could mean a great deal of behavior that might make Vegas seem tame in comparison, making the city a religious power as well. And Ephesus was a major administrative outpost of the Empire which meant Ephesus was given the title of “free city.” Rome had granted to Ephesus no small amount of autonomy in ruling itself. It held a great deal of latitude in what went on there.

With all the activity supporting powers and principalities that often stood against the way of life in the Christian community, what was a church to do? Give in? Allow itself to be co-opted? That doesn’t seem to be the word that they receive from Jesus in the letter addressed to them. He says, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.” Jesus knows, he says, of their works, that is their toil and patient endurance. Despite their incredible minority status, they have held fast to a particular way of life. Their zeal might have dimmed, but they have not grown weary. In the midst of things that threaten their lives as well as their souls, the church in Ephesus has maintained a witness for Jesus’ sake.

Thus is the task of the church in any place to patiently endure, to work for God’s kingdom, using the very security provided by earthly powers to ultimately subvert them. After all, the earthly kingdoms will end one day. They will gather around Christ, cast their crowns before his feet returning any authority granted unto them. The churches continue on in such work. They will take what the world gives, patiently enduring, proclaiming the gospel to a world distracted by temples of other gods, whether Artemis or Caesar or Chance.

And the church will do so at the risk of its very life, maybe with great fear. But the church is reminded by John the Seer, our faithful scribe, that even people who fall down dead, are raised by the touch of the Lord. For he “was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” He holds power over death and hell, and therefore nothing that belongs to him can be taken away forever from him. His power over the powers is for us the source of our patient enduring. And he continues to walk among us candlesticks, us lights to the world, and he encourages us and moves us that we might continue to work for the kingdom.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Advent and Eschatology

The texts of Advent seem to confuse many. Rather than mirror the schmaltzy version of Christmas in the malls and on television, the season of Advent gives us tales of the end. Prophetic texts that speak of God's restoration of creation, or of the rich and powerful getting their just desserts. We hear John the Baptist cry, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Or we hear Mary's song where the hungry are filled with good things, the rich sent away empty, the lowly lifted up and the mighty cast down. Tales of God's undying promise that all the brokenness of the world will be taken away.

Today I began to read an essay by Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Task of Christian Eschatology" and his opening rang so true for me. Pannenberg wrote:
Contemporary Christian doctrine has to live up to an inevitable conflict, not with human reason, but with the secularist culture. The truth of Christian doctrine cannot be maintained where Christian proclamation gives priority to the secular mentality. It has to challenge that mentality and its prejudices. Of course, Christian doctrine is related to the predicament of human life in our world. Since secularism produces meaninglessness, the human person suffers from the lack of meaning. There is a need, then, for the Christian message, perhaps more urgently so than in other periods of human history. But the message can reach its adressess if the prejudices of secularism against Christianity can be overcome.
This applies especially to the Christian eschatological hope for a life beyond death. This hope is sharply opposed to the emphatic wordliness of our secular culture. It is under suspicion of escapism, as if it would cheat people out of the fulfillment of their liveson this earth. Gratitude for this life is an essential part of the Christian belief in the creation of this world by God. But the secular mentality exaggerates what we may expect from this finite and moral life. People expect sex to yield a degree of satisfaction and happiness that it cannot grant without love and fidelity. Political order is expected to produce perfect justice and lasting peace without violence or oppression. But our century has seen totalitarian regimes established precisely in the name of these ideas.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mid-week Advent 1 Homily

2 Peter 3:1-10
3This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you; in them I am trying to arouse your sincereintention by reminding you 2that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles. 3First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts 4and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died,* all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’ 5They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. 7But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the godless. But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,* not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Patience. Constantly touted as a virtue, patience ranks up there with the quality “quiet” in running in magnificently short supply in our household. Between the boys not wanting to wait, and me not being able to wait for boys' own waiting, our house does not have much in the way of patience...

Patience is all about the ability to wait. A patient person is able to wait, foregoing more immediately present rewards for something larger to come. Clearly those who seek self gratification, that is, the immediate payoff, are not patient. They have not been formed by the practices of putting off the small reward here and now for the greater reward in the future. I wonder how the economy might be different if instead of seeking the quick short-term gain in stock prices, the CEOs would have been trained in waiting for long-term real value to be added to a company.

Every virtue walks a middle ground between two vices. One vice is the sheer lack of the virtue, but the other is the virtue taken to an extreme. In this sense then the other vice associated with patience is waiting for absolutely nothing. In the play, “Waiting for Godot” by Thomas Beckett, it remains to be seen if the two main characters, Estragon and Vladmir, are exercising the virtue of patience or in fact have moved beyond patience to idleness. While much can be made of the endurance and discipline needed for patience, it is folly to continue to wait and work for a fantasy.

But patience cuts between the two extremes, between the excess and deficiency. And those who are disciplined in their waiting often draw criticisms from others. Why wait until you have money saved up to buy the large screen television? Just use the credit card. Why wait until the baby is born to find out its gender? Do it now! Or on the deficient side, the college buddy who can't understand the friend who is getting married, cutting off his choices, so to speak. We may wait for someone, but not an endless list of options. There must be something tangible at hand for which we wait.

And that is perhaps the criticism that Peter is hearing when he writes, in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts 4and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died,* all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’” Nothing is changing. Nothing is any different. You are not waiting for anything!!! Everything is just as it always has been. We have nothing to fear. There is no final end. We need not hear of return and judgment. Why hasn't it happened if God were going to do it? You're not patient. You're misguided. You have fallen into vice.

But Peter assures his readers and us that any delay is not a mark of our deficiency in patience, but actually a mark of God's patience. He is indeed waiting for the fullness of time before he executes his judgment and he will then act, and decisively so. But God's vision is not like ours. For him to wait and endure entails a waiting of love and grace, allowing that humans might be given the fullest amount of time to repent, to turn again to God God's patience is rooted in his love for humans so that none of them might perish. God endures the continued brokenness of the world, the unbelief, the recurrent transgressions. God is disciplined to wait for something greater to come. Christ was able to be patient, that is, endure the suffering brought upon him by the world, that he might be raised and become the way to eternal life.

We now are grasped by Christ's grace that we too might partake in this divine patience. The eternal Word, Christ, the Son of God, created this very world and now upholds and sustains it so that we might endure bearing witness to the scoffers, that in fact things are changing. Our very lives are being transformed, being made holy, sanctified, as a sign for the ultimate act that God will bring about with a loud noise and elements being dissolved by fire, and everything done on earth will be made known.

But we are not born patient. Nor do we remain so without some aid. God has given us practices in the church that we might endure in the faith until the end, either of our lives or Christ's coming. To endure in the faith, one chief practice is prayer. Christ has given us his name to call upon in every assault of the devil, the world or our own broken selves.

We are given the witness of the martyrs who suffered, and continue to suffer, for the sake of the gospel. Remembering those who stand firm while under persecution has been a source of strength for the church, and not a source of embarrassment or shame. We learn to endure by the witness they provide.

We are given this season of Advent. In the midst of gross and conspicuous consumption that could not even wait for Thanksgiving, the Church resists, remembering not just the birth of Jesus, but dwelling on his coming. Retailers are desperate for our money. They work hard to get us to hand over our money, to consume great quantities. In essence they tell us, “Forget that future stuff. Get the good life now! This is the great promise! This is what we were created for! YOU.CAN.HAVE.IT.ALL.”

But Advent calls us back to prayer, devotion and remembrance. As we gather in the growing darkness of winter, we may realize that we enter into God's very character of patience. Waiting, watching, and praying for the redemption of a broken world... witnessing to the very promises of God—promises for which he endured and continues to endure so much.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Christ as Adversary...

The prophet Amos proclaimed:
They do not know how to do right, says the LORD, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: An adversary shall surround the land, and strip you of your defense; and your strongholds shall be plundered. (Amos 3:10-11)
Very often, we are tempted to think of Christ in only terms of brother, friend, shepherd, king, Lord... maybe even judge. Today's reading however sparked my thinking about Christ as adversary.

Amos came bearing the word of the Lord unto the people in an age of great prosperity and expansion under the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.). Amos preached against over reliance on military might, the injustice done to poor and outcast, and grave immorality. Just read the second chapter of Amos. Judah and Israel do not come off looking good at all. Amos proclaims in the midst of such a world that it is God's might that will prevail, not Israel's human might.

In this season of Advent, as we read of Christ's coming in the clouds, we might be left thinking that Christ comes to take away those very folks who store up violence and robbery. And that is so... however we too must see ourselves in the same boat. Insofar as we are complicit with the powers that seek to take others' lives, to not protect our neighbor's property, we are the very same ones. Christ comes to surround us, strip away our defenses, and plunder our strongholds.

And this should be heard as good news. For when Christ comes to us, he desires that we live. Our reliance on power and might must die. Our consumption of goods, services, food, resources of the earth must cease. All of the ways that our fallen, sinful self participates in the brokenness of the world must taste death; a death meted out by our adversary, Christ. But this Christ, our adversary, is also the adversary who is our Lord. Our Lord is not the violent rampaging Mars, or the Invisible Hand of the Market, but the very Lord of Life, who comes that we might die, so he might raise us up to new life.

Even as an adversary, Christ does not work the way the world would. In the world the adversary seeks to crush and destroy its opponents. Christ seeks only to crush and destroy so that he might raise up and redeem, thereby showing his love and power are what will rule in the end.