Sunday, November 27, 2016

Matching Pajamas

For some of us who spend all together too much time in places like this, today is Advent 1, the Sunday of Hope, the first Sunday of the season that culminates in Christmas. In the church-world, this is the also the first Sunday of a new church-year, and we begin a fresh annual romp through the gospels by returning to Matthew.

Yet for those who do not have their noses on page 1 of the New Testament, today may also be “No-Name Sunday” which comes smack-dab in the middle a national shopping spree!

Here’s how NPR describes it – and if you’re not familiar with the term “Grey Thursday” it was coined to describe the stores that open on Thanksgiving evening in an attempt to get the jump on Friday shoppers.
After Grey Thursday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and No Clever Name For It Sunday, we're on to Cyber Monday and already looking ahead to Giving Tuesday.
The Sunday of the first big shopping season of the holidays doesn't seem to have been given a special name by the news media or the retail industry. It sort of gets lumped into the Black Friday hooh-hah. Maybe there's also a smidgen of respect for Sunday.
In addition to dashing through the snow to the malls, and despite the meteoritic increase in on-line shopping and marketing, our mailboxes continue to be jammed with glossy catalogs, typically sent by retailers to whom we are known! Would be a fun little exercise in sociology to create a character sketch based upon the catalogues one receives!

My mailbox is often stuffed with ones from Harry and David, some fruitcake producing monks,  Lands End, LL Bean, Orvis, Ex-Officio, and the like. Around this time of year, a common feature in most clothing catalogs is the saccharin selection of matching family pajamas.

You know what I’m talking about: gaggles of happy multi-generational family members in matching or coordinated PJs, often including Santa hats! The happy clan is often sprawled on a sofa near a Christmas tree and a roaring fire, perhaps with steaming mugs of cocoa. The expressions so sweet they should come with a dose of insulin; the composition so “Brady Bunch” even Norman Rockwell would gag.

Yet, something tells me these sets of pajamas do sell! Case in point, on Tuesday morning during Bible Study at Panera, whilst we were laughing at the expense of folks who don this particular form of gay apparel, of one of the participants pulled out her phone and somewhat sheepishly showed us a picture of her, her husband, and their dog in matching sky-blue penguin pajamas! To protect just a shred of her dignity, I promised Sue Getman that I wouldn’t mention her name!

But think about the message those sets of festive pajamas send: health, happiness, peace, unity, love, joy, contentment? By the way, you’ll be hard pressed to find any hint of diversity in any of those catalog photographs. When I searched “diversity family pajamas”, Google just laughed!

What better message for the harried, anxious, and over-burdened consumer this or any other Christmas season than the chance to bestow happiness, peace, and contentment on their families? But wait! There’s more! You get all of that AND cute frolicking penguins wearing matching scarves to boot!

Peace, contentment, happiness – those aren’t ideals germane to Madison Avenue, no, they’ve been the quest of human beings almost from the beginning of time – and their lure is equally timeless.

Isaiah paints a “matching pajamas” picture of humanity streaming up to God’s mountaintop. Jew and Gentile alike, in coordinated hues of human desire, alike in their quest to seek God, matching in their zeal for peace, waddling in the ascent to divine proximity.


At their core, humans seek God.

I believe that – just as I believe that at least one of you is planning to clad your family in matching pajamas this season!

But it’s not our clothing or skin color or temperament or religion or any other visible characteristic that makes us matching human beings – it’s that at our core, all humans seek God.

Of course, we use different names, constructs, depictions, methods, routes, and reasons – but all of us have something within us that compels us to seek something outside of us.

People need instruction at crucial points in their lives and soon figure out that the garbage spewed by culture and commerce is nothing more than faulty direction from flawed teachers.

In Isaiah’s bucolic benediction one sees God’s word and presence as evident and compelling, humanity converging in its shared desire for divine instruction. We will, in Isaiah’s eyes, all seek God together and God will be present. From there, God’s word will go forth and that word is justice. From justice comes transformation – the kind of transformation in which implements of war become tools of nourishment.

Sure, yearnings for harmony are as foolhardy as believing that sleepwear cut from the same fabric will mend rift and discord in families; and yes, craving the way things used to be only leads to disillusionment and discouraged souls. It’s a lot easier to pin our hopes on presents and feasts than believing in something so seemingly impossible.

Isaiah presents not simply a picture-perfect tableau of harmonized humanity sprawled in comfort and joy – but rather issues an invitation.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
Psalm 122 opens with the same enticement:
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Movement. Motion. Intention. Pilgrimage.

Both Isaiah and the psalmist issue a call to pilgrimage. Take the first step. Begin the pilgrimage offered to all humanity to seek God. Just take a step. Just one and in the midst of this hyperactive season begin or renew your journey to the One who is the source of life, the essence of love, and the reason for hope.

Along the way, the psalmist provides guideposts for our Advent journey…

Pray – always for fellow travelers, for the land upon which you trek, for stamina and fortitude, for compassion and forbearance. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Praise God – that thanksgiving would be a way of and to life. Give thanks to the name of the Lord

Seek Peace – For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”.

Discover purpose – For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good. Is that not our highest calling? To seek the good for all people?

This season, look beyond the glossy photos, the sales and enticements, the frenzy of shopping and selecting, and instead see this season as an invitation to a pilgrimage, one marked by prayer, praise, peace, and purpose; for on this “No-name Sunday,” we seek only one name, Jesus the Christ!



Monday, November 7, 2016

You're Right!

Whatever the outcome is on Tuesday, it will surely raise more questions than it answers!

Regardless of your political leanings, one thing is certain: half the country will be unhappy with the results. In some cases, far more than unhappy.

I don’t recall a campaign season that has ever been this nasty or steeped in vitriol, nor do I recall a time when rallies were marred by violence, at times incited by the candidate, or threats made of prosecution post-November 8, or challenging the validity of the election process, or the level of deeply personal attacks on either side. Truly, the tenor of our Republic has regressed to an unforeseen discordant tone.

Yes, we’ll know who is going to be the next president but we won’t know what the future holds and that uncertainty prompts numerous questions, even troubling questions.

Questions are nebulous things.

For instance, they can be employed to do straightforward work such as to gain knowledge or comprehension, analyze or assess.

But they can also…
Challenge authority – “What makes you think you can do that?”
Shame an opponent – “How could you?”
Win an argument or a debate – Often an “if” “then” format…
Serve as a veiled command – “Isn’t it time to take out the garbage?”
Often give an opponent an advantage as questions set or reframe the conversation

Regardless of intention, the one who asks a question often, if not always, has power!

Clearly that’s what the Sadducees were counting on when they challenged Jesus to a public debate designed to entrap him.

A bedrock understanding of Jewish law was the protection of women in the event of their husband’s death. It was mandated that if the deceased had a brother, then he was compelled to marry her as without an adult male she was perhaps the most vulnerable of society. So the Sadducees pushed this protection to a ridiculous degree in hopes that Jesus will stumble over a self-contradicting answer.

See, the Sadducees didn’t believe in any form of life after death. Once a body was dead, it was all over, and everything ended. Live your life today because there may be no tomorrow. They were the “intellectuals” of their day. They lived only from the neck up, taking a cranial approach to all questions of life, and apparently, death.

The question, albeit “tongue in cheek”, is posed and all eyes are on Jesus for an answer. Surely he knows they are toying with him for if he takes Jewish law seriously, which he does, and if he also believes in an afterlife, then the Sadducees have presented quite the conundrum for to which man would the widow be married when all 7 are waiting?  Some kind of resurrection version of “The Bachelorette” – only one gets the rose!

Jesus surprises them and takes them seriously, and says, in essence: You’re right! That’s exactly the way it happens in the here and now. You understand the traditions in this life perfectly. You’re right – but only to a point.

Jesus then proceeds to point out that eternal life is NOT simply an extension, a continuation, of this life in all of its facets – we do continue to live, that’s correct, but how we live is very different. Plus – that’s really not the point. The answer to the Sadducees question is really this: Death may end many things but not everything: our death is not the end of God! In other words, humans are not eternal but God’s love for humans is.

The way the Sadducees put the question, strictly from a human and legalistic point of view, gave Jesus the chance to reframe the conversation. Instead of thinking of our lives in purely biological terms what if we saw ourselves as primarily spiritual beings? Not ethereal and ghost –like but in the sense that our identity, our worth, our purpose comes ultimately through our relationship with God.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the UK from 1991 to 2013, once proclaimed that…
Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?
The joy of that quote is that it doesn’t specify which religion!

A group I’m part of and chair, The Delaware Council of Faith-based Partnerships, held its second interfaith dialogue last Thursday down in Georgetown, DE. Our panel consisted of representatives of Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Conservative Protestantism, and LDS. They each answered three questions:

  • What are the basic philosophies/ideologies of your religion?
  • What are the common misconceptions that people have about your faith?
  • What is it about your faith that makes you a committed follower?
The first question was fairly objective, the second more subjective, and the third was completely personal.

Almost to a panelist, their answers to the third question were around Rabbi’s Sacks’ queries and spoke to identity, purpose, and ethical living. It was that question which most distinctly underscored the similarities we have as people of faith for not only did every religion represented answer Rabbi Sacks’ three questions, they did so in almost identical ways.

We have seen in this election cycle the drastic lengths that people will go to create difference and discord, division and animus; yet, truth be told, when we are able to converse and communicate on a level without provocation or prompting, we are so much the same.

Last Friday, The Dalai Lama wrote an op ed piece in the New York Times that began with these words:
In many ways, there has never been a better time to be alive. [Yes,]Violence plagues some corners of the world, and too many still live under the grip of tyrannical regimes. And although all the world’s major faiths teach love, compassion and tolerance, unthinkable violence is [still] being perpetrated in the name of religion. 
And yet, fewer among us are poor, fewer are hungry, fewer children are dying, and more men and women can read than ever before. In many countries, recognition of women’s and minority rights is now the norm. There is still much work to do, of course, but there is hope and there is progress. 
How strange, then, to see such anger and great discontent in some of the world’s richest nations. In the United States, Britain and across the European Continent, people are convulsed with political frustration and anxiety about the future. Refugees and migrants clamor for the chance to live in these safe, prosperous countries, but those who already live in those promised lands report great uneasiness about their own futures that seems to border on hopelessness.

It is a very interesting perspective from the outside looking in. Folks, as he writes, are clamoring, often risking their health and safety, to enter the United States, yet if you believe one iota of the rhetoric we’ve been exposed to in the last 12 months, you’d be certain that the country is headed in not only a wrong, but also a disastrous direction.

It’s an interesting question: why are the citizens of the world’s most prosperous and secure country angry, even despondent?

The conclusion offered is that “the problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies.”
“Virtually all the world’s major religions teach that diligent work in the service of others is our highest nature and thus lies at the center of a happy life.” More and more people are disconnected from workplaces and their communities, and hence are not contributing or needed. “Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.”
The solution? Well, clearly there is not one magic answer but The Dalai Lama offers one very simple, very personal thought:

We should start each day [with the question],
“What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?”

It’s a fascinating question and offers another, somewhat novel approach to service. One way to feed another’s spirit is to appreciate those gifts that they offer us.

See how instantly it levels the relationship?

Next Saturday morning, we begin yet another season of Winter Sanctuary wherein persons with inadequate housing will be offered shelter and warmth downstairs in Memorial Hall. It’s a good safe place to gather with friendly faces, hot coffee, and occasionally some warm conversation. It’s a good thing to do, surely, but it’s still primarily a “top-down” transaction: the church and its members are doing for others – and yes – there are significant benefits to those persons who volunteer – but adding on to that the simple question: what can we do to appreciate the gifts others offer us?

First, of course, we have to humble ourselves and recognize that it’s not “us” doing for “them” but that we’re all in this together and that Saturday morning is, above all, an opportunity for people to connect. Secondly, it’s a chance for people to feel needed – on both sides of the coffee pot. We have to ponder what the gifts are that we are called recognize and value. It’s a good question. A really good question and not just one for Saturday mornings but for every interpersonal transaction – with spouse, child, parent, co-worker, the clerk at Acme or Wawa, the person who collects our trash or answers when we call Comcast customer service. What are the gifts that others bring that we should appreciate?

Well, we’ve heard this morning from Rabbi Sacks and the Dalai Lama – and so, before I close, let’s give Jesus the last word – and it’s the final phrase he had for the Sadducees:

Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.
In essence, he repeated, You’re right! [God] is God not of the dead, but of the living – you’re right!

But this is also true: for to God all are alive.

In that we find our common humanity, our common purpose, and our common path.

The last question? Isn’t it time to end this sermon?

The answer? You’re right!