Is Your Suitcase Packed?

36 No one knows the day or hour. The angels in heaven don’t know, and the Son himself doesn’t know. Only the Father knows. 37 When the Son of Man appears, things will be just as they were when Noah lived. 38 People were eating, drinking, and getting married right up to the day that the flood came and Noah went into the big boat. 39 They didn’t know anything was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. That is how it will be when the Son of Man appears.

40 Two men will be in the same field, but only one will be taken. The other will be left. 41 Two women will be together grinding grain, but only one will be taken. The other will be left. 42 So be on your guard! You don’t know when your Lord will come. 43 Homeowners never know when a thief is coming, and they are always on guard to keep one from breaking in. 44 Always be ready! You don’t know when the Son of Man will come.
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As if you didn’t have enough to worry about, now you’re reminded that Jesus could show up at anytime.
When I was a kid, that used to worry me a lot.  I knew Jesus would show up just as I was taking a swing at my sister or playing with the kittens instead of gathering eggs.  It would be just my luck. Jesus would come riding in and, with a glance, he’d know I wasn’t ready for his Kingdom and he’d ride on, picking up my sister on the back of his horse, because she was perfect.
I had kind of a cartoonish view of the second coming, based on the few times I’d heard any apocalyptic scripture read in church.  In truth, we were raised with a more controlled vision of the Second Coming.  We all hoped to avoid it—- by dying first.  Greeting Jesus straight from the casket seemed a lot less terrifying than being surrounded by stampeding heavenly horses.
Perhaps the most terrifying part is being unprepared.
We’ve just come off the Thanksgiving holiday, which, for many of us, required getting ready for company, getting to the grocery store, getting a turkey thawed, getting gas in the car.  And now, we have to get ready for Christmas.  I have to admit that I don’t get as ready as I used to.  I don’t make fruitcake, I don’t make twelve kinds of cookies, and I don’t unpack all my decorations.  But I do buy lots of presents. If I don’t have those presents ready on time, Christmas just wouldn’t be right.
Now, you might think that a preacher would not be so hung up on decorations and presents.  I should just think about Baby Jesus and the Shepherds and the Wisemen and Peace on Earth, right?  I shouldn’t be giving into the pagan traditions of evergreen trees and gift-giving.  A preacher should only have a tasteful nativity set sitting on the dining room buffet.  And an Advent wreath, of course.
If we really celebrated Christmas like the first Christmas, we’d gather in a barn, knee deep in straw. And we’d probably be hungry, and chilly, and a little frightened.
A little frightened.  That’s really what we have in common with that first Christmas. Like Mary and Joseph, we face an uncertain future. At this moment, we are safe, surrounded by the love of Jesus that manifests itself every time we gather in these four walls. But when we return to the tasks and routines of life outside our church, we can only prepare so much.  We know that we can prepare to feed ourselves, to care for ourselves, to protect ourselves.  We do as much as we can.  But each of us carries an uncertainty, a “what-if” within us, knowing that the world holds as much evil as good, and that we are not immune from illness, from financial disaster, from threats, from injustice.
Don’t be afraid.  Forty-six times the Bible tells us, “Do not be afraid.” “Fear not.”  “Be not afraid.”  The ink dried on those words thousands of years ago, but they are still true for us. For us Christians, where there is fear, there is faith.
Faith does not prevent disease; faith does not prevent stock market crashes or factory closures. Faith does not prevent divorce or drug abuse.  Faith gives us the strength to survive, to overcome, to recover.
Faith gives us hope.
Since this is the first day of the year, of the liturgical year, think back over this past year. Did you have any surprises?  Were you caught off guard?  Were you disappointed once or twice?  Did something turn out better than you expected?  Did someone new come into your life?  Did someone leave?  Did bad news bring about good deeds? What gifts were you given?  What did you do that you never thought you’d do?
As this new season begins, of what are you afraid?  What might happen?
I am hear to remind you that we’ve have been give the antidote to fear: we have been given hope.
We have been given hope in the form of a Spiritual Being who walks with us in the darkest times.  We have been given hope in the form of this community of faith, a community of people who walk with you in the darkest times.  We have been given hope that a world filled with evil and cruelty can also be filled with love and peace and kindness.
I’m no longer worried that Jesus might show up at any time.  The sooner the better. And the kingdom Jesus has promised is coming about every day.  Every time you stand up to a bully, every time you bring cheer to a bad day, every time you reach a little further to include one more person in your circle of friends, you are building the Kingdom of God.
A month ago, on a sunny November day, we got a text from our son.  He and Greta might have to head to the hospital sooner than expected. Could someone come stay with Charlie, our five-year-old grandson, in case they had to leave suddenly to deliver their new baby?  In ten minutes, Bim and I had a suitcase packed.  It stayed that way for three weeks, just in case. We had our suitcase packed, ready to go, because there was a baby on the way.
This first Sunday in Advent, 2016, we are anticipating the arrival of a baby.  We already know his gender, his name, and his life story.  A baby boy was born to Mary and Joseph more than two thousand years ago.  They named him Jesus.
We didn’t get to hold that baby, that little Jesus.  We didn’t watch him grow up next door or worry with his mother about what would happen to him. None of us sat on a hillside listening to him teach; none of us watched him cure leprosy or blindness. None of us watched him die a humiliating death.
Yet, we still know that Jesus.  We know him very well.  He even calls us his brothers and sisters. He walks with us in the cold of poverty and the heat of injustice. We are prepared for anything and every thing because we have Jesus.
On a secular level, this doesn’t make any sense.  We can’t prove that Jesus has already come, that we have prepared for him by opening our hearts to him.  We’re going to sing an old hymn in a bit that reflects the apocalyptic beliefs of a Second Coming.  Soon and vey soon, we are going to see the King. Truthfully, we see the King every day, in the small and large kindnesses we share with our family, with friends, with strangers.
When you see evil, anger, retaliation, discrimination, loneliness, depression, don’t turn your back.  Grab Jesus by the hand and with him giving you courage, give good for evil, give peace for anger, give forgiveness for retaliation, offer understanding for discrimination, friendliness for loneliness and companionship for depression.
You are prepared for the Second Coming. Your bag is already packed with the wondrous love of God, the healing power of Christ Jesus, and the bold courage of the Holy Spirit, go with you today and always. You are fully prepared.  Amen.

National News, Good News

21 Jesus looked up and saw some rich people tossing their gifts into the offering box. 2 He also saw a poor widow putting in two pennies. 3 And he said, “I tell you that this poor woman has put in more than all the others. 4 Everyone else gave what they didn’t need. But she is very poor and gave everything she had.”

5 Some people were talking about the beautiful stones used to build the temple and about the gifts that had been placed in it. Jesus said, 6 “Do you see these stones? The time is coming when not one of them will be left in place. They will all be knocked down.”

7 Some people asked, “Teacher, when will all this happen? How can we know when these things are about to take place?”

8 Jesus replied:

Don’t be fooled by those who will come and claim to be me. They will say, “I am Christ!” and “Now is the time!” But don’t follow them. 9 When you hear about wars and riots, don’t be afraid. These things will have to happen first, but that isn’t the end.

10 Nations will go to war against one another, and kingdoms will attack each other. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in many places people will starve to death and suffer terrible diseases. All sorts of frightening things will be seen in the sky.

12 Before all this happens, you will be arrested and punished. You will be tried in your meeting places and put in jail. Because of me you will be placed on trial before kings and governors. 13 But this will be your chance to tell about your faith.

14 Don’t worry about what you will say to defend yourselves. 15 I will give you the wisdom to know what to say. None of your enemies will be able to oppose you or to say that you are wrong. 16 You will be betrayed by your own parents, brothers, family, and friends. Some of you will even be killed. 17 Because of me, you will be hated by everyone. 18 But don’t worry! 19 You will be saved by being faithful to me.

20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by soldiers, you will know that it will soon be destroyed. 21 If you are living in Judea at that time, run to the mountains. If you are in the city, leave it. And if you are out in the country, don’t go back into the city. 22 This time of punishment is what is written about in the Scriptures. 23 It will be an awful time for women who are expecting babies or nursing young children! Everywhere in the land people will suffer horribly and be punished. 24 Some of them will be killed by swords. Others will be carried off to foreign countries. Jerusalem will be overrun by foreign nations until their time comes to an end.

25 Strange things will happen to the sun, moon, and stars. The nations on earth will be afraid of the roaring sea and tides, and they won’t know what to do. 26 People will be so frightened that they will faint because of what is happening to the world. Every power in the sky will be shaken. 27 Then the Son of Man will be seen, coming in a cloud with great power and glory. 28 When all of this starts happening, stand up straight and be brave. You will soon be set free.

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What can I say? All of us have come through an election year that has left many of us, regardless of our favored candidate,  confused, disappointed, depressed, even frightened.  How appropriate that today’s Gospel describes the destruction the temple in Jerusalem.

Let’s study our Bible history first.  The first temple was built by King Solomon, to honor the God of the Hebrews. It was destroyed when Babylon conquered Israel. The Jewish people were exiled, without a king, a temple, or a place on the map.  They thought that if they didn’t have a king, a temple, a nation, they couldn’t exist.  They found out that they did exist because God stayed with them, even when they lost everything they owned.

Six hundred years later, the Hebrews were under the rule of the Romans. In a unique exception to all other nations conquered by the Romans, they were allowed to maintain their own worship and culture. They paid taxes to the Romans and were subjects of the Roman government as part of the deal.  Because the Roman empire was so large, it was divided into territories.  One of these territories was ruled by a series of King Herods.  One of these Herods had decided to ensure his legacy by rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.  The temple in Jesus’ lifetime was magnificent. It could hold 400,000 people during festival times.  It was the center of Jewish worship and identity.  Three major festivals each year required that all Jews return to Jerusalem for the celebration.  Even today, there is a saying used by those who can’t afford to make the trip—“Next year in Jerusalem!”

Jesus used the temple as a gathering place for his followers. Here he taught them about a new way to practice devotion to God.  It centered on two ideas: “Love God.”  “Love your neighbor.”  The gospels are devoted to those teachings, which form the basis for our own study and faith.

Jesus taught in the temple about 30-33 C.E.  Luke wrote this gospel around 85 C.E., fifty-five years later. By the time Luke had recorded Jesus words, Jesus’ words seemed prophetic.  The temple was destroyed by the Romans in a war between the Jews and the Romans, 70 C. E.  When we consider that the walls of the temple were built with stones the size of a man, and that the Romans did not have access to bombs, we know that the destruction was very difficult and very deliberate.

Emily Post, Miss Manners, and our own mothers and teachers have told us that some topics are not fit for discussion in polite company.  Money, religion, politics—we don’t discuss those with many people, for some good reasons.  If those rules hold forth for social gatherings, they are also true for the pulpit.  Nobody wants to hear a preacher talk about money.  And politics is absolutely forbidden. Religion—well, as long a I talk about Jesus, I’m ok.

Here’s the thing. Jesus talked about money and religion and politics all the time. We usually link politics with government, but I like a broader definition of politics: “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” In other words, politics is simply a word we use to describe how we get along with each other.

So if Jesus talked about money and religion and politics, how can we preachers avoid the subject? What else is “love your neighbor” than a way to do politics? Why do we call being nice to people “politically correct?”

“Love your neighbor” means different things to different people. Sadly, this election season has shown us numerous examples of “hate your neighbor.”
I am greatly concerned about the number of hate crimes that have been witnessed in the last week.

In a conversation this week, I shared with a friend hate crimes that have taken place in Vinton, Burlington, and Des Moines in the last few days. He protested: “Stop!” he said, “I don’t want to hear about it.”

His reaction made me think that I just liked repeating gossip, but the more I think about the demand that I not talk about the evil in our own state of Iowa, the more troubled I became.  If we don’t talk about racist and homophobic  incidents, will they go away?   No.  They will continue and will escalate. We, as a nation, have been given permission, during this election cycle, to abandon good manners. We have been encouraged to say whatever we think, even when our thoughts are careless and unkind. Our own selfishness and fears have been affirmed as acceptable models for behavior in public and at home.

Before we go farther, let me give you a lesson that I have to repeat to myself every day.  Every time I draw a line between me and the “bad” guy, the “mean” person, I’m drawing a line that separates me from someone—-guess on which side of the line Jesus is standing.
Try it: mentally, draw a line right now between you and someone you think is evil—- If you’re having trouble picturing this, draw a line between you and a presidential candidate you did not support.  Is Jesus standing by you or by the candidate?

I want to talk more about refusing to listen to the stories of hate, about pretending that that evil does not affect me.  Let’s work with an example—a real life example.  Let’s suppose that you were at a Subway Sandwich shop in Vinton, Iowa, standing in line with a woman and her two small children this past week.  Let’s suppose those two beautiful children have skin that is a rich caramel or chocolate color.  Let’s suppose that two men drive up in a pickup truck, walk into the shop, throw a glass of water on the mother and threaten to hang her two children.  If you had been there, you wouldn’t have been able to ignore it.
But what could you do?  Besides leave?

I would have been shaking like a leaf.  I would have been angry and frightened. I’d immediately hate the two guys.

So, today, I go off the tracks a little.  I want to prepare you for such a scene, because if it can happen in Vinton, it can happen in Toronto or Dixon or Lost Nation or Eldridge. We all know people who consider members of some groups undesirable. So, pretend you’re sitting at Heinie Jo’s/The Legion Fish Fry.  A couple men or women come in, accost someone who had the wrong -political sign in their front yard. A scene ensues. What should you do?

1.    First of all, repeat these words to yourself: “Lord Jesus Christ, be present now.”
Then, you can do this: stand next to the person being harassed. Don’t say anything to the perpetrators, don’t interfere physically; just be a presence for the victims.

2.    From a safe distance, film the encounter as soon as it starts; send the video to the sheriff or the police.  You can pretend that you just find it interesting, without indicating you’ll be forwarding the information. You probably won’t be the only one filming and it will probably appear on social media before long.

3.    After the “bad guys” leave, stay with the victims, engaging them in conversation, giving them some comfort.  Offer to call a friend, get them a glass of water.

4.    Call out racist and other unkind comments when they come up in conversations.  The easiest way is to say, “Explain what you mean.”  It’s pretty safe to do it on Facebook, but you can do it in person, too.  “What do you mean by that?” or “I don’t understand what you mean,” helps the perpetrator to examine what they really mean. Quite often, the person has simply been repeating stuff he’s heard without realizing how harmful it is. I do this on Facebook when I see a post that rubs me the wrong way.  I ask a question. Or I say, “Well, this is how it affects my family,” or “I know a person who…” I love Facebook and I use it in a hundred ways, but it has made it so easy to just slap an opinion out there without really understanding it.  I try hard to be a mediator. And I try hard to understand the other person’s reasons for supporting an opinion.  I don’t live in an area where drug cartels are murdering people in my neighborhood; one of my students does, so of course she is going to vote differently from me.

5.    The hardest step is to become involved in groups who work intentionally against hate groups. That is a whole different ball game, but if we are Christians, maybe that’s the same as the disciples going out into the world, trudging from dusty town to dusty town, spreading the good news.

After this election, many people are discouraged and are not finding any good news anywhere.  Well, our Good News has not gone anywhere. We are still in possession of our Gospel, our faith, and our minds, souls, and bodies.  Our temple is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Are you going to hide from the evil in the world, or are you able to stand up against it?  You don’t have to stand up against the whole world, the entire government.  Sometimes standing against something means standing with the person who has been hurt.  Can you do that?

Holy God, some things never change.  Our brothers and sisters are hurting—ALL our brothers and sisters.  When they hurt, we hurt.  Help us to stand with them, to walk with them, to love them.  We trust you to walk with us.  Amen.