Sunday, November 30, 2014

How Long? A Sermon for Advent 1 on Habakkuk

Scripture can be found here....

First: this, from the young Somali/ British poet, Warsan Shire:

“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered


Oh Lord, how long?

Today we are hearing the words of a little heard, little-known prophet, but a prophet sometimes considered dangerous, nonetheless. Just one example: In 1940 a church newspaper in Switzerland published an article titled “Word on the [Current] Situation,” about the political realities of life in Europe as the Nazi regime was on the rise. The article included excerpts from Habakkuk. Military censors promptly banned the newspaper. Habakkuk can be a dangerous prophet.[i]

He is speaking here of a “Current Situation” that existed about 2600 years ago. The kingdom of Israel was gone—ten tribes, obliterated, almost without a trace, by the Assyrian Empire. And the kingdom of Judah, which contained the holy city Jerusalem, was on the chopping block as the Babylonian Empire gained strength and size.

Habakkuk called it a time of “destruction and violence, strife and contention.” Justice, he said, did not prevail.

It is hard to hear these words without thinking of our own “current situation.” This is what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews meant when he/ she wrote,

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. ~Hebrews 4:12

The Word of God keeps up. It is capable of speaking to us from the shadowy recesses of millennia past, and yet to remain as absolutely fresh and relevant as the morning paper. Or maybe, your Twitter feed.

So we hear this word in the context of the news of the week—Ferguson, Missouri. Or Cairo, Egypt. Or even the riots that have become a part of the annual Black Friday shopping spree—this year, the toll is 9 killed, 96 injured. “Destruction and violence, strife and contention.”

At the same time, we hear this living and active Word of God in the context of all this (gesturing to the partially decorated sanctuary, the Advent wreath, the Jesse Tree). Advent. A word that means, “It’s coming. It’s approaching. It’s dawning.” A word that whispers, wait. Just a bit. This may take some time.

It all comes back to time. Advent is a particular time. But what does that mean, exactly?

The ancient Greeks had two words for time. Chronos, which refers to measured time, minutes, seconds, days, the months on a calendar. We can measure Advent like that—it begins today, and it ends on Christmas Eve. That’s 25 days, more or less.

But then there’s kairos time. Kairos means, the right time, the appointed time. One example: this season of Advent, in the way in which it circles back, again and again each year, just when we need it. Advent asks us to pause, to stop, to listen intently for what God is trying to say to us, not just about the news of the day or week, but about the ultimate nature of reality, about God’s reality and intention. Advent asks us to ask the question: For what is it God’s appointed time right now? Or, perhaps: How will we know when it’s God’s appointed time?

The prophet complains bitterly to God in the first chapter—cries out in protest, and, honestly, in frustration. How long, God, do we have to keep clamoring for your attention? How long will destruction and violence, strife and contention have their way with us?

Habakkuk reports God’s answer in chapter 2:

Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.  ~Habakkuk 2:2b-3

The answer is: I meant what I said. Tell the people. Put it on a billboard. But you may have to wait.

I hate waiting. I don’t want to wait. I was that kid in the car, saying to my poor parents, “Are we there yet?” I was that kid in high school, saying to my teacher, “Can’t you tell me NOW what I got on the test?” Even now… the worst thing you can say to me, pretty much, is “We need to have a talk, but not now. Later.” That is the way to drive me right over the edge. I want to know now. I hate waiting.

And, truly, when it comes to those things that speak of injustice, or violence, or despair, or the breakdown of society… I don’t have a lot of patience to wait for these things to get better. I hate waiting, especially when I believe people are being harmed. Waiting feels irresponsible. I want things to get better, and I want them to get better right now.

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls… though rich and poor are farther apart than ever, and the death toll from Syria doesn’t even make the front page any more (191,000 and counting), though Ebola might …Though things are not as they should be, yet, things are as they often are, right before they get better. We are still asked to cling to the truth of God’s promise that it is coming. As Advent tells us. It is not coming according to my personal stopwatch or to assuage my lack of patience. It is coming at God’s appointed time.

Some of you are aware that I spent my study leave trying out, as a complete beginner, the practice of contemplative prayer. Silence does not come naturally to me; I’m sure that’s not a shock to anyone who knows me even slightly. But contemplative prayer is not like my worst imaginings, hours and hours of being locked away. All it asks of us, as beginners is a small daily investment in finding silence, which will allow us, eventually, to behold God in all things. Carl McColman writes:

Consider this: beholding God in everything is our natural state of being. So the trick it to unlearn all the ways we keep ourselves from beholding God. And that has a lot to do with learning how to shut up or at least slow down the internal chatter and commentary—the monkey mind that keeps intruding on all your efforts to be silent.[ii]

I don’t know what Habakkuk’s prayer life was like. But I believe that he must have created a spacious enough silence that he was able to behold the intention of God, even as destruction swirled around him. And he faithfully reports what each of us can do: We can voice our complaints to God, in the strongest possible terms. Which is another way of saying, we can pray for all those places and situations where we see so clearly the need for a savior. And we can listen for God’s response, if we can quiet ourselves, just a bit. We can use our lovely and powerful Advent devotional guide. And we emulate the prophet’s combination of hopeful waiting and activism—after all, he puts God’s vision on a sign, for all to see.

Another fragment poem for you, this one from Steve Garnaas-Holmes:

…The only doorbuster is one that set you free long ago.
There are no long lines here, no rush,
but solitude and silence and a purposeful slowing,
and the deepening of your longings.
There are throngs—find your place among them—
who sit and wait, who know each other by their songs,
exiles bound by a memory that weaves all geography,
prisoners waiting, dreamers who dare to yearn
for what others have abandoned
for the love of good deals and shiny things.
Sit in stillness and wait with them,
cry out and march with them, work quietly with them.
Perfect your hope for the Advent of the Loving One,
the light that spills from divine hands,
the new world that blossoms where we live.
Enter the breathing darkness, live in the hoping world,
let your eyes be opened.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Juliana Claassens, “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19,” Working Preacher Narrative Lectionary for November 30, 2014,
[ii] Carl McColman, Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc., 2013), 103.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Gratitude and Grace and Giving: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday

Scripture can be found here...

I am going to tell you a story some of you will remember, because I’ve shared it with you before. But for some of you it will be brand new.

I am going to tell you a true story. It is about a man named Jim. That’s his real name, and I’m using it because, once upon a time, he gave me permission to tell his story.
I met Jim… I’m not exactly sure where. But at a certain time in my life—say, 20 years ago, he was sort of everywhere. When I looked out my window, there would be Jim, rolling his shopping cart down Lathrop Avenue, and coming up on my porch to pick up a bag I had left there for him.
Jim was a small guy, perhaps in his sixties when we met, but he looked much, much older. He was wiry, and sort of bent over, and he didn’t have a lot of his original teeth left.  He had a pack a day habit… these really nasty little cigars; I couldn’t stand the smell of them. I’m not sure whether it was the smoking that aged Jim or the drinking. Jim had a long career of hard drinking; but that was behind him now. When I knew him he was in recovery, a stalwart of a downtown Wednesday 6 PM AA meeting. He was so proud of his recovery. First he counted the days, then the months, and then the years. I was invited to go to the meetings in which Jim received his 10, 11, and 12-year medallions.
When I first knew Jim, he was walking around the neighborhood, miles and miles of walking each day, to pick up cans and bottles, both those he’d pick out of the garbage or recycling, and those he’d get off the porches of friends who had saved them for him. I was in the latter category. For a long time… I’m not sure how many years… all my returnable bottles and cans went to Jim. It was convenient for me… no hauling them to the grocery store… and it was money Jim lived on. He was on disability because of his health, and he got a Social Security check every month. But the thing that allowed Jim to live in his little apartment on Walnut Street was collecting bottles and cans.
Jim kept track of his bottles and cans the way he kept track of his sobriety. Every once in a while, he’d give me a call, and ask me to drive him and a whole car load of returnables to the Can Man, and so I’d go, and we’d load them in the back of my car. Not everyone rinses out cans and bottles, so inevitably my car would end up smelling like a brewery. It struck me as odd, maybe even tempting fate just a tiny bit, that Jim lived off beer bottles and cans. You know, given that beer almost killed him, and that he spent his days working very hard not to touch the stuff. But that smell never seemed to bother him… maybe the cigars had killed his sense of smell, I don’t know. But Jim, when we were driving to the redemption center, would say, “Well, last year I got all the way to $1800. It was a slow summer for some reason, I’m only at $1200 and it’s already Labor Day. But I think I can make it this year, if the kids” (that’s what he called our local college students) “have as many parties as they did last fall.”
To tell you the truth, I didn’t always look forward to Jim’s and my jaunts to the redemption center. I would get a message from Jim on my answering machine, and I’d think, Oh great, just what I need this week. I hated that smell in my car. And my kids were young, so I had to make sure someone was available to watch them, because I had a station wagon and we’d have to put the seat down, so I couldn’t bring them with me. It was kind of a pain in the neck sometimes. But then I’d be with Jim, driving to the redemption center, and, you know, inevitably, my mood would change for the better. Jim had this incredible optimism about him. I’d watch him walk, see how hard it was for him… his joints were painful, and he had emphysema… did I mention that? Eventually he was pulling an oxygen tank along with him. He’d get winded just going up a little set of three steps.  Here he was…  this guy… living alone in a tiny apartment, living off social security and his can and bottle money, physically in pain pretty much all the time… and he was simply one of the most grateful people I’d ever known.
That was it. Jim was grateful. He was sober. He had that to be grateful about. He was able to not drink, one day at a time, as he often reminded me. And… in recent years he’d become interested in genealogy, so he spent a lot of time calling people, churches, cemeteries, trying to track down his ancestors. I think he had fully fleshed out family trees going back into the 16th century. He was incredibly excited about his family history, and grateful for that. Sure, he was in a lot of pain, but he could still walk. He was grateful for that. And he loved those dreadful smelly little cigars. They just pleased him to no end. Jim was grateful.
Jim was a churchgoing man. That’s the other place I saw him. I was a director of Youth Ministries and Christian Education for a downtown church, and Jim was a member. So I would see Jim there. I’d hear his shopping cart squeaking down the hallway, and I’d know Jim was in the building. Jim could talk about his faith; he was an unusual person in that respect. He believed that God, working through AA, had saved his life. And he was grateful.
One fall the youth group decided to do a fundraiser. They wanted to buy gifts for the women and children who would find themselves at the S. O. S. Shelter—now known as Rise-NY—over Christmas. As you may know, Rise has offered safety and advocacy for victims of domestic violence for at least 35 years. I don’t remember who thought of this as a mission project, but the kids were pretty pumped. This seemed like a worthwhile cause to them. They really wanted to help.
One of them got the idea to do a bottle and can drive, and the others all concurred that this would be a great, and relatively easy, fundraising project. All they’d need to do would be to remind the people at church to save bottles and cans for them, and then they’d bring them in, and, voila, easy money.
When you’re a youth leader, your best possible scenario is being able to follow where the kids want to lead. I thought this was an excellent idea, so I encouraged them. Sure! Absolutely. We can do this. And so the bulletin announcements were written, the signs were made… the word went out. We were collecting bottles and cans.

And, of course, I felt a little funny about this, as far as Jim was concerned. I was worried. Would we be cutting into Jim’s income? I knew he depended on his bottle and can money. I made a mental note to hold some of our family’s returnables aside for Jim…. maybe we could even try to drink some extra diet soda over the next month. I worried about the next time I would see Jim. Would he be upset? Would he be hurt? I didn’t look forward to our next encounter.
I was in my office one grey November day. I hadn’t seen Jim since the bottle and can drive had begun, but it was going well; I had an appointment to meet a youth group member and his mom to take two carloads to be redeemed. I don’t remember what I was working at, but I’m sure I was at my computer. Then, I heard it: the familiar squeak of Jim’s shopping-cart wheels coming down the hallway. I took a deep breath. I dreaded this meeting.
I stood up and poked my head out of my office door. “Hi,” he said. He had a raspy voice, a real smoker’s voice. “Can we talk? In private?”
“Sure Jim,” I said. “Do you want to come into my office?” Jim nodded, and he wheeled his cart just outside my door. He ambled in sort of slowly, and he let himself carefully down in a chair while I closed the door.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this bottle drive, Jim,” I said. That was narrowly true. I’d had a sense I should talk to him. But, in my anxiety about hurt feelings and so forth, I’d not really made any effort to make it happen.
“That’s what I want to talk about,” Jim said. He reached into the pocket of his big parka. He pulled out a wet, wrinkled $20 bill.
I looked at him, blankly.
“This is for the bottle drive. I want you to put this towards whatever the kids make.” Then he paused. “I don’t want them to know it’s from me.”
It took me a moment to re-orient myself from the conversation I’d been anticipating. For some reason, the first words out of my mouth were, “Jim, you don’t need to do this.”
He looked at me, hard. “Oh yes I do,” he said. He paused again. “It should be a lot more, but this is all I can manage at the moment.”
I did a quick calculation. $20.00. That’s four hundred cans. I had some vivid mental snapshots of Jim walking slowly down a street on the West Side, of Jim climbing three stairs somewhere to retrieve a bag, of Jim excited and adding up the numbers as we drove to the redemption center. I knew exactly what those bottles and cans cost him.
“Jim,” I began, but I never finished.
“I have not always been the person I should have been, especially when I was drinking, especially where women are concerned. Just know that…” another pause… “I need to do this.”
His voice brightened up as he rose to leave my office. “Have a nice day!” he said. When Jim said that, he said it without a hint of sarcasm. He meant it.
He took hold of his cart, and I listened as its squeaky wheels rolled down the carpeted hallway.

I stood there holding that wet $20 between my fingers, and for the first time in my life, I believe I got it. I got what grateful giving—grateful living—looked like. Actually, it can look like lots of things… but on that day, it looked like a little hunched man, wheeling his squeaky cart down the street to collect the bottles and cans he needed to live… A man who knew that everything he had was a gift, and that when you’ve been blessed, it feels good to share those blessings.

Blessings be to each of you. And thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gratitude and Grace and What God Requires: A Sermon on Micah

Scripture can be found here...

On an episode of “Glee” that aired a few years ago, one of the students at McKinley High School discovered an image that looked very much like Jesus Christ on his grilled cheese sandwich. And these kinds of incidents have been in the news, recently… an image of Jesus was seen in a tree in North Providence, RI the week of Halloween; another, in a plume of smoke coming from a house fire in Fresno, CA. On the TV show, at least, this event sparked theological conversations. The students started talking about God. What did they think about God? Did they believe? Some of the students were clear: they had faith, they believed in God, one even spoke up for the power of prayer in the face of life’s difficulties. Others were not so sure. Some said that Christianity seemed to deny women’s equality to men, to claim that God didn’t love gay people, and to force a choice between faith in God and scientific progress and discovery. But are all those things necessary to the Christian faith? Are they essentials?

In response to just those kinds of question, a Methodist minister wrote a book called, “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?”[i] The title seems a little odd, until you understand it is a book about the basics, what you might call the “essential tenets” of the Christian faith. What the author is really getting at is, “What does God want from us?”

If we have any inkling that we are not alone, that there is a power in the universe greater than the human imagination, a power we call “God,” I think we want to know the answer to that question. If there is a God, who created everything that is, including us, and who therefore has loving intentions towards us, what does that God want from us? What is required? This is the same question being asked 2750 years ago by Micah.

When Micah was a prophet, the kingdom of David had split into two kingdoms, one in the north (called Israel) and one in the south (called Judah). Judah contained Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, the place where Solomon had built the Temple, the holiest place on earth, for God’s covenant people. And for a long time it was believed that Jerusalem and the Temple were impermeable, inviolable—that Jerusalem would always successfully repel an invasion, and that the Temple would never be destroyed.

At the end of the eighth century BCE, the prophet Micah had a different understanding of the ways things were unfolding. Micah could see the truth: that the injustice and violence of the people and their kings was leading Judah down a path that could only lead to destruction. Any number of prophets—including Isaiah—were saying the opposite: that nothing would ever destroy Jerusalem or the Temple. And of course, those words were very popular with those in power, because it seemed to promise that they would stay in power. Micah saw things very differently. Micah saw the truth, and he spoke it aloud.

This is what a prophet does, by the way. A prophet looks at things and sees them without a filter, without the interfering blinders of politics or popularity or self-promotion. And then the prophet speaks out about what he or she sees. It’s common to think that prophets are like fortunetellers—the people who can look at your palm, and without knowing anything about you, tell you all about yourself. But prophets are doing just the opposite. They are looking deeply at the situation before them. They know the subject of their prophecy intimately. They speak out of their deep reflection and understanding. God’s anointing of a prophet isn’t so much about revealing secrets to them as it is endowing them with the strength and courage to speak what might be an unpopular word.

So Micah speaks. First, he gives an indication that there needs to be a new ruler. He’s pretty clear that the one who is currently on the throne is not the one who will save the people. In fact, the new ruler won’t even come from Jerusalem. Instead, he points to a little backwater named Bethlehem—Bethlehem, whose only claim to fame at this point is its favorite son David. But Micah stresses that Bethlehem is not so much a city as the boonies, “one of the little clans.” This is the Ancient Near East’s version of “outside the Beltway.” Then and now, it’s a powerful image. Power will arise where the people are generally pretty powerless.

With a new ruler comes a new understanding of the covenant relationship with God. Here is that question: What does God want from us? What does it meant to be in relationship with God? “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” [Micah 6:6a] And in proposing various answers to that question, the prophet reveals what is really going on, everything he sees with those clear, anointed eyes, the reasons God will not let this monarchy stand.

It comes as a series of questions.

“Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” [Micah 6:6b]

This would be an appropriate sin offering in the Temple. Micah’s listeners are nodding their heads.

“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” [Micah 6:7a]

It’s funny Micah should ask that, because… didn’t we read just a couple of weeks ago, that Solomon “used to offer a thousand burnt offerings” upon the altar at Gibeon? We did. And it was presented as the kind of magnificent offering that only a king could make—and a fantastically wealthy king, at that. Micah’s listeners are still nodding, but they’ve been put on notice—this is something none of them could every dream of doing.

“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” [Micah 6:7b]

The crowd freezes. What does Micah mean, exactly? Does he mean that he would dedicate his child to God? Like the child-to-be-prophet Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah? No. That’s not what he means. And they all know it.

They know it because they, like Micah, know all about their king, Manasseh. They know all about his transgressions. In 2 Kings 21, we can read a long list of his crimes.

Manasseh took Temple worship and twisted and perverted it in the worst possible ways. He built “high places,” illegal worship spaces where people worshiped false gods. He even built altars to these same false gods in the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem. He practiced witchcraft. And “he made his son pass through fire.” Manasseh sacrificed his own child.

And so Micah speaks the truth: God will not let this monarchy stand. The Temple will be no more. Jerusalem will be no more. This line of kings will be no more.

Micah is prophesying a dreadful loss to the people—the loss of both king and Temple. But at the same time, he is lifting up something powerfully hopeful: there is life after the Temple. There is relationship with God outside the Temple. And what the Lord requires is something that can be accomplished by all, women and men, royal folk and regular people. Three things are required.

First, do justice.

Justice is a word that has been somewhat hijacked by a contemporary American notion of punishment. We speak of people being brought to justice—by which we mean, arrested, tried, convicted, and punished. And this is a part of biblical justice, but only one part. Biblical justice also means giving people their rights. This is why, according to one writer, when you see the word “justice” in the Hebrew Scriptures, you typically see references to “the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called ‘the quartet of the vulnerable.’”[ii] Justice is every bit as interested in the vulnerable as it is in the culpable. This is because justice is a basic attribute of God. When we strive to “do justice” we are also striving to be in right relationship with others, to be generous, in short, to show by our actions that we are truly made in God’s image and likeness.

The second thing that is required: To love kindness. The word used here in the Hebrew is hesed, and it is rich and layered. It means things like: faithfulness, goodness, strength, even salvation. Hesed is never an abstraction—it’s not a feeling. It is always associated with practical action on behalf of another person. And hesed is not transient—which feelings so often are. Hesed is enduring.[iii] In scripture, God is said to be filled with hesed. Of all the people in scripture, the word is most associated with Ruth.

And finally, the third action: walk humbly with God. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that word, “humble,” means. Humility—the English word—has the same root as humus, as in, the soil, the good place where things grow. Humility seems to mean something like “groundedness” or to put it theologically, knowing where we come from. We human beings, according to the bible, are earth creatures—God made us from the earth we live upon. To be humble is to keep that in mind. To humble is also to be teachable, to know that we will not always be right in every moment and situation. To be humble is to be willing to listen perhaps just a little more than we speak.

What does God want from us? It's simple, though, like so many simple things, it’s not necessarily easy. Do justice. Love kindness. Be humble in your walk with God.

At the end of the “Grilled Cheese” episode of “Glee,” some of the Christian students have decided that their love for another student who calls himself an atheist is not dependent on his accepting their faith. And the student who calls himself an atheist is deeply moved by his friends’ prayers for his sick father, even though he doesn’t understand that impulse to pray. And the boy who found the face of Jesus on his sandwich still doesn't understand what it all means (though he does understand that he still really likes grilled cheese). And you know, I was reading reviews of this episode of “Glee,” and lots of those reviews were of the opinion that the boy with the sandwich was disillusioned, and that he lost his tentative, blossoming faith. That is not what I saw as I watched the scene. I saw a boy eating a grilled cheese sandwich bearing the image of Jesus—a moment of communion, or recognizing that the sacred is all around us, and within us, even in the most ordinary things. And in their own way, the students all seem to be doing their best. They go to great lengths to be fair to one another—that’s doing justice. They go to great lengths to show their love for one another—that’s loving kindness. And they are all humble enough to know that they are still learning. That, at least, is the beginning of a humble walk with God.

What does the Lord require of us? Just that. Fairness. Kindness. And that we keep walking, learning, opening ourselves to God, to one another, and even to the extraordinary flashes of holiness in the ordinary moments of our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Martin Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be A Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[ii] Tim Keller, “What is Biblical Justice?” in Relevant Magazine,
[iii] Will Kynes, “God’s Grace in the Old Testament: Considering the Hesed of the Lord,” Knowing & Doing, a Publication of the C. S. Lewis Institute,, p. 2.