Friday, November 28, 2014

Rend the Heavens



Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!  Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!...Since ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.  You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.  But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.  How then can we be saved?...Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord, do not remember our sins forever.  Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!

Does anyone else feel this way?  Like you are just beyond ready for God to rend – tear apart – the heavens, and come down?  Come down, Lord, and be with us.  Come down, Lord, and fix things.  Come down, Lord, and avenge our enemies.  Come down, Lord, and save us.  Come down, Lord, and forgive our sins, and theirs, and just make it…better…right…the way it’s supposed to be. 

All we have to do is flip on the evening news, or look at the morning newspaper, to see what a complete nightmare the world is.  Riots and destruction in Ferguson, Missouri.  Ebola still spreading like wildfire across Africa.  Teenagers who commit suicide.  Moms and dads who can’t get along, and kids who get caught in tangled web of divorce proceedings.  People without a home to live in or food to eat or blankets to keep warm.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!

Cold war games stirring up again in Russia and eastern Europe.  And full-fledged hot wars running throughout the Middle East.  ISIS chopping off heads with abandon, Palestine and Israel still duking it out…

Oh, that you would rend the heavens, and come down!

And that’s without Black Friday!  Grown women reduced to brawls over a Barbie doll.  Really?  Shoppers literally stealing items out of each other’s carts.  Policemen breaking up fights over televisions…as though there was anything good to watch on them in the first place!  Is it me, or is this ridiculous?

Oh, that you would rend the heavens, and come down!

Doctor’s appointments and medical charts that tell the sad news…cancer.  Stroke.  Alzheimer’s.  MS.  Miscarriage.  I’m sorry…you’re just getting old.  Downcast faces, and the words, “there’s nothing more we can do.”  Sudden, tragic, unexpected deaths.  Are they better or worse than long, painful, agonizing, drawn-out dying processes?  I don’t know…

Oh, that you would rend the heavens, and come down, because Thanksgiving is over and it’s supposed to be the Christmas season, and it sure doesn’t feel like Christmas, does it?

No, it doesn’t feel like Christmas.  It feels like Advent.     

Oh, that you would rend the heavens, and come down!  This is the cry, the theme of Advent.  We so often talk about Advent as a time of waiting, before Christmas, as though Advent was some sort of invention by the boring old party-pooper Church to keep you from getting too excited about Christmas…or perhaps it’s some sort of counter-cultural few weeks meant to teach us to slow down, and not be so darn materialistic about Christmas…we so often talk about the waiting of Advent as though the Church, during Advent, was your mother, standing over you, lecturing you about not shaking the boxes under the tree to try to figure out what your presents are before Christmas. 

But that’s not Advent.  Advent is not four long weeks of sitting in the doctor’s office waiting…waiting…waiting…what is going on, I have things to do today, can’t we just get on with it…and so you tap your toes and play on your phone and rummage through your coat pockets looking for a tic tac, while listening to the tacky “smooth jazz” renditions of 1980s Michael Bolton hits, which reminds you of the ex-girlfriend you took to the senior prom and maybe you should look her up on Facebook.  (No.  No, you shouldn’t.)

But anyway, that’s not Advent.  Advent is not so much the Church standing athwart the Christmas-Industrial Complex yelling, “Stop!” as it the Church praying, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.”  And whether that prayer comes with the fervor and enthusiasm of a Billy Graham style revivalist, or the last weak breaths of a dying woman, whether it comes in the simple bedtime prayers of a child, or the reverent notes of a congregation singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” again this year, just as they have every year, it is the words, the voice of a faithful people, calling on our God, living in faith, hope, and trust that God hears our cry – and that pleases God. 

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!”   

And just as figs follow the green branches and budding leaves, Christmas follows Advent, as God’s answer to our prayer, as proof positive that God does hear us, He does see us poor miserable sinners, and He does indeed rend the heavens and come down to save us, for we are His people.

In the gospel lesson from Mark today, we hear Jesus discussing with His disciples about the time that He will return to them, about the final, ultimate time when God will rend the Heavens and come down.  He tells them that at that time, there will be great distress, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky and the heavenly bodies will be shaken, and then, into the middle of terror and torture, darkness and distress, we will see the Son of Man, coming on clouds with great power and glory, and send the angels to gather all the elect (that’s you), from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. 

Oh, that you would rend the heavens, and come down.  The disciples would have known this old Scripture, this old prayer from the prophet Isaiah and Jesus says to them, and to us today, “Oh indeed, I shall.” 

When that will be, we don’t know.  The Israelites, the whole world, really, who had been praying, hoping, watching, waiting for a Messiah since, gosh, the 3rd chapter of Genesis…who would have expected the way the birth of Jesus played out, the time of the first “rending of heaven,” and “God coming down”?  No one, of course…but they were not expected to, either.  God didn’t ask the faithful people of old to “predict” the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Messiah, any more than He asks us today
to “predict” when Christ will return. 

He simply asked them, and us, to be faithful in the interim.  To watch for His coming.  Not to try to read the tea leaves about wars and rumors of wars. Not to party like it’s going out of style because, well, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.  Simply to watch.  To watch and to wait, eagerly, clinging tightly to Him.  He is the one who will hold us firm, He is the one who make sure that we are blameless on the day of Jesus Christ, He is the one who hears us when we cry, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!”

May this be our Advent this year.  May the next three and a half weeks be filled with prayer and watching for the many ways in which God rends the heavens and comes down – in the words of Scripture and in His Holy Sacraments, in the forgiveness of our sins and the encouraging words of fellow Christians, and finally then at Christmas in the birth of His Son, Jesus. 

God has already rent the heavens and come down – and He promises to do so again – when the world, our world, your world is dark and despairing, shaken from its foundations, enslaved to sin and death.  God is faithful, and He has called us into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. As we look around ourselves this month – and always – and notice that it doesn’t always feel very much like Christmas, may we remember that it does feel like Advent, and so offer up our prayers to the God who hears, and always acts on behalf of His people, especially in our darkest moments, when the world is at its worst. 

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.  Amen. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Water Buffalo Sermon


“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light…”  

Sweet – what’s a yoke?  And why does Jesus have one?  

Well, at its most basic level, a yoke is a, a thing that you lay over the neck and shoulders, and maybe even the head, of animals that are suited to ploughing.  Sometimes just one animal, but frequently two animals.  And the yoke helps direct the animal to do what it’s supposed to do – it keeps it focused in the proper direction, helps it turn if it needs to turn – especially if you’re working with two animals, you need to make sure that they’re moving in the same direction at the same time.  And the yoke – yoke – not yolk like an egg yolk – the yoke, is a harness, basically, that is shaped to fit the particular animal, so that the farmer can direct it properly.   

Now, we live in a culture today that is not too far removed from the rural setting – a few of you still farm, and a good number of you grew up farming, even if that’s no longer your profession.  We’re not unfamiliar with farming…but for most of us, farming that involves a yoke is really not something we’ve had much to do with.  Many farmers today are chilling out in air-conditioned tractors watching satellite tv with one foot on the gas, while the GPS system takes care of the rest.  Who needs a yoke when outer space tells you when and where to turn, right?  

But even if we here in the civilized, modernized, western world have moved beyond yokes and animals for our farming, many, perhaps most, people throughout the world have not.  Yokes – and the animals that are guided by them – are common in many parts of the world, especially those places that are much more impoverished than we are.  And now, personally, I always thought that a yoke was about oxen, and not really much else.  Oxen use a yoke, but horses or donkeys, or whatever, well, I don’t know…  Maybe I’m the only one who thought this, but…anyway...it turns out that yokes aren’t limited to oxen – apparently, you can also yoke horses, mules, donkeys, and water buffalo.  Water buffalo!  

Anybody out there familiar with Veggie Tales?  I mean, really, it’s not really fair of me to mention water buffalo if I’m not going to show this, yeah? 


For any of you not familiar with Veggie Tales, this is Larry the Cucumber, well, as it said, the part of the show where Larry comes out and sings a silly song.  And in this particular one, Larry is rebuked by Archibald the Asparagus for singing that “everybody’s got a water buffalo”, because everyone certainly does NOT have a water buffalo, and well, you saw it.  

So, whatever.  It’s a silly song. But the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe Larry is right.  Maybe everybody does have a water buffalo…at least, in some sense.  So, here’s a picture of a water buffalo.
 

That doesn’t really look like something you want to tangle with, does it?  It’s…large…and it has…horns…and it has just plopped its muddy self right down in the middle of an otherwise perfectly useful river…This is a metaphor here, but, do you see what I’m saying?  Is there anything in your life that feels like a water buffalo?  Something that is large and awkward and difficult to control – something with pointy horns that has taken up residence in what was once a perfectly nice area of your life?

For some of us, our water buffalo is our job, our employment.  You don’t really like it all that much, or maybe you actually hate it, or maybe you wish you just had one, period.  Maybe your water buffalo is money – maybe no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get finances under control, and you’re always one step behind on bills…you feel like you’ll never get your head above water…Some people’s water buffalo is their schedule – you’re jam-packed up to here.  You’re running basically a professional taxicab service for your kids or grandkids, you’re working more jobs than you can count, your own “extracurricular activities” are too numerous to mention, and you can’t remember the last day you just did…nothing.  Or what about a “health” water buffalo?  Some of you have some pretty intense health issues going on right now, that have just sort of taken over your lives…or even if you’re not in the middle of a crisis, underlying chronic conditions just take their toll, and take over all your daily decisions.  Some of you have a water buffalo that is related to aging…suddenly, it seems like old age – and the changes it brings – has just deposited itself in your living room and there’s really nothing you can do about it.  You don’t like it, you don’t know how to deal with it, but it’s clearly not going away.  And for some of us, relationships are the core of our water buffalo.  

Relationships with your kids, spouse, siblings, parents, or even friends.  The constant fighting…or the cold shoulder…or the walking on eggshells…the fact that whatever you wanted that relationship to be, it’s changed, and that change feels like a giant water buffalo is sitting on you all the time.  Maybe your water buffalo is all about pressure to succeed.  You need to be perfect at school and the MVP on all your sports teams and never miss a beat at home and always get that next promotion at work…the constant worry that you’re not good enough is a huge water buffalo…

Whatever your thing is, point being, Larry the Cucumber is right: we all have a water buffalo.  And some of them start off oh so cute.  Look at this little baby water buffalo! 


 Isn’t it adorable?  I bet when you took that job, or went into debt to buy the car or the furniture or whatever, when you said “I do” or signed on to the team, this was the picture in your mind.  But now this sweet little thing has turned into this:


Yeah…And sometimes, it’s actually our whole lives – not just our lives, but our actual selves, us as individuals, that seem to have turned into a giant water buffalo.  Listen again to the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome:  “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

Do you ever have this feeling?  Like, “GAH!  What is going on?  With me?  And my whole life?  And why is everything screwed up, and why do I screw everything up???  Everybody’s got a water buffalo?  I AM the danged water buffalo!”

Yeah.    

See, the thing about water buffalo is that, if they’re not…controlled, managed, yoked, and so on, they end up trampling all over the natural vegetation, disturbing bird nests and other small animal habitats, and even spreading poisonous weeds all over… but when someone who knows what they’re doing controls the water buffalo, and yokes them, and put them to a decent use…they look like this:
 

So today, in the gospel reading, Jesus is addressing those of us who are weary, and heavy-laden.  I’m pretty sure that’s all of us. There’s a lot of water buffalo in our lives, and we keep trying to yoke them ourselves, and that gets pretty tiring after a while.  We’re like this guy:


What we need – every one of us – is somebody who knows how to yoke a water buffalo.  Somebody who can take all the large, awkward, pointy horned, vegetation trampling, weed spreading, mud sitting water buffalo that is, well, each one of us, and turn us into this:


Somebody who puts a yoke on our water buffalo, on us, and takes us to exactly where we’re supposed to be – guided, directed, cared for, and most especially, loved.  Look, this guy loves his water buffalo.  It means so, so much to him.  And he has carefully crafted a wooden yoke, as part of his care for his dear, water buffalo.  You can see it in his eyes, in the way his hand rests on the animal.  And doesn't it kind of look like the water buffalo gets that?  He understands that his master loves him, and is caring for him.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “take My yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle, and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul…”

Trying to yoke ourselves, trying to get ourselves and our problems yoked, organized, moving in the right direction, fixed, solved, always on top of everything, doing what we’re supposed to, have it all under control, all of that is exhausting.  It’s utterly, completely exhausting.  And we find, with Paul, that the stuff we want to do we don’t do, and the stuff we don’t want to do, we do, and it’s all so frustrating and aggravating and hard, just plain hard, and eventually, I think, we all reach a point where we just want to give up.  We might not admit that to anyone, but who hasn’t, in the deepest part of your soul, wished for it all just to go away for a minute, an hour, a day.  If you could only have some space, to think, and be still, and just hit the reset button and start over… Do you ever just want to sit down, right in the middle of the river there and just cry, until someone comes to rescue you?


As Paul says, “WHO WILL DELIVER ME FROM THIS BODY OF DEATH?!?!?!”

Over here, in Matthew’s gospel, we’ve got Jesus raising His hand – “Ooh, call on me!  I will!  I will!  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle, and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

The irony here, is that when you yoke an animal, it’s because you’re putting it to work.  But Jesus is talking about rest – rest for your soul.  When you wear His yoke, it’s not so He can put you to work, it’s so you can find rest – deliverance from all the weary, heavy-laden-ness of your life.


Yes, His yoke is easy…but sometimes the process of “taking it on”, is not so much.  Because to take on Christ’s yoke, we have to let go of our own…and more than that, we have to let go of our illusion that we can do it ourselves (!!) if only we just try harder.  See, I think that on a fairly regular basis, when we confront the water buffalo in our life, or when we realize that we are the water buffalo, we go to Jesus and we ask Him to show us how to do a better job of yoking ourselves, or maybe we say, “Hey, a little help here, Jesus?” And we expect him to help us nudge the water buffalo into submission.  Altogether too frequently, we don’t so much look to Christ for His yoke, but for an instruction manual on our own yokes. 

But that’s not what’s on offer here.  In fact, Jesus says that the Father hides things from those of us who think we’re wise and learned, who just want the correct answers.  Jesus doesn’t want you to fix your own yoke, or do a better job of controlling it.  He doesn’t want to give you advice for how to live your best life now.   

He wants you to take His yoke, He wants you to see that He is your best life now!    

He’s not simply here to teach you how to operate your own yoke, how to manage yourself or your water buffalo.  He’s here to actually give you His yoke, so that He can handle the water buffalo.  The reason that the “right answers” are hidden from you, are precisely so that you will turn to Christ.  Christ is the ultimate “right answer”, and He is so much more than the right answer…if all that He did was give us 7 Steps to Godly Weight Loss or 3 Keys For Successful Leadership, we’d still be relying on ourselves, and missing out on His resurrection and redemption!  So that’s no good.  Not at all.  No, no. 

Go all the way.  Everybody’s got a water buffalo, but it’s time to let go of yours.  Throw the whole messy muddy thing at God - it doesn't have to be organized when you give it to Him.  Let him deliver you from this body of death, and take His yoke upon you.  Let Him place it on you, in fact.  His yoke is easy, and the burden is light.  He is gentle, and humble in heart, and there – in Him – you will find rest for your souls.  What more could we ask for, than for someone to deliver us?

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – Amen.    

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Confirmation Quiet Time, Part Two



So, a long overdue update on how “quiet time” in confirmation went: Overall, it went really well.  It was definitely something different for the kids, that took a lot of getting used to.  In the beginning, they really didn’t like the “rules” part of it – the “no, you really have to be quiet, and not talking, and not moving around.”  The first time, I made the mistake of letting them sit/lay near friends, so long as they were quiet. Well, proximity breeds noise and activity, so…yeah, that didn’t work so much. 

The first time we did this, I gave them 20 minutes, and it was 15-18 before they really got all of the giggles out - longer than I expected.  Then I brought them back to the chancel, and we talked – one by one, I had each kid share his or her experience – what they liked, didn’t like, etc.  The kids who are “busiest” – who have the most jam-packed schedules with sports, etc had been going crazy.  They were “bored” without something to “do.”  The ones who are least busy – but still busy – had almost immediately fallen asleep, and they talked about how great it was just to have a few minutes of down-time.  Those three sleepers then turned to the group of giggliest girls and announced that it was really hard because “people” were talking and whispering and laughing…ahem.  Then we had a conversation about the Sabbath and its purpose, and about how each of us needs rest – rest for the sake of rest.  Not a painful, tortuous rest that involves sitting on your hands and biting your tongue, but an actual relaxing “rest”.  We talked about  “hearing God,” and they allowed that constant busyness, constant talking and moving and doing could probably prevent us from hearing God.  In the end, the 2-3 who were most opposed to this from the get-go offered – entirely on their own – that we could do this every week as long as we did the actual class stuff first.  

I’ll take that as a win.

We only had two weeks of class left at that point, but we repeated the exercise each time.  The kids agreed that they liked it, and that they felt it was important.  But what surprised me – what I absolutely didn’t expect – was that parents communicated to me how much their kids liked it, and some even asked, somewhat jokingly, if they could join us. 

So, I’m thinking…next year confirmation class will be over the Small Catechism.  I’ve decreed that parents must attend with their kids, and I’m working on getting other adults to join us as well – doing kind of a cross-generational confirmation.  I can’t decide if I should go with actual silent time before class, or having us all pray Vespers together before we dig in.  I really like the idea of Vespers, but the quiet time thing was such a success…thoughts, anyone?