In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Friday, November 30, 2012

Advent 1

A reflection on the readings for Advent 1C: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and Luke 21:25-36 by Janine A. Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

The readings for this week are apocalyptic. We've made that word come to mean the end of the world, and often a violent end at that. Movies and popular culture throw out more apocalypses than cell phone apps. Just off the top of my head, there's the classic war film Apocalypse Now and the increasingly popular idea of the zombie apocalypse. People joke about their post-apocalyptic skill sets--crocheting, knitting, spinning, cooking from scratch, raising chickens, woodworking with hand tools.

But that's not what the word "apocalypse" really means. It means "unveiling." It means finding the hidden meanings and truths that lie behind current events and everyday existence. Apocalyptic writing, like the passage from Luke and the books of Daniel and Revelation, use complex symbolism to try and make sense of the world, and to prophesy--another loaded word: a prophecy is not a fortuneteller's prediction, but a projection forward, a warning of what may come if we don't change direction or a vision of hope and trust in God's ability to save the world from whatever mess we've made of it. The truth of prophecy does not lie in whether it came true the way a weather prediction comes true; it lies in the deeper insight it gives into our existence and God's way of working in the world.

In popular culture, and in too much of Christian history, both apocalypse and prophecy have often gotten warped by triumphalism. Triumphalism is the belief that there is one right interpretation, I've got it, and the rest of you, up to and including everyone in the past several thousand years, are all wrong. There are two large problems with that attitude. The first is that the people with this attitude tend to make rash predictions, which are proven to be wrong. People who set a date for the end of the world end up looking bewildered the day after the world failed to end on schedule. My parents, who seldom bought a book but never got rid of one, owned a book that was published nearly a hundred years ago: that book lined up every single event in Revelation with the early part of the First World War. Its presence in our home and its manifest failure at predicting the end, which should have come sometime in the 1920s, helped me get out of an anxiety attack caused by a similar book that was written in the early 1970s and is similarly obsolete now. The first problem, then, can be simple.

 The second problem is more complex and far more serious: triumphalism is a failure of humility and charity. It has no place in a living faith. It does not bring us closer to God.
Thinking that we, and only we, know what God has said or is saying or is going to do cuts us off from other people of faith, including people of other faiths, just when we need to be talking to them. It gives us a sense of safety, but that safety is spurious. It's not a way of knowing God, but a way of trying to control God and tell God what to do, which, as the history of our faith (and just about anyone else's) tells us, never ends well. Humility before God requires that we do our best to learn and understand Scripture, but can never fully know the mind of God and must not presume to do so. Charity requires that we are always open to the insights of others, past and present. Feminist theology, liberation theology, and new scholarship do not make old work valueless; they enhance it. They add new voices and insights to the rich, long conversation the human race is always having about faith. Even when older work is demonstrably wrong, our corrections of those wrongs do not make us superior to those who came before us; in most cases they, like we, were doing the best they could. If they were dishonest, let us acknowledge it and then look to make our own work and lives as honest as we can. Good scholarship honors the truth and seeks the truth, but does not presume to own it.

The reality of prophecy and apocalyptic is this: the writer had that time, place, and situation in mind, and the writings also have meaning for other people at other times. This is partly because human history does tend to repeat itself. There are always signs in the heavens and distress among nations, and we are always wondering how the story of this world will end. It is also because we look for meaning and hope, turning to ancient writings for insight. It is good to do that as long as we do not ask for, or fabricate, more certainty than there actually is, or force our certainties on others.

Prophecy and apocalyptic, when we don't warp them into ways to make ourselves feel safe or superior, point to trust in God and openness to one another. The fact is that we don't know the future; only God knows when and how the end of our individual lives and the life of the world will end. The good news, which we often forget, is that our redemption, whatever it is, is always drawing near. The apocalypse is, indeed, always now, because the truth is always being unveiled. Thanks be to God.

A footnote: two very good works about the apocalyptic book of Revelation are The Power of the Lamb: Revelation's Theology of Liberation for You, by Ward Ewing, and The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, by Barbara R. Rossing. If you are inclined to choose a book for Advent reading, I'd strongly recommend either of them.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

All Saints' Day

 A reflection by the Rev. Crystal Karr...

Isaiah 25:1-10
O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.  For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.  Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, t he noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain. The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit.

Many of us will be celebrating All Saints Sunday tomorrow.  It is the day in which we honor our dead—the saints who have lived among us, fellow believers, teachers, leaders, and inspirations of faith.  We share their stories, remembering how their faith touched our lives and helped us to go a bit farther along our faith walk.  It is a time in which the scriptures take the form of flesh and blood as we tell the tales of grace lived out, love taking human form as we remember one of our beloveds who taught us how to live more like Christ—lending a hand, offering a shoulder to cry upon, practicing grace and forgiveness in the most difficult of circumstances.  It is a day in which we practice resurrection as we reflect and remember,  and are inspired  to live out of the hope and love gifted to us by those who have passed on.
I love how on this day, the scriptures we read leave the page and jump into our lives.  My Aunt Susie died last week.  She’s not the average church woman, not a traditional pillar of faith by any means.  She would rather sit in a bar smoking and drinking with the guys than spend any time in church at all.  Yet, she taught me that believing in something didn’t mean a damn thing unless my life reflected what I believed.  My rough spoken, hard living Aunt Susie taught me that the scriptures I study take on flesh and blood in this present life, and if they don’t, well then they don’t mean a damn thing.
Susie lived in my grandparents’ farmhouse on the outskirts of town along a bend in the road.  Between the bend in the road and the steep drive rarely did anyone pull in to turn around or ask for directions.  Yet one day as Susie was at the back of the house, someone knocked on the door.  I nearly jumped out of my skin.  I cautiously approached the door, having learned at school to be afraid of strangers.  I looked through the glass to see a raggedy bearded man standing there.  Just when I turned my head to call for Susie, she was standing there and barking at me to open the damned door.  She invited him in; he wanted a glass of water.  She sent me to get the water.  He drank it and left.
 “Did you know that guy?”
“Then why did you invite him in?”
“He might have been Jesus.”
            Susie didn’t need someone in robes telling her what was proper.  She didn’t want to hear about sinning and combating evil.  She wanted and needed to live out the Gospel as best she could, without words but with deeds.  I learned from her that day, that I need not be afraid of strangers, they might be Jesus.  As I grew in faith, I discovered that Jesus, the Christ, a spark of divine, lives within each of us, every human being on the face of the planet.  It is my job to recognize that spark and treat each one with the same love and compassion I would offer to Jesus. 
            Like my Aunt Susie, sometimes I do so masterfully while far too often I fail miserably.  Yet, it was Aunt Susie who taught me that living out the Gospel is a must for my faith.  If sitting in a pew on Sunday mornings is where it begins and ends it is worthless.  I worship a God who promises to care for the poor, the needy, the distressed and thus this is part of what I do as well.  I do not honor my God if I turn a blind eye to those in need; offer a cup of water to the Christ before me.
Too often Christianity is presented as a promise of life after death---as in Revelation 21:1-6:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”  And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

We take courage and assurance with the promise that God will set all things right, that one day our tears and sorrows will be wiped away.  However, that is not all of our Christian faith.  If we look to another of today’s lectionary scriptures, Matthew 5:1-12 we find a blessing on those who are struggling, not just for their afterlife but for their life on earth.  Throughout the New Testament Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God has come near.”  The Kingdom of God is here and now if only we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, and each day we have the opportunity to participate in making the Kingdom of God present in this life on earth.  We have been invited to participate in creating God’s justice on earth.  We have been invited to offer a cup of water to the Christ before us.  We have been invited to make the scriptures put on flesh and blood.  We have been invited to inspire and lead others who may be younger in the faith and encourage them upon their journey.  Perhaps one day, they will be celebrating and resurrecting you through stories and remembrances of your life, your love, your faith that so embodied and made real the love and grace of God that it helped them to believe, to live as though their faith mattered and made a damn big difference.
            May you be blessed to see, hear, and participate in the Kingdom of God this day and every day.  Amen.