4 ADVENT (A)

Bicycle Story

God is about to smuggle himself into our world. We stand at the borders of our souls, expecting a glorious, conquering hero to come. After all, this is the infinite Lord of the universe. This is the one who the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls, “The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled, Miracle-in-Mary-of-Flame.” How can God break into human existence without at least an earthquake?

But listen to the story. There are these two teenagers living in a small town in a backwater country.  The boy is a carpenter – an honorable trade, but nothing fancy, and the girl is just a girl named Mary. She is a country girl, someone with calluses on her hands from hauling water and grinding grain. And then something terrible happens. She gets pregnant. These days, we may shake our heads or be embarrassed when a girl gets pregnant out of wedlock, but for Mary and Joseph, this is a life-shattering event.  Joseph has every right to break off the engagement, especially since he knows he is not the father of the baby. The best thing to do would be to break the engagement quietly and send Mary off to live with a distant relative until after the baby is born. If the news gets out that Mary is pregnant out of wedlock, she might well be disowned by her family and forced to live the rest of her days as a beggar or a prostitute. But Joseph chooses not to do that. He does the unthinkable. He takes Mary as his wife and takes on the task of helping to raise this unusual child.

 

Who would expect God, infinitely powerful and infinitely vast, to sneak into the world in such a way? And what is it about these two young people that makes them God’s choice? They are not described in any gospel as particularly outstanding. They are just regular people, like you or me. But they say yes. As Luke tells Mary’s story, she simply says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” And Matthew tells us Joseph’s side of the story. He wakes from his dream and simply goes ahead and does what he believes God wants him to do. It’s not quite what we are used to. This is not glamorous or flashy courage. It is simply the courage of consent. It is the courage of people so clear in their love for God that their “yes” appears easy.

 

God could come into the world in any way at all. We could have seen Jesus coming in blazing chariots of flame or with conquering armies. But God is not just infinitely powerful and just. God is also infinitely loving and graceful. God is too kind to ever force us into love. God will not break into our lives without an invitation. And God does not ask us to do things that we are unable to do. However, this does not mean that allowing God into our lives comes without cost.

 

Mary surely understood what her consent would mean. She took a terrible risk to bear the Son of God. And Joseph knew what he was taking on as well. If this was the Son of God, their lives would be completely overturned from that moment on. Joseph and Mary knew that nothing about this child would ever be ordinary or easy. Their “yes” was not the naïve agreement of people who didn’t know what they were in for, and yet they gave consent anyway. Now we begin to see the full dimension of courage that was required of these two young people.

 

We tend to think of Jesus’ coming as long ago and far away.  We don’t generally cast ourselves in the roles of Joseph and Mary. But the fact is that God continues to smuggle himself into the world. He comes quietly, in the lives of ordinary people just like you and me. He doesn’t force himself on us, but slips in quietly, when we say yes to Love. And he asks of us what he asked of Joseph and Mary. He asks us to be transformed, to have our lives changed from the inside out. God asks us to bear him into the world, to love with heart and mind and soul and strength. We may suffer for this love.  We can be guaranteed that bearing Christ will not make us live happily ever after. But God promises that if we will simply consent, the world will be changed.

 

May God give us in these days the eyes and ears to hear his gentle coming and may God give us the courage to say yes.

 

Amen

3 ADVENT (A)

John was disappointed; He had wanted Jesus to be the mighty warrior who drove out the Romans. He believed that the Messiah would bring the reign of God to the earth with power and triumph and glory. Instead, Jesus had wandered around the countryside teaching and healing and bringing reconciliation. There was no army, no battle, no victory. And John began to doubt that Jesus was really the Messiah after all. So he sent a message to him, a message which was both poignant and desperate. “Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another?” And Jesus puts the question right back in John’s lap. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

The proofs of the Kingdom are the works of the Kingdom. If you want to know who Jesus is, pay attention to what he does. Jesus is showing the power of God and beginning the reign of God by what he says and what he does. And, the power of God is not the same as human power. Jesus is not about raising armies or winning wars. The power of God is the power of love. John doesn’t get it.

He can’t see that Jesus’ power is far greater than human power, and it looks so different that he completely misses what it really is. One of the ironies of the Gospel story is that the people who should most easily understand what Jesus is really about, like John the Baptist and Peter, for example, miss the point so often. And the people who really do get it, who understand that the power of God can change the world, tend to be people like the Romans and Herod, who are threatened by the message and ready to kill Jesus. One of the stories of Jesus’ birth that we conveniently skip over is Herod’s massacre of the children, which was done simply because Herod understood that Jesus’ power threatened his own. Entrenched power – economic or political or social – always has to work very hard to keep that power. It is one of the things that makes it so different from the power of love, which grows by being given away.

But as distracted as we get by human power, we still hunger for the power of God’s love. Two things this week brought that home to me. The first was the death and funeral of Nelson Mandela. It seemed as if the whole world turned out for that event. Television and social media were packed with remembrances of this extraordinary person, someone who did the works of the Kingdom – who met evil with good and hatred with forgiveness and reconciliation. South Africa could so easily have disintegrated into hatred and war after the end of apartheid, but under the leadership of people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, the country has managed to stay intact and even to begin to narrow the terrible gap between rich and poor that exists there. It is so different a story from so many other countries that we are forced to acknowledge the power of love to change history. And though most of us struggle just to love our friends, much less our enemies, the life of Nelson Mandela proves that regular men and women like you and me have the power to live lives of extraordinary love and power. All we need are the courage and imagination that God is always ready to give us.

The second event was Time Magazine naming Pope Francis its Person of the Year. This man does something almost every day that surprises and delights me. The problem with the Church – and I am talking about the Christian Church, not just the Roman Catholic, but all of us – the problem is that the Church is an institution. And institutions have ways of being and behaving that are pretty much standard. Institutions have a strong survival instinct. They live to perpetuate themselves. Making themselves stronger, bigger and richer is important. That may work pretty well if the institution is P&G or a bank. It does not work so well if the institution is the Christian Church, whose founder made it very clear that we only live by laying down our lives, by giving it all away, by letting go of what we hold most dear. And for two thousand years, the Church has struggled with that, wanting to live as Jesus told us and showed us, but way too often choosing instead, security, wealth and power. Pope Francis is showing us a different way to be the Church.

He doesn’t ride in a limousine but in a ten year-old car. He doesn’t live in the Papal apartments, but in a modest guest room. He doesn’t do what people expect of him. It even turns out that he has been sneaking out of the Vatican at night to spend time with people who are poor and homeless. What he does isn’t showy or flashy. It is just a Christian man trying to live the Christian life in the way he believes is most faithful And the world is hungry for that example. For people who have been turned off by the Church’s self-interest and selfish disregard for the poor, this is witness to something very different and quite wonderful. And again, like Nelson Mandela, this man is not a superhero. He is just like us, and he is making choices that any of us could make as well.

If we make the choices of the Kingdom – to feed the hungry, to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, to bring a new vision to the world – people may misunderstand or be threatened. But other people, people who are hungry for the Kingdom of God, will see what we are doing and respond. If we want to attract people to the Church, we cannot do it by being bigger or richer or more powerful. We CAN do it by doing acts of love and healing and reconciliation. If we want to prove that Jesus is real, we can do it by doing the things that Jesus did.

And the world is desperate for that. Let us celebrate the coming of Jesus by doing the things Jesus would have us do. In that way, we can change the world as powerfully as Nelson Mandela or Pope Francis. And that is what the coming of Jesus should be about.

Amen.

The Importance of Questions

Psalm 17:1-8,
Job 19:23-27,
Luke 20:27-38

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

20: 27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:27-38, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of faithful surprises, throughout the ages you have made known your love and power in unexpected ways and places. May we daily perceive the joy and wonder of your abiding presence and offer our lives in gratitude. For it is in Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

 

As a father, I have fielded countless questions from my children; why is the sky blue?  Why is the ocean water salty?  Why are their fifty states?  Children ask wonderful questions.  I have been asked those types of questions and have often been frustrated when I could not answer them.  Thank goodness for Google— where I can search for anything and any question.

 

As young people we are asked – What do you want to be when you grow up?  Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to study?  Where do you want to live?

 

Google won’t help answer these questions.

 

As a Pastor, I have heard many questions from parishioners; especially youth.  For example, Can God create a rock too heavy for God to move?  Then really tough ones – Why did God allow that to happen?  How can I survive this grief?  Will God see me through this chemotherapy?

 

Ah the questions…

 

You have questions about me, who is this guy?  What does he believe?  Will he be there for me when I need him?  Will he like me?  Will I like him?  Can he play golf?  Will he be a good fit for our church?

 

I also have questions for you?  How does this whole Episcopal Presbyterian marriage work?  Will you love my family and help them get assimilated?  Will you laugh at my humor?  Will you have grits and sweet tea when we share a meal?

 

Ah the questions…

 

The Sadducees had questions for Jesus.

 

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem and ultimately the cross, when the Sadducees asked him a number of questions.  The Sadducees weren’t really looking for answers.  They are looking for a fight.  Their questions were a game of “Gotcha.” They asked Jesus about a hypothetical widow of a man with seven brothers.  When he dies she marries a brother.  When he dies she marries another brother and on and on.  The clincher of their game was whose wife will she be in the heaven?

 

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection because it is not talked about in the Pentateuch, (the first five books of the bible, the “Books of Moses”).  The Sadducees question also play on the levirate marriage law from Deuteronomy 25.  That law sought to insure the preservation of the man’s family name by stipulating that a childless widow must marry her brother-in-law.

 

So, their hypothetical question is meant to take an ancient practice to the extreme in order to show the whole idea of resurrection was foolish. Their purpose was to embarrass Jesus and to trap him by saying something heretical.

 

Jesus reflects for a moment before he answers.  Then he says to the Sadducees, God is God of the living, not the dead.  Jesus is basically saying “Our concern should be with the living.”

 

Questions are important; I believe they can be more important than the answers.  It is interesting to me that as a pastor I am supposed to have the answer(s) but I find that what I really do is help people ask questions.  There is a funny story about a child in a children’s sermon.  The pastor is describing a small furry animal that climbs trees and stores nuts.  The child says, “it sounds like you are describing a squirrel but I know that the answer has to be Jesus!”  In questions of faith we often think that the answer is Jesus even it doesn’t fit our questions. The questions of our lives.  Can I trust God?  Can God heal my illness?  Can God fix my broken relationship?  Can God bring peace to the earth?

 

The questions we ask tell a great deal about us. Jesus knew the Sadducees weren’t really looking for an answer.

 

It’s clear in the gospels that Jesus wants us to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  It is clear that Jesus believes that the Sadducees, the overseers of the Law spend too much time on the minutia of the Law instead of the two basic commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Who cares who will be married to whom in heaven — it is about living — loving God and loving neighbor.

 

Jesus seems to like questions because he responded to questions throughout the Bible.  Jesus stops and he listens.

  • Remember Jairus when he fell at Jesus feet and asked Can you heal my daughter child?

 

  • Remember the Leper who asked Jesus, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”

 

  • I have a demon that torments me and I can find no rest. Can you help me?

 

  • No one will come near me–because they say I am unclean. Do you love someone like me?

 

When people ask these questions to Jesus, the answer he gives is not a slogan or a sound bite.  The answer he gives is himself, he gives his life.

 

When the Sadducees or the Pharisees ask Jesus their trick questions, they usually get parables: stories that will puzzle their minds and invite them to look at the world in a new way. But when women and men bring Jesus their deepest yearnings, he doesn’t talk to them; he engages them. When genuine people come to him with genuine questions, he often doesn’t say anything, but he touches, he encounters, he relates.  He invites people to journey with him on the Way.

 

The root of the word “question” means “to seek.” It’s where we get the word “quest.”  To ask a real question is to enter on a journey; it’s to begin traveling on The Way.  Jesus seems exasperated with the Sadducees because they just want to play games. They aren’t right or wrong; they are just wasting their life.

 

Ultimately Jesus doesn’t answer their questions: because there is no answer. Resurrection is not something we can define in human terms or apply human laws too.

 

But what Jesus does is…

 

What Jesus does is invite us on a journey with him, to see what life with him is like, to see how resurrection hope changes how they live.  Jesus invites us on that same journey with him.  I imagine that we will still have many questions.  And that is a good thing because it means we are alive.  It means we are invested in this journey of faith.

 

I am so excited and look forward to the next step in the journey in my life and faith.  It is a journey with you and the Indian Hill Church.  I look forward to listening to your questions and asking many of my own.  I look forward to discerning / seeing how God leads. So may we keep seeking, keep searching, continue on this quest together to live into who God created us to be as a community of faith.

 

Let us pray: Ever giving and ever generous God pour out your Holy Spirit upon us so that we might follow you. In the Name of Jesus, your Son and our Savior we pray. Amen.

Heaven can’t wait

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Prayer for the Old

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