Monday, November 27, 2006

Advent Worship Service

On December 6th we will celebrate the Advent season in a style of worship new to Covenant. In the spirit of Taize—an international ecumenical community in France—this service is contemplative in nature, prayer, simple songs, scripture, and silence filling the worship space. The first time I attended a Taize-style service I’ll admit, I was a little nervous. I was used to the standard Presbyterian service: a few hymns, confess via prayer, listen to a few scriptures and a sermon. Though this service was rooted in scripture, the silence and simplicity was a something of a shock to me. I was used to spending worship time processing – processing what I heard in a sermon, how the prayers and hymns enhanced the sermon. Sitting amid in the quiet I realized how much time I spent processing—thinking—and how little time I spent listening. So I gave into the silence—definitely a challenge for this energetic woman—and found myself deeply moved.

Worshiping in the contemplative style has become a staple in my journey with God. It’s a wonder what can happen when you quiet everything inside and open yourself up to the Spirit of God. For those of you who have not experienced contemplative worship, I encourage you to try something new. As we celebrate the coming of Christ open yourself up to new ways Christ’s Spirit can move you. I look forward to worshiping with you on Wednesday night at 7:30pm.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


If you ever happen to find yourself at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, there’s a tale you might hear about two young women and their first preaching course. They were given an assignment – to read the story about the hemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus’ cloak and was healed. They weren’t to read this story in their rooms, or on campus, or anywhere they knew well. They were told to get out of their comfort zones, to go somewhere that would open up this story and make them see it in a new light.

The two women came up with a plan. They decided they would dress in the schlubbiest of clothing, sweats, ratty t-shirts, and go to the Ritz Carleton in downtown Atlanta for high tea. There they would sit amid the luxury, the elite, and read their story of the outcast woman who dared so much because of her faith. So they went, they sat, and they read. What happened next has been embellished on over the years. At first people said they were just asked to leave. Then people started saying they were escorted out of the building by large bellhops. In the last version I heard the two women were arrested – on what charges I don’t know – and their preaching professor had to come bail them out.

Given the way stories grow, it shouldn’t surprise any of you to learn that none of what is said around the seminary campus is true. What really happened was a lot less exciting. My friend Teri and I sat in the Ritz for an hour, felt uncomfortable, and while we got the occasional odd look, no one called the cops. Along with a story that has been retold and embellished upon many times over, we came away from that experience with a firm belief that to truly understand scripture, you have to live with it and let it take you to unknown and uncomfortable places.
Funny things happen when you live with a text. In my own home I can read this portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and nod my head, think “yes, yes,” thankful for so much – I have food on my table, warm clothes to wear, great doctors to help keep my body health, a favorite coffee shop that keeps me in good drink. With so much to be thankful for, I can get on board the “don’t worry, be happy” train so many who read this text endorse. Surely the Father does indeed know what I need and gives them to me. In our comfortable homes, surrounded by those who love us and bounty we can be thankful for, this scripture can be pleasant, even easy.

But if you take this scripture outside of your home, outside of the places you are comfortable, let it take YOU places, it may not be so pleasant or easy. Try reading this scripture amid the homeless and the hungry. Think of “don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” when you’re watching someone in a threadbare coat diving through trash to find something to eat.

Lilies of the field may be beautifully clothed, may not toil or spin, but they don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, lonely, cold. They don’t know what it’s like to be made to feel ashamed because your family Thanksgiving dinner is at a local soup kitchen because you can’t provide a meal at home.

Truly, it is one thing to read about the birds in the sky when your Thanksgiving table is covered with more mashed potatoes than would be humanly possible to eat, cranberry sauce that comes alive in your mouth, turkey and stuffing so rich and moist you can’t help but give thanks. I would imagine your glorias might sound a little different if what you’re giving thanks for is that you found enough food to keep you going, for at least another day.

When Jesus’ words are brought to a place where people have nothing, the “don’t worry, be happy” reading doesn’t hold. Too many times in our church’s – that is with a capital C – history, people of faith have been told and have told others not to worry about their state in life, but to strive for God’s righteousness. The here and now isn’t important – it is your salvation, or the kingdom, or heaven you need to focus on. Don’t worry that you have nothing in your belly, nothing to feed your children with – focus on this far-off kingdom.

Too often this way of thinking, of reading such scripture, has been used to promote complacency toward injustice. Too often scripture has been used to excuse turning a blind eye to the poor. We’re on a mission to save souls, not bodies! Let these poor strive for righteousness and they’ll get everything they need. They’ll find their eternal salvation. No need to worry about what they will eat, or drink, or wear.

I cannot imagine that the God who calls us to look out for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the Lord who promises that “you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God,” has no concern for whether or not God’s children have food and drink. That the Christ who tells us that those who offer food, drink, clothing, compassion will sit at his right hand would be a Christ who is telling us not to give a care to those needs.

Indeed, I understand that the Lord who tells the soil, the animals of the field, not to fear, the Lord who has promised God’s people abundant rains and grain DOES care about our existence in this world. Our Lord is one who longs for us all to be in plenty and be satisfied, to not be put to the shame of want or need. Indeed, our God is one who points to this world and says, if I can care so much for that which has no mouth to praise me, no hearts to serve me, for that which is here to today but gone tomorrow, don’t you know how much more I care for you?

At various times in our Church’s history, we have been taught and have taught “try to save your soul and don’t worry about the rest.” That’s not the kingdom Christ spoke of, not the only salvation he brought. The kingdom of God Christ commands us to put first, to strive for is a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of equality, a kingdom of righteousness. A kingdom where all people have food on their plate, where they have drink, clothing, joy aplenty. Where none fear, none worry, none feel shame.

We have been giving the astounding gift of being the body of Christ. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic, once said that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, ours are the only hands with which he can do his work, ours are the only feet with which he can go about the world, ours are the only eyes with which his compassion can shine forth upon a troubled world. We gather here tonight from various churches, traditions, to affirm that even with our differences, we ARE one, WE are the body of Christ. As this body, we are called to work for God in the world.

If God loves the birds of the air enough to feed them, then surely God loves each human being enough to keep in food, clothing, shelter. If Christ’s hands are our hands, Christ’s feet our feet, eyes our eyes, then surely we are called to feed, cloth, shelter. Surely we will strive for the kingdom on earth where all live in God’s righteousness, all will know justice and freedom.

I know that each church family represented here tonight works towards caring for the poor among us. We work in soup kitchens, we give money or cans to the food pantry, we build houses. Together as the body of Christ, we do even more. SACRA – the organization our offering is going to – finds many different churches joining together resources and time to help those in need in our area. In our own churches and together, we try to ease the burden of poverty for those in our midst. We may give thanks for that work, for servant hearts filled with love for those in need.

We may also give thanks that God has called us to even more. It is good to care for people, to make sure they have food and clothing, to meet their needs. But that is not all we have been called to. God has given us the opportunity to strive for the kingdom – this kingdom of God where none would go hungry, none would be naked, none thirst. We have been given a greater calling and vision than “what will we eat or drink or wear.” In striving for the kingdom of God, we have been given both the opportunity and the responsibility to strive for a world where such questions do not exist. To strive for a world where none would live in poverty, none go without. We must use our voices to speak for those in need, must work in our churches, our cities, our nation to fight for justice. We have been given an awesome opportunity and we must take it.

As we celebrate all the wonderful things we may be thankful for, let us remember this calling. For though it may seem an awesome task, and it is, how great is our God that we could have such a task. How thankful we may be that our God is a God who promises we will eat in plenty and be satisfied, that God’s people will never again be put to shame. How thankful we may be that not only are those promises for us, but as the body of Christ God may use us to fulfill those promises. Glory be to God. Amen.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

All Things Must Pass

Text: 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8

One of my dearest friends from college is in town this weekend which of course means I’ve spent a good portion of the last few days reminiscing about the good ole days. The first time Paula Jo and I met our first day freshman year, an event which involved accidentally breaking a bathroom door together; the time we were both in Romeo and Juliet and my dear friend decided to shake Shakespeare up by add-libing a few Texas colloquialisms; the time we drove a UHaul through the drive-through of a Taco Bell that was missing its clearance sign and caused (only minor) damage.

One of the other memories Paula and I share is of a morning in September our senior year. All of our friends got the news of planes crashing and buildings falling separately, from professors in class or listening to the radio while driving to campus or watching TV in the student center while wasting time before class. By that early afternoon, we had gathered together our friends at Paula’s, even calling those friends who had graduated and were in now Dallas, telling them to drive up to Sherman so we could all be together. The rest of the day we spent talking, watching only snippets of news, and consoling ourselves with mindless entertainment where you know good will win out over evil and all will be right with the world.

I can’t speak for all of you, but I can say that for me and my friends that day shook us in a way we had never experienced. When I was growing up I’d hear about wars and the threat of wars but never, ever actually believed anything would happen HERE. Look, teacher, at this mighty country! We’re the United States – we’re too mighty, too tall, too distant, too powerful for anything to happen to us, to happen here. I thought and spoke so highly of my country, this mighty nation which – though it certainly had made missteps – could not be brought down low.

That morning was a reminder of vulnerability long denied. No matter how high, no matter how strong, no matter how great, even the most amazing of buildings, nations, can fall. Last Sunday Rob Hill, our guest preacher for the 10:30 service, while expressing concern about where our nation is going, spoke of how all superpowers fall, the pattern they often do so in. That’s not something we really talk about - how this superpower we live in will one day fall. But, given all the superpowers of the world that have come before are no longer superpowers of today, it’s safe to say we will. Nothing in this world is forever – no matter what the diamond commercials say. Some things pass violently, quickly as we saw 5 years ago, some pass slowly, even peaceably. Even when we intellectually understand – to look at the great accomplishments of our time, our species, I doubt many of us think “this too will pass.”

It’s hard to admit in part because we have too much invested. We build up these great structures and great nations, we put to work the best of our ability, often the best of our hopes, ambitions, dreams. Buildings that rival any architecture seen before inspire us, nations which were built on the promises of possibility and freedom give us hope. To see these crumble, the stones thrown down, is heartbreaking and dream-crushing. Reverend Hill wouldn’t expressed concern about the state of the nation, he wouldn’t care, we wouldn’t care, if we didn’t believe there was something uniquely good about what we have been or at least could be.

Buildings and nations aren’t the only things we build up. We also have a tendency to build up our leaders – politicians, church leaders, general do-gooders. While we may be skeptical of people in power in general – politicians in particular – there is often at least one person who sneaks in, who surprises us with their integrity, with their passion for doing what we would call good. We lift these people up, put them on pedestals, look to them to guide us, even save us from whatever state we’re in. Not only do people come claiming to be our saviors, we place people in the high esteem and import we should save for only one without them evening saying “I am he.”

Just as buildings, nations fall, so do people. The news has been littered lately with high profile falls from grace. We have put much stock in the minister who’s moving people to righteousness, a congressperson who speaks of morality, the philanthropist who gives and gives of him or herself. And then we find out about those skeletons, find out that those who promote a certain standard of being don’t live up to it.

While it is good to put faith in people, to expect things from people, it is just as important to understand that people are… people. We are limited, faulted. That’s why we confess every Sunday. And so as faulted, fallen people, yes, our great leaders will disappoint us – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in shockingly great ways. Though we often like to paint them in broad, perfect brushstrokes, not even Mother Teresa or Ghandi were without their faults.

Even though all things must pass, even though no one can be perfect and righteous all the time, still we keep looking to buildings, nations, leaders – that which is of this world, of our hands, of our desires and ambitions, for our hope, for our guidance, for our salvation. While it is a good and even necessary thing to find those things in this world to an extent, we should not find – will not find – our ultimate hope, guidance, or salvation in this world. For this world is not the ultimate. It is not all that there is, all that will be.

Jesus knew of our tendency to find our meaning, our being in this world and continually challenged us to look beyond what we saw and knew. The words Jesus told the disciples don’t paint a happy picture – nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines, and this is just the beginning. They aren’t easy words and but they are words the disciples needed to hear.

We aren’t the ones who look to our own accomplishments in awe. The Temple the unnamed disciple was in awe of wasn’t just an impressive building. While the huge stones, gold, bronze, marble trimmings, beautiful gates, walls and cloisters and courts around it were worthy of a taking snapshots, maybe even buying a souvenir snowglobe to remember it buy - it was what the Temple meant that was truly impressive. The Temple – first built by Solomon and recently redecorated and expanded by Herod – was once where the Ark rested, where God lived. The Temple was where you sacrificed, where you found forgiveness for your sins, where you could petition God. The Temple is physical evidence of Israel’s chosen status, of their relationship with God, of God dwelling among them.
For the Temple to come down, for not one stone to be left on another, it wouldn’t just take a big wind, it would take a big change, would mean a big change. When the Temple fell during the Babylonian invasion and exile, the people of Israel had to completely rethink what it was to be God’s people; their lives were altered forever. It is understandable that for many a Jew person in Christ’s time, the fall of the Temple would be the end of the world. The disciples, having heard his foretelling of the fall of the Temple, want to know more – want to know when and how they could tell and…

And Jesus does not give them detailed answers. He warns them of being lead astray. The signs he mentions are horrible, but sadly not unusual. Before Christ, during Christ’s time, and after Christ, we have had wars and famines and many other frightening things. No matter how many times people have tried to claim it’s the end, so far it hasn’t been. For these are just the beginning of the birthpangs, so Christ says. What comes after, he doesn’t say.

The details of how this world will pass and God’s kingdom be brought in are not his concern rather that this world WILL pass, that there is more than what we see, that a new world, God’s kingdom will be birthed. He wants us to know that even the world we know will not always be with us. An end will occur, we just don’t know when.

The end, the end times, the apocalypse, the second coming – all of that can be a frightening thought. And yet Christ says, “do not be alarmed.”

“Do not be alarmed?” My taste of rumors of war my senior year of college terrified me, put my friends on alarm. That semester many of us didn’t make it to class all that much – would rather spend time with each other than learning about the subjects that had seemed so important only a few weeks.

When your way of life is threatened, even your life itself, it’s a hard to not be alarmed. When everything gets turned upside down, when those you thought were good and true prove false, it’s hard not to lose faith, lose hope. In her song of praise Hannah shouts with joy for the changing of fortunes. Such a thing is worthy of shouts of joy – when it is your fortunes are rising, when you are the once-barren who now has seven children. But when you are the once prosperous, the once proud, the once strong, the once mighty that has been brought low, it is frightening. If you are not the people with the Temple of God among you, if you are not the mighty superpower, if you are not the follower of a perfectly righteous human being, than what or who are you? What or who do you have?

All things must pass. Not one stone of the Temple will remain on top of another. Over enough time, not even one stone will remain. Not one stone except one – THE One, the Rock, the Everlasting, the one who will not be brought down low, the one who will not pass. The stones of the temple may be thrown down, may crumble under the weight of time or war – but God, that rock will not.

If your earthly leaders fall, your worldly kingdom comes to an end, your awe-inspiring buildings are demolished, you still have an ultimate leader, a kingdom, a reason for awe. When Christ tells the disciples to not be afraid because of war or threat of war, because of the end, that is because he knows that even this world which both sustains and houses our lives is not the source of our LIFE, and our end in this world is not the end of our life. Because even if the world we know no longer exists, if kingdom after kingdom falls, another world, another kingdom, God’s kingdom, will rise. Do not be alarmed because this – this is not the ultimate.

It is good to strive, to create the best nations we can have, beautiful buildings, look up to strong leaders and righteous people – as long as we do not pin all our hopes to these, as long as we understand that because they of this world, they too will pass away. Only God is the everlasting one, only God the rock which does not fade, there is none like God. We cannot put our ultimate hope in buildings or nations, in politicians or preachers, in anything or anyone of this world. We must place it with God. With the Great I Am – who was, and is and always shall be. Amen.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006