Very Important Questions About The End Of A Decade

I wonder what it is that makes the end of a decade so important?  Magazines, newspapers and television are filled with decade memories as if somehow the moment that the year 2000 c.e. arrived we entered a new discrete chapter of history that is coming to its discrete end on December 31, 2009.  Is our obsession with decades what is meant by decadence?   
My first real encounter with that came in the transition from the 50s to the 60s.  The decade of childhood had ended.  The wonderful decade of adulthood was blossoming.  Well, so much for that one.  It was also a time of speculation about the wonderful future that would lie just on the other side of the magical year 2000.  I recall the bunch of us calculating how old we would be then and wondering if we might be too aged to enjoy it.  The ‘FUTURE!‘  Whatever it was, would exist in a wholly different world, yet it would be our world and it would begin in 2000.  We could get a glimpse of it at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  I was there.  I saw the future and it was intoxicating.  
Now the first decade of that future is ending.  Not only am I confused about what makes ten such an important number, but I confess some disillusion about the FUTURE.  Where is my flying car?  Why does my kitchen not offer up prepared meals at my command?  For that matter, why does it look a lot like it did eleven years ago?  How can it be that the century old water and sewer pipes in my city are failing?  Why does the international space station look like an orbiting junk heap and not like a proper Disney designed wheel?  For that matter, does HAL live in my computer?  So many questions.  So few answers.  Maybe by 2020?  This, this decade coming, maybe this decade will be the FUTURE.
Or maybe, on this sixth day of Christmas in the Year of our Lord 2009 by the conventional calendar, we might recall that the future came a long time ago.  In that coming all decades were transcended.

A Dark and Brooding Christmas Pageant?

Have you ever noticed a difference in tempo and mood between the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke?  It occurred to me only recently.  Matthew is filled with dark, anxious urgency.  Most of his narrative happens in the night.  Joseph anxiously pondered the immediate question of what to do about Mary’s pregnancy.  The wise men’s eagerness to find the new born king set the whole of Herod’s court into a frenzy of worry.  Their secretive hurried trip home, Herod’s enraged raid on Bethlehem, Joseph’s rush to get his family out of harms way, and his cautious return a few years later are all wrapped up in a few paragraphs of text breathless with darkness and danger.  
Luke is languid.  Almost two entire chapters are filled with slow moving action, poetry, songs filling the sky, all the time needed to fulfill the law and the prophets, and irenic blessings with only one gentle note of impending discord.  No threats of divorce, no raging king, no fleeing to Egypt, just all things done properly and in order with the perfectly natural return of a new family to their home in Nazareth. 
In Matthew no power of darkness, no matter how violent, can prevent God from accomplishing what God purposes.  In Luke, no amount of celebratory singing can abolish the trials that are yet to come.  Each, in its own way, anticipates the victory of the cross and Resurrection sown in the seeds of the Incarnation.
So here is what I wonder.  Pastors know that for more than a few Christmas is a dark and foreboding time to be got through and got over as best one can.  Luke simply does not speak to them.  I wonder what it would be like to produce a Christmas pageant based entirely on Matthew: a pageant filled with brooding darkness, the music of “Jaws” and the tension of Hitchcock.  It would be a pageant of God’s, Gabriel’s and Joseph’s dogged determination to never let the light go out.  It would end not with the blessing of Simeon, but with the young adult Jesus preaching the beatitudes. 
It would not be a pageant for children, and probably not for a lot of adults either.  But it would be a pageant for some who struggle mightily with these days, and who desperately need to hear that God knows, understands, is present and cannot be defeated.

Christmas Travel

We get to do things in retirement that are not normal for us.  For instance, we can take weekends off and go somewhere, or, even more exotic, we can go somewhere on major holidays such as Christmas.  Last year we were in suburban NYC with Christmas Eve at Christ Church in Pelham.  This year we arre in Seattle with Christmas Eve at St Andrew’s.  It takes a little getting used to.  There is a lingering sense that perhaps you have abandoned those in need (of you) to indulge yourself in the frivolity of visiting family and enjoying fellowship without the obligation to plan and conduct services.   
At the same time, there is the pleasure of being able to worship without caring whether the furnace is working, the lights are on, the acolytes will show up, the candles are lit or your Christmas Eve sermon just the thing to enlighten all those occasional people sitting in the pews.  There is something healthy about experiencing worship in a strange setting as a stranger.  It refreshes the way I experience my own worship community when we come home because my understanding of it has been educated by new experiences, new people and new ways of doing things.      

Zechariah, mind your own business!

Zechariah heard God speak.  This is what he heard.  “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy each to his brother, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.”
For a long time it was understood that brother meant just that, the one to whom I am related, and more particularly, the male to whom I am related.   I imagine that by implication it also included the widows and poor within my clan as well as visiting relatives.  Any one outside those boundaries was fair game?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that Jesus set the record straight through his engagement with demoniacs, Canaanites, Syro-Phoenicians, Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, Herodians, and, in case one missed the point, through the parable of the Good Samaritan as well.  His disciples continued so that within the span of a generation the gospel had been proclaimed in every part of the Roman Empire and beyond.  
One would think that Christians would embrace the whole idea, but clan and class are powerful opponents.  Not more than twenty years ago I listened to a reasonably well educated Episcopal priest assert that all that Zechariah heard God say applied only to fellow Christians because the synoptic Jesus proclaimed his brothers and sisters to be those who followed him in doing God’s will, which, of course, means us Christians and not others.  To me that misses the whole point of all that Jesus taught and for which he died.  Even within Christendom we have been comfortable discriminating against each other in similar ways based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and presently on sexual orientation.  How twisted is that?
Through Zechariah, God warned against devising evil against our brothers in our hearts, and that’s worthy of some reflection all by itself.  To devise does not require action, it only requires rough planning, but ‘in our hearts’ doesn’t even require that.  In our hearts implies more of an unplanned but earnestly felt intention.  Evil, at least in its older sense, is the whole realm of ordinary bad things happening as much by chance as anything else.  So we might interpret God as warning us not to carry grudges or wish bad things on others.
These are pretty high bars:
  • Be honest and fair in our judgments
  • Show kindness and mercy.
  • Do not create conditions of oppression for widows, the poor, or those who sojourn among us.
  • Hold no grudges and do not wish bad things on others.
My tradition begins worship this Sunday with a prayer that Jesus at his coming might find in us a mansion prepared for himself.   Will he?  Or will he find no room at our inns because we are unable to judge wisely, and care for the poor, oppressed and sojourners who are not of our family, class, clan or race.  Will he find us ready to scorn, turn away and wish evil upon his head?  Remember, that the first time he came as a stranger, an infant of a poor sojourning family.  What makes us think we will recognize him any better when he comes to us in our time?
“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray: cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.  We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

If this is our Breakfast Conversation you know we need to get a Life!

Around our house we’ve lately been talking about souls.  Great breakfast table conversation.  Is the soul inside or outside of the body?  When some theologians, me for instance, talk about embodied souls, what the heck are they talking about?  Where did the idea of an eternal soul come from?  What is a soul anyway?
An eternal soul that is ours by right of being human is very popular and commonly held, but it’s a very Greek idea that doesn’t have much credibility in Hebrew scripture.  That seems to come as a surprise to most Christians.  On the other hand, Hebrew scripture does reflect something of our nature that continues on after death, even if it is in cold storage in Sheol.   Consider, for instance, the story of King Saul summoning up the spirit of Samuel to advise him on the upcoming battle.  Nevertheless, some kind of spiritual cold storage does not seem to me to be the same thing as life after death.  Life requires living in all the meanings that living can have.  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were firmly convinced of a resurrection life in which all the promises of God would be fulfilled.  The gift of that life eternal, whatever eternal might mean, seems to be exactly that, a gift given by God and not something that is inherent in human being.   As Christians we believe that by grace through faith we are recipients of that gift, but I think we get into a lot of trouble when we start telling God what the rules are that govern how and to whom God can grant it.  As far as I know, God has never asked for our opinion on that.  
Our continued life, in the fullness of all that life can be, after our bodies have died suggests that the soul bears our self into new territory.  Whatever our soul is, it seems to me that it must encompass all that we would call the self.  I’m not entirely sure what that means, but as a man growing into his senior years, I do know that the self I identify as me is not an old man, in spite of what my body displays in the mirror.  That self is not merely the exchange of electrical impulses coursing across the synapses of my brain, nor is it only the image and capabilities of my body.  It is more than that, and it continues to grow and change embracing the wholeness of my life.  
I believe that both the Incarnation and the Resurrection symbolize the embodiment of soul.  Materiality is a part of the soul’s wholeness.  The body is not a temporary and decaying soul container from which we will emerge as freed spirits after death.  Something there is about soul that includes materiality.
That raises a really good question.  What will our resurrection body be like?  The Corinthians wanted to know and Paul famously answered by calling the questioner a fool.  He went on to say, in essence, that he really had no idea, but whatever it is, it will be quite different from the one we now have.  I think we get a clue about the answer not from the Resurrection, but from the Transformation.  In that scene, the disciples recognized both Elijah and Moses without difficulty, and that’s the clue.  Whatever our resurrection body is, it will embody our souls so that our self will be instantly recognizable by anyone who ever knew us at any time in our lives, regardless of age or condition.  
So do we get these marvelous new bodies immediately after death or do we have to wait around for the General Resurrection?  N.T. Wright takes a third track and seems to think that we will spend  a lot of time in heaven as disembodied souls waiting for the new earth of Revelation before we again become embodied.  Given what physicists have told us about the notorious instability of time itself, I’m not sure the question even makes sense.  In God’s presence perhaps all these things happen at the same time.  Since our earthly lives are predictably short, what difference does it make?

Work That Is Pleasing In God’s Sight

Once upon a time, not long after God began his acts of creation, he brought into being a man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till and care for it.  The story in Genesis 2 says something about the nature of being human that requires work as an essential element of human wholeness.   But more than that, it also says something about what that work is.  It is a work of holy  stewardship.  The man was charged with taking care of God’s creation, engaging with all the plants and animals so that the acts of creation and recreation could continue.
The story in Genesis 2 features a particular person who would later be known as Adam.  But preceding it in Genesis 1 is a more universal story where the whole of humanity is brought into being by God and given dominion over the rest of God’s earthly creation, not as owners but as agents created in the image of God to continue to the work of God.
The work of caring for God’s creation is a fundamental part of what it is to be human, and that includes not only the stewardship of land, water, air, plants and animals, but most important of all, the stewardship of humanity, of one another.  Some theology holds that humans have fallen so far and become so depraved that they can offer no righteous work to God.  I’m not so sure.  Scripture frequently testifies to the work of individuals as signs of their righteousness before God.  Consider for instance Abel, Noah, Lot, Job, Abraham, David (in spite of his evil deeds), and Joseph of Nazareth, to which we might add the anonymous righteous mentioned in Ezekiel, Amos, Habakuk, Matthew and Luke.  None of them were perfect.  Each was a sinner.  They were not deemed righteous in their being, but righteousness was attributed to them for their works.  What seems to tie them together is that they not only heard God’s word but became doers of it so that at least some of their deeds were considered to be moments of righteousness and pleasing in God’s sight. 
If we are capable of deeds showing moments of righteousness, Jesus, in his humanity, led a life of works that was entirely righteous before God and demonstrated for us what righteous works look like.   Now you might think that this preamble is headed toward an essay on what righteousness might look like in the life of an ordinary fallen 21st century human being living in North America, but what I started out to explore was something a bit different.  What all of this brought to mind was how important work itself is to being a whole human being.  Work is not something to be simply endured, done until retirement, or until one has accumulated enough wealth to quit.  Human beings need work to be fully human in body, mind and soul.  But not any work will do.  The work that completes us is work that God has given us to do, work that is undertaken in companionship with God.  That work, in all its combinations and permutations, is the work of caring for God’s creation, including caring for one another.  It includes the work of tilling the soil through which new life and new bounty can be brought into the world.  There are so many soils.  There are so many ways of tilling.  I wonder how we might examine how the ordinary jobs of ordinary human beings might be understood as holy work that is pleasing in God’s sight?  What might that mean for our understanding of ministry and stewardship?  Got any ideas about that?