Sunday, November 24, 2013

Last Days
Matthew 24:36-44

I snapped this picture last spring before the trees had yet leafed out.  The sign had already been up for some time by then, although I have to say I never actually went inside to see what they might possibly be selling for a dollar in a furniture store.  (Today if you drive by you will see that not only is the sign gone, but the furniture store it pointed to has also been leveled and a bright, shiny, new, as yet unoccupied strip mall stands in its place.)  And so, even in that season when the world was becoming new again, I found myself looking ahead to this week's Gospel lesson and the way in which it points to final things, last days and of how Jesus' words today inform us in such a time. I am reminded that unlike this furniture store whose sign offered warning and invitation to the community for months, in terms of what Jesus points to now you and I are not going to have any such warning...You and I are left to live in the moment, in every moment, as thought it could be the last one...

I wonder how one does that though.  How does one live with that kind of expectation, that kind of urgency all the time? 

I got a taste of it Thursday afternoon.  I was making late afternoon hospital calls when my cell phone rang.  I glanced at it to see it was my mother, but I had already spoken with her earlier in the day. All was well then so I did not immediately pick up.  Instead, I silenced the ringer for just a moment, lingered a moment or two longer with a woman who had just undergone a serious test.  Something told me to return the call, though, as I made my way down the hallway for one more stop.  As soon as I heard her voice I knew something was seriously wrong.  She had gotten home from afternoon errands when a fever set in.  Her voice was weak and she couldn't stop shaking.  I told her I was on my way.

I had half an hour drive ahead of me to contemplate all that could be and all that I wasn't yet ready for.  I've seen enough with other families to know how this could go.

When we got to the Emergency Room the doctor told us it was a good thing we came when we did. Another day and the story could have ended quite differently.  As it is, after a couple of days in the hospital and some heavy duty antibiotics, even as I write Mother is in on her computer checking her Facebook page and playing games.

It is really only a handful of times in my life that I remember feeling the need to act with such urgency.  In all those times the call came unexpectedly, like a 'thief in the night.' In all those cases, the well being of a loved one was at stake.  In each of those times, regardless of the outcome, I found I came off those hours both exhausted and clear about what matters most.

And yet, I have to say I'm not really certain how it is that Jesus would expect us to live that way all the time.  At the same time?  Gospel lessons like this one are easier ways to be reminded of the urgency of what matters most than are November afternoons driving just within reach of the speed limit to get to a loved one in need.  Indeed, the message before us now appears to be simply this. Time is shorter than we think.  It all could, in fact, end at any time --- whether in the cosmic sense that Jesus speaks of now or in the very personal, individual sense that I found myself contemplating on an anxious November afternoon.  It all could end at any time and that being the case, well shouldn't that make a difference for how I live this moment now? 

As I write tonight I remember how I first learned this lesson and no, I didn't learn it the easy way.  I was twenty-one and a senior in college.  I was all caught up in the final things: the last year and months and days that seniors who have loved their college experience get caught up in. 

The word came in that time that a beloved cousin was seriously ill.  Perhaps because I had only experienced the losses of much older loved ones by then, I could not imagine this would end as it did.  Or maybe it was only that I had no idea of what it could mean.  So I didn't go.  And in May she died.

I did go to her funeral.  I recall standing with family near her casket overcome by grief and regret.  It was in those tender moments that her older brother came over to me and putting his arm around me he quietly said, "She loved you, you know."

I had not tended last things well and even so in that moment when I was confronted by the consequences of that, I was enveloped by grace.  And ever since then?  I've always tried to go.  For I always know now that last things could, indeed, be last things.  At least for now.

Jesus' words don't go down easy today.  He speaks of things I would  rather not consider much of the time.  And no, I don't know how we live as though this is so all the time.  Even so, they are as true as they can possibly be and they are meant as gift if only I can receive them as such.  Indeed, I need to be reminded of these things:
  • Don't lose sight of what matters most. 
  • Know that it will all one day end. 
  •  Live like that is so.
And?  Through it all --- on those days when I do it well and on those days when I don't still comes the whisper of grace that I am still loved. As are you.

  • How do you hear Jesus' words today?  Are they meant in the cosmic sense or the individual sense or both?
  • How does this 'warning' make a difference for how you live your life?  Where and how have you already learned this lesson?  What has that meant for you?

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Luke 23:33-43

Last week I sat at the bedside of a woman who has struggled with her health for some time.  It was her third hospitalization in a couple of months and that afternoon she was especially uncomfortable. Our conversation had waned when one of the cleaning staff quietly walked in.  She greeted Anna by name and then proceeded to be about her work.  As she was mopping in the far corner of the room, Anna turned to me and said that it always made her glad to see her students doing well.  As sick as she was, she made sure to speak these words loud enough so her former kindergarten student heard her.  Before the woman left, she bent over her old teacher and kissed her on the forehead as she said good-bye.

I found myself brushing away tears as I watched this tender remembering between them.  It had been forty years or more since that hospital worker had first entered Anna's classroom.  I would guess their paths had not had reason to cross all that many times and places since.  Indeed, we are blessed to be remembered in this way.  This sort of remembering spoken and acknowledged with love is a remembering that changes us.  Both were better for having been remembered.  Anna knew that her work so long ago had made a difference. The woman pushing her cleaning cart walked a little taller to know her old teacher was proud of her.

It seems to me that the remembering that is spoken of as we mark Christ the King this time through is both like this and of course is very different, too.  We are not told that the criminal on the cross and Jesus had any sort of history, although we cannot know this for sure.  For, in fact, the man who hung dying next to Jesus knew something of who he was, else he would not have defended him.  And if he had no idea of who Jesus was, surely he would not have presumed to ask to be remembered in the kingdom Jesus was to come into.  Since neither man had any real hope of coming off his cross alive, he must have believed that Jesus' identity differed in a fundamental way from anyone else he had ever known.  And as for Jesus knowing him?  Whatever he may have known of the unnamed one who suffered beside him, it probably wasn't all that positive and if he remembered him at all in that moment?  Even though in his dying moments he did not display the cynicism and anger the man hanging on Jesus' other side did, one would not expect the promise that Jesus utters now.

Of course, what we witness here is entirely different from any tender scene in any hospital room or anywhere else for that matter.  For this is a remembering which has ramifications far beyond one fading November afternoon.  Still, I get a sense of it from time to time in this life between us now.  And if 'remembering' is powerful enough here and now to change us for the better, how much more meaningful is it when such remembering happens in the mind and heart of Jesus? 

As it is Christ the King Sunday again, it is ours, of course, to note what this exchange offers us about Jesus as King. The sacrifice Jesus made comes to mind first and always.  The forgiveness which is spoken for those who haven't asked for it, who may not even know they need it, is also at the center of this image now.  The willingness of Jesus to truly see the one hanging next to him --- even through what must have been blinding pain --- to see beyond his broken life and to promise to remember him?  Well, that is the image I cling to now, for it means the promise holds for you and me as well.  How about you?
  • What do the images in this week's Gospel text tell you about Christ as King?  What surprises are there in Luke's telling?
  • Have you ever witnessed 'remembering' in a way that changed things?  Have you ever remembered or been remembered in this way?
  • How do occasions of such remembering compare to the account before us now?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Falling Temples

Luke 21:5-19

I would be less than truthful if I said I knew precisely what to make of the Gospel lesson before us now.

On the one hand, I do know at least a little bit of what it means when 'temples fall.'  Anyone who has experienced the world changing around us has experienced the impact of this.

For instance, I drive by the house that was my childhood home and I see the fence which now cuts off most of the back yard we ran and played in when we were small.  After much deliberation rooted in the growing realization that it was becoming too much to care for, several years ago my mother sold that sturdy old farmhouse to the local Catholic Church.  The house backs up to their cemetery.  One day the house itself will be torn down to become a place where the dead are buried and people go only to remember.

I drive by my grade school which now stands empty.  All the children on the south side of my hometown are now bussed to the other end of town to attend school.

The high school where I discovered and was coached in some gifts I still use today has been replaced by a Walgreen's.

Temples?  No, of course not. At least not in the way that Jesus speaks today.  But places that seemed permanent and immovable?  Yes, they were that.  Even so, all these changes do seem to fit into a natural order of what we might understand as progress.

So while I have not seen temples fall in the violent way that Jesus speaks of now, I do know the ache in my own soul to see so much of what I thought would always be, be no longer.  The older one gets, the surer one becomes of this.  The things that last are not always the things you think will last.  Not even the big, impressive, amazingly beautiful ones. No, not even the ones that helped make you who you are.

So while I sort of get the first part of this week's Gospel reading, I can't really begin to say that is so about the second part.  Except for what I catch on the evening news or skim on my news feed, I don't know much of nations rising against nations.  I have experienced tremors here in Northern Illinois --- even ones that can wake you in the night --- but not great earthquakes.  I have never known hunger nor plague and I certainly don't know what Jesus is getting at when he talks about dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.    

For that matter, what comes next is pretty foreign to me, too.  I know nothing of the sort of persecution Jesus speaks of now.  Nor have I experienced betrayal at the hands of trusted loved ones. And while some may see what I do as irrelevant, I'm not sure I've ever done anything offensive enough to stir up hatred in another.  At least not lately...

This was not the case when these words were first recorded and passed on. Those who first heard them knew precisely of what Jesus spoke. And I would venture to say there are people in the world today with whom these words resonate as well. For those who hear them as meant for them, these are surely meant to be words of promise and hope. For them the words they must cling to are those at the end of this section where Jesus assures them that not even a hair on their heads will perish. That all they have to do is hang on.  And yet, while these words do speak to some how do they speak in the world I am called to serve? 

Indeed, how do these words resonate in a time and place where I sit in a warm office on a brilliant November morning as I scratch out these words today?  How do they speak in a world where all I have to do is simply turn off the news of the rising death count as a result of the typhoon which has just devastated the Philippines?  Where I have become numb to the report of another wounding or death by gunshot of an innocent child in the nearby city of Chicago?  Where I find myself looking away from the sign at the cash register line informing those using LINK cards that their benefits have been cut, so they had better check their balance?

Oh, I wonder sometimes if I am not like those gawking at the temple so long ago.  I wonder if the signs are all around me and in my own personal comfort and denial I have just chosen to look the other way.  Maybe I need the hard words of Jesus now to wake me up.  Perhaps I need to be reminded that just because the 'temple' still stands for me, it doesn't mean this will always be so.  And it is already not so for much of the world.   

So I suppose I end where I began.  For while I know for sure that they do speak, I can't say for sure how these words speak today.  And maybe it is so that Jesus' words ring more true for those in devastating circumstances than they do for me.  So, I expect it is true that those who are in the midst of the struggle are lifted up by his promises in ways I may never fully know.   At least not yet.  Maybe this is one of those lessons which calls me to simply stand alongside and listen to those for whom these words do speak.  Maybe then I won't have time to 'gawk at the temple.'  Maybe then I won't find myself resting in the false promise that the world is secure and things made by human hands will last forever.  Maybe then I will finally be about what Jesus calls me to. What do you think?

And so, for now I am venturing out into this crisp November morning to go to our local hospital where dear ones from the congregation I serve are struggling to 'endure' in the only way they know how.  I expect they do find themselves in the midst of circumstances which mirror Jesus' words, if only in individual and limited ways.  As I walk the hallway I will remember that in many of the rooms I walk by some are discovering that the 'temple' of modern medicine with all of its gifts will simply not  always do all we hope it will. In other rooms others will be finding that in the midst of a health crisis, family relationships are becoming more clear than perhaps they would like.  And yes, at the same time I know I will be passing by small acts of kindness and large ones, too, which point to the promises Jesus offers now. 

Indeed, whatever else may be true, even if these words don't resound for you today, the time will come when they just might.  And then, as now, the promise for many and for you and me, too, while it may not always seem like it, remains.  God is watching out for you, too.  Even down to the hairs on your head.  Just hang on and even should our 'temples' fall, you won't lose what matters most of all.  For God has claimed you as a Beloved Child.  You are God's Own.

  • Do you hear Jesus' words today as meant for us universally or cosmically, individually, or both/and?
  • When have you experienced 'temples falling?'  What was that like?  How did you receive a promise of hope in those times?
  • If you are living and serving in a time and place where these words do not seem to immediately speak to your context, how do you hear them?  If you are living and serving in a time and place where these words do speak to your context, what hope do you find in them?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Sadducees' Question

Luke 20:27-38

I am guilty of this, I know I am.  I preach funerals and I paint pictures imagining heaven as a place that is some kind of extension of all that we have held dear here in this life.  I would guess this is because my imagination is earth-bound.  This is all I know.  If today's Gospel lesson is any indication, clearly I am not alone.

For I imagine this also must have been true for the Sadducees who seek to back Jesus into a corner today.  They only know what they know and aren't willing to risk beyond that.  In fact, they go nowhere near where the Pharisees and Jesus and you and I would go in terms of believing God has something in store for us after this life --- even if we can't describe it or fully understand it. Instead, given their example today, it is clear they have placed their hope for immortality squarely on the shoulders of their children and their children's children.  If they live on at all, they believe they will do so through their offspring.  And I have to admit that their question is a pretty good one -- if you carry my usual earth-bound preaching images to their extreme.  If the next life is simply a continuation of what we have known here?  Well, things could get pretty confusing!

And yet, on first glance I don't necessarily find Jesus' response to the Pharisees today all that helpful. What does he mean when he speaks of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saying 'for to God all of them are alive?'  How can this be, these many generations later?  How does this speak to those who have surely stood at gravesides and said good-bye?  How does this bring hope to those living in the darkness that always seems to come --- if not the next day --- then in the weeks and months that follow when those who brought such comfort return to their lives and the proclamation of hope which rang so true has now faded.

At least this was so for me.  I had to sort through these questions about what follows this life the hard way.  Perhaps we all do, I don't know.

I offer you now one of the most tender pieces of my journey in life and in faith.  I know I am still finding words for it, so I hope it will make sense to you

You've heard me speak before of the time around my dad's final illness and death.  Now, as you might guess, by then I had rested in the promise of the Resurrection my whole life.  I had unflinchingly preached it for a decade by then.  And then, suddenly, the loss was mine and I experienced the sort of grief which perhaps we all experience at one time or another --- where it feels as though a pillar of your world has fallen away --- where you are walking around with a hole in your heart which no one else can see.  Oh yes, I expect you know of what I speak.

It was in that lingering winter that I came to wonder about heaven -- about the promise of the next life that is ours.  Oh, I could not imagine that a life force as strong as his was then simply gone from this world.  And it was not enough, somehow, to believe that he simply lived on in memory or in the lives of his children and grandchildren --- although this was very much true.  Still, while I knew there had to be something more, I am also a child of this age.  I have seen rocket ships fly through space and men walk on the moon.  Those who have crossed those borders have come back to say that they saw no evidence of heaven.  (I know.  Perhaps until the age of 35 my faith was quite child-like.  I had never thought to think this through before.  It took this shock to my system, to my life, to the ground that had held me, to make me go deeper.)

And so I silently wondered and feared and doubted and still I preached.  Sunday after Sunday I preached right through that barren time, all the while wondering if what I was offering was based on truth or not.  For I simply couldn't see it then.  With the Sadducees, I found myself asking impossible questions. Only I was the one backed into the corner.

Now what happened next is difficult for me to relay for I am not fluent in science fiction.  I simply don't understand it and what I don't have any hope of understanding holds no great fascination for me, so this is a language I have not begun to master.  But for some reason the summer after that long winter I went to see the movie, "Contact."  Perhaps you remember it.  The film is based on the novel of the same name by Carl Sagan.  It deals with the question of other life forms in the universe.  More than that, it deals with matters of doubt and faith.  It starred Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey.  If you want the full synopsis of the plot, you can find it here:  

At any rate, Jodie Foster plays a scientist whose life calling has been to listen for evidence of alien life.  The backdrop of her personal story is that her mother died first when she was a child followed then by the sudden death of her dad.   The climax of the movie comes when she 'travels through a wormhole' and encounters alien life: which takes the form of her dad.  "He" says to her that though it appears as though he is, he is not actually her dad.  Rather, he came in this form so she would be able to accept and receive it.  When she "returned to earth" she believed that she had been away for some time, but those observing said she had only been gone a couple of minutes.  (Are you still with me?) The audio tapes which were recorded did, in fact, record 18 hours of static.  At the end of the film, she is before Congress testifying that not everything can be explained, but that does not make it not so.

I weep every time I watch this movie... especially at the scene where the form of her dad comes to her again.  Only, I weep not so much because of the story before me, but because of the faith that somehow was then born again in my heart. For where I arrived then is where I find I still am.  This is the understanding I now hold:

  • There are so many parts of the universe I do not know.  There are ways and places which are utter mystery to me.  I know many understand more than I do, but we all, at some point, come to the end of our understanding.  And I have become comfortable in not knowing.
More than that though:
  •  I don't know how God does what God does, but still I believe God can and God does; most likely in ways and places yet unimaginable to me or to any of us.  Indeed, this may seem a little strange, but ever since I left that darkened theater, I have come to think of heaven as a kind of other 'dimension' --- we can't find it now, perhaps.  No matter how high we fly or how deep we dig.  But God is bigger than this.  And that is enough. 
I never would have believed that a movie could have done this for me. But it did.

So, no, I have to say that Jesus' words don't necessarily speak to my mind which has been shaped by a scientific, proof-seeking age.  But his words do speak to my heart.  For they speak of a God of life who does the unimaginable.  If Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are still living, then so somehow must be those I have loved and so will I be, too, one day.

And while it is so that my funeral preaching images are entirely inadequate, they do all speak to joy and hope and wonder in the face of sorrow and despair and doubt.  For they are all images of lives lived well in faith and with hope and with purpose.  And if what God has created here is 'good' then that must go on in some way, mustn't it?  Even if it's not enough?  Even if it won't even really begin to compare with what's in store for us next?

As for the Sadducees and their very good question today?  They are right, of course, if God is bound by what we know here.  But God is not.  For in a world and in our lives which are marked by death, God is about something more.  Life.  And yes, I don't completely get it yet.  But somehow I'm able to rest in my not completely knowing now.  And that is something.

  • Have you ever found yourself identifying with the Sadducees and their question today? What was that time like for you?
  • How have you sorted out the important matters before us in our Gospel lesson now?
  • What does it mean to you that ours is a "God of the living?"