Proper 28, Year C, 2016

What a week!

Some of you are coming into this space feeling wonderful and triumphant this week. Some feel like you have been kicked in the gut.  Some may just be plain relieved the election is over.

However you are feeling today, I think today you will find some hope in our words from Isaiah. They are beautiful, lofty words about God creating a new heaven and a new earth. God makes these incredible promises to his people, but today I want to remind us that the context in which these words were written was an incredibly difficult time in the life of Jewish people.

Remember with me, if you will, some of the history here. In 605 BC, the Babylonians invade Judah, which included Jerusalem, the holiest Jewish city. Instead of just taking over the region, the Babylonians forced Jewish people out of Judah and scattered them around the Babylonian empire. The Jewish people were allowed to work and have families, but they were not allowed to return home.

The book of Isaiah is divided into three parts, and our reading is from what is called Third Isaiah. Now Third Isaiah had to be written because God made all these promises in Second Isaiah about the Jewish people being allowed to return to Jerusalem where they would flourish, but the prophecies only came sort of true. King Cyrus of the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians, allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and to even start to rebuild the temple. But once they got there, the Jewish people experienced great poverty, drought, failed crops. They truly suffered. They had hoped in this one idea of the future, but the reality was incredibly painful. They gave up on building the Temple.

They were suffering and they were mad at God. How could God do this to them? After all the disorienting dislocation they had experienced, after the warfare and violence, how could things have turned out this way?

And of course what happens in this kind of suffering is that people turn against each other. The earlier parts of Third Isaiah describe factions and leaders within the Jewish community at each other’s throats. Leaders tried to make themselves rich, and the court system was filled with corruption.

Our generation did not invent brutal politics.

So, then what is this hopeful text we have from Isaiah 65 this morning? Is it pointing to some kind of idyllic afterlife? Do we have to drop dead before we can experience the lovely joy and peace that it promises? Are we too corrupt to be that aligned with God here and now?

Paul Hanson, an Old Testament scholar, believes there are two ways to understand shalom–this kind of idealized peace described in Isaiah 65. He writes,

It is terribly important that in answering this question one draw a clear distinction between two exercises of religious imagination. One dreams of shalom as an avenue of escape from real life. . .with the effect of disabling people by breaking their will to act with courage and determination on behalf o God’s order of justice. The other envisions shalom as an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose.

So, we can see this image of a new creation as something that will only happen after we die, which causes us to throw up our hands. Or, we can see this image of a new creation of the way God can work through us, no matter our circumstances.

Before God gives Isaiah this vision, first Isaiah does a lot of yelling . He reminds Judah that blaming God for bad circumstances is a way of throwing up our hands and releasing ourselves from any responsibility for our situation. God wants his people to take responsibility for making this idealized peace into a reality. Isaiah tells Judah they need to keep the Sabbath, clean out the corruption from their justice system, offer food to the hungry, and rebuild his Temple.

That’s how justice looked in the 6th century BCE. How does justice look now? As long as there have been Democrat and Republican parties, they have had different ideas about how to enact justice. And when our country is in a healthy-ish place, our politics looks like hearty arguments and deal making and compromises as we hash out how to make justice happen for our citizens.

What concerns me about where we seem to be headed, in such a highly polarized time, is a situation where we do not give our politicians permission to have those arguments and make those compromises. On a recent broadcast of the NPR show On Being, Eboo Patel expressed these concerns beautifully:

My quick take on that is healthy is a society in which people who orient around religion differently can disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things. And in my mind, the most dangerous trend in our society right now is what Andrew Sullivan calls the “scalping” trend, which is if you disagree with me on one fundamental thing …I will neutralize our entire relationship, and I will take your scalp and hang it on my wall as a trophy to make sure that everybody else who has that opinion knows that I’m coming for them[1].

How do we live out faithful citizenship and have passionate beliefs, without wanting to scalp each other? I think this week—in which we had both Election Day and Veterans day—is as good a time as any to consider these questions.

At another point in the interview Patel said that when he was in college and was a fire-breathing political activist, he read a column by William Raspberry of The Washington Post in which he wrote “The smartest people I know secretly believe both sides of the issue.” This helped reframe Patel’s understanding of what it means to position himself in the world. Winning the argument is not always the most important thing you can do in a conversation. Listening and trying to understand how other people understand the world can be transformative.

It may be too soon after an incredibly divisive election cycle to start engaging in this way. We may need more time to cool off. But eventually, it would be powerful if we could really listen to each other, try to hear each other’s concerns, and see if we can come to any common ground. I think church is one of the few places in our lives we actually interact in person with people who think differently from us, so if we are very brave maybe we can practice having those conversations with each other. Even if that is SO not the polite thing to do! These conversations do not mean we are abandoning our ideas of justice.

No matter our political affiliation, there are fundamental acts of justice we are supposed to do as God’s followers. We are supposed to feed the poor, care for the widow and orphan, take care of refugees. They are summed up pretty beautifully in our baptismal covenant. We even have some copies of the covenant on the back table if you want one for your fridge. And even if our political systems completely abandon these tasks of justice, they are still ours. We are the light of the world. We can live out faithful citizenship outside of official structures.

No one can take away God’s image of a new Creation from us. We can stand up for those experiencing racism. We can feed the poor and house the homeless. We can treat each person we meet with respect. We have the power to participate in God’s creation of a new heaven and a new earth right now. And it may take awhile before the wolf and the lamb—or the pantsuit and the red cap—can hang out together peacefully and productively, but we hang on to an image of shalom where they can.

We have our annual ingathering this Sunday, but it’s not an ordinary ingathering. I hope as we offer our financial gifts to this place, we are also offering again the promises we made at baptism to God and to the world. The world needs Christians that are filled with the light of Christ’s love. Your relationship with God is more than just walking through these doors once a week. God chooses you to be his representative in the world and to help make this new heaven and a new earth. You are the light of the world.

Amen.

[1] Patel, Eboo, “How to live beyond this election” On Being aired October 27, 2016

 

Proper 7, Year C, 2013

A few weeks ago, we met Elijah the showman—a man so confident in God that he was willing to have a public throwdown with the prophets of Ba’al.

Today we have a slightly more relatable Elijah.  Today we have Elijah, the whiner.  Not many of us have had public throwdowns in which we have heroically defended God’s honor.  But I guarantee that most of us in this room have whined at least once.

The last few weeks we have skipped all around the Elijah story, but this leg of the story happens right after the show down with Ba’al’s prophets.  You might remember that Elijah then kills the prophet’s of Ba’al, which infuriates Queen Jezebel, who sends a messenger to warn Elijah that he has 24 hours until she is sending someone to kill him.

So, Elijah runs.

He spends an entire day running into the wilderness until he finally collapses, exhausted.  He lies under a little tree and decides to give up.  He asks to die.  He doesn’t want to go any further.  He’s had a good run as a showman prophet and now that things are going downhill, he’s ready to check out.

Now, anytime I get a little cranky, my husband’s first line of defense is to feed me a snack.  This works about 85% of the time.  Apparently, God has the same plan for Elijah.  Elijah falls asleep under the tree, but an angel wakes him up and feeds him some cake and water.

What a tender acknowledgement of Elijah’s humanity!  Before God engages Elijah directly, he gives Elijah what he needs to regain his strength.  He has asked Elijah to do extraordinary things, but God remembers that Elijah is just a man, and a man who needs some cake.

Once Elijah is revived, he finds a cave and hides there.  For 40 days.

Finally, Elijah hears God’s voice.  And God says, slightly exasperated, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

What would we answer God if he asked us the same question?  Would we answer, “What?  This is where you called me to be!”  Would we say, “I know, I know, I’ve gotten way off track.”  Would we say, “Don’t look at me, Lord of the Universe, I am only here because of outside circumstances!”

Elijah gives a personally reasonable response, even if it is a teensy bit whiney.  Elijah patiently explains to God that he has been extremely faithful to God, even though the Israelites are total losers who have turned their backs on God and now they are trying to kill him, so he’s just going to go ahead and live in this cave thank you very much.

We might expect that God would tell Elijah, “Oh grow up.  No one ever said being a prophet was easy.  Put on your big boy britches and get back out there!”

In fact, at first God doesn’t answer Elijah at all.  He just tells him to go stand on the edge of the mountain because he is about to pass by.  Remember this isn’t just a mountain, this is Horeb.  This is Sinai.  This is the mountain where the Lord shows up in big ways.  This is the ten commandments mountain.

So, Elijah goes out to the edge of the mountain.

Now, Elijah has gotten used to experiencing God in dramatic ways.  After all, God shot fire from the heavens to prove to the Israelites that he existed and was more powerful than Ba’al.  So, I bet Elijah expected a big showing when The Lord himself was going to appear!

Elijah waits and a huge wind comes.  But the Lord is not in it.  Then a huge earthquake, but no God.  Then fire!  Surely God was in the fire, Fire is God’s move.  Nope.  No God.

Finally sheer silence fell on the mountain.  Elijah wraps his face in his cloak because he knows hte Lord is passing by and he wants to be protected.

What a powerful moment.  Elijah is reminded that God is not only with him when fire is raining from the sky, but God is with him even in those moments in his life when he cannot hear or experience God.  God is in the silence, not just the dramatic.  God is in the everyday, not just the holy experiences.

Surely, this is a transformational moment for Elijah, right?

Well, God asks Elijah the same question, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

And Elijah gives God the exact same answer as before.  Word for word!

I think we get so distracted by the beautiful imagery in this passage, that it is easy to miss that Elijah’s anxiety has not diminished.  The encounter with God was surely powerful, but not enough to transform Elijah’s personality or current problem, which is that the king’s wife is going to kill him.

Our reading stops there, but what happens next is that God gives Elijah an out!  He lets Elijah quit!  He tells Elijah to head back and that God will appoint a new king to replace Ahab and Elijah will get to appoint Elisha to be the next prophet!  God gives crabby Elijah what he wants! Elijah knows what he can handle and God honors Elijah’s limitations.

Isn’t that great news?

We hear so often of the Christian martyrs and remember Christ’s death on the cross, that sometimes we think being faithful to God means working ourselves to death.  We think being faithful to God means beating our heads against brick walls.  We think being faithful to God means handling whatever we are dealt, no matter how terrible.

But God created us to be limited beings.  We are not infinite, God is.  And because we are finite, there are challenges that are too much for us.  And we are allowed to complain to God about them.  Sometimes we will have to follow through, but sometimes God will completely understand our need to quit.

Now, please, don’t all of you quit your church committees at once; Eric will kill me.  And, it turns out, Elijah didn’t quit, after all!

God did give Elijah the out, and Elijah did immediately find Elisha, but he didn’t then move to Florida and start wearing Hawaiian print shirts.  Elijah worked alongside Elisha, finishing out his duties as prophet.  Something about being heard by God, and having his limits recognized, came him the energy and courage he needed to finish out his ministry.

When you imagined God asking you, “What are you doing here?” Did you imagine parts of your life that are making you miserable? Are there responsibilities you need to give up so you can fully live?  Do you need encouragement to finish out what you have started?

Admitting your limitations will not make God turn his back on you.  In fact, it wasn’t until Elijah admitted his fears that he experienced the full presence of God.  God’s relationship with Elijah was not a reward for Elijah being a “good boy”.  God’s relationship with Elijah was because God loved Elijah, for who he was, in all his crankiness.

And you too, are loved, exactly as you are.  With your bad habits and unpleasant disposition and extra ten pounds–God loves all of that.  God loves all of you.  And God will continue to call you, but that call is a conversation, not a set of marching orders.

So, what are you going to say when God asks you, “What are you doing here?”

Amen.

Proper 14, Year B, 2009

I don’t know how closely you’ve been paying attention to the lectionary lately, but there has been a lot of whining and a lot of bread.  Two weeks ago, Jesus fed the 5000 with just a few loaves.  Last week, the Israelites started whining about being hungry in the desert and were fed manna from heaven.  This week we’ve got Elijah whining in the desert and Jesus describing himself as the Bread of Heaven.

Well, maybe Elijah is not whining, exactly.  You see, Elijah has been locked in an epic battle with a powerful woman named Jezebel.  Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab and had worked with her husband to encourage the worship of Baal among the Israelites.  And frankly, that is about the nicest thing I can think of to say about Jezebel.  She was not a kind person.  Elijah was not afraid to confront her about her many failings as Queen of the Israelites, but Jezebel was not really open to criticism.  Instead of listening to Elijah, she ordered his death.  Elijah ran away, into the wilderness.

Elijah is exhausted from running.  He has no future that he can imagine.  There is a death sentence waiting for him if he returns home.  In his exhaustion he asks God to kill him and then promptly falls into a deep sleep.

What happens next is one of the loveliest moments in all of Scripture.  Instead of killing Elijah, or telling Elijah to pull himself up by the bootstraps, or berating Elijah for his lack of faith, God sends Elijah an angel.  The angel gently wakes Elijah from his slumber and gives him hot bread to eat and cool water to drink.  Before the angel leaves, he touches Elijah one more time, encourages him to eat and then disappears.

Elijah has spent a lot of his life defending God of Israel against other gods.  Elijah has spent a lot of time helping people to see the power of God, the strength of God.  But in this small moment, Elijah experiences the intimate God, the loving God.  God gently encourages Elijah to press on and gives him the literal bread he needs to build up his strength for the journey.

For Elijah, his whining, or murmuring, or cry for help is met by God with nourishment, not rebuke.

Elijah’s need is met with love.

Most unpleasant behavior can be attributed to either hunger, fear, anger or loneliness.  Elijah was certainly experiencing hunger and fear!  When humans feel these unpleasant feelings and can’t quite sort out how to get our needs met, we lash out at whomever is around us.

I don’t know about you, but when I get cranky, nine times out of ten what I need is food.  My husband knows this by now and when he hears a certain snappish tone in my voice he immediately looks around to figure out what he can feed me before my unpleasantness can fully reveal itself.

The natural response when someone is cranky or whiny or unpleasant is to steer clear of the offending party.  But instead of moving away from us when we are at our worst, God moves toward us.  God nourishes us.

And maybe the lectionary spends four weeks in August dwelling on how Jesus is the Bread of Life, because this concept is so counterintuitive.  This concept is almost as hard to imagine as an angel waking you up and offering you a hot breakfast.

Jesus is easy to understand when he is standing on a mount or a fishing boat and telling us about God or how to live our lives.  When Jesus is speaking to us, we understand that he is the teacher and we are his students. The relationship is safe, the boundaries are clear.

But when Jesus describes himself as Bread-as something we bite and chew, swallow and absorb, those boundaries blur.

Ronald Rollheiser, the Catholic theologian, makes the connection between Jesus being the Bread of Life and being present in the Eucharist.  He writes:

For most of [Jesus’] ministry, he used words. Through words, he tried to bring us God’s consolation, challenge, and strength. His words, like all words, had a certain power. Indeed, his words stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions. But at a time, powerful though they were, they too became inadequate. Something more was needed. So on the night before his death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart.

Words are important.  I believe in words.  I have included many of them in this sermon.  However, words alone cannot convey love.

I spent a lot of time this week watching the footage of the journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee reuniting with their families after being prisoners in North Korea.  I’m sure they spoke words, too, and will continue to speak about their experiences to their loved ones, but their first reactions were to run toward their families and hug them as tightly as humanly possible.

Those hugs, their tears, her husband wrapping his arms around Euna as she clasped her daughter to her chest-those small acts conveyed more love than any speeches the women could have made to their families.

In the same way, Jesus was limited by words to express the fullness of love he felt toward humanity.

And so, Jesus becomes Bread.  He becomes a kiss.  He becomes our nourishment.  He moves beyond words to commune with us in a way both spiritual and physical.

And like the angel gave Elijah bread to give him strength for the journey ahead, Jesus gives us himself for the very same purpose.  Whether we are cheerful or cranky, strong or weak, ready or unprepared, Jesus moves toward us and embraces us.

Jesus is the Bread of life, given to us.  And that is beyond words.

Ash Wednesday, Year A, 2008

Today we begin, what seems far too soon, the season of Lent. We take off our Mardi Gras beads, put away the pot of chili from the Superbowl game, and turn off CNN after watching Super Tuesday coverage. We quiet ourselves, center ourselves, and open ourselves to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his own death.

To honor this, we traditionally choose some sort of sacrifice, a fast, to help us connect to Jesus’ experience.

This year, I was well on my way to considering whether to give up chocolate, or wine , or ice cream for Lent. After all, those are all things I really, really enjoy. I would be sad if I could not enjoy them for six weeks. I might even channel that sadness into moments of thinking about God, or a deeper prayer life. And giving up television would be cheating, since the Writer’s Strike took care of that, anyway.

In the midst of these deliberations, I began preparing this sermon. Oof. Our passage from Isaiah today certainly takes the wind out of our sails, doesn’t it?

Here we are, gathered to think about our own mortality and begin six weeks of repentant behavior, when Isaiah reminds us that the kind of fasting we begin today does not mean much to God.

Isaiah writes,

Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

Ouch.

I have no workers to oppress and I don’t intend to start any quarrels or to strike anyone with my “wicked fist”, but the kind of fast I traditionally do MIGHT just serve my own interests. After all, giving up decadent foods would make my cholesterol levels drop, my skin clear up, make my pants fit more loosely.

It is important to note that Isaiah does not say all fasting is bad. His fasting would go a little bit more like this:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

While we probably should not go spring prisoners from local jails, there are fasts we can take that fit into these standards.

We could take the money we would normally use at Starbucks, Best Buy or J. Crew and send it to a food bank or homeless shelter. We can sacrifice a couple of hours of paid leave to help out at Disciples Kitchen later this month. We can go through our clothes, or even buy new ones, and donate them to Shelter for Help in Emergency or another worthy organization.

We could even do something radical like start thinking about what we can do with the tax refunds that will becoming our way later this winter or spring. We may not have trouble paying our mortgage, but maybe we know somebody who does. Or maybe we’d like to tithe part of it to a group that provides transitional housing or housing assistance.

We can also sacrifice our time and money by becoming involved in political advocacy for those who cannot advocate for themselves. We can join the Episcopal Public Policy Network or the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Instead of watching another endless hour of really terrible strike TV, we can write letters to our congressmen about the Millennium Development Goals to help eradicate global poverty.

There are many ways to experience the repentance that comes in Lent with out making the repentance all about us. Lent is not for endless naval-gazing, but for aligning ourselves with the One who came to earth to free us from all that oppresses us, even when that which oppresses us is ourselves. As people who have been freed and lifted up by God, we are then empowered to do the work God has been asking humanity to do since Leviticus was written—to treat one another fairly, to help the poor, to protect widows and orphans, to seek justice and to behave mercifully.

Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem, to his own death, so that we might live within the grace and affection of God. In return, the least we can do is offer some of that grace and affection to our fellow men.

Proper 18, Year C, 2007

Sometimes in the Old Testament, God can seem far off and remote.  We have a hard time connecting with such an impersonal God.  Then, every once in awhile, we read something that shocks us into remembering that God loves us personally and passionately.  Both of today’s readings from the Old Testament wake us up to God’s relationship with us.

Our Psalm today is one of the most beautiful Psalms in the Psalter.  The Psalmist marvels at God’s knowledge and care for us from the time we are in our mother’s wombs, to the end of our days.  The Psalmist has come to understand that no matter where we go in our lives, or how far we may try to run from our experiences, God is always with us, caring for us and shaping us.

This idea of God shaping us takes even further form in our passage from Jeremiah.  In this prophetic piece of writing, God is describing to Jeremiah how God can shape the fortunes of Israel like a potter shapes a piece of clay.  This metaphor is really powerful-God as a potter means that God is hands on with us, that God molds and shapes us in an intimate way.

I don’t know much about pottery-my most formative mental image of pottery is as a 13 year old watching agog as Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze steamed up the pottery wheel in the movie Ghost.  So, I asked some questions of those who do know something about pottery and this is what I learned.

Pottery has five main steps.  First, the potter kneads the clay.  This prepares the clay to be shaped later.  Next, the potter throws the clay-this is the image crystallized so clearly in Ghost-when the potter places the clay on a wheel and begins to shape the clay as the wheel moves.  Third, the potter fires the clay, in order for the pot to hold its shape.  Fourth, the potter glazes the pot to add color and finally, the potter fires the pot again.

Being kneaded, thrown, and fired.  These are not universally pleasant images, but they certainly resonate with human experience.  How does God knead, throw and fire us?

Think of kneading as a time of preparation.  A potter must knead the clay before she throws the clay, because the clay must be pliable and homogenous.  Kneading gets out rough patches and soft spots.  Kneading makes clay flexible and useable. 

In our Christian journeys, let’s think of the time of kneading as the time when we gain the tools, flexibility and knowledge we need to deal with the world.  We are kneaded by God when we come to church, when we read the bible, when we pray.  We are kneaded by our parents as they teach us to share and play nicely with others.  We are kneaded as we go to school and learn to read, write, think, do math, conduct experiments.  We are kneaded as we learn to dance, play a sport, pick up a musical instrument.  God uses all these things in our youth and our adulthood to prepare us to be the fully formed people he created in our mother’s wombs.

The throwing stage can be a little more challenging.  Being pulled and pushed and shaped by God can be exhausting.  We’re constantly being shaped in order that we may live out more closely the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

My best friend, L., who often comes up in my sermons, is going through a period of being thrown by God at the moment.  For many years, she has consciously sought out jobs in which she did not have to be responsible for other people.  She is a hard worker, but the stress of managing others was just not worth the benefits for her.  She has been an administrator and personal assistant in a variety of capacities, but finally after getting the bill from the company that replaced the roof of her house this winter, she finally had the motivation she needed to seek a job with more responsibility (and a higher paycheck!)

She began work a few months ago in an office with a bunch of Ph.Ds and a lot of administrative assistants as their first office manager. Every day she is being stretched-though she is an incredibly intelligent woman, the PhDs use words every day she’s never heard of.  Some administrative assistants resent her presence and the IT girl has commenced a war against her.  L’s intelligence is being stretched, her people skills are being pulled and prodded, her patience is tried every day, and her sheer physical endurance is growing as she works her tail off.  She knows God brought her to this job, but she also feels like she is reaching to the very edges of her ability for the first time in a long time. 

Being thrown on God’s potting wheel can be dizzying!  Having to grow as a person when we are already fully fledged adults can be really painful. But as Christians, as people in relationship with our Creator, we are never done growing, and God is never done with us. 

While being shaped on the potter’s wheel may be tiring, no experience quite matches that of then being placed in the potter’s fire.

At some point in our Christian journey, we will each find ourselves in the potter’s fire.  This may be prompted by an event in our lives, or it may simply be a spiritual experience.  This week, early reviews of Mother Theresa’s book of personal letters have been published.  What has shocked many people is that Mother Theresa spent much of her life-and all 50 years of her ministry as a nun–in deep spiritual turmoil.  She often felt as if God were far from her and went through periods where she doubted his existence entirely.  Instead of leaving the convent and her ministry, though, she stayed in the spiritual struggle.  She continued to pray, and read, and consult her own spiritual mentors.  She also continued serving those she was called to serve.  And though she would deny she was one, this faithfulness, this fight, is what formed her into a saint.  The fire of her doubt, ironically, is the fire that sanctified her, that showed forth her true self. 

The potter’s fire has also been described as the refining fire-it is the fire that burns away the parts of ourselves that are not true, and brings to light the parts of ourselves that God has created and shaped.  The potter’s fire may not come a purely spiritual struggle.  The potter’s fire may come as grief at the death of a loved one.  The fire may come during a painful divorce, or an illness, or after a dream has died.

As you know, though, not everyone who has been through a difficult period of their lives emerges from it enlightened and more themselves. People often leave the fire bitter and occasionally even broken. A potter’s fire is a dangerous place.  It is in the fire when glaze turns the wrong color, or even worse, when a piece of pottery shatters.

When we are in the fire, or when we know someone who is in the fire, we need to be extra gentle.  This is the time for extra prayer and rest and meditation.  This is the time for loving friends and trips to the spa.  We do not run away from our lives, but we do take deep breaths and more naps. 

The fire is not something inherently destructive-the fire is intended to shape and refine us.  God is not interested in our destruction, God is interested in our holiness, in our relationship with him and with each other.  Those fruits of the spirit that are formed when we are on the wheel are shined and honed in the fire. 

Pottery is known for being beautiful, but fundamentally pottery is known for being useful.  As Christians, God shapes us to be useful, too.  Useful to our families, useful to our churches and workplaces, useful to the poor and those who need extra help.  Today, at our Festival of Ministries, you will have the opportunity to think about how God has formed you for usefulness.  What experiences have you had that have made you better and more yourself?  What might God be preparing for you to do?  There is much work to be done here at Emmanuel, even if that work usually means having quite a bit of fun and spending time with really remarkable people.  You have a place-or several places!-here at Emmanuel, and today is your day to explore them!  So, whether you are a vase or a bowl; a plate or a coffee mug-we welcome to spend time with us after church today deciding what kind of piece of pottery you are!

Advent 1, Year C, 2006

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent-the liturgical time of the year during which we wait, with eager anticipation, for God to enter the world.

This waiting has been happening for a long time and will continue for a long time.  And, as Christians, we become those who wait.  We wait for God to come back, to usher in a time and justice and peace.

Throughout history there have been those whose most important roles in life have been to actively wait for God, and to prepare those around them to meet God.

The prophet Jeremiah is one of those people.  He was a prophet, who for forty years, warned his society about the ways they were straying from God.  He lived in a tumultuous time, about six hundred years before Christ came into the world.  During his time as a prophet, Jerusalem, which had been ruled by kings in the line of King David, was invaded by the Babylonians.  They removed the rightful king, and replaced him with a puppet king named Zedekiah.  All went according to the Babylonians’ plan for awhile, but  eventually Zedekiah was convinced by the people of Jerusalem to rebel and he did, but was crushed by the Babylonians. 

The people of Jerusalem were devastated and they prayed that God would free them from his captors.  Babylonia was not the only powerful nation of the time, and soon the Egyptian army marched to the area.  The Babylonians backed off of Jerusalem and the people of Jerusalem were thrilled!  Their prayers had been answered!  God had delivered them!

Jeremiah had the unpleasant job to tell them to hold onto their horses for a minute.  He warned them this break was just a reprieve, and he was right.  In the year 586 BC Jerusalem fell to Babylon again. 

The words Jeremiah speaks in our passage today are spoken after Jerusalem has fallen.  Strangely, they are words of hope, not what you would expect in the middle of such dire circumstances. Before our passage today, Jeremiah explains that God has hidden his face from Jerusalem because of its inhabitants’ wickedness.  But his words don’t end there.  Jeremiah describes to his listeners a vision of a restored Jerusalem in which its inhabitants will experience security and abundance.  He speaks of life replacing the desolation that currently describes the town.

In our passage today, Jeremiah speaks specifically of the righteous Branch of David who will execute justice and righteousness in the land.  Righteousness is a key term here.  Remember the figurehead king we discussed earlier? The word for righteousness in Hebrew is Zedek, and the king’s name is Zedekiah.  Unfortunately, this king could not live up to his name.

So, when Jeremiah speaks of a righteous Branch of David, he is specifically contrasting this image of an upright leader with the image of Zedekiah, a corrupt leader.  Righteous not only means just, as we think of it today, it also has connotations of being right-of conforming to norms and expectations.  So, the Branch of which Jeremiah speaks will not be grafted in, as Zedekiah was by the Babylonians, it will be a Branch of the true line of kings-the line of David.  But, this branch will also be righteous in the sense of being holy and aligned with God.  This branch will conform both to lineage and to God’s standards for kingship-being just and merciful.  In fact, this Branch of David will be called righteousness. 

The image of righteousness springing up from desolation, from hopefulness is a beautiful one.  And this image is really the image of Advent. 

Advent is about waiting for God, waiting for righteousness to enter the world.  Waiting for life to come from desolation.  Waiting for salvation.

American protestant theology usually describes salvation in terms of the individual.  We think of a person being “saved” at a prayer meeting, for instance.  When Jeremiah speaks of salvation and God’s righteousness, though, Jeremiah is thinking in terms of a community’s salvation. 

So, what is the difference between individual and community salvation?

When we think of salvation in individual terms, we think of one person’s righteousness.  We think of this individual confessing his sins, being forgiven by God and going on to have a relationship with God.

However, righteousness is not simply about the relationship between individuals and their God.  Righteousness is about a way of life.  When you think of salvation in terms of a community, you begin to understand that righteousness is not just about being connected to God, but it means living out that relationship with God by your relationships with the people around you.  If you are ‘saved’, but are a jerk to your kids, you’re not experiencing righteousness.  If you’re ‘saved’, but are not taking care of orphans, widows, and the poor, you’re not experiencing righteousness.  If you’re ‘saved’, but not seeking to be in right relationship with others, you’re not experiencing righteousness.  Righteousness is a way of life in which a community conforms to the righteousness of Christ.

And in America, I think a lot of our recent culture wars have to do with different groups having different interpretations of what it means to be a righteous people.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by sticking with traditional values.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by eliminating AIDS.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by protecting ourselves from terrorism.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by slowing down global warming.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by fixing inner city schools.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when all races and both genders are treated equally.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when we narrow the gap between rich and poor.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when the media becomes tasteful again.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when we all believe the same things. 

I don’t think we’ll ever achieve righteousness as a nation by backing the right issues.  Our only hope, really, is Jesus.  Our hope rests in a prayer that Jesus will let us conform to his righteousness. This kind of conforming takes effort and sacrifice and cannot be undertaken without the power of God behind us.

Jesus does more than save us from death.  Jesus changes us.  When we are truly in relationship with Christ, we are constantly challenged to grow, deepen and be transformed.  And that transformation is always toward righteousness. 

And for that transformation, we need to wait.  But this is no passive waiting, this is a waiting that is full of longing-longing for Christ, longing for God, longing for righteousness.  This is a waiting full of prayer and of study and of relationship.

This is a waiting full of hope.

Like Jeremiah, we know that God is for us.  And with Jeremiah, we wait for Him.