Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Jesus is the sign...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, November 14, 2010. This is the conclusion of our stewardship drive and after worship we will share a light luncheon together. I hope that if you are in town, you will stop by and join us starting at 10:30 am.

This morning I want to think out loud with you about how Christ invites us to live in such a way that we are a blessing, not a curse. As he prepared himself for the suffering to come, Jesus told his disciples: Look… there will always be doomsday deceivers: watch out for them. There will also always be those who are going to show up with forged identities claiming, 'I'm the One,' or, 'The end is near.' Don't fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don't panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end… What’s more, nation will continue to fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Huge earthquakes will occur in various places and there will be famines. You'll think at times that the very sky is falling… So never forget this truth: every detail of your body and soul—even the hairs of your head!—is in my care; nothing of you will be lost. Staying with it—that's what is required. Stay with it to the end and you won't be sorry: you will be a blessing, not a curse – made whole and holy by the grace of God. (Luke 21: 5-19, The Message)

Did you hear that? There will always be suffering – there will always be war – and there will always be natural disasters and pain and confusion, too. So what in the world is the prophetic poet, Isaiah, talking about when he tells us in our other reading for this day that:

I, the Lord your God, am creating new heavens and a new earth. All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain are things of the past, to be forgotten. Look ahead with joy. Anticipate what I'm creating: No more sounds of weeping in the city, no cries of anguish; no more babies dying in the cradle or old people who don't enjoy a full lifetime; One-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal— anything less will seem like a cheat. They'll build houses and move in. They'll plant fields and eat what they grow. No more building a house that some outsider takes over, no more planting fields that some enemy confiscates, for my people will be as long-lived as trees, my chosen ones will have satisfaction in their work.

Has he flipped? Has the suffering gotten the best of him? Is he on drugs or delusional? Or worse, is the prophet lying to us – offering us a false hope based upon the theological equivalent of BS – because he is either too weak or sentimental to face the facts? Religious people do that sometimes, you know? Lie to those they love in order to spare them more pain saying, “It will be alright” – when it really won’t. Or “things will look better in the morning” when, in fact, they will look worse. Or the all-time winner of deceitful spiritual aphorisms: God never gives us more than we can handle. BS – all of it – cruel, manipulative BS: so is that what is driving the poet Isaiah?

I don’t think so – although it is healthy to ask those questions of scripture and tradition from time to time – but I don’t think BS is what is taking place today. Rather, I sense that both Jesus and Isaiah are speaking about the same truth – living as a blessing within the kingdom of God no matter what our circumstances – but they are starting at different places.

• Isaiah begins by acknowledging the pain of his people but then quickly moves on to the assurance of God’s consolation; while Jesus wants his friends to know that no matter what happens – joy or sorrow – God is always within and among them. So, like the modern musical prophet, Peter Gabriel, likes to say: don’t give up!

• Both are speaking of joy and sorrow and both see God’s presence, too. Which is paradoxical, to be sure, and easily misconstrued as opposing insights. But an adult faith holds both truths in tension and sees beyond the obvious, yes?

And that is the first insight I would like you to consider: the invitation to grow up in the spirit so that we leave childish notions behind. This is the call to search for the light within the darkness, the eagle within the egg and the beauty amidst the sorrow so that we can be a blessing rather than a curse. I think of the story of the young Zen student who once asked his teacher, “Master, why is it that BS smells so bad?” only to be told by the wise one, “Well, if you were a fly, it would actually taste like candy.”

• Hmmm…. are you with me here? This is an adult insight – two truths held in tension simultaneously – like our saying that Christ Jesus is both God and man. Or that the Word of God has taken up residence within and among our flesh as God has intended since before the beginning of time.

• Or what about the recognition that sometimes during worship – especially in Advent and Lent – there can be a mutual chorus of celebration and solemnity singing simultaneously to us that is not a contradiction, but a deeper truth – like the way “O come, o come Emmanuel” shifts from a minor to a major key in the same song?

New Testament writers like St. Paul express this adult spiritual insight like this in Ephesians 4:
No prolonged infancies among us, please. We'll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

Or more simply in I Corinthians 13: when I was a child, I thought like a child and spoke and acted like a child, but when I matured I put childish things away… for now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face.” The first insight for living as a blessing rather than a curse has to do with growing up in faith and putting childish things away.

Now look, it isn’t easy to put childish or simplistic notions of God away because all too often our spiritual poetry is riddled with either/or thinking. Poet, Stephen Mitchell, is on to something when he writes that “both Judaism and Christianity often ache with a nostalgia for the future.”

A vision of the Golden Age, the days of perpetual summer in a world of straw-eating lions and roses without thorns, when human life will be foolproof and fulfilled in an endlessly prolonged finale of delight… this vision is deep and has inspired political and religious leaders from Isaiah and Martin Luther King, Jr. but it is a kind of benign insanity. And if we take it seriously enough, if we try to live in it twenty-four hours a day, we will spend all our lives working in anticipation and will never enter the Sabbath of the heart… (The Gospel of Jesus, p. 11)

And the Sabbath of the heart is the second insight for today as it promises us rest even within the life’s turmoil – true joy no matter what the sorrow – and a place in the kingdom of God even while we dwell within the wounds of the world. For, you see, when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he was talking about a state of being:

Not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will appear someday… but a way of living that is at ease within the realities of this world. It is possible, Jesus said, to be as simple and beautiful as the birds of the sky or the lilies of the field who are always living within the eternal NOW… (Mitchell, p. 11)

Think about that – the beauty of a Sabbath of the heart – and what comes to your mind? Do you recall what the Sabbath is all about? It is a time for rest and refreshment that goes back to the very beginning of time according to our tradition. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is so helpful when it comes to Sabbath when he writes:

When God began creation… the Lord blessed the seventh day and called it holy. There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness. This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place – a holy mountain or a holy spring – whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first. So when history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time… In this the meaning of the Sabbath becomes clear: the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

In other words, the Sabbath shows us how to practice growing up so that we experience in our time the essence of God’s time and learn to trust that the Lord is in control so we don’t have to be. We can live in gratitude not anxiety. We can rest in time – embracing a Sabbath of the heart – where just as Isaiah said: “Before they call I will answer and while they are yet speaking I will hear.”

• Small wonder that throughout time Jesus continues to tell us: come to me, all ye who are tired and heavy-laden and I shall give thee… what? Rest!

• Calamity will happen – suffering will not end – death and fear will remain and yet, at the very same time: “every detail… is in my care; nothing of you will be lost. So stay with it—that's what is required. Stay with it to the end. And you won't be sorry; you'll be saved.”

That is, your life will be integrated into the very purpose of God’s creation: as you grow up – and learn to put away childish things – you will discover how to nourish the Sabbath of the heart. The second insight for living as a blessing rather than a curse is grounded in God’s rest and the Sabbath of our hearts which brings us refreshment and release.

And let’s play with this notion just a bit by exploring just what it is that takes place on that Sabbath that we might want to incorporate into our hearts, ok? Do you know what I’m asking? What are some of the traditional practices of honoring the Sabbath?

• Feasting is a natural, right? Gathering together with loved ones to be nourished by food and friendship is a fundamental Sabbath practice. Small wonder that the word companion is born of two French words meaning bread fellow – or mess mate – from com and panis.

• Resting, of course – claiming refreshment as an essential aspect of wellbeing – is another Sabbath essential. But what about sharing? Banishing worry? Burying complaining, gossip and condemnation for a season? Prayer? Reading? Returning thanks and worship? Do you see where I’m going with this?

If these ingredients are important for a traditional Sabbath, so much more the case for a Sabbath of the heart – God’s gift of rest within the ups and downs of real life – which brings me to the third insight for today: when people ask for a sign of God’s plan all we are to do is point to Jesus. Outside of the Temple, when the people asked him, “When will these things take place and what are the signs?” what did Jesus tell them?

• Not a lot – just watch out for the phonies and trust God. And I think that the reason for that is that he is our sign – his birth, his life, his death and resurrection – all show us what God’s will looks like.

• You know, it is not coincidental that the same word – symeion – which we translate as sign is used here as well as during the birth of the Lord in the manger. In Luke 2: 12, the shepherds are told by the angels of the Lord, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

And if Jesus is our sign of God’s presence – the way into the Lord’s rest and the Sabbath of our hearts – then we need to practice this Sabbath the way he did, yes? So do you know how to do this? Do you know how to integrate this Sabbath of the heart into your ordinary life in the manner of Jesus?

Let me teach you a simple prayer that the masters have been passing down to one another for thousands of years. You can use it anywhere – at any time – to open your heart to the kingdom of God in every moment.

• Have you heard of breathing prayers? Using your breath to help ground you in God’s peace? There are two parts – breathing in and breathing out – something you already know how to do but now can you grow in grace.

• When you breathe in, say to yourself, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and when you breathe out, “Fill me with peace.” Do you know it? Breathe in – Lord Jesus Christ – and breathe out – fill me with peace. Try that a few times…

The Lord has given us the promise of peace in Jesus Christ – a peace we can access within our hearts and our lives – if we claim the gift and grow into it. And as you grow in grace, my friends, you will become more and more of a blessing rather than a curse – a source of joy and integrity in a broken and wounded world – and that is always the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.

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