Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent 1C. 29 November 2009.

          A couple weeks ago…actually two Sundays ago, I preached about apocalyptic language.  And what I told you is that it's not about fear, even though we are conditioned to be fearful when we hear it.  The language is intended to show us that there is another story—a deeper story of God's involvement.  And the language is often inspecific—often "other worldly."


          When I was preparing that sermon… You remember, it was about Peter, James, John, and Andrew, asking Jesus when his various predictions would come to pass, and Jesus saying, "Do not be alarmed…you will hear of wars and rumors of wars..this is but the beginning of birth pangs." 


          When I was preparing that sermon, I remember double checking the text with the calendar, because I didn't think we would be reading apocalyptic language before today, the First Sunday of Advent.  If you were to thumb through the lectionary, you would see that every year we read apocalyptic language from Jesus on the First Sunday of Advent.  This year we read from Luke; next year it will be Matthew; and the year after that it will be Mark.  You simply cannot begin Advent without some kind of apocalyptic discourse.


          Now, you can shrug your shoulders and say, "So what?"  But for the first time, I really found myself reacting negatively to it.  Maybe it's like I said before in my other sermon, I'm tired of the fear. 

          I'm tired of the television news trying to scare me, and I'm tired of being worried about the economy and the political situations in our world.   You can say that this is an age of anxiety, but it sounds na├»ve to say that.  Every age is an age of anxiety.  Jesus was right.  "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be earthquakes.  There will be famines in various places."


          I knew that we would be getting another dose of apocalyptic language today, but I suppose I wanted to live in denial about it.  Maybe you feel the same way.  Everyone has their own method of avoiding things they don't want to hear.  I think when I was a parishioner I just spaced out during the Gospel reading whenever I didn't want to hear it.  It wasn't hard to do.  You just look around at the congregation.  Fiddle with your bulletin.  And if the sermon is about that text you can always check out for a couple minutes.  Some of you are already starting to nod off.


          One of my favourite preachers likes to say that we have a tendency to treat holy Scripture like aging relative.  We start to hear again the old old story, so we give polite silence, but we don't really listen to it.  We hear it all the time—we could probably even tell it ourselves, word for word.  And we don't plumb those old stories for meaning.


          I'm inclined to say that we treat the parts of Scripture that don't appeal to us in the same way that we only half-listened to our parents tell us to wear and sweater, and don't jump in the puddles, and you know… "Thanks, Mom…Bye."


          …especially the apocalyptic teachings as we start Advent.  After all, once you get past these Sundays, we get a baby in a manger, shepherds, angelic choirs.  It ends well.  Don't pay any attention to all that stuff about signs in the sun and moon and stars and the earth in distress.  C'mon.   (Pause.)


          So, why do we bother reading these texts?  Maybe the world has it right.  Maybe we've got it all wrong in the church.  Out there it's already Christmas!  Maybe we should just dispense with the lectionary and I will choose a few nice things from the Psalms…preach a fluffy little sermon about prayer.  And maybe we should just skip these Advent hymns and start right in on Christmas.   


          Well, no.  We can't do that.  But why not?  What is it that keeps us back?  Part of it, of course, is tradition.  This is the way we do it.  The way we've always done it.  The Advent wreath counts down the Sundays.  Purple on the Altar to remind us that this a season of reflection, and spiritual preparation.  And of course the text, (Luke 21:25-36)

Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

          Why do we read texts like these during Advent?  I already told you that the language is not really meant to induce fear.  The text even says that: "when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads…your redeption is drawing near."  For those of you who have faith…fear not.

          Still, wouldn't it be less fearful if we just skipped these words altogether?  Why read fearful language and expect us not to be fearful?  It doesn't make sense.

          Do you know, we do this all the time in the church?  We talk about things that a lot of people would just as soon never talk about.  A lame man comes to Jesus.  Do you really want to spend your time thinking about the lame, the sick, the suffering?  What about the hungry?  The poor?

          Some years ago, I was interviewing with a church to become their next Rector, and I asked the question, "What could I do that would really get me in trouble in this parish?"  And someone on the committee answered without even batting an eye, "Don't talk about the poor."  Can you believe that?   "Don't talk about the poor."

          But see, the reason it sounds bad is because it was said out loud.  I'll bet you that at one time or another you have not wanted to talk about the poor.  You sit down to a meal with your family…or you've got a friend coming in from out of town, and you're going out to eat.  You're laughing and catching up, dressed up for dinner in nice clothes.  Do you really want to talk about the people who are poor?  …the people who aren't going to be having dinner tonight?  I'm just saying that we all find ways of avoiding what we don't want to think about.  "Don't talk about the poor." 

          We have to talk about the poor in church.  We have to talk about the sick and the suffering.  We have to talk about death.  Why? 

          Well, the answer is really very simple.  Because God cares.  God cares about the poor, the sick, the friendless.  If we didn't talk about people in need in the place where God's name is praised, and where God's ways are taught, we would be saying that God doesn't care, and of course he does. 

          But now, all this talk about distress among the nations, and people fainting from fear and foreboding…why would we talk about that…especially just before celebrating Christ's birth?


          Well, to get to that answer is to get right down to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.  You see, Christians…  And when I say Christians here, I'm talking about devout Christians—we are not bound by the same fear of death as people who do not believe in Christ.  We believe that when humanity had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, God, in his mercy, sent Jesus.  And Jesus stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself in obedience to God's will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

          We rehearse this faith in the Nicene Creed and in the Great Thanksgiving every Sunday.  The Holy Eucharist reminds us of, and celebrates, the faith we have that Jesus triumphed over death.  We are no longer bound by the crippling fear of what could happen to us.  (Pause.)

          Did you know that every fear is rooted in the same big fear?  Every fear you can possibly experience is ultimately, really, a fear of death.  It's a fear that somehow that thing or person or whatever can kill you, or leave you without the means to survive. 

          So when Jesus went to the cross, you see, he went as an example of how to face that anxiety.  He let himself experience all of the embarassment, the indignity, all of the pain and suffering, the hunger and thirst...  He let it all happen. 

          He didn't have to, of course.  There were many opportunities to escape.  He could have avoided capture.  He could have moderated his teachings.  He could have stopped talking about the sick and the poor.  But he didn't.  He faced the fear.

          And God raised Jesus from the dead to show us that there is no fear that can hold on to you forever—there is no pain, no suffering, no sickness that can hold on to you forever.  Christ is risen. 

          You may go to your own cross.  And you have to think about the cross metaphorically here to understand what I mean.  For you the cross might be standing up in front of a group of people to give a speech.  Did you know that the number one fear is speaking in public?  What I am doing right now is considered the number one fear.  Let me tell you…  This is nothing.  Speaking to a group of people about something you care deeply about…  It's wonderful.  (It's mice that are scary.)

          We all have something that makes us afraid, and there are times when we come face to face with it.  But when we do, God shows us that there is resurrection on the other side of it.

          The story of the Cross and the story of Advent are the same story.  It is the story of God interrupting humanity to show us that God cares, and that fear is not to be feared. 

          "There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory."

          They will see that death is no more…that fear has been vanquished…that salvation is created. 

          Every once in awhile Peter or Maggie will encounter something new that frightens them.  It could be anything.  A stick, a strange toy, a shadow.  And they will be scared.  And Karin or I will pick them up and hug them.  And we will go over to the thing that they are afraid of, and show them what it is, and show them that they don't have to be afraid of it. 


          That is what God did for us.  God sent his son to show us that our greatest fear is not to be feared.  That is the mystery of our Faith—the Paschal mystery—Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.


          That is the story of Advent, Christmas, and Easter.  That is the Good News of Jesus Christ.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842, and

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Advent Responsory

 I look from afar: * 
   and lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth.
Go ye out to meet him and say: *
  Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?
High and low, roch and poor, one with another, go ye out to meet him and say: *
  Hear, O thou shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep.
  Tell us, art thou he that should come?
Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come to reign over thy people Israel: * 
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,
  as it was in the beginning: is now: and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Words translated from an early medieval Advent Sunday Responsory

Monday, November 23, 2009

Proper 29B. 22 November 2009.



          Some of you may be familiar with Celtic spirituality.  I am not an expert by any means, but from what little I know—and it is very little—there is a very strong emphasis on the primal.  When I say primal, or primitive, I mean those things that are first within us.  It's a concept that can be simple and complicated at the same time—like all of life really. 


          No one falls from the sky.  We were born in a specific place, to specific people, in a specific time in the course of history.  No one remembers things exactly as we remember them; no one experiences life in precisely the same way we do.  We all experience similar things, but the complexity of experience, and the colors of meaning we use to decorate our particular outlook are unique to us.


          We struggle so hard to get out of childhood; and then, once we see the ugliness that's out there, we struggle to recapture our innocence.  We can't wait to get a drivers' license and get out of this town, and then we come home wondering where we went wrong. 


          But to people who seek meaning, it really is the first things—the emotions, experiences, sights, and smells that are first within us—that are a source of fascination, especially, I think, as we age.



          I have always been a reflective person, but I am aware that many people are not.  I recently read somewhere that passing through life without looking for meaning is like wandering through a library and not opening a single book.  That's a spin on what Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."


          And yet for some people, it is not easy to reflect or to look for meaning.  I think maybe that skill is tied to imagination, and any teacher will tell you, imagination is vital to learning.  You have to imagine how things are going to be to do anything.  Reflection is just putting all of that in the rearview mirror—thinking back on what we did and how it worked out.  It can be rewarding and it can be discouraging.  It can lead to feelings of accomplishment, or regret, or any number of emotions.


          Some people decide not to reflect because their lives have been so filled with tragedy.  "I don't want to think about that."  "Those were hard days…it's depressing, what's next, what's next?"  I heard about a race car driver who liked to pull the rearview mirror out of his cars, saying, "What's behind me can't hurt me."  Well, you and I both know that that's not really true.


          Still, when certain events occur, it can be enough to prompt even the most non-reflective person to "take stock," as it were.  People who never like to thumb through the old family photo album, once in awhile…out it comes. 


          A couple weeks ago—as I told you all—my great uncle Floyd died.  Floyd was a wonderful man.  Gentle, humble, straightforward.  He had been a dairy farmer from age 14 till he retired in his mid 70s.  I had the privilege of doing the graveside part of his service—the Committal.  It was an honor for me to do that.


          After the service, we all came back to the church to have lunch.  The ladies auxiliary at the Scalp Level Church of the Brethren put out a generous lunch, and we enjoyed seeing each other and remembering that we're a family.  My own grandfather literally helped build that church, my mother sang in the choir at its dedication, and grew up there.


          After lunch, one of the family members pulled out these old, old photos—taken when Floyd, and my grandfather, and all seven brothers and three sisters were children.  There was my great-grandfather Sylvester Hoffman—surrounding him where the children.  My mother was looking at the photo and noticed him instantly—there was my grandfather, Herb, from when he was just a little boy—probably five or six years old.  She said, "Look at his lips and chin…that's daddy!"  And I looked at him and I thought, He looks like me.  He looks like Peter.  You can see it.


          I don't wish to romanticize that generation, but it's hard to overstate how different those days were from today.  My grandfather, when he was my age walked five miles to work at a saw mill, worked all day, and then walked home and worked on the farm.  And I get upset when I can't get email. 



          There is something about where we have come from, the people, the memories, the blessings, and the hard times.  And we sometimes, if we're fortunate enough to still have people around us who remember the same things, can take a great deal of…  Well, I want to say "nourishment," but I'm not sure that's the word.  It feels right and it feels wrong.  Something within us is fed by it, but those memories also leave us a little hollow.  I can't really explain the feeling.  And I don't know why it's like that.


          In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus says, "My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."


          Now, these words are from John's gospel, and the context is "Jesus on trial."  Jesus is finally revealing to people other than his own disciples that the terms "king" and "kingdom," as well as "power" and "authority," have a different meaning for God than they do for us.  Jesus is not of this world; God is not of this world.  God created this world and loves this world, but God is not limited, or in any way hindered by what he has created. 


          Time and space are creations of God.  Have you ever thought about that?  We think of time and space as existing completely on their own.  You can't stop time.  You can't create or destroy space.  But God can. 

          What is eternity other than the absence of time?  A second, a minute, an hour.  As W. S. Gilbert wrote, "These divisions of time are purely arbitrary." 


          For God, the time is always now.  Always.  Take a look at our lesson from the Revelation to John for today, "Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come…"  Notice that the first description is "the one who is."  For God it is always now.  "I am the Alpha and the Omega, (I am the A and the Z) says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." (Pause.)


          I have long wondered why it is that we place such a high value on where we have come from, even when our reminiscences leave us feeling a little hollow.  When I was up at the funeral, Floyd's widow, Ann, said that the house down the road that Floyd's brother Harold and his wife Grace lived in for most of their lives, had been sold—the house and land—for only five thousand dollars.  Ann said she was so shocked at how little it fetched that she was tempted to put the money together to buy it,  just to keep it from… Well, I don't know exactly.  I suppose to keep it from change. 


          The house is not inhabitable.  You would have to tear it down and build a new house to live there.  Harold died, and Grace can't live alone anymore, but still…  It's part of "home," part of what "home" feels like.  You can't control the time slipping away, but maybe you can control the space?  Buy that house and land...  At least it would stay home


          What is the hollow feeling to this?  What is it, really?  I have thought about it for a long time.  What creates that dull ache?  It's so good to be around the places, and the people who remember us when we were younger, but what is that tear in the corner of our eyes? 


          Why does the smell of that old house and the creek in the stairs make us want to suddenly be alone, or drink too much coffee, or go check email?  Anything to be closer; and anything to be further apart.


          I think I have an answer.  It might not be the right answer, so maybe you will think about this, and maybe you will come up with a better answer.  But maybe the answer is that we're not really from here. 


          I am from Bridgewater, Virginia.  I am very proud to have been born and raised in the Valley.  I love it here more than I ever loved it when I was a little boy.  I never noticed how beautiful it was, because I'd never been anywhere else.  But even though the Valley is home, I'm not really from here. 


          My life did not begin in Rockingham Memorial Hospital thirty-five years ago.  It did not begin when my parents fell in love, or even when their parents fell in love.  I am from another kingdom.  Something deep within me tells me so, and if you look deep within yourself, you will understand what I mean.




          We are from a beautiful place.  There are flowers and trees. 

Everything you see in nature when you go out and walk in the leaves… And the silence around you…  You put on your jacket and walk out there among the trees—just a little nip in the air.  You look out to the mountains in the distance.  It feels like where you belong—but I swear I can hear God whispering through the leaves, "You are from another kingdom."  "This is nice, but you are from an even more beautiful place."


          And through the window of the Holy Spirit we look into this marvelous kingdom, like children pressing in to look at a display of toys.  There is a banquet table where everyone can eat, and thumb through the family pictures.  But the family is not categorized as parents and grandparents.  In this kingdom we are only sisters and brothers; we have only one Father.


          It's a beautiful place.  There is no sickness.  There is no death.  There are no tears of pain, only tears of joy.  Lazarus is not poor there.  The rich are not rich there.  We all sit together at the table, and we drink the wine and eat the bread, and there is no hollow feeling.  All of those feelings are swallowed up by the love that flows through us.  And that love flows from the wounds of a man who could not bear to see us lonely and afraid, and sick, and dying.  He is our brother, our God, our King; he is our friend, our lover.  And his name is Jesus.  Emmanuel.  God with us.


          Look over there.  Do you see it?  It's your place at the table.  It's your portion of bread and wine.  It's your place—that God is preparing for you.  And seated beside you…there he is…there she is! 

          You never thought you'd see them again.  Oh, you heard the sermon at their funeral, but you didn't really think you'd see him again and her again.  …never thought you'd feel those arms around you again, and feel that kiss on your forehead.  Never thought you'd get to come home…really home.  But you will.  You will.  One day.  (Pause.)


          You know that hollow feeling I was talking about?  I think I know what it is.  It's the doubt within us that we'll ever feel that happy again.  It's the silent, anxious fear that we only go around once, and that's it.  And that handful of joy from our first years is as good as it will ever get. 


          I can't convince you that what I'm saying—which by the way, is what the Church has been proclaiming all this time—I can't convince you that heaven is real and that God desires to give it to you, but I do know that God created us with the hunger for it.  And I don't think the hunger would be there if it couldn't be satisfied. 


          There must be more to life than just three score and ten.  And I know you believe that.  You believe it praying in the pews and you believe it walking through the leaves.  Wandering among the branches of barren trees, you look over at that little cherry tree.  How old is it?  Who knows?  A couple years.  That tree looks dead.  But you look at the tips of the branches and you know that in a few short months, there will be little tiny buds.  And one day just the faintest little break will reveal the promise of spring.



          It won't be long.  This is not really your home.  It's not mine, either.  It is as close to home as we are going to get for now.  But our home is really with Jesus.  And his kingdom is not of this world.  It is of the world that is to come.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842, and

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I hope you will take a little walk

in the leaves at some point. I walked yesterday with a parishioner for a couple miles, at one point deep into the woods where the only noise you can hear is the sound of the leaves crunching beneath your feet and the scurry of squirrels.

There were questions, of course. Walking often produces questions. It is an existential exercise to walk with a friend. The old question arises: If a tree falls in the woods with no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? That's not really the right question. The right question is: If you walk in the woods alone, is there anyone who cares about you? Well, can you really be alone? That's the question you have to start with.

I can walk side by side with someone for hours, talking about everything and nothing. Was any of it meaningful? It was all meaningful. It was meaningful because God has come, and walked with us, and died for us, and will come again to us. There is nothing meaningless anymore--Christ makes everything, every action, every thought, every possibility meaningful.

I was sitting in the waiting room of the hospital ICU this morning. The complete opposite of the walk in the woods: in a building, not outside; warm, not cold; artificial light instead of the muted rays of the sun; seated, rather than walking; morning, rather than afternoon. You see? The complete opposite. But still just as meaningful, because Christ is risen.

I bowed my head to pray in the waiting room, and there was God. The same God I saw in the woods I see in the waiting room at the hospital. Grey sky or yellowish incandescent light's still him. Happy or sad, it's still him. And whenever and wherever I go, I find him there saying, "You see this? It's meaningful. Look at it again, it's meaningful."

And gradually I am learning that it's all meaningful because Christ is risen, and God is already there.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Proper 28B. 15 November 2009.



          There have been a few times in my life that I've been around people who are…  Well…how do I talk about this?  I have met some very interesting people, as I am sure you have, and the only way I can describe the kind of person I'm talking about is to say that they always seem to be in "the know."  Now, it's hard to talk about this, because I've run into people who really do have an inside track on certain things, and I've run into people who are just very good at seeming credible. 


          So you see how this is a little tricky to talk about?  But I have spoken with people who seem to know things that go on in Washington, or in the my little world "the Church," or wherever, and I hear them talk knowledgeably about things that I know a little about, but not much. 


          I remember a pastor in the Church of the Brethren who was the father of a college buddy of mine.  His name is Peter, and Peter was at one point a District Executive in the Church of the Brethren.  A District Executive is essentially like a bishop. 


          Peter was one of those fellows who genuinely did know the situations he was talking about.  But whenever he talked with you, he always sort of gave the impression that he was sharing things with you that he would never tell anyone else. 


          Even if he was talking about trivial things, there was just something in the air that made you think, "Gosh, I hope no one else is hearing this!  This is a secret."  Now, I know this sounds a little silly, but the reason I'm talking about this is that it's the context of today's reading from Mark's Gospel. 


          Jesus has entered Jerusalem.  He has been teaching in the Temple—probably the courtyard of the Temple.  Now, when you hear "temple" you might think of one big building, but there were all kinds of buildings with special uses and meanings.  The disciples and Jesus are coming out of the Temple and one of the disciples is looking around, marveling at the buildings, and says "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"


          Jesus replies, "Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."  And after Jesus says this, Mark puts the story on fast forward because the next sentence reads, "When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, `Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?' 


          Then Jesus began to say to them, `Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!" and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."


          It is a sobering lesson, isn't it?  Actually, the term for this kind of language is apocalyptic, which comes from the Greek, apo, which is to pull back, and kalypsis, which is, to bring forth.  I find it helpful to think of curtains opening on a play.  You sit down in your seats, eat a breath mint, listen to the overture—the curtains on the stage are hiding the scenery.  And then the lights come up, and the curtain is drawn and there is the set, and the characters, and now you know the context of the story.  Well, that's an apocalypse.


          And because the Bible uses this genre so much—especially in the book of the Apocalypse, which we call the Revelation to John, we are conditioned to think of apocalypse as a scary sort of end-of-the-world thing.   But apocalyptic writing is found in various places in the Bible, including the Old Testament; and whenever you read it, it almost always sounds the same.  There is a lot of cosmic imagery.  Dark clouds, lightning, smoke, wars, wild animals—and it's all set against the backdrop of "what's really going on."


          In fact, you might say that this is the common denominator to all apocalyptic writing, so let me explain this very carefully.  You've got the way things appear to be—and then you've got the way things really are.  Do you understand what I mean?  Let me give you an example.  I'll make this up, and I'll make it really silly—just so you can see it for what it is:




          You went to the bathroom to wash your hands.  And you thought that when you were finished—paper towel in the trash, hands dry—you thought that that was all there was to it, but you probably didn't even realize (scary voice) that the water and soap that disappeared down the sink is now careening through a series of pipes!  And those pipes are all linked together and that water and soap and all the evil germs that cause sickness are combining forces with other waste, and all that disease ridden water is finding its way to a facility—somewhere in the underworld of Shenandoah County!—where it will gather!!! 


          Now, I told you this would be a little silly, but I needed to make the point.  The point of apocalyptic writing is to get you to understand that there is another story—a deeper meaning—that you might never have considered.


          And when someone starts in on apocalyptic language—you know it.  It's like I was saying before about people who really seem to know stuff.  They'll say things like, "You know how they say that So-and-so is working for the County?  Well, he's actually FBI.  I heard that he was with the ATF for awhile, but now he's in the FBI!  Can you imagine?  Right here in Woodstock!"


          "Did you hear about that fella down the street—always waves when you see him?  Did you know that his wife disappeared a couple years ago, and no one ever found her?"  "Is that so?"  "That's what they say."



          Does this sound like gossip to you?  Well, gossip is form of apocalypse—it's a revelation of something hidden.  But there are differences between regular old kitchen door gossip and actual apocalypse.  For one thing, there is the credibility of the person talking.  When it's just neighborhood chitchat, credibility is not all that important.  So what if so-and-so is FBI?  It's none of our business.  But when it's something that affects you or your family—you want to know that you can trust the information.  It's got to come from someone with credibility.


          Another difference: true apocalypse—in the Biblical understanding of it—is about the inner workings of God with human history.  We're not talking about the neighbor's dog here.  We're talking about what God is doing—seen and unseen—to affect the course of human history. 


          And when Jesus says, "Do not be alarmed…you will hear of wars and rumors of wars, and famines in various places," and all that, you are getting a true revelation of something that is important for every Christian to understand.  And that's this:  The coming of God's kingdom isn't going to be easy. 


          People are people.  Jesus came to show us how to live, and to reconcile us to God—and he has—but we have to be willing to follow him.

And that, too, is part of apocalyptic language—it separates those who "get it" from those who do not.  Notice that this interaction between Jesus and the disciples occurs privately, according to Mark.  In fact, Mark even gives us the guest list: Peter, James, John, and Andrew. 

          By my math, that's only one third of the twelve disciples.  But, of course, Mark has written this for us because he, like Jesus, is sort of throwing his arm around us, and letting us in on the secret.  This is no longer between Peter, James, John and Andrew—we are all "in on it."  We are all given the secret that the kingdom of God will come, but it's not going to be easy.


          Everything I have just told you about apocalypse is really just a footnote to the main point of it.  And if you only remember one thing from this sermon, I hope what I am about to say is what you take with you:  It's not about fear.


          I could read this lesson to you again and again all afternoon and I would bet you dollars to donuts that no matter how many times I would read it you would still think:  "Anxiety." "Things are going to get bad."  "Things are going to get scary."  "We are not safe."


          And, again, I think we can be forgiven for thinking that, because the wording is ambiguous.  "What do you mean wars and rumors of wars?"  And because the language is so cosmic, and so open to interpretation, you have people—sometimes very devout people—making claims that the crisis of the day is because we let gay people into the military, or some other such nonsense. 


          And for every person who fills the air with that sort of stuff, you've got people who don't know any better, who get their minds filled with it, and all they can think of is: "Am I in, or am I out." 


          Some of you might have heard of this movie coming out called 2012.  The premise of the movie is that the Mayan calendar ends on the year 2012, so, of course, the world is going to end then.  And the movie depicts the destruction of the world.  Just recently, Karin heard of some people who were watching the movie advertisements and had come to believe that this is really going to happen.  So they were posting questions on the internet—on Facebook—"Have you heard about 2012?  Is this really going to happen?  I really want to see my children grow up?" 


          You see, apocalyptic stuff makes great entertainment, because it preys on our anxiety.   It's in the Bible!  It's in the magazines at the grocery store!  If you watch the news…Lord, have mercy…is it even possible to get through the Nightly News without a little dose of gloom and doom?


          And the message we get again and again:  Anxiety.  Fear.  What's going to happen?  We don't know.  Is that God doing something?  Is that us doing something?  How can I get immunized?  How can I stay safe? 


          But take a look at the actual words of Jesus.  They are not meant to be anxious words.  "When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come."  In other words, "When things start to get crazy around you, take a deep breath, do not get worried; this is part of what must happen—it's not the last thing."



          "For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."  Now wait a minute!  Jesus has spelled out in general terms that there will be turmoil…okay…but then he calls all of these things "birth pangs."


          Now, you're a Christian, and I'm a Christian.  You come to church, you have heard the Bible read and preached.  Have you ever known Jesus to talk about new life as something scary or bad? 


          He goes all over the place healing people, feeding people, raising the dead.  Have you ever, in any of those stories, encountered restoration and redemption as something bad or scary.  No. 


          Jesus is not trying to scare us here.  And I would even go so far as to say that none of the apocalyptic language is really meant to frighten us.  Wake us up?  Yes.  But to reassure us. 


          New life is coming.  That's the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  New life is coming.  It might not be easy.  It might require some adjustment.  It might be truly difficult for some people who want to be able to control everything—but Jesus says to his followers, "Do not be afraid…"  "All of the things that can scare you…don't get worked up!  Don't run around with your hands in the air.  Settle down.  Something new and wonderful is coming.  Something beautiful.  Something beyond your ability to perceive or predict or even talk about. 


          God is about to break through human history.  And for some it might be a little scary.  But for you who have faith, it shall not be so.  For you, these will be signs that new life is coming.  New possibilities.  New joy.  New happiness. 


          Folks, I want to tell you something.  And it comes from my heart:  Please do not be afraid.  God has wonderful things in store for us all.  And fear is not part of it.  Fear is not part of God. 


          Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Proper 27B. 8 November 2009.


          A little over a year ago, it was discovered that a man who was the chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange, and reputed to be one of the best bankers in New York, was in fact the perpetrator of "the largest investment fraud in Wall Street history."[1] I am of course speaking of Bernie Madoff.


          And the technique he used is called a Ponzi scheme—named after Charles Ponzi, but it's really an old, old swindle.  Now for those of you who might not know how it works, let me just explain it.  (I'm sure none of you will try this!)


          A person invests money with a someone who claims that the investment will pay off very quickly—and better than a traditional investment.  It's a fast growing company, a lot of ins and outs, and they're doing very well, so in a couple weeks, maybe a couple months, there will be a check in your mail—or funds posted to your account.


          What's actually going on is the criminal takes the money, and then returns a smaller amount, claiming that it's a profit. 



          Let me make it very simple.  You give me ten dollars.  I hold the ten dollars for a couple weeks, and give you back two dollars claiming that it's a profit on the ten.  You think you've got ten dollars working for you, but in fact I've got eight bucks and you have two.  Do you see?


          Now suppose I go all over, collecting ten bucks from more and more people, waiting a couple weeks, and giving back two to each person, and I keep doing this week after week after week, getting more people and more money—and returning little amounts of what I've collected.  The word gets around—"This man has a gift for making money.  This man can be trusted—everyone who has invested with him has seen a good return on their investment."


          But the scheme is doomed from the start, because everyone, right down to the first person who invests ten dollars, can't be paid unless people continue to invest more cash.  There is no real investment.  It's just money coming in and money going out.  There are no products or services.  The man who runs the scheme is making money as long as he has enough to cover his payouts, but as soon as people stop investing, he's done for.


          What usually gives it away is that the operator is selling unregistered securities—meaning that the securities are not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and therefore cannot be sold publicly.  Bernie Madoff made off with $65 billion over the course of approximately thirty years.



          Now the question arises.  How did he do it?  Not how did the scheme work, but how did he pull it off?  Well, that's good question.  The old term for a person who perpetrates such things is a con man, which, as you know, is short for "confidence man." 


          You can't do what Madoff did unless you can look someone in the eye with utter confidence and lie.  And not just lie, but really lie.  You have to come to a place deep in your psyche where you might even come to believe that what you are saying is really true.


          But now, here's the thing.  Let's say you can do that.  Let's say you can lie like that.  And let's say that you can make a go of it for long enough to get a reputation for being able to make money—such that you've got a brand to your name.  Madoff equals money.  My money's with Madoff.  At a certain point—a tipping point—people will invest based solely on your reputation.


          Well, now.  What would help you ensure that people thought of you as a good, honest, respectable man.  What would seal that deal?  A man of strong moral character.  He makes millions; and he can be trusted.  What would do that? 


          Well, the best way is to become a philanthropist.  Start giving money to people in need:  The Madoff Family Foundation.  The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation—helping victims of bone cancer.  Six million dollars to research lymphoma after Andrew Madoff, his son, developed the disease.  The New York Public Library.  

A host of non-profit, charitable institutions where Bernie Madoff not only gave money, but sat on their executive boards.  You see?  You can trust Madoff; he's a philanthropist. 


          Jesus said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation."


          In Jesus' time, when a man died, his property could not managed by his widow—remember that women were not trusted with such things.  So the property had to be managed by a trustee, and the scribes were the natural choice.  Scribes were people who could read and write.  They were temple functionaries—a role that had built-in respectability and honor.  But more than that: the Torah mandates the care of widows and orphans.  So a scribe being the trustee shows the whole community that God's covenant is being honored!  Sneaky.


          Most of their respectability came from simply being a scribe—but, of course, what would really seal the deal would be to become a philanthropist, and to become—at least in the public eye—an obviously devout person.  Say your prayers…but take your time.  Be seen saying your prayers—make long prayers, the longer the better.



          If you manage to secure a good reputation, handle things well, more will be given to you.  More trusteeships of widows.  And if you take a little bit for yourself here and there…well, who is going to notice?  The widows don't know exactly how much money is being held in trust.  Are you going to question the scribe?  Are you going to question one of the leaders of the temple?  


          You see him every Sabbath.  Well-combed hair, groomed beard, wearing a nice robe.  Prayers were over, and everyone started to leave, and there he was, still standing there with his hands open before God, eyes closed, deep in prayer.  How can you question him?  He doesn't know that we saw him praying.  I'm sure he's asking God for the wisdom to manage our accounts.  We should be very grateful that he is willing to look after our money.  Did you know that there are some real crooks out there?  


          I heard that some years ago there was a scribe who was skimming money.  They said he used to give the widows just one penny a week.  One penny…two copper coins.  Those widows had to live on two copper coins a week.  Can you imagine that?  (Pause.)


          So that's the situation in this text for today.  The temple treasury was place where people could make donations to help the poor, and Bernie Madoff comes and dumps in three thousand dollars.  A lot of money.  Never mind that it's nothing at all compared to millions he has amassed, behind a veil of perceived respectability.  (Pause.)


          Anita Jenkins' husband died ten years ago.  Charlie Jenkins used to run the five and dime at the end of the block.  He sold the business to a local chain of pharmacies and retired.  He told Anita, "Sweetie, we've been married for forty years, but you and I both know that I've been married to the store the whole time.  Well now it's time for us.  You and I are going to see this country.  We're going to pack our bags, and go up to DC and get one of those First Class Amtrak packages and just go wherever we please.  If we see some place we like, we'll stop, and when we get tired of it, we'll go, and it will just be you and me."   


          Thirty days later, Charlie woke up with heartburn.  He took some antacid, but it didn't go away.  He felt terrible.  He went to sleep that night.  In the morning, Charlie didn't come down for breakfast.  It took Anita three tries to call the paramedics because of the arthritis, but also because her hands were shaking so bad.  Yesterday she had a husband, today she didn't.  That was ten years ago. 


          They had had no children, so Charlie had left instructions in his Will that his estate would be managed by a very reputable firm of investors.  He saw them in church every Sunday and at Rotary on Wednesdays.  They shook every hand; they always remembered his name.  A couple of them sat on the boards of the local hospital; the public library; and a small foundation that gives a yearly grant to a worthy high school graduate to go on to college. 


          Mrs. Jenkins gets a weekly allowance of two hundred dollars.  The trustee told her, "That's the best we can do, Mrs. Jenkins.  The market is what the market is.  We're going to see if we can move some investments around, but two hundred a week is about all we can do."


          Mrs. Jenkins was looking out the window of her house one cold morning.  She saw a mother and her two children walking down the street.  The temperature was forty degrees, but it felt more like thirty-five because of the wind and the mist in the air.  She noticed that the mother and her two children didn't have coats.  They were bundled in a couple shirts and some oversized sweats.  Their arms were crossed in front of them as they pushed into the cold. 


          Mrs. Jenkins looked in her pantry.  She had some cans of food.  A loaf of bread in the fridge, a jar of peanut butter, some milk.  She could wait a week to go the store if she ate carefully. 


          Mrs. Jenkins got her two hundred dollars, got in her car and tried to find the mother and her children.  She tried the grocery store…nope; she tried the pharmacy; she looked everywhere.  Finally she tried the Thrift Store.  They weren't there either. 


          She gave the lady at the Thrift Store her two hundred dollars.  She said, "If you see anyone come in here without a coat, don't let them leave without one  Do you understand me?"  And the woman behind the counter nodded.  "Yes, Ma'am."  And Mrs. Jenkins tugged on belt of her 1973 London Fog coat, and got in her car, and went home.


          So there we have it.  Bernie Madoff, who gave millions of dollars.  and Anita Jenkins who gave two hundred.  One of them gave more than the other.  You do the math.