My dad didn’t know “what part of the night the thief was coming,” otherwise “he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” He was home alone, sound asleep, which made it all the more surprising to see someone standing in his bedroom door!
My dad had slipped into the house late on Sunday night, after spending the weekend with our family up north at the summer cottage. He was tired, and after brushing his teeth, went straight to bed. Perhaps the thief had been casing the joint, as the family lore goes, and noticed no one was home for the last couple days, that, the coast was clear. My dad had come in the back door from the garage, and the bathroom was also on the back side of the house where he turned on a light only briefly. It probably looked like no one was home again on that night. So, the thieves’ found a way in through a basement window, helped themselves to the family silver on the first floor, and then made their way upstairs. My dad was sound asleep, not sound enough to be snoring yet, I guess. And so the thief entered my parents’ bedroom and casually flipped on the light switch. My dad sprang to attention, wide-eyed at first, looking far more awake than he really was, before he squinted into the bright flash-bulb like effect of the over-head light. In the aperture of his mind, he caught a glimpse of a figure, frozen in a split-second in time, standing unexpectedly in the door-way to his bedroom.
We’re not sure who was more startled, dad or the thief, because the thief darted out double-time down the stairs and out the front door. Dad, his heart pounding, checked to see if he was still dreaming, before noting the time and then calling the police. He wouldn’t get the sleep he so desperately wanted, after all. “…you know what time it is,” said St Paul, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep… the night is far gone, the day is near.”
Like the suddenness of a thief in the night, like a babies fever, like the love of God, we can never be totally prepared. And despite the lightness and humor I have, as I look back on the story of the thief in the middle of the night, it must have been scary for my dad when it happened.
The darkness of night in our readings, as in this season of Advent, as we await the light about to be born into our world, represents the uncertainty and fear that we have in waiting for the day of the Lord, the second coming, the vague warning of the end-times, the Final Consummation. Some are calling these dark times. Dark days, in regard to those who have lost a job, lost their pension or savings, lost their home. Fear is real! Fear of being burglarized on the streets, some of which have occurred in this neighborhood, not only in the dark of night, but in broad daylight. Fear of being broken into, as fear and desperation increases for the unemployed.
Add to that, the fear of terrorism, hopefully far away, but none-the-less, something we carry on our hearts and minds constantly. We feel it more acutely in the increased security at airports this week. Full body-scan, or pat-down? Pick your poison, which is the better of this pair of bad choices, the more tolerable of two very objectionable intrusions! And then hope that it really does offer greater protection once you are up in the air. No one knows when the next terrorist attack will come, but the experts warn that, sooner or later, it will.
“The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour!” It’s also like a baby’s first sickness, which you never see coming. It’s a terrible ordeal to see your child suffer when they are toddlers. They can’t tell you where it hurts, and you can’t tell if it’s truly serious or not. Practically every parent goes through it, that night of wondering what to do! Is this crying different than the normal cries? Is this a new rash? But you don’t know how bad it is, which doesn’t help the anxiety and fear. When it happened to little Owen, as Dave and Jennifer recalled the story to me, they were anxious and frightened too, but happy they took the proper precautions, and then, greatly relieved to have the doctor tell them it was simply a cold he had caught.
We don’t know what time the baby will come down with a fever, or when the next terrorist will strike, or when the thief will break in! But Jesus tells us not to worry, do not fear. “The night is far gone and the day is near,” as Paul said. And this is the beautiful new day we live into as a baptized people of God. It was exactly that hour of dawn, between the coming of the first light and the full revealing of day, when the women went to discover the empty tomb, and that Jesus had risen from the dead-end darkness, and conquered death. This first light was a sacred moment for the early church, which came to symbolize where we are in the sweep of salvation history. Jesus has been raised, in baptism we are saved, but the new day has not yet been fully revealed. The women, the disciples, and other witnesses who came to believe, experienced a mixture of joy and fear on that first new day, that all followers of our risen savior, still experience.
But one thing was for sure, the night was far gone. It was time “to wake from sleep and put on the armor of light; the Lord Jesus Christ,” which is the new baptismal clothing we wear. In baptism we die with Jesus, and rise with Christ. We are baptized into his death, and made as dead as we can ever be. And we rise to a new life, and put on the armor of light and our new resurrection clothes. Now there is nothing we need fear. We have been saved already, and are freed to live courageously with a song of thanksgiving in our hearts. Fear, if not totally banished, is conquered. The thief may still come, but he cannot hurt us or take anything from us that we have not already offered up to God. We don’t know what time the Son of Man will come, but we are ready and awake. “The night is far gone.” “Our salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.”
We can say that, even for little Owen, who is on his way to his new life in Christ. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is nothing that ultimately can hurt him. He is freed up to live confidently and courageously into the new dawning day, he is saved and redeemed and wide awake to the call of Christ in his life.
Together we keep watch, taking turns at the watchers look-out, unafraid of the thief, protected in our baptismal armored clothing, eyes wide open, as the sky brightens, and the light and grace and love of God pours down upon us, and we are filled with a hopefulness, for the new day dawning.
No, this is not Good Friday! We will not have the other 7 words of Jesus from the cross, and 6 more preachers coming forward – though we do have one extra today, Tom Robb. If you are caught short, or a little bit off balance by the stark naked truth of Jesus death on the cross, when here, we’ve been plugging the delicious Thanks For Real, Thanksgiving meal for today – let me say on the one hand, that I feel your pain, but on the other, I have to boast in the gospel!
Today is Christ the King Sunday, or the Last Sunday of the Church year. We’ve been aiming for this, all month, with the end-time readings from the prophets, and Jesus’ Little Apocalypse, which leads us, ever so gracefully and tactfully, into Advent, a season with the similar theme of, the-end-of-the-age, slash, dawn-of-a-new-realm, that’s about to come and break things open, by the birth of a savior, in just over a months time.
Actually, we’ve been trying to prepare for this day, ever since that gospel reading, way back in June, when, “Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem!” That’s Luke’s significant shift from his Galilean ministry in the rural north, where Jesus was raised and called his Disciples, and the start of his very deliberate journey to Jerusalem, where he predicted quite plainly, he would be rejected, and like all the true prophets, be killed, but, after 3 days rise again.
Christ the King Sunday reminds us that Jesus fulfilled his mission of going to Jerusalem, not just to die, but to overcome the last enemy, death, and be raised, and to ascend to the right hand of God, as a new kind of king. This is where his life, and ours as baptized people and followers of Jesus, are pointed. All is revealed in the cross. And, not coincidentally, revealing is what apocalypse and end-times are all about, for they mean, a pulling back of the curtain or veil, in order to reveal the truth.
On the cross Jesus reveals a world of false saviors, and also for us today, a world of pseudo-cultures. There is planted among us, the culture of competition. A culture that promises that everyone can be a winner, but, if you lose, it’s your own darn fault. That’s lie #1 which the leaders in Jerusalem advocate as Jesus hangs on the cross. We are bombarded with that one every day. Its power can be very subtle, and many don’t notice, unless you’ve experienced how the rules are written to favor a certain class or group, over another. The second pseudo-culture is represented by the soldiers, that of bullying and ‘might makes right.’ They follow their orders, torturing and crucifying Jesus, but some didn’t stop there, they had to bully him on the cross too, mocking him, as a king without power. Let’s see you “save yourself” now, they say, after nailing him to the cross. Bullying is a real threat today to peace and justice for all. The culture of bullying is not a mere teasing, but is a targeting and vicious demeaning of those who are different, vulnerable, and Jesus gave himself to overcome it. And the third false culture, is the culture of blame, or not taking responsibility for your own power, which we see in the first criminal. He is desperate to escape from the sentence he is under. When Jesus happens to show up at the place called “The Skull,” he thinks it’s his lucky day! That it’s all about him! Yet, he has not faced up to who he is, as the 2nd criminal does, and actually blames Jesus for his problem! Who is the one in your life that insists “it’s not my fault.” The one who has a ready excuse, but will not look themselves in the eye, turn around, and go in a new direction, asking Jesus for forgiveness?
These are the three cultures that taunt and tempt us, just as they “mocked,” and “derided” Jesus. Left to ourselves, we would surely follow them, as these invasive cultures spread out and insidiously attack the good world God has created. Only in practicing discipleship as followers of Jesus, are we able to discover a new way.
Jesus reveals the way, not in buckets of blood and gore, as some have suggested. Jesus willingly goes to the cross, one step at a time, with healing in his wings. He has “set his face to Jerusalem” for this task, from the beginning. On the cross, we see with the eyes of faith, he is king indeed. King of a new world and a new culture, the culture of forgiveness. And even for those who deride and mock him, who’s eyes are not opened, the veil not yet pulled back, the door is still left open. Jesus is the savior-king, even as he gives up his life, not to save himself, but to give his life over to God completely, that like the criminal invited to paradise, the rest of us sinners are saved too.
Grace to you and peace, from God almighty and from our savior, who is Jesus the Christ. Amen.
I love the Greystone apartment Kim and I live in, in Logan Square. Like thousands of Chicago homes, the stone was quarried from Indiana rock over a hundred years ago. I love the neighborhoods adorned with these beautiful stones. But then, I’m a sucker for old stones. I remember the European city walls, castles, and church buildings, hundreds of years, even millennia, that actually made me tingle with excitement, when I visited there.
But, with each wall and city, each castle and church, every synagogue or mosque, there are stories that go with their building and being “thrown down.” Before their building occurred, lands were conquered, and winners and losers were declared. Beautiful stones, captured or quarried abroad, were brought by captives to the land of the victors, and built with indentured labor, to create the next nation and kingdom.
And Jesus has some strong feelings about that. But, it may help to first review the geological history of where these masoned stones come from, the history of rocks.
In a new book called “How It Ends: From You To The Universe,” author and scientist Bob Hazen discusses how rocks are made from minerals. It does not come as a surprise to those of us who are steeped in the biblical tradition that there is a very direct connection between you and I, and the rocks, and that it begins over 13 billion years ago with the big bang when minerals were created. Add a little cooling, the formation of stars and solar systems, and a key ingredient of life, water, and you are well on your way to the creation of rocks and humans, just another 6 or 7 billion years down the road.
We know this process theologically as the story of creation in Genesis 1. God created the universe out of a chaotic pool of inert nothingness, with a bang, that gave everything form, and shape, and meaning. Light and life were created, and eventually the waters were separated from the land to give us a safe place to stand, and to live. Animals and plants were created for our enjoyment and nourishment, and we were given responsibility to be good stewards and care takers of them. And ‘God saw that it was very good.’
And each Ash Wednesday, as we are about to enter the 40 days of Lent, we also humbly confess, that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” We are created good, but not immortal. We “gain our souls only by our patience and endurance” as followers of Christ, born again by baptism. Our bodies are made up of mineral dust, and they will once again return to that. In between, we do a lot of consuming of minerals too, taking in a diet of iron and calcium, sodium and sulfur! And yet, though science can’t prove it, “not a hair on our heads will perish.” And so we confess it and know it, by faith.
So, somebody’s ancestors could possibly be recycled in those beautiful greystones which are the frontal of our apartment building. We are dust and to dust we shall return. And Jesus tells us that nations and kingdoms, and the stones, one on another, that make up their beauty, are dust too, and to dust shall they return. “As for these things that you see,” he told those looking at the Temple, “the days are coming when not a stone on stone will be left; all will be thrown down.” And, in the year 70, about forty years after Jesus died, that’s exactly what happened.
What are the temples now in our lives? What are the monuments we like to praise and worship for their beauty, to honor and revere for their strength. Those institutions that we have forgotten are temporary, and so are perhaps, holding us back from true worship, and from being a true worshiping community?
After 911, our country largely followed the strategy of defending our monuments that were attacked and destroyed. After the Pentagon was scarred, and the twin towers fell, we fell in line behind the one who declared from the rubble that someone must pay for this. But even before the search for the perpetrators in Afghanistan failed, our elected leaders were already devising a pre-emptive plan to go after it’s oil rich neighbor. In the end, we have fallen right into the trap that was set for us. We have been imploding, economically and morally, have fallen from the world’s power, even, and especially, as we continue to defend the prolific life-style, the beautiful buildings and great possessions we adore, and the mineral oil fields, we must have. “When you hear of wars and terrorists, do not be afraid!” And, don’t react in kind. “the end will not follow immediately, but this will give you an opportunity to testify, to stand up for the “wonderful” “gifts” of God that “endure.”
Our temple here, this beautiful building dedicated to God, is a wonderful place to worship. But the church is not the building, the church is the people. And both will perish, and be recycled, back and forth, one into the other, dust to dust, minerals to minerals. But our lives, “our souls,” will gain new life through the promise of our baptisms. What lives on, is the body of Christ, the church as collective, the church as the people, the great cloud of witnesses.
And witnesses, “testify.” We have a story to tell, and a ministry to share. If our beautiful building doesn’t facilitate that mission, there is no stone beautiful enough, no memorial gift large enough, to save us.
The “opportunity to testify” comes, says Jesus, when we are recognized as the people of God. When people start seeing us as standing up, “because of his name,” because of, “the gospel of Jesus.” That’s when our opportunity comes. And by then, we must be ready for the push back. Not with our weapons of destruction, but with the faith handed down to us from the cloud of witnesses, a faith that is recycled and infused in us, with God’s wonderful words and a wisdom.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Nations and kingdoms come and go. But the people of God live on as the body of Christ. Jesus is the rock that endures forever, and who promises, “Not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Grace to you and peace, from God almighty and from our savior, who is Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Some saints are more famous than others. Oscar Romero, who was martyred in San Salvador in 1980, is one who looms large. In his final 3 years of life, after being appointed archbishop of El Salvador, he spoke out for peace and justice, in the face of a brutal repression that he only truly came to know after accepting that post. He did not start out to be that voice when he became a priest. He grew up middle class and privileged, but the “eyes of his heart became enlightened,” and his “love for all the saints,” gave him “hope” in his “calling.”
In the last weeks of his life he recorded this in his journal: “Let us not think that our dead have gone away from us. Their heaven, their eternal reward, makes them perfect in love; they keep on loving the same causes for which they died. Thus in El Salvador the force of liberation involves not only those who remain alive, but also all those whom others have tried to kill and who are more present than before in the people’s movement.”
By that time, Romero had already initiated a tradition in the parish of reading the names of those who had been “disappeared,” or died, in the past week, at the Eucharist Prayer, of holy communion. As the names were lifted up, one at a time, the congregation would respond after each one: “Presente.” Present. Here--with us today. They had a sort of, All Saints celebration, every Sunday.
Today we lift up the names of our loved ones who have gone before us in the promise of Christ’s resurrection to eternal life, and remember that they are also, “present” with us. In Christ we are made alive. There is on this day a very thin veil between heaven and earth, and all souls, all saints, it is said, are able to move back and forth. Jesus proclaimed that, ‘the kingdom of God is dawning here among us!’ And, James Alison, the brilliant young theologian said about our reading from Ephesians today, “The point of Christ’s coming and of our redemption was the bringing into being of a new fullness, a uniting of heaven and earth, a fullness in which we should be [children] in [God’s] Son.”
So this is not just some cosmological convergence, but it’s a linking of our lives with God’s. A way of perceiving and understanding what is otherwise mystical and unknowable, like a prayer. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him…” the writer of our Second Reading says. This letter is a prayer for the Ephesians that, through faith they may receive wisdom and insight. Not just any wisdom, knowledge, and insight, but the wisdom to know God. Fred Craddock, the Lutheran homilitician says that, the longest journey any of us will ever make is from the head to the heart. It’s a crucial journey, none-the-less, that we are all embarked on. We are all on the way, and as we go, we are marked ‘present.’
And so our faith is strengthened, that with “the eyes of your heart enlightened,” as the prayer in Ephesians continues, “you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints…” And still, even with such a strong faith, death, can be disorienting. And this is where Daniel’s vision of “the four great beasts that came up out of the sea,” comes in! “The visions of my head terrified me,” said Daniel. Like an ancient Video game, Daniel expressed in apocalyptic language his experiences of loss and death. The death of a loved one, or friend, can feel like that, for us.
And so it is that, the life of the saints, the famous ones like Oscar Romero, can help to orient us when we lose our bearings over the grief of death. We remember that bishop Romero faced up to death, knowingly. He loved his people and served them faithfully. When he spoke the truth as a public figure, he did so knowing his life was on the line. Thirty years later, we remember that it happened at Mass, as he was speaking the words of Christ, to “do this in remembrance of me,” as he lifted the cup of the blood of Christ, and, his blood was spilled too, but, not in vain. It produced a flood of truth telling in El Salvador and all the way to Washington, and the beginning of the end of the death squads. And so today, we remember that Bishop Romero is, ‘present.’
But, most of the faithful who are saints, are not martyrs. Most of us confess the faith and then live lives in the world, unnoticed, and are not known outside our circle of family, friends and church.
I remember a year ago at Thanksgiving, when my family gathered at my sister’s house, how my dad came in a wheelchair for the very first time. He was obviously still delighting in family, especially his grandkids, and one brand new great-grand-daughter. But he was just getting too weak and out of breath to walk very far, or even stand up long. It was disorienting for me even to see him like that, when I had always thought of him as strong and steady, and taller than his three sons.
At New Year’s, we visited again, which was to be the last time I saw him at home. I didn’t know it would be, but somehow, he must have, because as I was saying good-bye, he rose from the wheelchair to give me a hug and a blessing. A real final blessing, that he was proud of me and of my dedication to my calling as a pastor. That kind of frankness was not his usual style, and, it disoriented me again. But it was a gift I know many don’t get, for any number of reasons. He died in hospice care a couple weeks later. But, like all the saints that come and go in our lives, all our loved ones and friends, he is here, ‘present.’
“God put the power of [life] to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,” says the writer of Ephesians, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
Even those saints who aren’t famous, the brothers and sisters in the faith that we know and love, are still blessed every bit as much as those who are. We call out their names, and mark them present with us, in Christ.
This is the promise and power of Jesus, the name above every name, in every age: that he reconciles us with All the Saints, the great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us, and even those yet unborn, and that, Christ will be with us, Present, always!
Grace to you and peace, from God almighty and from our savior, who is Jesus the Christ. Amen.
As election day approaches, each side of our two-party system invokes an essential core value of our nation, freedom, claiming it as their own. Both sides like to quote the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And, polarized as we are, each side interprets this core value with a different spin, to the derision of the other.
Reformation Day, which commemorates Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church door, was a declaration of independence too, or at least an invitation to debate the freedom of a Christian in the early 16th century, a scant 200 years before Jefferson and the other signers put ink to parchment. The church had come to a turning point. It hadn’t come overnight, and it wasn’t just Luther. It was wide and deep, and at the bottom it rocked the question of the authority in the church. And the Spirit was moving the real church, the people, to listen and respond.
If the colonists in America felt enslaved to the mother country, so too did Martin, the Augustinian monk from Germany, feel enslaved and oppressed by the wrathful God that was taught to him. A God who threatened hell and demanded obeisance and good works, which the church regulated and controlled, and which no Christian could ever really measure up to. As we know now, there was a sea change with the Reformation, shifting where authority would reside in the Christian movement. The authority of God for the previous 500 years resided in the hierarchy of the church, symbolized in the Pope, to, sola scriptura, holy scripture as the sole authority. Suddenly, Jeremiah’s prophecy was clear as a bell, “I will make a new covenant with them… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Luther’s personal quest to find a merciful and loving God, channeled the spirit of the time that was moving through all believers of the church. Luther wrote that, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” and at the same time, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Luther resolved the divisiveness that threatened the church with a new authority, written on our hearts.
Unfortunately, too many Reformation celebrations over the centuries have come at the expense of other traditions and denominations, especially Roman Catholics. Too often Lutherans expressed their reason for existence in what they are not, tearing down others, instead of celebrating what is positive about who we are. Too much preaching on Reformation Day turned John’s gospel into a bombastic boasting, “We are the descendants of Martin Luther, and have never been slaves to anyone!”
“But truly I tell you,” the only intention of Luther was to reform the church, not to start a new one, to invite Christians into a new and genuine relationship with God. The spirit was moving, and they knew that, “if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
It is rather ironic that in our gospel reading today, the Judeans, along with the disciples of Jesus, and thousands of other pilgrims, were all gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles, or Booths. Ironic because, this Feast was a celebration of the Exodus, a celebration of their being freed from slavery in Egypt. And yet as soon as Jesus mentions freedom to them, they respond that, as children of Abraham, they have never been slaves to anyone! Who’s fooling who!? Not only was it a celebration of the Exodus, but also for their return from 40 years of Exile in Babylon after that, and their hope of being released in the present, from Roman occupation.
Or maybe they just conveniently blocked it out their minds? Let freedom ring! It was festival time, after all!
I think you know what I’m talking about because, we do the same, don’t we! We deny that we are dutiful servants as well as free lords, which impose duties and responsibilities on us, and we pursue an American dream of becoming free from all that. Some want the freedom to make as much money as they want, some want the freedom to own as much land and property as they want. Some want limitless freedom of time, others want unlimited enjoyment on their own terms. This devolving of the American dream believes that there are no consequences to worry or think about in the pursuit of freedom. “We have never been slaves to anyone,” and because no one should be slaves, then we should be free to do as we please. There’s a libertarian streak in us all! But this sinfulness comes at a price. Our land, water and air suffer and die. Pre-emptive wars are waged, and trade and foreign economies are controlled, all so we can feed our limitless appetite for, freedom?
Martin Luther, and other reformers, pointed to a different kind of freedom, the spiritual core value of the gospel, that we are both “slaves to sin,” and at the same time, “free indeed.” We are both ‘lords and servants.’ We are people of ‘cross and resurrection.’ None of us can free ourselves just by wishing it so, or even by working harder. But the good news is, Jesus has freed us already. We are “made free” to trust and be in relationship with God and each other. This is a freedom for something, for life, and also a freedom of servant-hood to be accountable to one another. Instead of freedom to get all I can for myself, without limits or accountability, the reforming spirit of every age, is a spirit of inter-dependence and trust.
Ironically for us, we are in the midst of another sea change, 500 years after the Reformation. The authority of scripture is changing, and is not holding us together as the church any longer. We do not yet know where the spirit is moving the church, or where the truth of authority will reside that will bind us together. But we continue to learn new truths, from the same old God. It’s hard to believe now, but at the same time that Luther helped to pioneer a new freedom for the church to thrive and grow, the same church was complicit in the slave trade of Africans. While that battle still continues for a full freedom, and after struggling against a host of other sins the spirit has revealed to us, like classism and sexism, we also fight perhaps the last major battle, that of gender inequality, the struggle of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered children of God. The push back against all this change today is that we are too ‘politically correct.’ But the injustice, the bullying, and the hunger for the truth are real. We can feel the church flinging apart as much as yearning for a new day of unity. And the truth is that none of us are free until all are free. If we don’t confess our sin, turn around and live a new life, we are just like the Judeans who celebrated the freedom of the festival of tabernacles, believing they never were enslaved in the first place.
God is taking us to a new place, you can be sure of that, and faithfulness is required like never before. We hunger and thirst for the truth, and even as we are buffeted by the boldly blowing wind of the spirit, we hold on tight to this core value of the gospel, “if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed!” Come to the banquet, taste and see that the Lord is good.