I am always excited to preach as a guest at Faith Family UCC in Brandon; such a loving and affirming community!
Last night, we happened upon a showing of the “The Wizard of Oz”, a movie so familiar to our generation that we are now free to notice scenery and props and throwaway lines.
What I noticed first was how much plastic was used in the Oz sets. In 1939, it surely would have been cheaper to bring in real plants and flowers to surround the Munchkins. Instead, the filmmaker chose something that was exotic to the viewer. Now, of course, we just see it as cheap; a substitute for the real thing, kind of like the Wizard.
Charlatans are standard characters in literature, but Professor Marvel is a benign sort of con man; you always had the feeling that he would go straight if he could figure out how to do it. But he certainly has figured out the Big Con; he has the cool house and the fear factor down pat. Unlike most modern con men, he readily admits that he’s a good man but a bad wizard. The Witch of the West however, is really evil. As many times as I have seen her green face fill the screen, her anger and sadistic pleasure in terrorizing others still scares me. Her last line about “beautiful wickedness” tells me that unlike Professor Marvel, she believes in the evil she does.
So as we look at the political scene this Advent, who plays the parts of these classic characters? Who is the Scarecrow who will figure out what to do in a crisis? Who will, like Toto, drag the curtain aside to reveal the source of the smoke and mirrors? Who is the woman brave enough to slap the lion’s nose? And perhaps most importantly, who is merely pretending to be someone they are not, just to get by, and who is truly evil?
The moral of this movie is not that silly little homily at the end of the movie, as Dorothy is surrounded by her family. It has nothing to do with “home”. It has to do with what is real and what is fake, both in the plastic world of Oz and in our own. There are lots of people who will show off their fake wisdom, their meaningless “love” and their trumped up courage. Professor Marvel says so himself with his gifts from the black bag. But who has the brains, the heart and the courage to lead us out of this dark forest and stand up to trickery and downright evil? Get out the skywriter – we need to find Dorothy!
All over the world, clergy and Christian educators will tell congregations that Advent is about waiting, if they talk about it at all. The blue and the purple will come out, and clash with the “real” colors of the season, making those who care about color palettes cringe. And candles, of various colors and with various names, will be lit.
Advent is an intrusive season. At a time in the year when everyone is being urged to be jolly, Advent is introspective. Just when we have decided to buy things that we hope will bring big smiles on December 25, we are told what really matters is the Second Coming, date unknown. Just when we have started to look at end of the year financials, Advent ushers in a new church year before we are ready.
Waiting for something wonderful to happen is not such a hard sell. Little kids know that the Big Day is coming, so we help them get ready with “visions of sugar plums”. Healthy women waiting the long nine months have time to get the nursery ready and rest up for sleepless nights ahead. Choirs practice extra hours in anticipation of nighttime services and favorite music. We can wait, because after all, at the end of it, Baby Jesus gets born.
But what if we don’t actually know how things will turn out? What if we are the little kids who wonder if there will be any Christmas gifts, or even food on the table? What if we are the prospective parents who have been told that their child has serious birth defects? What if the future for which we wait is dependent on a government far way or a twist of fate?
Matthew 24:36-4436“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
These words at the end of the gospel of Matthew are words for this time and this season. What will the country look like under a new administration? What changes will terrorism bring to the world? Who will benefit from a new regime in Washington and who will lose? How will the church respond to world in which the concept of “Advent” itself is regarded as quaint and irrelevant, even by other Christians?
We are not waiting in anticipation for a joy we know. No matter what we think of the direction in which the world is heading, it is clear that this year will bring change. Some of it will certainly be joyful, some not. But we are warned by this passage to be ready. We do not have the luxury of just “waiting it out”. Like the householder who gets word of an impending break-in, we must be vigilant.
What we do know about this Advent is Christ. We don’t know how or when Emmanuel will come. Will it look like hope or peace or joy or love? Or will the coming of Christ be as confusing as the conversation of angels with terrified teenagers and low income farmworkers? We dare not miss it, this inbreaking of the Holy into the mess of our busy lives. Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming – sometime. And then we’ll see what is “real”.
This song expressed my hope today:
“Theme” Bibles were a big trend in the 70’s. There were, of course, the red letter Bibles (words of Jesus in red, even if scholars can’t completely agree on what Jesus really said), and there were a lot of youth Bibles with bright colors and splashy graphics. Children’s Bibles got makeovers, too.
The visuals for most of these Bible projects were terrific. If bright colors help get people over their fear to really read the Bible, that’s great. But the marginal commentary in many of these editions was less helpful. Often it focused on getting people saved or proving that humans are sinners, rather than really opening up the passage for thoughtful discussion.
The CEB Women’s Bible (Copyright 2016 by Common English Bible) is a theme Bible with substance. Based on the readable CEB text, this edition has marginal notes from a variety of female scholar/ teachers, most of whom are pastoring churches as well. The commentary is of various kinds: introductions to texts, pastoral reflections on the text, sidebar discussions of issues raised in the text and biographical portraits of every woman named (and nameless) in the Bible.
These reflections are not sappy. Literature written for women in the church often tends toward the saccharine, but these writings are not in that genre. They offer textual criticism, historical perspective and alternative readings. Difficult issues are addressed from the clear perspective of many women’s lived experience in the church and society. This is clearly an in-house edition; meant for use by those who are studying the text from a mainline Christian perspective and from within the church community. It does not reflect the kinds of questions asked from Catholic or Orthodox traditions or by non-Christians, or those who are outside the church, or those who stand on the margins of society.
When I served as a Christian Education director in the 1990’s, we had a Tuesday morning ladies’ Bible Study called Women Together. I was a twenty year old college graduate, and the ladies in the study had raised their families and were free on a weekday morning to read and wrestle with the Scriptures. And wrestle we did. They had all kinds of questions, and as we read through Genesis, there was no topic that was off the table. I scrambled every week to be prepared, using the church library, and occasionally calling pastors I knew to help me interpret the text we were reading. Without a seminary education, there was a lot of material I had to learn on my own. I wish that I had this Bible edition at my side then. Not only would it have saved some time (in the pre-Google era), but it would have given me some scholarly conversation partners to offer to my Bible study.
And that is probably the biggest contribution that this Bible edition makes to the study of Scripture in the church. Many of the marginal notes are very short; too short, in my opinion, to do justice to the topic at hand. But for me, the greatest strength of this edition is the roster of female scholars who contributed. I found myself wanting to read more and more deeply of the work of these sisters. Now that we can access scholarly writing electronically, I plan to include their scholarship in my own study and teaching practice, based on the biographical data in the index.
This Bible edition would be a great gift for a man who wants to examine his bias in reading Scripture. It would be helpful to a lay teacher leading Bible studies in a local church. It could open up new worlds to someone preparing for seminary, and it is a helpful adjunct resource for those of us who lead Bible study as parish ministers. It has fulfilled its stated goal of inviting the reader into “ a deeper conversation with Scripture”.
As summer begins, our church begins to plan and prepare for our Vacation Bible School, which we hold on the last week before school starts. It’s a big undertaking for our little church; 50 children from age 3 to 12 from early morning to suppertime for five days.
The kids who come to our VBS are not all “our” kids; many go to other churches on Sundays, or never go to any church. They are mostly not children of privilege; most of the parents juggle multiple jobs as well as family responsibilities. They come from all racial and ethnic groups, all over our diverse city.
For a week, we do all sorts of “old school” activities; build things out of boxes, sing songs with motions, slurp down watermelon, and write skits, all around some Biblical story theme. But the most important thing we do is live in community for a week, and learn together what that means.
It is challenging to learn to live together. Like humans everywhere, our kids disagree about the right rules for a game, or who got the bigger piece of cake or whose turn was next. As many of them are strangers to one another until they meet at VBS, they have to learn to understand and trust one another.
So we, as the adults, set the tone. From the very beginning, we make a few simple rules really clear: no running indoors (it’s dangerous), pick up your own trash (we need the space), raised hands mean quiet, and treat everyone with kindness. The last, of course, is the hardest to do. Name-calling and yelling and coercion are common in our world. But we don’t do that here. Kids may interrupt their parents endlessly, but at VBS, we have a way to get someone’s attention (finger on wrist) and there is no need to interrupt. We don’t do that here. The biggest kid might always win in the back yard, but at VBS, everyone gets a turn. We are not perfect adult leaders, and they are not perfect kids, but for one week, it seems to work. Some kids need a lot of attention in order to be in this community; others take to it like ducks to water. Some adults find it easy to be with kids this way, others struggle, but for a week, it works. Kindness prevails.
Now imagine what it would be like if we tried these things for just a week in our workplaces, in our living rooms and in our communities. We would have to be willing to take the time to talk, of course. We might want to plan some simple activities to help us learn how to be together. Bubbles usually work. Someone would have to be the adult who says, “We don’t do that here”, when people yell at each other or try to threaten someone or leave a mess. We would have to encourage one another to be kind, to think about others’ needs, to be fair. Just for a week.
Revelation 1: 9I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet11saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” 12Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. 17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
When I start a preaching series, I try to get an overall picture of the book before I dive into the text for the week. Even after preaching over 2,000 sermons (you do lose count after a while…), I am regularly surprised by things in the text I didn’t notice before; little details that suddenly jump off the page at me, demanding to be addressed. So I was really trying to get the full sweep of Revelation, trying to make sense of horsemen and whores and hosts of angels, when I read 1:10 “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet”. Wait…wait. A voice? Not a vision?
It’s not a huge distinction, really. God’s message to Bishop John is so wild that it probably felt like Sensaround in a movie theater. If the elderly saint had dozed off, the whole thing could have been a Technicolor dream, complete with soundtrack. But it did start with the voice, not the vision.
A voice that was loud enough to get his attention, and distinctive enough to let him know that it was God. “Like a trumpet”; probably not Wynton Marsalis, but more like the flourish that preceded the entry of a Roman notable. He must have jumped a mile. It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon (interesting that he kept track of the days while in exile) and suddenly there’s God, loudly announcing a message.
By verse 12, having turned around (physically or metaphorically?) to check out the whole candlelight Son of Man scene, the poet is off to the races with descriptive detail. What would have happened if John had shaken it off, assuming that he’d been in the sun too long? What if he hadn’t looked, or hadn’t been willing to keep looking at the fantastical images presented to him?
It would have been understandable for John to think that God had abandoned him. After an active life in church leadership, the remote island didn’t offer many opportunities for interaction. Was the good bishop completely sane? Of course, we can’t be sure. But here’s what jumped out at me: John paid attention to the voice of God. He didn’t argue, he didn’t proclaim his unworthiness, he didn’t ask questions. He just listened and wrote what he was told. After he woke from the dead faint, that is.
I think most of us hear the voice of God more often than we are willing to let on. It may not be loud. It may sound like a bystander in the coffee line rather than a trumpet. It may not make a lot of sense at first. But there is something about the voice of God that is unmistakable; when it’s the Holy One, you know it. That reality alone makes us want to discount the message, because it’s scary when God is suddenly present in the middle of our carefully planned lives. Most of us don’t want to get close enough to the Son of Man to check out his sash. But there it is — The Voice — and it is impossible to ignore.
The Voice focuses our consciousness. The Voice tells us where to look. The Voice assures us of Divine Love. Whether we experience it as an auditory cue or a feeling or cascade of events or a sudden quickening, we need to follow John’s lead and pay attention. Those images, as weird and terrifying as they can be, have held Christians together through oppression, exile and fighting. The message of the two-edged sword to the seven churches still diagnose the dysfunction of the Christian church with amazing insight. The critique of the Roman Empire is just as true of modern empires. The church needed God’s Word to John. It still does. And we too, must listen.