Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Living as saints for the Lord in OUR generation...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, November 6, 2011.  We will mark the blessings of All Saints/Souls Day during worship.  I will be using the Common Lectionary texts of Amos 5 and Matthew 25 for the foundation.  If you are in town, please join us at 10:30 AM for Holy Communion. (For some reason the picture department is going wacky today so... here's the text, ok?)

This past Tuesday was officially All Saints Day – an occasion set aside by the church for the past 1400 years – to be a reminder of all the faithful souls who have served the Lord with integrity since the beginning of time. It is always conjoined with All Souls Day – November 2nd in the Western calendar – as the remembrance of those who have died and moved from this life to life eternal by God’s grace.

It is an awesome sacred event that invites both an inspired creativity and a profound reverence from God’s people. Because, you see, today is all about God’s judgment in grace on our lives. In fact, all of November holds close the theme of judgment as we travel towards Christ the King Sunday on November 20th. And while we tend not to talk much about judgment for most of the rest of the year – and I think that is mostly healthy as a way of balancing out our former obsessions – let’s be clear: without some comprehension of judgment, we will almost always sink to the lowest common denominator in our actions and then congratulate ourselves for doing so.

As H. Richard Niebuhr said so carefully back in 1937, “The American Church tends to preach about a God without wrath who brought human beings without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” So I want to emphasize that our marking of All Saints Day today is a hallowed occurrence to consider what our lives to date tell us about living into the light of God’s purposes.

The prophet Amos gives us the context: living today is like a man running from a lion right into the jaws of a bear; or a woman who goes home after a hard day's work only to be raped by her neighbor. It is grim – it is broken – it is bewildering. So he cries out this challenge: understand that the Lord your God…

Can’t stand your religious meetings: I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. And I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you truly sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want.

Tough words, yes? Challenging and judgmental, too, don’t you think? So how do they help us explore ways that WE might live as saints for the Lord in our generation? How does the prophetic critique empower us to sing God’s song and live into the Lord’s justice, mercy and compassion? Let me offer three suggestions and we’ll see if they are useful, ok?

• First, let me ask you a question: how many here today make use of an alarm clock? Not everyone does, I know, but how many need the assistance of an alarm clock to get up and get going each day?

• I do – I depend on my alarm clock sometimes – because I often stay up late studying or writing. And left to my own habits and vices, I would sleep till noon if I could. Truth be told, on my Sabbath days away from church on most Fridays that is exactly what I do: sleep until I am ready to get up.

But most days I need an alarm clock to wake me and get me moving in real life – and that is what the prophet is doing for us. Offering a jarring and demanding wakeup call so that we don’t miss God’s light. Do you see that?

• Amos isn’t so much scolding us as he is trying to roust us from the stupor of business as usual: when did you truly sing to me, the Lord your God he laments?

• Oh sweet Jesus, do you hear the heart break in that? The sadness and sorrow?

• It seems to me that the prophet is calling us towards our best selves – our most beautiful selves – our lives created in the image of God, yes?

So the first truth about judgment is that it is a wake-up call: a sacred alarm clock calling us into life beyond the lowest common denominator. A life that gives shape and form to right relationships – lives that bring music into our ordinary existence – and lives that celebrate fairness and mercy. That’s the first clue about living as God’s saints in our day, ok?

The second comes from Christ’s parable about the wise and foolish virgins who are also asleep – see a theme emerging? Now let me call your attention to a few insights in this story before cutting to the chase: In chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel we are given stories Jesus used to prepare his disciples for the dark uncertainty that would come after the Cross. These are not stories for the lowest common denominator – or popular consumption - but rather stories Jesus told to his apprentices and disciples.

• Do you grasp the distinction here between popular consumption and apprentices? This is crucial because the heart of the message has to do as living into God’s light even in the darkest of times.

• And remember: you are apprentices – you are not casual observers or random game show applicants – you are disciples so this story is directed to you.

So please notice that Jesus says: this is what the kingdom of God is like – bridesmaids who are prepared for the groom and welcomed into the banquet feast. Three images: bridesmaids waiting with lanterns, lanterns prepared to shed light for as long a wait as is necessary, a bridegroom who welcomes the prepared into the banquet. “This” says the Master “is what the kingdom of God is like.”

• You know, when we talk about God’s grace – a blessing that is always free and offered as a gift – we sometimes sound like there is nothing required of us, right?

• And that just isn’t completely right: for while we can never earn or purchase God’s loving presence and forgiveness, we can get ready for it – and I think that is what Jesus is trying to tell us as apprentices.

Get yourselves ready: you are bridesmaids invited to the feast so act like it! Don’t waste your time complaining and carping about the darkness: darkness is a fact of life. It happens to everyone – we all have pain and fear and disappointments in our lives – so there is nothing special about the darkness. And everybody has to wait, too. So make the best use of the waiting and the darkness – don’t waste them – learn from them. Let the hard times help you get ready for the feast so that you can share the light when called to stand and deliver. Because when you least expect it: the bridegroom will show up.

In other words, there are some things we can do to ready our hearts for God’s grace and this, too, is what it means to be a saint in our generation. Specifically, we are to learn from the darkness and waiting about being vigilant – and THAT is so totally counter-cultural that it blows our minds.

Last week, I was down for a day with the stomach flu – a nasty old pain that everybody gets from time to time – and I found myself reading some of Eugene Peterson’s theological reflections about the Holy Trinity. Ok, I’m a church geek – I like to read theology from time to time – along with poetry, mysteries and literature. Anyhow one of his insights really grabbed me when he said that most Americans have exchanged the traditional Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – for a contemporary reworking called the New Trinity of MY needs, MY wants and MY feelings. Think about it:

We live in an age in which we have all been trained from the cradle to choose for ourselves what is best for us. We have a few years of apprenticeship at this before we are sent out on our own, but the training begins early. By the time we can hold a spoon we choose between half a dozen cereals for breakfast, ranging from Cheerios to Corn Flakes. Our tastes, inclinations, and appetites are consulted endlessly. And we become obsessed with my needs, my wants and my feelings. (Peterson)

We don’t know how to wait – we are angry and frustrated and terrified of the darkness that surrounds us – and all too often we exchange the truth and power of the Holy Trinity for the New Trinity of my needs, my wants and my feelings. And in this we are not unlike Christ’s first disciples.

When Matthew first shared this story from Jesus with his friends they were also surrounded by darkness: Christ had been crucified – and raised from the dead – but now they were waiting for him to return in glory – in light – but all they saw was the darkness. Sixty years had come and gone since Jesus first told them this parable – that’s a LOT of waiting.

So here’s what they did: they kept telling themselves this story over and over again – encouraging and challenging one another – to be vigilant and learn from the darkness. To use waiting as a school to practice patience and mercy and hope because Jesus promised them that when they least expected it, he would show up with a feast again.

And I think that is the third way of living as saints in our generation: trusting that God’s light is greater than our darkness. Do you know what William Sloane Coffin of Riverside Church in NYC used to say at the end of worship? “Go out there into the world,” he would tell the people, “and give them… heaven! There is already too much hell – so go out and give them heaven and all its light!”

• Go out there and sing the Lord’s song like the prophet Amos – and point to the light.

• Wake yourselves up from the stupor of greed and fear that you might be ready for the banquet when the bridegroom appears.

• Be vigilant – be prepared – and make a habit of nourishing and sharing the light.

Ours is a revolutionary and counter-cultural faith that we have been asked by Christ to nourish within and among us: for that is what saints of the Lord do in this and every generation. So, let those who have ears to hear: hear the good news for today.


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