there’s a heaviness to these days

There’s a heaviness to these days, our God,
with too much that weighs on us.
Dear friends have died.
Their personality and perspective,
their feistiness and life—their presence
is missing from our experience now.
Dear friends are sick,
and so there is energy, fullness, and abundance
that is missing.

Not to mention that we are surrounded
by bad news, rancor, divisiveness, bitterness,
anger, fear, stress, injustice, pettiness,
violence, corruption, small-mindedness.

No wonder Paul made a list of positive things
on which to tell the Philippians to think (Philippians 4:4-8).
But how is that not escapism?

And here we are entering the season of Thanksgiving,
and the waiting into Christmas.
And so the heaviness of these days
runs into holiday hopes and expectations
of enjoying friends and family,
of preparing and sharing good food,
of relaxing, of fun—
of a greater ease to be had.

Maybe it’s within the heaviness,
that we make our celebrating—
in spite of the heaviness—
so very aware of the heaviness.

Maybe we need the discipline of celebration
as much as the ease and joy of it.

We thank you then, our God,
that we are never alone—
that we share the yoke with You,
especially in and through what is hard to negotiate—
as in what we navigate with ease—
into what is joyful—
in the name of the one who still makes the angels sing,
Amen.

re-creating prayer

In our praying, God,
we turn our list
of names over to You—
our list of concerns and celebrations.
We do so believing
something important happens
when we do.

We don’t believe
we’re telling You anything
You don’t already know.
We don’t believe
there’s just something important
going on in us
focused beyond ourselves
on those we love—
even on those we don’t know,
but whom those we love love.

For we believe
something is created
in our praying—
in our naming—
something new—
something that otherwise wouldn’t have been.

Not an undoing of consequence—
not an inversion of circumstance,
but important.

Our breath,
given to prayer—
warm investment
in living care—
a re-creation of what is
in love,

and our prayers matter—

in the name of God among us,
warm investment in living care—
recreating always
in Jesus’ name,

Amen.

the unseen and the too much seen

Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22

From the Old Testament, we have another familiar story
abstracted from the larger exodus story.
It’s the story of Moses hidden in the cleft of the rock
while the glory of God passes by.
“Rock of ages, cleft for me.”
And it’s another one of those stories
largely known for just one part of it.
For that image of Moses hidden
comprises just one scene—one image—one snapshot
from the story
with much of the larger context so much less familiar.

So three things of note to note:
first, the larger context of the story
that leads to this familiar image—this one snapshot.
This story follows the stories of the making of the golden calf—
of God’s and Moses’ response to the golden calf.
And the last word we heard from God before our text
was that Israel was to proceed—
“Y’all go on up to the promised land
but I’m not going with you!
Because if I spent any more time with you than I already have,
y’all wouldn’t make it!
I would surely destroy you!” (Exodus 33:1-3)

Our story starts with Moses in conversation with God—in prayer,
trying to figure out what Israel,
having forfeited their right of covenant expectations,
can now legitimately expect from God.

And Moses asks God, “You’ve told me to bring up this people.
(You can almost hear disdain dripping from God’s “this”—”this” people)
“But you have not let me know,” Moses goes on, “who’s going with us—
with us.
Moses remains committed to the people.
“What messenger will accompany us? Guide us? Provide for us?
What sign of your presence will be with us?
You have said you know me and that I have found favor in your sight.
If that’s the case, then show me your ways
so that I can know you and find favor in your sight.”

God responds, “My presence (literally, my face) will go with you
and give you rest.
Now God’s promise here is made to you singular—to Moses specifically.
You, I’ll go with you.
In spite of what God had just said (“I’m not going with you”)
when Moses asks, God will go.

But Moses isn’t, apparently, totally convinced, because he goes on,
“If your presence will not go ….”
What did God just say? “I’ll go.”
“But if you don’t, do not carry us (us) up from here.
For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight?
I and your people, unless you go with us (us).
In this is our distinction, mine and that of your people.”
In face of God’s rejection of this people,
Moses affirms, over and over again,
not just that he remains committed to this people,
but that this people remains God’s people.

And note this: it is precisely the consistent affirmation
of the presence of God
that comprises the distinctive sign of the people of God.
Do we know that?
The consistent affirmation of the presence of God.
Do you do that?
How do we do that?

And God said, “I will—
I will do it okay?
I will do the very thing you have asked
for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.
How many times do I have to tell you this?”
You see, the prayers of one righteous person,
redeem even the great sin of the people’s idolatry!

What we have here is a model for daring, insistent prayer
(Walter Brueggemann, The Book of Exodus: Introduction,
Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1994] 942).
Moses keeps pushing!
Moses refuses to let God determine the limits of asking
(Brueggemann, 942).

And then Moses says, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
And God responds, “I will make all my goodness pass by
and will proclaim before you the name, the Lord—Yahweh,
and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious
and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,
but—but you cannot see my face;
for no one shall see me and live.”

Now did Moses hear that dangerous combination of affirmation and warning
we’ve noted so often before in Scripture?
Did you hear it?
When God said “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious
and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy,”
is that a hopeful word for Israel? Is that affirmation?
Or a subtle reminder that God is not always gracious?
Does not always show mercy?

If Moses picks up on that, he doesn’t push that!
He asks rather to see God’s glory.
And God says Moses can’t see God’s face—God’s self.
For God’s glory is God’s face is God’s self.
So for the first time, while God offers assurance,
God does not give Moses what Moses asked for—
still gives so very much.
“Yahweh responds to three different pleas from Moses,
each carrying the interaction one step farther”—a little deeper
(Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus in Interpretation
[Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991] 296).

It’s not true for everything, but maybe when it comes to knowing God,
the more we ask, the more we experience—
the more there is to ask—
the more there is to experience.
I love that verse from the Gospel of Thomas:
“Know what is in front of your face,
and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you”
(http://gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html).
The perfectly insistent prayer keeps asking more—
keeps wanting to know more,
and if God is, in truth, God,
anyone in their relationship with God can always go deeper—
even if it’s not always exactly what you wanted.

Finally, we get to Moses standing on the rock by God,
and God says, “When my glory passes by, I’ll put you in this cleft,
and cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by;
then I’ll take my hand away and you shall see my back;
but my face shall not be seen.”

So the second thing of note to note is that Moses,
contrary to what’s so familiar to us,
was not hidden in the cleft of the rock.
Read it carefully.
Moses was placed in the cleft and hidden by the hand of God.
Which is to say:
the presence of God protected Moses from the presence of God!

And it’s a very strange image to try and picture.
Almost as if God is watching a God parade with Moses.
“Here stand by me and we’ll watch my goodness go by,
and then we’ll listen to me proclaim the name the Lord,
and you can watch my graciousness and my mercy,
but when my glory comes, I’ll cover you with my hand
until I have passed by. Okay?”

Third and finally, we’re left with how to understand
this whole business of seeing God in the larger context of the wider story.
At the burning bush—in Moses’ initial encounter with God,
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:6)—
nothing said about it being dangerous to see God.
Moses was afraid.

There has been affirmation of the hiddenness of God—
God hidden in the cloud, God hidden in the fire,
God hidden in the darkness (Exodus 13:21; 20:21).
There’s even an explicit warning about the danger of seeing God:
“Go down and warn the people not to try and break through to the Lord
to look; otherwise many of them will perish” (Exodus 19:21).
And yet (it’s what makes Scripture so much fun!),
we read that Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu,
and seventy of the elders of Israel went up,
and guess what they did?
They saw the God of Israel (Exodus 24:9).
In the verses directly preceding our story, we read:
“When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend
and stand at the entrance of of the tent, and the Lord
would speak with Moses … Thus the lord used to speak to Moses
ready? face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:9, 11).

So what’s going on?
Can you see God’s face or not?
The easy answer is probably that whole JEPD thing—
you know that there were different writers and/or editors
with different theological and religious agendas
responsible for different parts of the Pentateuch, the first five books.
But I’m not sure the easy answer is the best one.

Terence Fretheim, an Old Testament scholar I appreciate,
observes it “does not say that God cannot be seen.
Rather, it assumes that God can be seen,
but one cannot live if this happens”
(Fretheim, 300).
But Moses did.
Aaron did. Nadab, and Abihu,
and seventy of the elders of Israel did.
So actually what I think it assumes is that
to see the face of God is to risk death.
It is to encounter death.
There is always dying involved.
But that maybe it’s some kind of dying to the self—
that whole “our dross to consume” we sing about
in “How Firm a Foundation.”
There are parts of us/there are dimensions to us/there are aspects of us
that cannot survive the presence of God.
Are you going to risk that?
It is a dangerous thing to risk yourself in the presence of God.
But God protects us from God …

which is such a good transition to Jesus!
But before we go … wow!

When it comes to our gospel text, once again,
religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus.
It’s their favorite game.
This time an unusual alliance of the disciples of the Pharisees
and the Herodians.
This clearly falls into the logic of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

They try and butter Jesus up with oily compliments
(You can read that whole section. It’s very greasy.)
before asking him about paying Caesar this tax.
They were referring to “a particular tax, the ‘census,’
the Roman head-tax instituted in 6 CE,
when Judea became a Roman province.
This census triggered the nationalism
that finally became the Zealot movement,
which fomented the disastrous war of 66-70″
(Brueggemann, 420).

“Show me the coin,” says Jesus.
Now they had one.
They shouldn’t have. Theoretically.
Whose image was, after all, on the coin?
Caesar’s—a man claiming to be a god—
which made of each coin a what? A portable little idol.
They shouldn’t have had one.
They don’t get it.
“Yes, we have one!” All excited.
It’s the teacher with the oblivious student.
“Okay, well that was supposed to be the end of this.
You shouldn’t have one and you do … oh, never mind.
Whose image is on it?”
“Caesar’s!” Enthusiastic. They know this.
They’re clueless!

“Well give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
It’s a subtle devaluation of money, by the way.
But pay God what is God’s.
And we, by the way, are not Caesar’s.
We do not owe Caesar ourselves.
We owe God ourselves.
It’s a devaluation of Caesar, isn’t it?
Indirectly, but indubitably!

It’s ironic, by the way.
What is inscribed on our money?
“In God we trust.”
The irony, of course, is that it’s money we trust, right?
And the irony is sharpened because (you know this, right?),
the only reason the phrase “in God we trust” can be on money
is because it doesn’t mean anything!

These instances of what’s called “ceremonial deism”—
“in God we trust” on our money, “under God” in our pledge—
these things that people get so wound up over,
are legally appropriate because they have “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content
(http://www.firstamendmentstudies.org/wp/pdf/1st_religion_ch3.pdf)
God’s on our money and in our pledge precisely and only
because it doesn’t mean anything.
It’s a devaluation of God in the language of God.
Yuck!

Roman coins name a man God who wasn’t;
American coins name God God,
but with the underlying assumption that it doesn’t matter.
Which is more blasphemous?

Listen carefully.
What Jesus is doing here is so much more
than advising people to be fine upstanding, law-abiding citizens,
and within their obedience of the law of the land to follow God.
No, Jesus is breathtakingly juxtaposing two completely different realities
both of which make claims on us,
and asking which one will we sink ourselves into?
Each one makes some claims on what we will do,
but which one will we allow to claim who we are?
Such that our being—
the story of who we are—
becomes a retelling of that particular story?
Are we the story of Caesar or the story of God?

You give of yourself to gods.
It’s inevitable.
Whether that’s a golden calf,
or Caesar, or money, or Yahweh.
And to the extent you choose idols,
mystery and grace and love are all cheapened—
made shallow,
and so are you.

To the extent you’re in the realm of Caesar—
under the dominion of Caesar,
the world is subordinated to power,
and so are you.

To the extent you invest in money,
the world is commodified—
it’s objectified,
and so are you.

I’m going to take a side step now
into an apparent digression.
I think it’s an apparent digression.
I think this all fits together,
but it may just fit together in my head!

Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church
was asking yesterday,
about a connection between authenticity and vulgarity.
He had just seen a movie and wanted to know why what’s vulgar
is granted an authority and an authenticity in our culture
that is, by in large, denied the church.
If you say it foully, people listen.

And there is much that is so very vulgar in our culture.
I would add that there is much that’s so terribly violent.
There is much that is obscene.
And in each case—you’ve noticed this, I’m sure,
the vulgar, the violent and the obscene are
at least in part defined—no, they are actually to great extent defined—
by pushing the boundaries—
the boundaries of what’s acceptable,
of what’s deemed appropriate,
of what’s permitted and allowed,
of what’s condoned.

Now when those boundaries are pushed,
where do they go?
Well, the point is they’re pushed—
they’re extended, right?
They’re moved further out,
and the next comedian, the next movie, the next advertisement
has to go further.
You’ve seen this before, in those movie series.
In the first movie something bad happens, to start things off.
Well, in the second movie, something worse has to happen—
to be edgy—
to be perceived (and this is important)—
to be perceived as outside the establishment—
to be outside what’s inside the boundaries—
outside what’s accepted, deemed appropriate,
permitted, allowed, condoned.
Because it’s what’s outside that is given an authority—an authenticity—
because there’s apparently insight granted from the outside.

And once you’ve pushed those borders, I might add—
once you’ve extended them,
you don’t get them back.
Not as the norm.
Not as what society will expect anymore.
Only as chosen by the individual—the group.

In our Gospel story,
the context of the story Matthew relates
is how when you push Caesar,
Caesar pushes back.
That tax led to the Great Revolt.
Well the Great Revolt led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
When you push culture, when you push status quo,
they push back.
They do not protect you from themselves.

In our Exodus story, Moses was pushing the boundaries—
pushing the boundaries of God—
pushing the boundaries of love,
and what we find out,
is that when you push God’s boundaries—when you push love—
God and love give ever more of themselves.
And when it gets dangerous,
God protects you from God.

I think you then find yourself with the authority—
the authenticity
of that outside perspective.
Not because you’ve pushed the borders
of what’s appropriate and acceptable so far out and you’re looking in,
but because you’ve pushed love so far—so deep—so wide,
it’s received you into a whole
that’s hard to fathom.

We, as followers of God,
have too often doubled down on precisely what culture pushes against./
And however important that may be, I tell you,
we are less perceived as against what’s vulgar—
against what’s violent—against what’s obscene,
as we are stodgy, rigid, and judgmental.
We’ve doubled down on what’s being pushed
instead of sinking ever deeper into love,
and that, I believe, has made all the difference.

Here’s the thing: love isn’t edgy.
Not like culture’s options.
Not like vulgar and violent and obscene—
which defines too much of our policy and our politics
and our cultural life.

Love isn’t edgy—
until—
love isn’t edgy until you reach so deep down into it
that you find yourself loving those others don’t.
Love isn’t edgy until you reach so deep down into it
that you find yourself loving those no one else does.

As we move forward—if we move forward—if we move forward,
that will make all the difference.
Are we going to double down against what people are pushing against?
Or are we going to sink ourselves into love?

So go from here to push deeper into love—
deeper into God—
to make a whole our culture cannot comprehend.

What a possibility.

we pray for those

We pray, our God,
for those who have no more hope,
for those who’ve given up,
for those who never had a chance to begin with,
for those written off,
for those who apparently don’t count,
for those whose lives are not gratitude and possibility,
for those whose stories are over.

We pray for those.

And we pray Your deep truth, our God—
that the pieces are gathered—
the pieces of dreams,
the pieces of lives,
the pieces of a past,
the pieces of stories,
the pieces of relationships,
the pieces of possibilities—
that they’re all lovingly and carefully picked up—
that they’re re-membered—
that the story that was over
has life breathed into it anew—
that your spirit hovers over depths of hope and possibility,
breathing words
of a creation that continues
within and out of chaos—
within and out of pain.

We pray for all who cannot see
to trust—
to trust the one who makes even blind eyes see
light shining even in the uncomprehending darkness.

This we pray in the name of the one who said, “I am the light”—
the one whom we claim to follow,
shining,
into the darkness.
Amen.

i-phone, i-pad, i-cal, idol

Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14

In our Old Testament story from the larger Exodus story,
we’re at the foot of Mt. Sinai this morning with the children of Israel.
We’re at the foot of the mountain with those
who have consistently experienced
the presence, the power and the provision of God.

Now Moses, he was up on the mountain top—again.
He had gone up the mountain soon after the group arrived (Exodus 19:3)
and came down to tell everyone that whole bit
about God being the one who brought them up out of Egypt
and expecting their covenant obedience to be
a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:4-6).
then he went back up; came back down (Exodus 19:20-21)
to hear with the people the specifics of covenant relationship—
the ten words or the commandments,
after which the people, very specifically, asked Moses to speak for God,
and so not to let God speak to them (Exodus 20:19)!
Moses went back up into the thick darkness
in which God was present (Exodus 20:21),
came back down again to tell the people more (Exodus 24:3)—
wrote everything down this time,
built an altar—
threw blood on everyone
in some kind of ritual consecration (Exodus 24:4-8).
Aren’t we glad some biblical traditions didn’t take?!
Moses went back up again (Exodus 24:12) …,
but this time, Moses was up there, we’re told,
for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18).

His clothes were fitting him a little looser.
He was losing weight.
Joshua, his assistant, was telling him to consider marketing
a mountaintop weight loss program.

But at the foot of the mountain, the people got antsy.
It was the delay, yes. The impatience, yes.
That expectation of immediacy,
our culture may have aggravated it, but it didn’t create it!
Maybe some frustration with Moses always popping in and out.
Maybe the fear that Moses was gone—their intermediary,
the one who spoke for God so God wouldn’t!

We want gods to go before us, the people tell Aaron.
Never mind that you-shall-have-no-gods thing—
that I-the-Lord-your-God-am-one thing,
we want gods to go before us.
And as for Moses, the man who brought us up out of Egypt,
we don’t know what has become of him.

The man who brought us up out of Egypt?
I’m sorry, what?

And Aaron, who had been with Moses almost from the beginning—
who had seen God and heard God
and spoken for God—
Aaron who, in response to God’s command
had thrown down his staff to see it turn into a serpent (Exodus 7),
Aaron is fine with this—
responsive to the people’s demands.
He gives the people exactly what they want.
“Give me your gold,” he says, and molds them a golden calf.
Never mind that whole make-no-graven-image thing.

And they say of the calf,
“These are your gods who brought you out of Egypt.”
The gods who brought you up out of Egypt?
I’m sorry, what?
We know the calf didn’t bring them out of Egypt.
The calf didn’t exist until now.
They knew that too.
And yet Aaron built an altar before it
and proclaimed a festival to the Lord.
And they offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being
which all actually sounds a lot like what they’ve done for God.
In fact, if you go back a couple of chapters,
it’s exactly what they just did for God (Exodus 20:24).

So it’s possible—it’s possible—
they weren’t, in fact, wanting a replacement for God,
but another intermediary to replace Moses—
who wasn’t there—who had gone up and not come down—
a more tangible expression of God—
the God—Yahweh,
but a less smoky, a little less cloudy, less fiery—
with less thunder and lightning—
less shaking of the foundations—
something more predictable,
more solid, more tangible, more visible,
more consistently present, more accessible, less scary.
We want something down here at the foot of the mountain,
not some mystery up at the top.

We want a white Jesus who’s worried about my personal salvation
and wants to save me and my lifestyle—doesn’t care about the poor—
doesn’t care what money and power do to people,
and about whether we should invest in violence or peace.

Just kidding. Not the same. Right? Right.

Now remember God’s up there, even as they speak,
doing what?
Carving stone tablets for them—
carving tangible expression—God’s word made manifest—
not incarnate but in-carved-slate!
God’s working on giving them exactly what they want,
something they can hold—something they can see—
just not on their time frame.
And so they impatiently mold gold.

And I’m thinking God was thinking:
“Alright, so let’s see, I said no flood again, right?
I promised I wouldn’t kill them—with water.
So this time fire. They burn. I can do this.
And then I’ll start over with Moses just like I did with Noah.
You go down to your people, Moses,
whom you brought up out of Egypt”—
you almost get the feeling God’s feelings were hurt!

But Moses pleads with God not to do that—
for several different reasons.
“It really wouldn’t make sense to rescue your people—”
no one wants these people!
“They’re not my people, they’re your people!”
“It really wouldn’t make sense to rescue your people
and then abandon them.
It wouldn’t be good p.r., what with the Egyptians watching,
and remember your promises as of old.”

And God, we read, God changed God’s mind.
It’s kind of like that Abraham story
in which God changed God’s mind—repented, is the word.
God remembered the story God wanted to tell.
God remembered the story God was telling.
God re-membered—
God put back together again what had been broken.
That’s what God does—
even when it’s God’s own heart and God’s own dream—
God’s own story.
Exodus.

Then in the New Testament, we have a crazy Jesus story—
which, in case you didn’t know it,
is the literal translation of the word “parable.”
That’s an etymology out of the it’s all Greek to me.

And we have a king throwing a wedding party for his son.
And he sent out his slaves to those who had been invited—
because this was a follow-up invitation
to a previous, there’s a party coming notice.
People had gotten a kind of a save the date notice without the date,
and now it’s the date.
You know that party to which you were invited—
that save the date notice you got without the date?
Well, it’s today.

And they have their day to day excuses.
Of course they do.
We know them.
They fill our calendars.
Take yesterday. There was the church work day.
The girls had soccer in two different places at two different times.
Susie was doing a wedding. There was dinner to prepare,
kitchen to clean, laundry to try and get to, dog to walk.
Forget the vacuuming.
And yes, we can say none of that is as important as God, sure.
But we’re really not talking about wasted time.
We’re not talking about excuses that are meaningless.

Susie told me that the average female college student
spends 10 hours on her phone a day.
The average child (this according to a study
by the University of Michigan)—the average child (2-5)
watches 32 hours of TV a week—
more than one whole day of TV out of seven!
That’s what we do instead of sabbath!
We’re not talking about that though.

What struck me this past week,
was not so much the excuses to the invitation,
but the inconvenience of the invitation—
the utter lack of respect for my schedule.
I know it’s the king.
I know it’s the prince’s wedding party.
Yes, but I’m in the middle of something here.
It may or may not be that important—
especially compared to the high and mighty prince,
but you expect me to drop everything?

The whole torturing and killing the messenger’s a little extreme—
a little out of proportion—doesn’t seem quite right.
And it also doesn’t seem quite right, did you notice?
that there would be time
to send out troops, to destroy enemy forces,
and to sack a city,
all while the party food’s on the table.

So here’s where most scholars will tell you
“Well this story, it is an allegory”—
which is (y’all probably know this) a particular kind of story
in which everything (or almost everything) represents something else.
And you put it all together to get a meaning beyond the meaning.
It’s like a code—a puzzle.

So as the allegorists tell it,
the king is God, and Jesus the son,
the wedding banquet, the party at the end of time—
the fulfillment of creation.
The slaves are the prophets.
They were sent to those already invited, Israel,
but the slaves are rejected—
with extreme prejudice,
making us think of Jesus’ lament:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets
and stone those who were sent to you” (Matthew 23:37).
The destroyed city—well that fits in—
Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD—
a reminder that we’re talking history here
amidst salvation history.
The gathering of everyone, the good and the bad,
into the wedding hall represents the church—
which is actually not a bad reminder for the church,
which too often, I think, considers itself the gathering of the good people!

Which is all fine and good.
It works quite well, doesn’t it?
I just don’t get the idea that Jesus was terribly interested in salvation history—
not as justification for the church—
which as we’ve said before didn’t even exist when he was telling the story.
Jesus was not interested in salvation history
as a history of the institutions of religion.
I get the feeling Jesus may have been interested in salvation history
only as the consistency of God’s love through history.

Then there’s the second part of the crazy Jesus story:
that one guy (poor guy), hauled in off the street,
then blessed out for not having the right clothes on!
And wow does that seem not right.
Not just unfair, but ridiculously so.

Again, the allegorists will tell you,
“The clothes represent baptismal attire”—
or something like that.
Still doesn’t seem right.
You invite the good, and you invite the bad—
you invite the baptized and the unbaptized,
but then expect them all to be baptized?!

And the story ends with the king saying,
“Many are called, but few are chosen.”
Does that make sense to anyone?
It makes no sense in light of the story.
In that hall full of the good, the bad, and the ugly,
only one was tossed out.
So what does it mean few are chosen?
All but one were chosen.
Now it makes more sense in light of the story as salvation history—
the new present, the church, justified in light of the failed past, Israel.
It makes sense not in the context of the story,
but the story’s context in Matthew
as one of several stories addressed to the Pharisees.

So I’m having trouble with this allegory.
And allegory seems a little bit too
structured for Jesus, anyway—
a little too rigid.

Allegory makes more sense
as Matthew’s adaptation of a Jesus story for his church—
trying to separate itself from Judaism—
its history within Judaism.
It makes more sense for the church
to blame Israel for rejecting the prophets,
because when Jesus told the story,
the hearers of the story were all Jews.
We were the ones who rejected the prophets, not them.
And again, there was no church.
Not to mention that the destruction of Jerusalem
had to have been added after Jesus,
since it didn’t happen until after Jesus.
And even if you want to say Jesus knew it was going to happen,
it wouldn’t have made sense to anyone else,
and Jesus’ stories, I get the sense, always made sense.
I mean they didn’t make sense,
but not because you couldn’t understand them, right?!

So, if we reject the scholars’ identification of this story as allegory—
or we say, more specifically, that Matthew may have meant it as allegory,
but Jesus wouldn’t have,
then what would we have that might just be the crazy Jesus story?

Well for one thing, we’d have a whole story,
not one divided into meaningful pieces
that we add together to interpret.
We wouldn’t be thinking about the king as God,
and this as that and that as this,
but the whole thing offering some insight into the kingdom of heaven.

And then if we just read the story,
not thinking about parts meaning different things,
then maybe it’s a story about the absolute priority of the moment—
that moment in which you’re invited into the kingdom of heaven—
the kingdom of heaven on earth as it is in heaven.
Not end of time kind of stuff—
ordinary moment kind of stuff.
Less about what they did wrong, whoever they are,
but whether or not we embrace our opportunities
to extend forgiveness and grace,
to manifest love and respect,
good stewardship and care—
to be a part of the redeeming of creation.
And so less about whether someone
has been perceived as “good” or “bad,”
as what they do in this particular moment
when God interrupts life with opportunity.

For as much as God represents invitation,
God is interruption too.
And often a downright intrusive, highly inconvenient interruption—
into routine—into responsibility—into life
into work—into friendships.
Into my time, comes the invitation—
a moment in which to live into God—
a moment in which to be as Jesus—
a moment in which to live up to covenant expectation
what it means to follow God in the way of Jesus.

And if we turn our backs on such opportunity—
if we turn our backs on such moments
and the possibilities inherent to such moments—
the work of redemption,
then we invite death into that moment.

Moments are God’s messengers—
angels inviting us into deep truth,
“This moment, come in—
come into blessing,”
and if we turn our backs on them—
if we turn to our to-do lists,
we’re killing time.

So here it is: you’re invited into this transforming reality.
Now you’re invited in along with everyone else.
And somehow, everyone else seems dressed appropriately.
I mean, they were all just pulled off the street too, right?
Out of just whatever they happened to be doing.
No one had time to prepare—
no one had time to go change clothes.
Yet somehow, they’re all appropriately dressed.
Because if they seized that moment,
they put on love.
They dressed themselves in grace.

If you put our stories together,
Old and New Testament,
Exodus story and crazy Jesus story,
you end up with something like the affirmation and the warning,
a combination Scripture often extends—
the affirmation and the warning,
that the moment waits for you.

The moment waits for you.
If you’re waiting for the moment,
you’ll try and fill it with something—
often something inappropriate.
But if you realize the moment is yours to fill,
affirmation and warning,
you’ll fill your moment with—what?

Long before Mary Oliver asked,
Jesus did, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your owe wild and passionate life?”—
especially when the wild and passionate part—
the deep and rich and abundant and wondrous part
interrupts your routine?
your schedule?
your plans?
your responsibilities?
Yes. By all means, assess your day to day—
what is truly important.

I believe, more importantly though,
consider
what happens in that moment when there’s nothing and no one
between you and God—
when Moses has gone up the mountain
and there’s no one to speak for God, but God.
What happens in that moment?—
when love crosses your borders?
when grace reaches out to the other? to the enemy?
when you know enough to be afraid?
when the foundations shake?
when the mystery looks you in the face
and love embraces the wholeness of you?
interrupts how you’ve made life and God
comfortable? and acceptable? and convenient?
What happens in that moment?

Will we live bigger?
Will we live into grace and love—
into God and God’s story?
Or shrink ourselves to live the hell
prescribed by the limits of our perspectives?
and our reason,
our understanding?
our comfort levels?
and our rules?

this our All Saints Day prayer

Our God,
We have names—
each one of us,
in our hearts,
where someone’s missing.
Today, we name that truth in worship.
Today, we give thanks for those who gave to us
and taught us and shaped us and loved us,
and are gone—who died.
Today, we name the void they left in our lives.
Today, we give thanks
that while they’re missing from our lives,
no one goes missing from You,
and that within Your love
and around Your table
we are one—
one body,
and our hearts are both full and whole.
May this affirmation sustain us
in days to come
when our hearts don’t feel full and whole—
feel broken.
May the truth infiltrate the truth of our lives.
This our worship prayer, this All Saints Day—
our prayer …
and our names …
in Jesus’ name,
Amen.

coming up on Halloween

As I write, we’re coming up on Halloween:
All Hallows’ Evening—
the night before All Hallows or All Saints’ Day.

In our neighborhood, this means, primarily,
assessing the candy supply,
the costumes desired and assembled.
It means carving out time to carve pumpkins.
It means the dog has been on high alert during recent walks,
noting and inspecting all the diverse seasonal decorations—
particularly the ones moving and making noises.

Originally though, All Hallows’ Eve
was but the vigil leading into All Saints’ Day,
a day set aside to remember the dead—
to consider their legacies,
even as we remember we, too, will die;
we, too, will leave a legacy of one sort or another.

In the early years of the early church,
as the desire to commemorate the church’s martyrs
ran into the truth that there were too many
for each to have her or his own feast day,
one day came to be set aside—
initially the first Sunday after Pentecost,
then May 13,
just perchance the culminating day of an ancient Roman
three day household festival, the Lemuralia,
the annual time to exorcise the dead from homes.
The belief in the presence of restless spirits,
fearful and malevolent,
contributed to the old belief
that May, the month of these exorcisms,
was an unlucky month for weddings.

In some eastern traditions, All Hallows
is still celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
In the West, however, the church moved the feast day
to November 1, a day that just happened to fall
at the culmination of an ancient Irish festival,
Samhain (the old Irish name for November).

The church did,
apparently, have a strategy
for a systematic and systemic claiming
and repurposing of pagan festivals
as Christian holy days.

Samhain had its roots in a harvest festival—
one marking the end of harvest—
the beginning of relying on what was harvested and slaughtered—
the dead supporting the living.
But Samhain also fell between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice
at the transition into the darker part of the year,
and so, represented a day, in days of old,
when the veil lay thin between the living and the dead—
and so a day on which the dead posed a threat to the living—
like the Lemuralia!
And on a night with that veil lying thin,
the denizens of Faerie were set loose,
and ghouls and goblins prowled,
witches and ghosts.

And because in our stories
of facing the fears of the deep winter’s night
there’s always a protective option—
a saving knowledge
the people made noise,
and lit bonfires,
and wore costumes to confuse the dead
or to appease them.

Now, the story is told, amidst the many stories told,
that doughnuts have their origin in All Hallows’ Eve lore.
For beggars would take the opportunity to go door to door
asking for a “soul cake,” in return for which
they would pray for the souls of dead of that house.
So one pious cook, as the story is told,
in evangelistic fervor, I guess,
dedicated herself to devising a soul cake
to remind the beggars of eternity—
that amidst their prayers for the souls of others
they might reflect on their own.
To fashion this inspiring soul cake,
she cut a hole in the shortbread cake
and deep fried the circle as a symbol of eternity.
(This would make “Dunkin’ Donuts,”
a kind of particularly Baptist evangelistic soul cake, right?!).

Amidst the many stories told,
I came across one story even repurposing the jack-o’-lantern—
as expression of the kenotic (the self-emptying) theology
manifest in the Philippian hymn:
Let this mind be in you—
the mind of Christ, who emptied himself—
emptied himself in order to be filled with light.
Ha!
Think of that scooping out the pumpkin seed
and the pumpkin goop this year—
replacing it all with a candle!

Once upon a time, our faith shaped our culture,
whether that be in the invention
or the claiming of the invention of doughnuts,
the interpretation of the jack-o’-lantern
or, more seriously, in the shaping, for centuries,
of classical art.

We’ve noted before how Bach
rather famously inscribed some of his music
with either the phrase “Soli Deo Gloria” or the initials S.D.G.—
glory to God alone.
He would write, “The aim and final end of all music
should be none other than the glory of God
and the refreshment of the soul.”
These days our culture does more shaping of our faith
than vice versa.

So what would it be like to claim November
as a liminal time
in and through which to look more carefully
at our culture’s story with our faith’s eyes,
than at our faith’s story through our culture’s eyes,

and as we enter November’s dark chill—
as we step over fall’s threshold into winter—
as it gets dark earlier and stays dark longer,
to consider more carefully
what stories we want to tell
to sustain us through the season
and our culture.