Advent, Isaiah, RevGalBlogPals, Rheumatoid Arthritis

No Retreat

I've finally landed on Mondays as my official day off, and today I had plans to spend it quietly participating in the RevGalBlogPals Virtual Advent Retreat.

But just like a pediatrician or a veterinarian, a pastor sometimes finds Monday morning holds the emergencies built up over the weekend, and after several hours on the phone, I decided to call it a work day.

The good news is that part one of the Retreat is aimed at this coming Sunday, thus possibly counting as work. 

The bad news is that it's not on the text I'm planning to preach. 

And I have a mother's task to perform this afternoon, one involving driving and waiting and driving some more.

So I have to work harder to make the space to pull back from life and work and look for God on this first weekday of Advent. 

Here's a snippet of the Isaiah passage in the first post for the retreat:

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

We're in Isaiah 11, and the words were written about the hoped-for Messiah to people who needed saving, from themselves as much as from the geopolitical enemies in their time and place.

Really, aren't we all like that?

I read something recently about how social rejection creates an inflammatory response (hat tip to Liz), and it gave me a lot to think about since I have an inflammatory auto-immune disease. Actually, I have two, both rheumatoid arthritis and eczema, but the medicine for the first one seems to have gotten the better of the second one, if not the first one. Either way, the tendency in this direction exists in me. And oddly when I went back to look at the link, after mulling it over for more than six weeks, I see it's SENSITIVITY to social rejection that causes the problem. 

For the sensitive such as your Songbird, a Messiah who would slay the wicked with the breath of his lips, literally, would be sah-weet! We want just that kind of a champion. We are the ones who look at life when things are going wrong and invariably find the fault in ourselves. 

I'm struggling today with new symptoms of RA, pain in places I have not had it before, and the feeling that my own tendency to care how other people feel (or don't) about me has made me sick in the first place. I don't like that conclusion. 

Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

That's the next thing about the Messiah. 

Some days I wish the rod and the belt could be used more actively. I try to be satisfied with the sash around his metaphoric waist, to believe God is faithful to us, even when things hurt. Especially when things hurt. 

Lion_wolf_lamb And I don't know the answer for the sensitive, and the over-sensitive, among us. Do we guard ourselves from hurt by closing ourselves off? That doesn't seem right. It doesn't seem right at all. 

I would hope that on the day Isaiah describes, on the holy mountain where wolves of various kinds live quietly with lambs and other sweet creatures, the wolves will be healed of their emotionally carnivorous wolfishness and the lambs of their delectably edible lambliness, and all will be beauty and joy. 

Meanwhile, I need to get ready to drive up and down the highway, hoping for a place to sit during the waiting portion of the program that doesn't hurt me.

Isaiah, Luke, Sermons

We All Fall Down

(A sermon for Pentecost 25C — November 14, 2010 — Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19)

It was a beautiful day. I spent Saturday morning here with about a dozen folks getting the church building ready for winter. Leaves were raked out of the flower beds and scooped out of window wells. People climbed tall ladders to put up freshly washed storm windows. Various mysterious tools were used to get the driveway ready for snow and sand, which will soon be plentiful if this winter proves more typical than last. Everyone worked hard and did it happily, with a sense of love and care for this church. 

It’s our church, and we’re proud of it, proud of these tall windows that let in so much beautiful light. It’s worth the trouble to take the storm windows off, so that we can feel a breeze in the summer, and worth it to put them back up again so we can be warm when we worship together. It’s a beautiful space, and so is the fellowship hall. We have a facility full of places to gather for all kinds of purposes, and we can rightly feel proud of its history and the way we take care of it. 

Do you hear a “but” coming? 

It’s a little worrisome to tell you all those things, or to remember how pleasant it was to sit and drink coffee and eat doughnuts together later in the morning, when we think about what Jesus had to say in our gospel lesson. He tells of a time when everything will be torn down. And it’s not a huge leap to take him literally, because it was only about forty years later that the Temple his companions admired would be laid waste, never to be rebuilt. 

Ring We all fall down.

When I gave our administrator this title for the bulletin, she said, “How awful!!!” Julia knows the origin story of Ring Around the Rosy, or the one that has become best known, anyway, that it comes from the time of the Plague. Supposedly, what I learned as “Ashes, Ashes” was really “A’tishoo, a’tishoo,” an indication that a person who showed symptoms of illness would surely die, would soon fall down, never to arise again.

Jesus, Jesus.

He is in *some* trouble with those people who are in authority. He’s come into Jerusalem, and he’s turned over the tables in the Temple, one of the best stories we have about him, one of the stories that finds its way into all the gospels, with variations. He comes to the Temple and he absolutely goes off when he sees how his Father’s house is being used and misused.

It’s in this same gospel that we hear the story of his visit to the Temple as a 12-year-old. If you’ve been to a Cottage Meeting you’ve heard it recently. Jesus and his parents have gone to Jerusalem for one of the high holidays, and on the way home, his parents assume he’s hanging out with the other kids, somewhere in the throng of people on the dusty road. When they realize he is nowhere to be found, they go back to Jerusalem and search for him for three days. Three long days they search for him, and finally they discover he has been at the Temple all along, talking to the priests, discussing the Holy Book with brilliance well beyond his years.

This visit is different. This time the priests do not admire him. This time they wish he were dead. And they’re on their way to making sure it happens.

We all fall down.

It’s happened to me, and probably to you, too. Life is going along on the accustomed path, and then without much warning, or perhaps with hints you missed and can only see in hindsight, everything goes smash. It can happen at work, or school, or in our relationships.

It can happen at church, too.

Jesus warns that people will lead us astray. It will happen. Jesus warns that there will be disasters and wars, and he’s right. We’ve had them. People have always had them. Jesus warns that people will argue with us about our beliefs, and that our beliefs will be questioned, and we will have to testify to those beliefs.

He names a whole array of anxiety-producing scenarios. If you’re one of those people who dreams about having to take an exam in a class when you didn’t know you were registered, or that you have to give a report when you didn’t expect to do it, or in my case, that you got to the wrong church at the right time, or the right church at the wrong time, you know the feelings. 

We all fall down.

At the end he says some of the worst things of all, the stuff that no one likes to hear. Our own families will cut us loose, will turn us in, will disbelieve and betray us. The people who by the very nature of their roles in our lives, by the definition of who they are to us, should be faithful and loyal, they will choose their own security over us.

It’s a bleak picture. And it must be just how Jesus felt about what was coming. 

It’s the nature of the liturgical year that we come up against one of our favorite national holidays, Thanksgiving, with the end of the life of Jesus, and without the Resurrection. Every year we cycle through one of the gospels, starting in Advent, and we’ll do that with Matthew beginning in two more weeks. But first we finish the second half of our journey through Luke, and all through the past 10 weeks, since I arrived here, we’ve been feeling the increase of tension and worry and drama in the words of Jesus himself. Next week we’ll meet him on the cross.

We all fall down. Even Jesus.

Breaking News It’s the human experience, and the gospel of Luke assures us Jesus had one.This passage is not without hope, but it’s probably not the hope we want to hear. We live in a time when things are always crashing down and falling—and that is every time, it’s just that we know about ours, and we have 24 hour cable news to be sure of it. We want some reassurance that everything will come out all right in the end, and this anxious speech gives us only an eternal hope—if we are faithful, and trust that Jesus will give us the words and wisdom we need, we will gain our souls. 

He doesn’t promise us our lives. He won't get to keep his own.

And on a beautiful weekend, when the weather was unseasonably warm, and raking leaves and washing windows would have seemed like a treat even without a pumpkin doughnut—which I hear were delicious!—we want to hear something a little less apocalyptic. Otherwise, what was the point of cleaning out the window wells?

So. We all fall down. Things go wrong. People we rely on disappoint us. People at church—heaven forbid!!—disagree over things. Sometimes they leave. Sometimes it hurts us, and other times it may be a relief, but never are we happy about it, because it’s our human nature to want it all to come round right in the end.

Listen to Isaiah:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. (Isaiah 65:17-23, NRSV)

Jerusalem_solomon_temple That’s more like it. No more servitude. They will get to live in the houses they build and eat the food they plant. It sounds beautiful.

Isaiah wrote for people who had been in exile—we’ve been hearing about them off and on at the same time we’ve been walking this hard road with Jesus. The inhabitants of Jerusalem had been divided, some living in their own occupied city with the Persian invaders right on top of them, and the others trying to figure out how to be faithful to God in faraway and extremely foreign Babylon. We’ve talked about how they believed that only in the Temple could they really be close to the LORD.

And not only were some of them too far away, but the invaders destroyed the Temple. The one Jesus is talking about is the rebuilt version, although it would be torn down, too.

And this peaceful, happy-sounding good news passage in Isaiah? Comes right after a passage of bad news.  It comes as part of a story of a community ripped apart.

And it means a lot to me, and I think it should to us, that Jesus felt these same feelings and expressed these same emotions in his human life.

We all fall down. We do.

But don’t let people tell you it’s all coming to an end. Do not despair. We are people of the Good News. We are people of God’s Hope. We are people of Christ’s Resurrection. It’s still true, even in the moments when we’ve fallen, even at the times we think we’ll never get up again. It’s still true.

And here’s the good news about living in community. Even when we’re down, in the fallen place, at the absolute bottom, through the actions of others, or our own mistakes or poor choices, whether it’s personal or bigger than we are, when we are down in the nightmare of a window well and can’t see how we will climb out again, we are not alone. We are never alone. 

“Before they call, I will answer.”

“I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

God is with us. Christ is with us. He's been in the deepest window well himself. This community of Christ’s people stands ready to extend a hand in Christ's name, even and especially when we fall down. Thanks be to God. Amen.

***********************************************************

Ring Around the Rosy, date unknown, by Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927).

 

Isaiah

Words of Discomfort

You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. (Isaiah 12:1, NRSV)

In place of a Psalm this week, we get Isaiah 12, and it starts with a very uncomfortable image of God, at least for me. After all, when life is tumbling down all around a person, she hopes God might provide a little comfort and probably does not prefer the vision of a God who gets angry and then gets un-angry and offers comfort.

It sounds a little abusive, if I dare say it.

And I'm reminded that all these prophetic words are filtered through the understanding of people. People have been trying, forever, really, to figure out why it seems like God must be angry with them some times; isn't that the best explanation for the times everything is just so messed up we don't know what to do? It's almost better than an absent God, because at least that means there is a sense of presence.

Of course, in this opening section of Isaiah, the message is that God is pretty ticked off at Israel. 

Angel And let's remember that. It's a collective story about a community, not just a story about one guy or one gal who messed up and got forgiven eventually, like a little kid who knocks over something breakable his mother treasures, is shocked by her moment of absolute hysterical rage, and then relieved when she pulls him close and assures him children matter more than things. 

(Yes, I did this once, when #1 Son broke an angel my mother loved, quite by accident. Fortunately, I'm not God.)

The trouble with a verse like the one above is that it arrives in the lectionary as the first in a passage without the context of what comes before, and it just sounds awful, because it sounds first-person.

Any good Congregationalist knows we are all in this together. 

The chapter goes on to praise God with joy and so forth, which is a good thing to do. I find I've been able to do that despite all the travails of recent months, and to feel happy about it, which is a blessing. There have been plenty of times in my life that was not true, times that the kind of verse that begins this chapter would sound like it was meant for me, that God had been enraged with me and that must be why whatever happened, happened. 

But seriously, I need God to be less like an angry mama, which is to say me, or a short-tempered daddy, and more like…God. Otherwise God is too small. Too human. Too limited. 

Isaiah, Midway, The Inner Landscape

Let us argue it out

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more;bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation– I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil,learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

 Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:10-18, NRSV)

Yesterday I preached about confession being the ultimate in vulnerability. We don't like words about humility in this era of self-esteem, I said, and we surely don't want to make people compare themselves to worms. But our authenticity, which I believe is key to our salvation, requires our vulnerability with God.

I believe that.

Which isn't to say I like it, necessarily. Because being vulnerable with God means being truthful with myself. 

 

"Wash, wash me clean./Mend my wounded seams./Cleanse my tarnished dreams." A friend sent me this song by k.d. lang not too long ago. 

Though my sins be like scarlet…they shall become like snow. 

For me the biggest sin is to be out of touch with God, to stay in the condition or the hiding place, that won't allow God inside. Well, that I *think* won't allow God inside. God has ways.  Like songs a friend sends to you. Or plane reservations they make to come and see you and be sure you are okay. Or frozen lasagna they leave behind. Or toilet paper holders they install, just because.  Or the affirmation of the congregation on a Sunday when you wondered if you would have any Good News to share at all.

I'm amazed at the multiplicity of means God has used to argue things out with me, to make sure I cannot possibly feel alone, at all hours of the night and day. God is tired of old forms of behavior and old ways of being, ways that I tried to be the person society expected or the church demanded or my own family history suggested. Forget about all that, God says. Let us argue it out. Let us find the way in which you will be washed clean of all that and really, truly know it. 

Church Life, Emerging, Isaiah

Send Me

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" (Isaiah 6:8, NRSV)

It's a passage I first paid attention to when the choir at Woodfords Church prepared an anthem based on the text for the installation of our new Senior Pastor, Bill Gregory, in the long ago year of 1991. Isaiah is in the Temple and encounters the Almighty, surrounded by seraphs, so enormous that the hem of God's robe fills the Temple.

God tells Isaiah to go out and give an important word to the people, but Isaiah resists: "How can I speak for you, God? My lips are unclean! I'm not a good enough person!!"

"Woe-oe-oe is me," we sang, "for I-I am undone."

God, of course, has an answer for Isaiah, a ritual act of cleansing the lips with a live coal. God has ways of convincing us.

The text confronted me again a few months later when I visited Andover Newton, considering the possibility of enrolling in the M.Div. program. 

"Woe-oe-oe is me," I thought, "for I-I am a Mom!" 

How in the world would I be able to do all the things seminary and ministry required at the same time I cared for my family? I wanted to do both things well. 

I tell this story now because I believe it is the story for the church I'm serving, looking ahead and considering contrasting ministries to people who already comprise the church and to people who have not yet walked through the doors. It sounds exciting; we feel moved by the possibilities! But there may also be awe at the task lying ahead of us, worry about whether the message will really communicate to the existing congregation or to the community-to-come.

Isaiah faced a challenge; he had to deliver some bad news to the people, warnings of hard times to come as a result of not paying attention to God. The words passed down to us are difficult; we don't want to think of a God who dulls the minds of the people, and stops their ears, in order to show them real devastation and disconnection. 

Well, I don't want to think of that God.

But the good news for us is, well, the Good News! The good news is that these ancient stories containing images that still speak to us, and rightly so, are not the whole story. The whole story tells of a God who walked among us, as one of us. The whole story tells us that with God, all things are possible. The good news is that no matter what the details are of the new story we are called to tell, we are not telling it alone. 

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Church Life, Isaiah

They Shall Run and Not Be Weary

Have you not
known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the
ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is
unsearchable. 

He gives power to
the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 

Even youths will
faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait
for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like
eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah
40:28-31, NRSV
)

 

2009 Pictures 001
Molly has been to
church with me quite a bit recently. Her increasing lameness has been a topic of increasing worry in our family, and because it's so icy outside it's hard for her to get around. Going to the office or to worship gives her a diversion, a chance to see people, and an indoor surface on which to walk.

This is a picture of Molly attending my preacher group a couple of weeks ago. (Thanks to Country Parson for taking her picture.) She's not yet 7,
but her arthritis has progressed to a degree we knew it would reach someday. We just didn't
know what it would look like.

 

We're watching for
signs of further decline, but more than that we are looking for continuing signs
of eagerness to go places and see people and do things that are part of her
routine. She can still get up and down her ramp to the backyard, in and out of
"her" chair in our living room, and she still says "Wroo wroo!" with great
enthusiasm when she sees me get my car keys out in the morning.

 

"Molly," I say,
"want to go to church?" And she follows me, happily, if hoppily.

 

Churches face
challenges, just as families do, making hard decisions and saying goodbye to
people they love and sometimes limping along as best they can.  It's happening in most churches: a tough look
at the budget, the worrying news that a member has lost his job or that another
must move away to keep hers, a sharp gasp when we open the oil bill.

 

When a family is
in crisis, things can go one of two ways. You've probably seen it. In some
families, people rally around and help each other, and in their love and care,
even a loss can seem like a celebration of what family means. In other families,
people point fingers, whisper behind each other's backs and make a bad situation
even worse.

 

It's the same way
in a church family, whether there is anxiety over a search or worry about a leak
or aggravation about a change in routine. We can calculate impending doom, or we
can look for signs of life and celebrate them where we see them, for as long as we see them. 

 

Those who wait for the Lord *shall* renew their
strength.

I'm afraid it may not always look like the kind of strength we want to see or feel, that physical or material vitality we remember from the days of having a puppy, or being in our twenties, or seeing the Sunday School building overflowing back in the 1950s. I want to believe God works through our weakening and our diminishing, that when we come to an end we will become the ground of some new being.

We shall "Wroo" and not be weary.

Epiphany 3A, Isaiah

Walking in Darkness

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a
      land of deep darkness on them light has shined.
Isaiah 9:2, NRSV

My walking schedule has been blown apart by short days, cold weather and most of all, ice.

For six months I walked, rain or shine, early or late, but ice and darkness stopped me, and I have not gotten back into a routine. It's not that my training partner has abandoned me; he hasn't. But his walks are happening in daylight hours, and often I am working when he is walking.

I didn't realize until I didn't have it anymore how whole walking made me feel. I thrive on oxygen, and I glide when my endorphins respond to exercise. I'm looking for those feelings elsewhere and not finding them. I am sitting still in the darkness contemplating a cupcake instead of walking.

It was different in the summer. It didn't matter how late I came home from church because walking in the dark was actually attractive, cooler than walking at mid-day. The surfaces beneath our feet were reliable, not covered with a coating of slippery danger.

Those dark walks were actually a light for me, a sign that there was a way out of cupcake contemplation or eternal loginess.

Maybe it was because I walked in darkness that I was able to see the light?