An Unexpected Party

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A generic picture of a hobbit by Antoine Glédel. For the sake of argument, let’s just call him Bilbo. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

 

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Don’t you hate that?  I sure do.  And what I hate most about it that it rings so true.  There is no plan so perfect, no system so airtight, and no arrangement so ideal that life cannot find some way to mess with it.  Sometimes, I just wish the universe could just leave well enough alone for once.  But, as we all know, that never happens.  Eventually, something comes along to change every circumstance, for better or worse.  Those of us who are invested in the way things are usually have the toughest time adjusting to the new situation (especially when we feel like we were just getting used to the old situation).  Life is frustrating that way.

Of course, we don’t mind sudden and unexpected change so much when it happens to other people.  In fact, we kind of relish it.  I think this is because it makes us feel better about the chaos in our own lives to watch others go through it and survive.  Just think: how many of your favorite books, TV shows, and movies involve plots where the hero is thrust into action against his/her will? 

Lately, I’ve been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit, with my four year old.  For those who haven’t read it, it’s the story of a hobbit, a little person, named Bilbo Baggins, who lives in a quiet little village in a land called the Shire, where life is simple and no one ever goes on adventures or does anything unexpected.  Hobbits like to eat, drink, work in their gardens, and watch fireworks.  Anything else is far too exciting for them.  Those who seek greener pastures and broader horizons are frowned upon by the rest of hobbit society.

Then, one fine day, a wizard named Gandalf the Grey shows up on Bilbo’s doorstep with a band of rowdy dwarves.  Suddenly, Bilbo finds himself unwittingly thrust into a most dreadful adventure, full of goblins, dragons, lost treasure, and one magic ring (that later proves to be most significant indeed).  He never asked for it and didn’t even really want to go on the trip.  He just wanted to stay home, read books, and smoke his pipe.  But the remarkable thing is that Bilbo only becomes the hero he’s destined to be because of all the unexpected things that happen to him along the way.  Those chaotic changes, for all their inconvenience, enable Bilbo to discover who he is and what he is capable of.  As readers, we can definitely agree that The Hobbit wouldn’t be much of a story without the unexpected changes.  After all, who would bother to read a book or see a movie where the hero never leaves home and never has any problems of any kind?  Nobody, that’s who.

Chaos, change, and conflict drive the plots of our favorite stories.  As it is in fiction, so it is in life.  If our lives didn’t keep getting interrupted by unfair and unwelcome changes, they wouldn’t be very interesting.  We would never learn what we are capable of.  We may hate the change and curse the chaos, but we need them because they make us into the heroes we’re meant to be.

This is what evolution looks like: the unfolding emergence of life through struggle and chaos.  When unexpected change comes, it is not the devil trying to steal your peace, it is God’s way calling you to new adventures of the spirit.

Jesus knew how to embrace the flow of this constantly unfolding process in life.  He talks about it somewhat enigmatically in today’s gospel reading.  He says in the beginning, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

If you look past the metaphors of fire and baptism, you can see Jesus talking about something that is not yet finished.  He is telling his followers that he is involved in something that is not yet completed.

Going on from there, he elaborates, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”  This is an unusually harsh thing for Jesus to say.  We’re used to thinking of him as the ultimate champion of world peace and family values, but here he talks about conflict and the breaking up of families due to his influence.  What are we supposed to make of that?

What I hear Jesus saying in this passage is that his job is not to uphold the status quo in life or society.  “The way things are/have been” is of little or no interest to Jesus.  His job, as he sees it, is to shake things up.

Understandably, this agenda would have been particularly frustrating to the religious leaders of his day, who saw it as their solemn and sacred duty to maintain the status quo and defend traditional family values.  In the eyes of the people, they were the ones who had all the answers when it came to issues of faith and morals.

But Jesus is challenging their authority.  He makes the claim that their so-called insight is really nothing more than pretense.  “You hypocrites!”  He says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Jesus is exposing their so-called insight as deficient.  They, with all of their sophisticated arguments and developed systems of ethics, really have no special knowledge about the nature of reality beyond that which is available to everyone.  The word hypocrite, which Jesus uses here, is actually the Greek word for actor.  These leaders have built their reputation on pretending to have knowledge and insight.  They keep up appearances and see to it that the show goes on.

The implication is that, if they really had insight, they would be able to see this unfolding process that Jesus was describing in images of fire and baptism.  The truly wise among them would know that growth requires change and change is hard.  If they knew “how to interpret the present time,” as Jesus said, they would be open to interpreting the challenges of the future as opportunities presented by God for our growth and development, our evolution, as people of faith.  But, as it is, these close-minded authorities are simply standing in the way of God’s work with their beliefs, their tradition, and their family values.

This is a hard and enigmatic word that Jesus gives us today.  We mainline Protestants in the 21st century are really not all that different from the Pharisees of the first century.  We too are concerned about preserving what we have, especially when it comes to church, tradition, and family.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I think it’s quite admirable to honor the best of what has been handed down to us from previous generations.  However, we have to always keep before us a sense of the renewing nature of faith in each generation.  The challenges that our grandparents faced are not the challenges that we face.  We would do their legacy a disservice if we were simply to repeat and regurgitate what they had passed down to us.

Our task, as believers in this day and age, is to make the Christian faith our own as we reinterpret and apply its message today.  Sometimes, this means doing away with old ways of thinking or doing things.  We have to be open to each new challenge, not as a threat against the integrity of our faith, but as an opportunity presented by God for our growth and development.

Holding this kind of perspective, which I call ‘seeing with the eyes of faith,’ will keep our attention focused where it needs to be: on the unique possibilities presented by each new situation as it arises.  As believers, we are called to face the future with the conviction that we are being loved and led into new beginnings.  That’s what faith is.

Our ancestors had to do adopt this risky perspective in times past.  The earliest Christians found their experience with Jesus to be at odds with traditional Judaism; John Calvin found his study of the Bible leading him to challenge established Catholic doctrine during the Protestant Reformation; other Christians at various times have been led to adopt new ways of thinking and living in relation to issues like the abolition of slavery, the theory of evolution, the ordination of women, and marriage equality for gay and lesbian people.

Change is nothing new for us Christians.  It goes all the way back to the very beginning of our faith, including Jesus himself, if we take today’s passage seriously.  For almost two thousand years, the Spirit of Christ has been kindling a fire in the hearts of people the world over.  This spiritual fire has put them at odds with their peers and mentors, who couldn’t understand that what was happening through them was the work of the Holy Spirit.  If we would honor our ancestors’ legacy, then we must open our hearts to that same inner fire of the Spirit.  We have to look at the constantly changing chaos around us as God’s gift for our evolution.

This church is about to enter into yet another one of these times of change.  After three wonderful years as your pastor, I will soon be moving on to a new call at another church.  I recognize that it’s easy for me to stand here this morning and ask you to embrace change with openness because I know exactly where I am going next and what I will be doing when I get there, while you remain here without so much knowledge.  It might even seem trite or cruel to hear these words from me, but I wouldn’t be your pastor if I didn’t challenge you to look beyond these present circumstances and see, with the eyes of faith, the hand of God leading you into new opportunities as a church.

Whatever the future looks like, it will not look like the past.  I can’t even guess what new realities will emerge for you from the womb of possibility.  What I do know, and what I can tell you is this: If the Holy Spirit is calling me to a new ministry, then the Holy Spirit is also calling you to a new ministry.  The question for you to answer is: what might that new ministry be?  I can’t answer that one for you.  What I can tell you is that the God who has been “our help in ages past” will continue to be “our hope for years to come.”  The same God who loved our ancestors into their new beginnings is faithful to love us into ours.  That much I know.  This much I trust.

My prayer for you, as I prepare to leave next week, is that you, as the Church of Christ, will embrace the challenge of the coming days in the spirit of faith, which looks for opportunities and possibilities.  Silence in yourselves the voices of fear and despair.  This church is neither dead nor dying.  We are alive with potential and bursting at the seams with possibility.  This church is a powder keg, waiting only for the fire of the Spirit to ignite us into explosive new realities. 

Trust this.  Be open to each new opportunity as it comes.  Like Bilbo Baggins, become the heroes you’re meant to be.  Honor the legacy of your ancestors by showing yourselves to be the kind of Christians who “know how to interpret the present time” through the eyes of faith.

“Stay Thirsty, My Friends”

The Most Interesting Man in the World

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

The text is Mark 13:24-37 with reference to Daniel 7:9-14.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

It’s almost always a dangerous thing to mention presidential politics from the pulpit.  At no time in recent history has this been truer than it is right now, when sanity and civility are so conspicuously absent from all ends of the political spectrum in our country.  I sometimes fear that our centuries-old commitment to a democratic government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is quickly degenerating into a spectator sport where each side cheers for their favorite team and boos at the other side whenever they score a goal.  Accordingly, I will choose my words carefully.  I begin with a disclaimer: this is not a sermon about presidential politics, nor is it a political speech that should be misconstrued as an endorsement or denouncement of any particular party or candidate.  I’ll be using some of the buzzwords that factored highly in the last presidential election, but I do so in order to draw attention to the words themselves, not to the people with whom those words were associated.

Now, with that awkward business aside, the buzzwords to which I want to draw your attention are hope and change.  We heard a lot about hope and change in 2008.  Some people got really excited about those words.  They liked the idea that things could somehow be different (i.e. better) than they already were in this country.  In the years since then, some of the people who were initially excited have begun to feel frustrated because things still seem to be pretty much the same as they were before.  We’re still living in the same country with the same old problems.  This frustration has led other public figures to ask (cynically), “Hey America, how’s all that hopey-changey stuff working out for you?”  The hard lesson that people are (re)learning is this: without real change there is no real hope.  And the change necessary to inspire hope is beyond that which any political candidate, party, or ideology can offer.

In the absence of real hope, there are basically two responses that people can make.  First, they can jump on board the bandwagon with whatever big idea comes along next with flashy presentation and inspirational rhetoric.  Like bumblebees, they float from flower to flower, collecting whatever small grains of hope they can find to sustain their meager faith in the system.  Second, people can give up hope entirely.  They can sit back and cynically fold their arms saying, “Nothing ever changes.  Just give me what is rightfully mine and then leave me alone.”  I would argue that neither of these responses is wholly adequate to ease the pain we feel when our hopes are frustrated (in life as well as politics).  There has to be another way to preserve hope, even when our favorite human institutions have failed us.

The earliest Christians, just as much as (if not more so than) us, lived in a time of extreme political tension and unfulfilled hopes.  The land of Judea was occupied by the Roman Empire.  The people longed for some sign of hope that things might someday be different, but they were divided amongst themselves over what that hope should look like.  Some Jews, like the Zealots, picked up swords and sought to take back their homeland with divinely inspired military might.  Other Jews, like the Sadducees, worked with the Roman government to maintain order and preserve whatever religious and cultural freedoms they could.

Eventually, these tensions came to a head in the year 66 when war broke out between the Jewish people and the Roman Empire.  The government dedicated itself to crushing this rebellion and eventually did so with its might as a military superpower.  The ultimate symbol of Jewish defeat came in the year 70 when the Roman forces invaded Jerusalem and their sacred temple, the ultimate symbol of their national and religious life, was burned to the ground.

It was around this same time that Mark’s gospel was first written.  The Christian Church was just emerging as an independent movement within Judaism.  Christians wondered among themselves, “What should we do?  Should we fight the Romans or try to work with them?  Should we put our hope in each new self-proclaimed revolutionary leader that comes along or throw our hands up and admit that nothing (not even God) can defeat military juggernaut of the Roman Empire?”

The author of Mark’s gospel saw both of these options as deficient.  Neither the false hope of revolution nor the cynicism of collaboration embodied a faithful response to the very real hope that was made manifest by God in Christ.  So the author of Mark’s gospel made sure to include in chapter 13 of this book a particular story about Jesus that might provide some helpful guidance for the Christian Church in that day.

It begins as Jesus and his disciples were walking out of the great Jewish temple one day.  One of the disciples stopped to admire the architecture of the building.  Jesus responded in words that would ring eerily true to the Christians in Mark’s day, who would see this very thing happen in their own lifetime: “Do you see these great buildings?”  Jesus said, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

He was speaking of the temple of course, the cultural icon and center of religious devotion.  Jesus’ own ancestors had fought and died to preserve everything for which it stood.  How could he, a Jew, speak so glibly about its destruction?  He didn’t stop there either.  He went on to speak so insightfully about the coming crisis that some later regarded his words as a prophetic prediction.  Instead of glorious victory and freedom, he spoke of war, earthquake, famine, and persecution.  What’s even worse is that Jesus then told his followers to do the exact opposite thing that their brave and faithful ancestors had done when Israel was threatened.  “[W]hen you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be,” he said, “then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.”  In other words, Jesus ordered them to run and hide rather than stand and fight to protect that which their nation held most dear.

How could Jesus be so offensive toward his patriotic Jewish audience?  The answer lies in verse 26 of the passage we read this morning.  He makes reference to “’the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”  This would have been a familiar image to his educated Jewish audience.  This phrase is taken from the book of the prophet Daniel.  In 7:13, Daniel describes “one like a human being (i.e. ‘son of man’) coming with the clouds of heaven.”  According to the vision, God would one day take the corrupt and destructive empires of this world and place them under the authority of this human being (son of man).  The powers that be would be divinely transformed and made to serve real human interests rather than their own animal-like greed.  Real change was bound to happen in this world, not because of violent revolution or political cunning, but because God wills it.  God will establish true “liberty and justice for all” regardless of what goes on in the halls of power.  The temple could be destroyed and the battle lost and God would still see this vision through to its fulfillment.  This is the source of Jesus’ hope.  It is a prophetic vision embedded deep within his Jewish heritage.  It transcends ideology, victory, even history itself.  Prophets and visionaries in every age have held onto this inexorable and eternal vision.  Many have laid down their very lives because of its promise.  Dr. Martin Luther King reiterated its core principle when he said, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  Archbishop Oscar Romero proclaimed, “If they kill me I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”  Jesus himself willing went to his cross while trusting in the final victory of God’s vision over the powers that be.

Change is coming, therefore there is hope.  Real change, lasting change, God’s change.  It won’t come through any particular candidate, party, or ideology.  It won’t come through military might or violent revolution.  It won’t come about through our diligent plans or valiant efforts.  God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We pray for this and proclaim our faith in this vision every Sunday.  Jesus had faith in this vision.  He was willing to stake his life on it.  That’s why the thought of Jewish defeat or the temple’s destruction didn’t bother him that much.

The author of Mark’s gospel was impressed with Jesus’ faith in God’s ultimate vision.  The early Christians needed that faith as well.  The Church needed an anchor that would hold them steady while the storms of war and persecution blew over the deck of their boat.  If they cut the line, they would drift and drown with their neighbors.  So it was that the early Christians took these words to heart and refused to fight in defense of Jerusalem or the temple.  They ran for the hills when the invasion came.  This was an unforgivable sin to their Jewish neighbors.  Christians were branded as cowards and traitors within the Jewish community.  Relations had been strained up to that point, but from then on, Christianity was cut off from the rest of Judaism.

As we meditate on these events this morning, we find ourselves at the first Sunday of Advent.  Thanksgiving and Black Friday have passed and so we now begin our preparations for Christmas.  For most people, this takes on a decidedly nostalgic tone as Bing Crosby dominates the radio waves.  There is a lot of talk about “peace on earth”, “the light of the world”, and “hope”.  But we start this season on an intentionally apocalyptic note.  We know that hope cannot exist without change, yet we know that change is coming, therefore we have hope.  None of the powers that be in Washington or on Wall Street can claim to be the fulfillment of God’s vision, yet neither can they stop God’s vision from being fulfilled.

In the absence of real hope, people tend to embrace false hopes or else bitter cynicism.  I believe that Jesus offers us a third way.  We can hold onto hope that transcends the fleeting promises of ideology and history.  We can live as prophets of hope in a hopeless world.  Like Jesus, we can look deep into the heritage of our faith and cling to God’s vision of a world that can be changed… that will be changed.

There is currently a beer commercial on TV that features “the most interesting man in the world”.  At the end of the advert he looks into the camera and says, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”  As he said to them, so I say to you: Stay thirsty, my friends.  I can think of no better way to sum up the call to action that arises from Jesus’ vision of hope and change.  While other people are dying of their thirst for hope and cursing the sky in cynicism, I say to you, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”  While others around you are desperately trying to slake their thirst for hope with things that will only lead to more despair, I say to you, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”  Stay thirsty for hope.  Stay thirsty for change.  It’s coming.  God will not let us down.  “Stay thirsty, my friends.”