Monday, December 3, 2012

The Apocalypse And Child Sex Trafficking

Today’s Gospel is a prophecy
         about a great cataclysmic upheaval.
We call this kind of prophecy “apocalyptic.”

I first became interested in religion
        when I was 9 years old.
I got was inspired to read the Bible for the first time
         from listening to my father and my uncle Troy
         arguing energetically about apocalyptic prophecies.
They were both fundamentalists.
But there is a great division among fundamentalists
between premillennial rapturists
         and post-millennial rapturists.

My father’s group believes the rapture and the end of time
will follow a 1,000-year period
                  in which Christ reigns on earth
-- not by descending in the clouds at that point.
Christ will reign through our obedience,
         our practice of justice, mercy, freedom, and peace.
After we have set the stage, Christ will step onto it.

My uncle’s group believes things have
to get a lot worse before they get better.
They don’t hope for any peace or justice
         until after Jesus shows up.
Before Jesus, we need the tribulation.
We need crime, war, famine, disease, poverty, and misery.

Do you see the difference this makes
         for how Christians engage in society?
For my father, the Christian’s duty was to act
         for justice, mercy, freedom, and peace
– because that’s how we welcome Christ.
For my uncle, that would just delay Jesus,
         keep him out, because God wants a tribulation first.

If they had been Episcopalians,
         we might say they had opposing theologies of Advent,
         different ways of getting the world ready for Christmas.
Apocalyptic prophecies divide people up.
It isn’t just the fundamentalists.
The smart guy Biblical scholars divide up too.

One group of Biblical Scholars zeros in on these apocalyptic sayings
         and they conclude Jesus expected the world to end right away.
He expected history to come to a screeching halt.
Humanity’s time had run out and God was about to wipe out the earth.

That gives them a problem.
What do they do with the Sermon on the Mount
         prescribing a new way to live in the world?
What do they do with Jesus saying:
         “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
                  to proclaim good news to the poor,
                  liberty to the captive, sight to the blind. . . .”

Most what Jesus said and did was about
         a movement that would raise up the valleys and bring down the hills,
         a world in which sins were forgiven and ancient divisions overcome.

So there’s another group of Biblical Scholars who believe
         Jesus was all about changing the world.
But they appear to have a problem.
What are they going to do with these apocalyptic prophecies?
 If God is about to destroy the world,
         then what’s the point of changing it?

These two groups have each resolved their problems
         the same way.
They insist that Jesus actually said the things
         that support their view,
         but the other stuff was just made up later.
The End of the World faction claims Jesus didn’t really
         preach the Sermon on the Mount or forgive sinners.
The Social Justice faction claims Jesus didn’t really
         say these apocalyptic prophecies.

They’ve been going at it over this for decades,’’
Both sides use a technique they call exegesis,
         but some of us call it Exit Jesus.
If anything doesn’t suit their agenda, they argue:
         “Jesus didn’t say it.
         If he said it, he didn’t mean it.
         If he meant it, it doesn’t matter.?

But the believers among us have a different set of principles.
         “Jesus said it.
         I believe it.
         And that decides it.”

Well the best recent Biblical Scholarship goes with us believers.
It turns out Jesus said both things.
They have studied 1st Century apocalyptic sayings
     not just the ones by Jesus, but a lot of apocalyptic sayings –
and it turns out they aren’t literal,
and they aren’t about the end of the world after all.

When Jesus uses dramatic images about the moon and the stars,
         he doesn’t mean the natural order is going fall apart.
It’s the social and political order that is going to be turned upside down.
He means the words of Jeremiah are going to be fulfilled.

What does Jeremiah say?
         “In those days I will cause a righteous branch to spring up . . . .
         and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
If Jesus really is God’s promised messiah,
         then he is about justice, like Jeremiah said.
His apocalyptic prophecy means God will overturn
the sinful and unjust structures  of the world.
Blessed are the champions of God’s justice.
Woe to those who don’t want to get involved.

God’s justice – as we see it in Jesus -- isn’t about punishment.
It’s about peace and mercy,
         reconciliation and healing, standing up for the outcast,
         caring for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant.

Jesus said that his words and actions were ushering in God’s Kingdom.
When he stood up for the outcast,
he was overturning the social and political order.

Apocalyptic prophecy is his urgent call to us
         to get on board with the Kingdom Project.
When the Church is living up to her name,
         when the Church is truly the Body of Christ,
                  we are on board with the Kingdom Project.
We are overturning the present order for the sake of God’s justice.

Last Thursday Nevadans for the Common Good met in North Las Vegas
to make plans for fighting Child Sex Trafficking here.
7 out of the 9 Episcopal Churches in this Valley were there.
On Friday, the Religious Alliance in Nevada met at St. Paul’s, Sparks
         for the same purpose.
All three Reno/ Sparks churches were there.
St. Mary’s, Nixon sent me a message saying “We want in on this.”

It’s good to see the Church on the peace train.
Will it get us in trouble?
Did it get Jesus in trouble?
If we aren’t in trouble, we aren’t following Jesus.

You know about trouble.
St. Timothy’s has been in trouble
         just for feeding the poor.
Dorothy Day said,
         “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint.
          When I ask why people are hungry,
                  they call me a communist.”
But St. Timothy’s has paid the price
         for just feeding the hungry.

Now your fellow Episcopalians are asking you
         to go beyond benevolence.
We are asking you to take a stand
         for children against those who
                  sell them on the streets of Las Vegas.

This will not be our only issue.
It’s just the first one.
The treatment of our vulnerable elderly
         is headed for the front burner.

This is the Kingdom Project, the Jesus Movement,
         the Peace Train.
Those we confirm today will promise
         to work for justice.
We will all take that promise with them.
But do we intend to keep our promise.

Jesus said, “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ will enter the Kingdom
         . . . . but those who do the will of my Father.”
God’s will is justice for the pimped out child on the streets
         and the isolated elderly people whose basic needs go unmet.
Today we will promise action for the children and the elderly.
Do we mean it?

Churches That Use People: What Does Jesus Think Of Our Institutional Agendas?

It is very good to be back with you at St. Matthew’s.
I continue to be grateful for your faithful ministry.
Your deacons have been the ones most involved
         in our efforts to organize Nevadans for the Common Good.
You have taken up the work of Communities in Schools
         as well as any of our congregations, better than most.
You do good ministry here and I am grateful.

Something bothers me about today’s Gospel lesson.
It’s the way the folks who do the lectionary
         have separated this piece of the Gospel
                  from what came right before.
Taking it out of context has stripped the lesson
         of its point.
I think the Church may actually be hiding the point.
I intend to set that straight

But first, I want to tell you the story of my new friend,
         Pastor Theodis.
I met him this week at a training for community organizers.
Theodis grew up in a small rural community in Arkansas,
an innocent place to be a child.

But when he was a teenager, Theodis spent a summer
in Los Angeles.
There he got into all sorts of mischief
         that was just unavailable back home.
Today, we’d call it gang activity.
But his parents got him home and he straightened out.
He went to college on a football scholarship,
         and married a lovely upright woman
                  from a poor neighborhood in a Western city.

Today, Theodis is the pastor
of an evangelical African-American congregation
         in that poor neighborhood
                  where his wife grew up.
When they moved to her hometown,
they found the neighborhood
          torn apart by gang violence.

So Theodis set out to befriend the gangs.
Before long, he was having meetings of the gang leaders
         at the Church.
When the gang leaders got to know each other,
         they lost interest in killing each other.
Friendships formed.
After one year of this ministry,
         drive-by shootings went down by well over 40%.

You might think the police would have been happy.
But they weren’t.
 They didn’t trust having a formidable African American man
         gathering gang leaders and teaching them to get along.
So instead of getting a medal, Pastor Theodis
has been in the cross hairs of law enforcement.
But he hasn’t stopped.
He believes this is what God called him to do.
He believes God put his church in the neighborhood they are
         for a reason – to serve that neighborhood.

Pastor Theodis said something I took to heart.
He said, “A church exists to support the community,
not to get the community to support the Church.”//

Now let’s talk about our Gospel lesson.
Right before the verses we read today
         is the passage where Jesus sees the widow
                  putting her last two cents into the collection.
 Jesus is in the Temple.
He has just said:
         “Beware of the scribes . . . .
They devour widow’s houses  . . . 
and say long prayers.”
The next thing we hear is the story of the widow
         giving the Temple all she had to live on.
She gave all she had – for what purpose? –
         the upkeep of the Temple.

We usually like to preach on that for stewardship.
“Wasn’t that widow generous!
We should all do the same thing!!”

But what did Jesus think of the Temple
soaking a poor widow out of her livelihood?
He got up, walked out of the Temple,
         and pronounced God’s judgment on it.
“Not one stone shall be left upon another.”
God will not have a Temple built by bilking widows.
Jesus isn’t praising the widow’s generosity.
He’s saying she got ripped off by the religious establishment.
So God took the religious establishment down.

Let me be clear.
I love the Church.
I don’t love some abstract universal idea of the Church.
I love the real Church with its water bills to pay,
         it’s potluck’s to plan, and it’s budgets to meet.
I love the institutional church, organized religion,
         with services on Sunday and all that goes with it.

But we had better take warning from this lesson.
And we’d better listen close to Pastor Theodis.
“A church exists to support the community,
         not to get the community to support the Church.”

The Church is a good thing.
It’s a network of committed human relationships.
We take vows to be there for each other.
That’s a good thing.
But the Church, like most institutions,
         is prone to forget its purpose.
The Church is apt to forget its mission
         and get obsessed with its own survival.

Too often, the Church uses people.
We need someone to serve on the vestry,
         be the treasurer, head up building and grounds.
We need more pledges to meet the budget.
If we have children we need someone to teach Sunday School.
If we don’t have children, we need children to reassure us
         the Church will live on.

So we use people for our institutional agenda
         Instead of supporting them in their lives in Christ.
But what did Theodis say?
         “A church exists to support the community,
         not to get the community to support the Church.”

The Church is like the Sabbath.
Remember Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for people,
         not people for the Sabbath.”
Well the Church was made for people,
         not people for the Church.

Instead of looking at the ways we always do things
         and pressuring people into doing them,
         the Church’s job is to find out what people need
         and help them do those things for each other.
See the difference?
It isn’t about saving the Church, building the Church
 or growing the Church.
It’s about helping each other live
         fuller, happier, holier lives.

But we don’t just exist for the sake of those
         inside these walls.

Archbishop William Temple said
         “The Church is the only organization that exists
                  for the benefit of its non-members.”
We are here for each other.
But we are also here for the world outside these walls.
We are here for our neighbors.

At first that sounds like a contradiction.
We think we have to decide whether we are here
         to be a mutual support group
                  or a servant to outsiders.

But the truth is those are two sides of the same coin.
When we engage our members in helping our non-members,
         it is good for both of them.
It is good for us to serve others, good for us to care
         about the whole community where we live.
It makes us more whole. It makes us more human.

Today’s Gospel challenges us to make sure
         that everything we do at Church,
         we do for people.
We don’t use people for our institutional agenda.