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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

No Surprises, Please

2014-11-30 Mk 13 24-37

No Surprises, Please


"What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!" said Jesus to everyone. "Keep awake!" Because with the advent of Jesus Christ, with the preparations for his kingdom, looking toward the future… we don't know what's really going to happen. We might THINK we know, but we don't know. Especially when we're talking about Jesus, we don't – and we can't – know what's going to happen.


How do you know what's coming?


It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas (everywhere you go). We're lighting candles and singing the GOOD hymns. Not that all the others aren't good, but there's just something about those Christmas carols. We preachers try to remind you that it's not really Christmas season yet. We try. We say, "Wait! Hold on! Thanksgiving was only last Thursday. We tell you Christmas season doesn't really begin until the day AFTER Christmas. Silly preachers. Everybody knows Christmas season starts the day after Halloween. The day after Christmas is when the SALES start. Everybody knows that. Everybody's making plans, because, we know what's coming.


You know what time it is. You've planned for it. Some of you already have all your presents bought and all your cards in the mail. The rest of us hate you. Not really. Well, a little. Cold weather's finally here. The deceitful trees have thrown all their leaves into our gutters. WalMart has giant, inflatable Santas. We know what time it is. Like the fig tree Jesus spoke of, we see the change of seasons. We know what's going to happen. It's the end of the college football season (unless you're going to a bowl). We can read the writing on the wall. We know what's going to happen. We're smart. We don't like surprises.


We know what's coming this Christmas season because the same things happen every Christmas season. We light the Advent candles. We have the Cantata. We read pretty much the same scriptures. And hear sermons on the same scriptures. That's why we start out with the one that says, "Keep awake!" All this stuff about the sun and the moon and the stars burning out... all this prophesy about the foundations of the universe being shaken up. Do we really believe that? We believe it in principle, sure. But we don't really expect these things to happen. Not before this generation passes away. Not before Christmas. We might believe it as a concept, but we don't watch for it. We don't stay awake for the end of the world. It's the topic for other preachers in other denominations. Good Presbyterians that we are, we know what's coming because we plan what's coming. We save. We buy. We make lists for Santa and go to the mall so our kids can hand him the printouts. Christmas is a time of no surprises, or few surprises. We tell the jolly old elf what we want and then sit back and let him do his thing. Here's some marital counseling. Guys -- if your wife tells you what she wants for Christmas, get it. She doesn't want surprises. She doesn't want a Black & Decker Weed Whacker instead of jewelry, no matter how much more practical it might be. Just a little free counseling. If they don't ask for surprises, don't get surprises. We know it's Christmas because there aren't surprises unless we say there are going to be surprises, and if there are surprises, we darn well better know what they're going to be.


We know it's Christmas because the same things happen every year. We're comfortable with them. We're OK with tradition. OK, sure, the Christ baby surprised everyone that first Christmas day, but one surprise in 2000 years is enough. Christmas is our great festival of predictability. We like it that way.


So what do we do with scripture that tells us that Christ's advent is utterly unpredictable? What do we do with scripture that tells us while Christ's coming is good, it's not exactly pleasant by our standards? What happens when the Word of God goes against everything we expect -- in the busiest holiday season of the year? The Birth of Christ and Christmas are really two different things. Someday all that we can prepare for will crash head-first into all that we can't. And scripture tells us what we can't prepare for will win. How do we know that's going to happen? Not because we've put it on layaway. Not because we've done it that way for 1000 years. We know what's going to happen because God says it's going to happen. Maybe that's the biggest surprise of all. What God says is going to happen will happen. And God's happening will wipe out everything we think we're prepared for.


Praying, and watching, for God's kingdom to come is not the prayer of the man (or woman) who has everything. Praying and watching for God's kingdom is not the prayer of the child who can't wait to see what's under the tree. No, it's the other way around. Praying and watching for God's kingdom is the prayer of someone whose life is predictable only in its chaos. When we reach the point of knowing in our hearts that things aren't how they're supposed to be... When we reach the point of hoping for hope itself... God's promises of universal surprise begin to pull us through. God's promises of a new heaven and a new earth pull us into hope that we can't buy, make, bake, or charge. God's promise of change gives us life when our plans fall dead. When we honestly don't know what's going to happen next... When we truly can't plan our way out of a paper bag, Christ whispers the advent carol to us: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here. Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel." It isn't a carol of birth; it's a carol of rebirth. Have you ever really listened to a lot of the Christmas-slash-Advent songs? They're almost too honest to sing. Advent strips off the jolly sweaters we want to wear. Advent sings straight at the heart. Like an arrow to the soul, Advent sings songs only God knows how to write. We don't know exactly how they're going to go. But we know they will. Not because we can sing, or live, or plan our words and deeds so carefully. Advent will come in God's way, in God's time, because God says it will.


How do we know what's going to happen this Christmas? We all have our ideas about that. But how do we know what's going to happen in Advent? How do we know what's going to happen when Christ comes? Miracle of miracles we don't know. We can't know. But God knows. And God says, "Just watch. Just watch. And you'll see."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Again and Again, Over and Over

2014-11-23 Matthew 25:31-46


Last Monday, just before I looked up the scripture for today, Don called me to let me know he was using this passage during the Stewardship Message. I told him, fine, ‘cause it’s a good one. Of course, it’s the Bible, so, they’re all good. It’s the Good Book. But this one seemed extra-good for the day when we were talking Stewardship and talking Mission.

So after we hung up, I looked at the Lectionary scriptures for this Sunday. Low and behold, it was the same scripture Don had picked. Kind of a weird coincidence, don’t you think? He obviously has connections. I think what Don said summed it up well enough for both of us. But I’m a preacher; I’m not about to let that stop me. We preachers believe anything worth saying once is worth saying again, and again.



The reason we have this particular scripture today is because on the church calendar, this is Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King is the last Sunday before next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, the season of getting ready for the coming of Christ and Christmas. Nobody knows this, except preachers and the blessed saint-elves who change the paraments to white.

Once again, the church is painfully out of step with reality. This Sunday should rightfully come on Halloween -- because the day after Halloween’s when the stores and the catalogs and the pre-pre-pre-Black Friday emails start telling us to get ready to get ready for Christmas. Late again, Christians.

Thanksgiving? What’s that? A day to overeat, go to Target, and complain about your family. Americans do those things EVERY day. Between midterm elections and the rush to the sales, we’ve got a HUGE jump on seasonal anxiety, easily a month before the Sunday when we recognize Christ as King.

But maybe something else is going on. Maybe this is another of those weird coincidences. Maybe God’s good connection to us is saying that in the middle of personal, political, earthly anxieties, we need – we need – more than ever to be reminded that Christ IS King. Maybe in the middle of calendar creep, we need – we need – more than ever to know that Christ – and not earthly powers, and not us -- Christ is King. Maybe this is God’s quiet way of reminding us (again) that we are judged not by our achievement or accomplishment, or even our own opinions, but we are judged by Christ. Christ who is King. King of sheep and King of goats, King of rich and King of poor, King of ready and King of not. Christ is King. This Sunday. And every Sunday. So get ready. To get ready. Again.



The Social Anxiety Institute (and doesn’t that sound like an uplifting place to work?) -- the nervous scientists at the Social Anxiety Institute say social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively… leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.[1]

I mention this because the scripture on Christ the King Sunday is all about being judged and evaluated, possibly leading to eternal punishment.

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’”

“‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Thus are separated the good from the bad as easily as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Buh-bye, goat-people. Thanks for flying.

If you tend at all toward social anxiety, this parable is going to raise your heart rate. If you’re a relatively wealthy North American, this parable OUGHT to raise your consciousness, if not your blood pressure. It OUGHT to prick your conscience, just a little, maybe more. Because there’s always more to do. There’s always someone least-er than the least of these. There’s always someone in prison, someone hungry, someone sick. There’s a lot of naked people. Especially on the Internet, I’ve heard. You should do something about this if you’re at all feeling sheepy.

Every time I read this passage, I feel sheepish. But not in a good way. I feel guilty. I’m a preacher and we’re kind of like God’s little Petri dishes of guilt. I’m a carrier. You’re welcome.

But feeling guilty is easy. Guilt is cheap. Doing something with that guilt, doing something about it, turning the anxiety and fear of judgment into action – that’s the harder way. It’s the better way. But it’s going to cost you. Just like it cost Jesus. Because it’s the way of Christ. Christ the King.



Today’s scripture is the last lesson Jesus teaches his disciples before heading to Jerusalem, to the cross. So, you pile up and stand on all his lessons, and this is his big finale. Jesus knows what’s coming. And he may also know what’s coming after what’s coming. So, in this final lesson, he’s teaching his disciples to get ready to get ready for what’s coming after what’s coming. I think this is supposed to be good news. I don’t think he meant it to freak out his followers with anxiety. I think in his typical Jesus, roundabout way, he was telling them, telling us, that there’s more than what you see coming.

I think this is so because Jesus’s disciples were NOT relatively wealthy first-world people who occasionally felt guilty about their possessions because it was easier than giving them away. I think Jesus meant this parable of judgment to be GOOD news because his disciples WERE the poor. His followers WERE the sick. His friends WERE the people in prison or would be there very soon. His OWN stomach may have rumbled when he taught this. His OWN tongue might have been dry for thirst.

Jesus is not preaching in a great cathedral. He’s not preaching in the comfortable suburbs. He’s preaching this at the Volunteer Ministry Center. He’s preaching it on the steps of a Habitat for Humanity home. This is not a guilt-inducing threat. At least, not to the poor sheep of the Good Shepherd. This is the grand fulfilment of everything he has been saying all along. This is what’s on the Final Exam. “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the strangers, the outcasts, the prisoners, the sick.”

Blessed are you because there IS more. There IS something coming after what’s coming. There IS something worth getting ready for after all you can do to get ready. Blessed are you because the final judge is not your accomplishment or your achievement, or your appropriate level of first-world guilt. Blessed are you because your final judge is NOT what other people think about you, or say about you, or whisper behind your back. None of these is your final judge. The Son of Man is your final judge. And the Son of Man not only CAME for you, he’s JUST like you. He’s one of you, he IS you.

The harder way, the most costly way, the saving way, is to believe that your final judge is NOT your own anxiety, or conscience, or guilt. They don’t even come close. The final judge is Christ the King. And he’s not some unknowable dictator who enjoys sitting on a throne and separating sheep from goats. No. He’s as close as that person beside you. You can know him. You can shake hands with him. You can eat dinner beside him. You can take clothes to him, or her, and her whole family. You can build them a house. You can visit them when they’re sick.

In the scripture, both sets of people ask, “Lord, when did we see you?” They don’t know. YOU do not know enough to judge yourself. You will never be that fair. But you can know the Judge. You can know the King. And you can come to know him again, and again. 

Over and over.