Category: Sermons

Sermon-3/30/14 “Children of Light”

Ephesians 5:8-14

The Bible is littered with images of darkness and light. Genesis (1:3) starts with, “Let there be light.”  I Peter (2:9), towards the end of the New Testament, says,  “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  Darkness and light are central to the Biblical message.

I must confess I love the phrase in Ephesians “Live as children of light.”  Light has been a central image for me in my understanding of that Holy Mystery we call God.  It captures my experience of God as I make my way through this sometimes dark world where confusion, fear and anxiety lurk.

I want to explore the light image with you today. Before we do that we need to recognize some of the potential troubling ways darkness and light have been used by people down through history.  This is especially true of darkness.  We talk about evil deeds as dark deeds.  We say those who are destructive  are acting under the cover of darkness.

In a culture where there was no electricity, people experienced total darkness when the sun went down.  They knew how debilitating darkness could be.  It was difficult to do anything, let alone anything good, when one could not see.  Darkness took on a palpable reality for those first century believers. It was a very effective metaphor for evil deeds.

But some people of color in our day have felt judged by this use of darkness.  If you have dark skin, and those persecuting you have light skin, it would not feel good to hear evil described as dark.  Certainly racists down through history have talked about people of color in negative ways that smack of this connection between darkness and evil.  We need to protest that use of darkness.

Others have used this distinction in Ephesians between children of darkness and children of light in a dualistic way.  They divide the world between those two kinds of people.  Some people are of the light, and some are of the darkness.  Usually those who are like them are children of light, and those who are different are children of darkness.  That difference could be  a different religious tradition, a different political stance, a different sexual orientation, or ethical choices some make.

That, too, is not very helpful.  We are all a combination of light and darkness.  Those realities are part of the very fabric of our inner lives and our actions.  To be a child of the light, then, is a goal to move towards as we grow in our faith and love. The spiritual journey could be described as a journey moving away from darkness and moving toward the light.

Given all that, becoming children of light is a great Lenten focus. The process of becoming such children begins at our baptism.  The early church’s understanding of baptism is helpful here.  They took that sacrament very seriously.  We are told that people would prepare for three to five years to be ready to be baptized.  It was a long and vigorous process of understanding what they were getting into when they became a Christian.

Our text in Ephesians is seen by some as a baptismal passage. The little poem at the end of the passage, starting “Sleeper, awake!”, was a hymn sung to the newly baptized as they emerged from the water.  Being baptized was like rising from the dead to a new life.  It was like waking from a deep sleep to an enlightened existence.  They were now children of light, or at least on the way to becoming that kind of child.

One commentator reminds us God is the main actor in our baptisms and in our becoming children of light.  She says we can’t will ourselves into the light.  It is a gift.  Remembering that keeps us humble.  It helps us not become judgmental towards others who have not accepted that gift.

What can we do to prepare our hearts to receive this gift of becoming children of light?  We can start by taking our baptism and faith journey seriously.  It is a big deal to choose to be a follower of Jesus.  It is a big deal to choose to work out our lives in the context of a community, an imperfect community, to be sure, but a community of those who trust God.

We can also develop a spiritual practice to nurture our inner lives so we might be open to receive gifts.  What do you do to approach life with open hands of receptivity and trust and not closed fists of defensiveness and arrogance?

Much of the spiritual life is just the work we do to be ready to receive a gift.  We need to recognize the gift when we see it.  We need to remember we are in need of God’s gift in the first place.  We need to give up being the one in total control, the one who is the gift giver and not the gift receiver.  All that work will make us humble.  Humility is critical if we are to do what Ephesians says we are to do as children of light.

The end of our passage is powerful and complicated.  It says children of light are to expose darkness in the world whenever  and wherever they encounter it.  That sounds pretty straightforward.  It doesn’t sound easy, but it seems to be a clear task.  It isn’t that simple.

Before we can expose the darkness in others we need to be willing to have the darkness in our own hearts exposed.  That is seldom fun or comfortable.  It is so easy to become defensive.  It is easy to be in denial about our own particular darkness.  But, if we are able to allow God’s light to shine into our personal darkness and expose it, we will become humble.  It is only as humble people that we can expose the darkness in others in such a way that good can come from that.

Ephesians believes when the light exposes darkness in the right way the darkness becomes visible. Then the author writes these astounding words:  “For everything that becomes visible is light.”  That is such a hopeful affirmation.  We just need to expose the darkness in such a way that it becomes visible for all to see. Then it can become light.

Sometimes the darkness is exposed by simply showing others the contrast between children of light and children caught in darkness.  It is a matter of being a living example.  At other times it might mean speaking out from a place of humility.  We can judge bad behavior without being judgmental towards the person doing that behavior.

We also need to be honest.  We may be wrong in our judgment.  The history of Christianity is littered with those Christians who thought they were exposing darkness, but were actually only exposing their own closed-minded and narrow understanding of life and the world.  Those Christians who treat other religions as people lost in the dark, those Christians who denigrate those of a different sexual orientation, those Christians who are quick to judge other Christians who don’t use the same code words they do, are all in danger of creating more darkness rather than bringing light.

I am reminded of a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that illustrates the right way to be children of light.  He said, “But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice.  In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.  Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.  We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.  We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.  Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”  He spoke this in Washington, D.C., in August 1963.

Children of light.  It is a great goal.  It is a worthy gift.  May that be our main focus as we move through Lent toward Easter this year.

Amen
Jim

 

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Sermon-3/23/14 “Living Water”

John 4:5-42

This passage in John’s Gospel is amazing on so many levels.  It is the longest conversation Jesus has with a person in all the New Testament.  The fact that this conversation is with a woman, and a Samaritan woman to boot, is nothing short of astonishing.  Presbyterians don’t celebrate this conversation, but many cultures do.  In Mexico and among the Russian Orthodox churches this woman is held in high honor.  They have a feast day called the” Feast of the Samaritan Woman.”

Because this conversation is so long  it was obviously important to John.  Therefore we need to pay attention to it.   There are some fascinating details and observations we need to linger over before we try to unpack the good news in this story.

First of all, John is helping us see that the Kingdom of God was an inclusive community.  He shows this by this story in Samaria. Jesus is breaking some major rules in his even talking to this woman.  He is ignoring barriers his culture and religion held sacred.  Men did not talk to women outside their own home.  To do so could only mean they wanted something from the woman, usually something sexual in nature.  That is why the disciples are alarmed that Jesus was talking to this woman when they returned from  their shopping trip in town.  They stammer out, “What do you want?  Why are you speaking with her?”  This can’t be what it looks like can it?

This prohibition about speaking to women in public was so strong, apparently there was a group of Pharisees known as “The Bruised and Bleeding Pharisees.”  Whenever they encountered a woman in public, they closed their eyes so they would not be tempted to look at her, let alone speak to her.  The only trouble was they kept walking and tended to walk into things and hurt themselves.  This sounds absurd, I know, but I read this from a credible source.  Jesus was breaking a pretty serious prohibition.

Not only was Jesus speaking to a woman out in the open, but he was a Jew speaking to a Samaritan.  He was even asking to drink from the same ladle used by this Samaritan woman.  Given the hostility between Jews and Samaritans in that day, this was also not kosher.

John is also contrasting this woman with Nicodemus whom we encountered in the chapter right before this one.  One commentator points out the contrast between the two.  One was a man and the other a woman.  One was a Jew and the other a Samaritan.  One was a respectable man in a position of power.  The other was a woman with no power and little respect.  This explains why she came to the well in the middle of the day to avoid running into the other women of her village who came in the cool of the morning or evening. She did not need their ugly glances and gossip.

One encounter was at midnight in the dark.  The other was at noon in the light of day.  One was given a name: Nicodemus.  The other remained nameless.  Nicodemus never seemed to get that Jesus was talking on a deeper level than the literal one.  This woman at least came to see the water Jesus was talking about was on a different level than the literal one.

That is not all.  It gets more interesting.  Jesus reveals his identity to this woman when he says, “I am he.”  This is the first time in John’s gospel that Jesus says that to anyone, and it is a Samaritan woman.  In the Greek Jesus says, “I am.”  The “he” is not there. ” I am” was God’s self-given name to Moses in the burning bush story.  John is connecting Jesus to God in a radical way here.

Then we read that the Samaritans in this woman’s town spend time with Jesus at her urging.  As a result of being with him they say,  “We know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”  The only place John uses the term “savior” for Jesus is right here and it is on the lips of these hated Samaritans.  The in crowd does not get who Jesus is.  That goes for the religious leaders, like Nicodemus, and even Jesus’ disciples.  Only those who are not religiously kosher get it.

Two more details and then I will stop!  As you might recall when Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him they leave their nets and follow.  When this woman begins to understand who Jesus is, she leaves her water jar behind to tell others.  She is being set on a par with the disciples.  Both leave their work instruments to follow Jesus.  That would have been shocking to the early Jewish Christian readers.

Finally, when the woman goes to get people from her village to meet Jesus, she says, “Come and see. . .”  Go back a couple of chapters in John to chapter one when the first two disciples follow Jesus.  They ask  where he is staying.  He says to them, “Come and see.”

Now those same words are on the lips of this woman.  She is imitating Jesus in her evangelism.  John is presenting us with a person of no status in that world, a woman; a person who is not religiously acceptable, a Samaritan; and he is saying she is just as good as any disciple Jesus called.

There you have it.  This is a remarkable, and even radical, story for its time.  It still speaks to us today in our situation.  The first thing to notice is that even though this woman does not fully understand who Jesus is, she is still an effective evangelist.  When she says to her people, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” scholars tell us the implied answer, given the grammatical structure of her question, was, “No.”  She is not sure about Jesus, but she knows she was deeply touched by him.  Being in his presence opened up her life to her.

This gives us no excuses when we are called to share the good news with others.  So many of us think we don’t know enough to say anything to anyone.  We are not sure what we believe.  The historical confessions raise more questions in some of our minds than do they give us a place to stand theologically.  John says, it doesn’t matter.  Share what you do know or have experienced.

Obviously, if you know me, you know I am not encouraging us to go out and try to convert folks by knocking on doors or standing on the street asking people, “Are you saved?”  I am saying there are moments when sharing with others about what gives our life meaning, about how our community supports us when life gets tough,that  are very appropriate and natural.  We do not need to understand all there is to know about Christianity to share.  It is not our job to convert people.   We just ask them to come and see.

When the Samaritans come and see, they are changed.  John says Jesus stayed, or abided, with them for two days.  It is when they abided with Jesus that they could make the astounding confession, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the World.”  When the disciples, in chapter one, abided with Jesus, they, too, were changed.  Andrew ends up calling his brother, Peter, telling him Jesus was the Anointed One.

Lent is a time to ask ourselves where do we spend most of our  time abiding?  Do we think one hour on Sunday morning is enough to change our lives for the better?  When life gets challenging, when work is hard, when our marriages are not going smoothly, when we face the challenges of big transitions like going off to college, marriage or divorce, aging, retirement, or coming to terms with a serious illness, where we abide is absolutely critical.

John says when we abide with Jesus, when we spend time nurturing our spiritual lives, we will experience Living Water.  He is contrasting this Living Water with what Jeremiah called cracked cisterns in chapter two of that First Testament book.  Jeremiah had God chastize his people for choosing skunky water found in cracked cisterns instead of choosing living water.  Jesus, in this encounter with this woman, is offering her the same choice.

Lent is a time to ask ourselves from what well are we drinking?  That is a similar question as the first one I mentioned:  Where are we abiding?  What are the cracked cisterns you have opted for in your life?  When you are just tired of things the way they are, when you are anxious about the future, when you are fearful for your children, or when you are facing a daunting task or situation, what do you turn to that will help you gracefully cope?  John says we can choose living water or we can settle for things that finally don’t quench our deepest thirsts.

We are halfway to Easter this Sunday.  We have three more weeks to prepare for the story of God conquering death, of God, in Christ, showing us how living water is a spring gushing up to eternal life.  Let’s commit ourselves to spending more time abiding with Jesus, so we might choose Living Water over cracked cisterns.

Amen
Jim

 

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Sermon-3/9/14 “A Lenten Meditation”

Rom. 5:12-19

Paul can be incredibly dense in his writing.  Our Romans passage for today is a case in point.  One would think he could have tightened up his argument and been a whole lot clearer.  In order to unpack what he is getting at we need to keep our other text for today in Genesis in front of us.

We read only part of the story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If you read all of chapter three you would see the whole story.  It really is a bizarre and funny story in spite of the very serious point it is trying to make.

We read how Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a tree full of fruit God forbade them to eat.  The story is rather paternalistic, making the woman the one who disobeyed.  If you read on you will see that when confronted by God Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent.  Apparently passing the buck has a long history!

Then Genesis says all three were punished.  The serpent has to spend life slithering on its belly.  The woman will have pain in childbirth.  The man will live by the sweat of his brow.  We can’t help but see how primitive are these explanations of why things are the way they are.  But this story has a more important message to convey than these rather naïve and unscientific reasons why the world is as it is.

While we no longer believe in a literal Adam and Eve as the first human beings, we can still enter into this story in the Garden of Eden and feel the truths it is trying to capture in this ancient story.  Certainly we can all agree that life as we know it is very imperfect.  Sometimes it is painfully broken.  That is a given for us humans.  We don’t have to come up with why this is so.  We don’t have to blame Adam and Eve for our human predicament.

Still, there is some truth to how a whole community can suffer because of one person’s bad decision.  We are not islands unto ourselves.    Our private, individual, actions can affect the common good for ill or for good.

Genesis says that when we disobey God, when we act in such a way that we deny our deepest God-given values, we will experience brokenness.  It will affect our personal relationships.  It will affect our relationship with God.  It will ultimately lead to death, whether that death be little deaths or the final, ultimate death.

It is interesting that Genesis says the first thing Adam and Eve experience after their disobedience is shame.  They notice they are naked and want to cover up.  The root meaning for shame comes from a word that means “to cover.”  When we feel shame we want to cover ourselves.  We want to hide ourselves from others.  We don’t want to be vulnerable.  We don’t want to be known that deeply.  All of that will have a negative affect on our ability to be intimate with one another or God.

Sadly, when we run from vulnerability, from being known, our life is the poorer for it.  We all want to be known, to be cherished, to be loved in spite of our flaws.  But when we feel shame our instinct is to hide, to cover up.  This ends in a deep loneliness.  It may even end in the death of our most important relationships.  That is part of what Genesis is getting at in this primitive story about creation when humans entered the scene.

Paul comes along years later and says it does not have to be that way.  He says the first Adam sinned and this brought condemnation and death.  But then came Jesus, who Paul calls the new Adam.  His life changes everything.

We don’t have to believe in a literal Adam to follow Paul here.  As scholars say, Genesis is a representative story about human beings after they entered creation’s story.  Because human beings have free will, bad choices become possible.  I doubt many of us would want to give up free will in order to protect ourselves from making bad choices.  To be human, then, is to have choices.  To be human is to not always make good choices.  There are consequences to our bad choices.  The story about the first Adam makes that clear.

But then comes Jesus.  Paul believed Jesus impacted the world in just as big a way as when the world was created.  In Jesus there is a new creation.  Humanity can start fresh.  Jesus, as the new Adam, did not make bad choices.  His life then is a model of what human life, our lives, could be like if we did not give in to temptations.  To follow this new Adam  by not disobeying God  would turn around what the first Adam started.  We would not feel shame and the brokenness shame produces in relationships.

The good news is this: the grace Jesus’ life expressed and let loose in the creation is bigger than the sin that overcame the first Adam.  Sin leads to condemnation and death.  Grace leads to justification and life.  To be in Christ is to live a grace-filled life.

All of this is pretty intellectual stuff.  Let’s get practical.  Lent is a season of preparation for the most important day of the Christian year: Easter.  Lent always begins with the topic of temptation.  It is a time to be introspective, to ponder our lives and to recognize what it is that tempts us to be less than we can be, less than Jesus modeled for us. When we are less than we can be it causes a little death in our lives.

Genesis says the biggest temptation is wanting to be like God.  Many of us would deny that is our goal, but I suspect those of us who need to be in control, the control-freaks in other words, are giving into that temptation.  Could the perfectionists among us also secretly want to be like God?  Only God is perfect.  Why should we think we can be like God in our perfectionism?

Both the need to be in control all the time and the desire to be perfect wreck havoc in our relationships with ourselves and others.  Controllers make relationships into a battle for supremacy.  Perfectionists find it very hard to forgive themselves for their imperfections.  When you can’t forgive yourself you will have trouble forgiving others.

There are other temptations, of course, that lead to little deaths.  Those who  are tempted to seek security at all costs tend to be either greedy or willing to resort to violence to protect their security or possessions.  We need look no further than the “Stand Your Ground” laws to see how this temptation can lead to literal deaths.

Those who are tempted by the desire to be defined by their looks have a very difficult time coming to terms with their own aging process.  They either age ungracefully, becoming cranky, or they spend untold amounts of money on cosmetic surgery and other beauty products to hide the inevitable fact they are getting older.

There are a whole host of other temptations  to which we might succumb.  Those who need to be right in any disagreement may win the argument but the relationship suffers.  Those who can’t stand to ever be alone end up seeking out others so they don’t have to face themselves. When they do that they may give up a rich inner life in the bargain. Unless we are comfortable with our own company we will not have much of an inner life.  When our inner life atrophies our capacity to craft a rich spiritual life is affected.

Those who need to be distracted by noise of some sort or to always be connected, whether it be the t.v., radio, a text, or voice message on their phones, or a video game may find their souls malnourished or their relationships lacking depth.  Technology is a huge temptation for our twenty-first century world.

Lent is a time to come to terms with whatever temptation we face to be less than we can be.  We belong to the new creation.  We belong to the world defined by grace, not by condemnation.  We are children of the new Adam.  Let us live like we are part of his family.  As we said on Ash Wednesday, “In life and in death we belong to God.”  Let us act like that is true.

Amen
Jim

 

 

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Sermon-3/2/14 “When Words Fail”

Matthew 17:1-9

We end the Epiphany season today with Transfiguration Sunday.  This season that starts right after the twelve days of Christmas begins with Jesus’ baptism.  As you might remember, Jesus heard a voice from heaven at his baptism,  “This is my Son, the beloved. . .”  This was a critical moment in the life of Jesus.  He was about to begin his public ministry.  Some scholars think Jesus had a spiritual experience at his baptism where he recognized a sense of call.

As I have noted Epiphany ends with the story of the Transfiguration.  It ends with Jesus on the mountain with three of his disciples.  Here, too, they hear a voice from heaven.  The message was exactly the same as at his baptism.  “This is my Son, the beloved. . .”  This time there was an added phrase.  “Listen to him.”  We will get to that in a moment.

Once again, this voice confirming Jesus’ special call, came at a critical moment in Jesus’ life.  As we know right after this he continues on his way to Jerusalem and certain persecution.  Perhaps Matthew is saying Jesus might have needed reassurance as to his true identity so that he might not lose heart and run from what he needed to do.

This moment on the mountain was an even more critical moment for the disciples.  Will they take up their cross and follow Jesus as they were urged to do in the passage right before this one? Are they sure that Jesus is the messiah given his perplexing claim he was to suffer and die?  This time on the mountain of transfiguration was an important one for the disciples.

Sadly, they don’t come off too well.  Peter wants to prolong this spiritual moment.  He suggests building dwellings so they might stay for a while.  Can you blame him?  Who wouldn’t want to prolong a mountain-top experience?

If you ever went to a church camp as a youth you might remember how that time felt.  It was fun, powerful, and even life-changing for some of us.  I can remember many experiences where I felt I was going to be a different person as a result of that camp. I was determined  to be different when I returned home.  I didn’t want to leave, however.  The sense of family with all those kids, seeing the cool kids treat the rest of us better as a result of being touched by their camp experience, the freedom from the daily grind of homework and chores were all things I wanted to continue.  Who wants to hurry home after experiencing that?

It is much harder to come down the mountain to the valley where life is complicated and messy.  Far from the retreat on the mountain life can be difficult.  Being a faithful disciple often comes with a cost.  We know that is what the three disciples found when they came down the mountain with Jesus.  They were met by a crowd. One of the crowd begged for Jesus to heal his epileptic son.  Apparently the other disciples couldn’t do it.  It was not so easy to follow in Jesus’ footsteps in the valley.

It makes sense, then, why Peter wanted to remain on the mountain.  Still we know he did not fully grasp the moment.  One translation says Peter was just babbling after seeing Jesus shine like the sun talking with Moses and Elijah.  Peter makes a misguided suggestion, not knowing what to say or do.  He just talks until the voice from the cloud shuts him up.
Sometimes words are just not appropriate.  They fail to capture the moment, especially those moments when one senses the presence of something deeply spiritual.  It is often far better to not say anything after experiencing God’s presence, after an encounter with the Holy Mystery.

Our scene ends with Jesus reaching out and touching the disciples after they have fallen into a fearful heap.  Jesus does not try to explain the moment or say too much.  He just reaches out and touches them.  Sometimes touch can be healing when words would just get in the way.  Sometimes touch can help us deal with our fears more so than any words trying to explain why we shouldn’t be afraid.

As we read this text today we enter it with all kinds of logical questions.  Is this to be taken literally?  Thankfully Matthew gives us a clue. He says the disciples had experienced a vision.  This was not ordinary reality.  More was going on in this story than just something that could be explained scientifically or factually.

Then there are some other obvious questions.  How did they know it was Moses and Elijah?  There were no pictures of those ancient biblical characters.  Were they wearing name tags?  Do people really come back from the dead looking as they did when they walked the earth?  At what age did they come back? At their most vigorous self or how they were when they died?

We need to lay aside those questions and feel the story on a level deeper than words or explanations.  The one phrase that jumps out at me are the words:  “Listen to him.”  This time the voice from heaven adds those critical words.  Listen to him, follow him in other words.

Moses presence represented the law.  Elijah represented the prophets.  The law and the prophets were the two most sacred parts of the Jewish canon.  Here at the Transfiguration Matthew is saying there is something more sacred than the law and the prophets. That something was  a someone: Jesus.  The law and the prophets were trumped by a person.  It is not that Jesus came to say the law and the prophets were irrelevant.  It is just relationships impact us more profoundly than a book.

“Listen to him.”  Whom do we listen to when we try to make sense of our lives?  What voice carries more authority in our hearts than even our religion or its traditions?  If we say it is God’s voice that is most important, how do we hear God’s voice as it competes with the many voices filling our heads?

If we are able to hear God’s voice, however it comes to us, and truly listen and then follow, the Bible says we too can be transfigured. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, ” Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (be transfigured) by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God. . .”  Elsewhere he even goes further.  In his letter to the Corinthians he writes, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed (transfigured)into the same image. . .” We can be like Jesus, however imperfectly.

John O’Donohue, in his wonderful book on Celtic Spirituality, Anam Cara, has this interesting thought as he discusses growing older.  He writes, “This is one of the most vital questions that affects every person.  Can we transfigure the damage that time does to us?”

The older I get, the more I can relate to the damage time does to all of us.  Are we to be defined by the ravages of aging?  What in our lives enables us to be transfigured?  How do we let the light of Christ shine through our faces and our actions in spite of the physical or emotional damage done to us by time?

As we prepare to head into the somber, yet meaningful season of Lent on Wednesday, let us remember to give our best listening to the one who was transfigured long ago.  May we experience our own transfiguration as we listen and follow that voice.

Amen

Jim

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Sermon-2/16/14 “Critical Choices”

Deut. 30:15-20

Moses, speaking to the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land, gives them a choice.  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  I can’t imagine some listening to him saying to themselves, “I think I’ll go with death and adversity.”  No, the choice seems rather obvious.

Of course, we know it is more complicated than that.  Life is full of choices that are not so easily made.  Should I spend more time with my family or accept the promotion that will bring in more money to help with expenses but will require longer hours and less time at home?  Should I spend down my assets in retirement and enjoy that part of my life or live frugally so I can leave more to my children?  Should the United States support Israel against her enemies or support the Palestinians oppressed by Israel?

Those are not black and white choices.  Often we nuance our response as we decide what to do.  We settle for compromises that try to find the best of both choices.  Still, life is complicated.  We do not have the luxury of choosing between two obvious options.

The Israelites, addressed by Moses in our passage for today, faced many choices as they prepared to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, describes these choices this way.  “When Israel arrives in the Land of Promise, it will face alternative ethical options, alternative objects of trust, and alternative modes of power.”

The biggest issue they had to face, according to Deuteronomy, was idolatry.  The Israelites had to choose to whom or what they would give their highest allegiance.  Would they give that to God, or to the fertility gods of the new homeland, or to some other reality like security or wealth?

One could read this passage as saying if they make the right choices God will reward them with many children and prosperity.  And if they make the wrong choices God will punish them with adversity and a short life, even death.

Many of us do not accept that understanding of God.  We don’t see, or even trust, a God that intervenes in our lives rewarding and punishing us for the decisions we make.  For one thing, that has not been our experience.  Some people who have made great choices in life seem to suffer all kinds of adversity and even die young.  And some who tend to make poor choices, even despicable choices, seem to do just fine, at least on the surface of things.

But, it is true if we make good choices our lives are richer, not easier, but more satisfying.  We may not become prosperous, or avoid tough times, but we end up tasting life in all its fullness.  We end up knowing joys and hope that run deeper than the sadness or grief we may experience.

Moses’ advice to the Israelites was pretty simple.  He urged them to love God and obey the commandments.  Moses was not asking them to live a life of slavish obedience to a bunch of rules and regulations.  A religion that is no more than a bunch legalistic rules is hardly one that offers life in all its fullness.  The New Testament showed us what that would look like when it talks about the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.

Brueggemann is helpful here.  He said Moses was inviting the people into a “covenantal understanding of social relationships.”  The commandments, ordinances, and decrees Moses was referring to can be found elsewhere in Deuteronomy.  Brueggemann said they were things like “sharing feasts with the hungry (Dt. 14:27-29); organizing government to guard against excessive wealth (17:14-20); and paying hired hands promptly what they earn (24:14-15)”  If you obey those commandments the common good will be enhanced and the life of the community will be so much better.

Those commandments sound fairly modern to my ears.  Today we might talk about things like a living wage, marriage equality, immigration reform, gun control, stopping capital punishment, and protecting the social safety net for the most vulnerable among us. The Bible doesn’t give commandments on those issues, but if we take seriously the way of Jesus and how he described the Kingdom of God, we can detect a connection to those issues and living faithful, obedient lives today.

While we don’t all agree on how to deal with those issues, how we live them out will have a huge impact on our common life.  They are not just political or partisan issues.  They speak to the very fabric of our social relationships and our commitment to God’s standards.  Choose well and we will live and prosper.

If we make bad choices Moses says that will lead to death.  Brueggemann says we do not need to see this as physically dying.  Death, here, is more “existence that lacks joy, well-being, security, and abundance.  Death is the negation of shalom.”

Another commentator says, “Death is a slow process of giving ourselves to what does not matter.”  Deuteronomy uses another word along with death.  That word is perish.  Brueggemann says, “Perishing means to be caught in patterns of social relations that generate fear, anger, hate, and dimished human possibility.”

These choices are not one time decisions.  We make these choices daily, and sometimes more than once in a day.  Each time we wake from sleep and face the gift of a new day we need to decide: will I live in such a way that enhances social relationships and the common good or will I live in such a way that my fear or anger diminishes possibilities for my life and the lives of others?

Elsewhere in the First Testament when a leader like Joshua presents the people with the choice between serving God or some other god, the Bible records the people’s response.  They usually shout they will join Joshua and serve the Lord.  It looks like a one time decision.

Here in Deuteronomy Moses presents the people with this huge choice but we don’t hear their response.  It is as if Deuteronomy is leaving it open-ended.  We are left to wonder how the people in Moses’ day responded.  We are left to wonder how we will respond.

I don’t want to be melodramatic here, but the choices we make between loving God and obeying commandments that enhance the common good versus choosing to give other factors our highest allegiance, are absolutely critical.  May we choose life.  May our actions show, in some concrete way,  that we have chosen life.  Amen

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Sermon-1/26/14 – “God Is Our Light”

Psalm 27

The Psalms reveal human emotions in all their rawness.  They are a unique part of the Bible.  In most of the Bible we try to listen to what the Spirit is saying to us through the writers of scripture.  In the Psalms we can listen for God’s voice but we can also use those poetic hymns and cries of the heart to give us words to express our spiritual longings, fears and hopes.

Psalm 27 is a rich source for us to ponder and use.  It is a hymn or prayer that includes both confidence in God’s presence and shelter as well as anxiety over not sensing that presence.  That pretty well sums up many of our spiritual predicaments.  We are a combination of faith and anxiety.  We move between those two poles.

In this Psalm we see that the author is dealing with his fear.  When someone writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” we know that fear is on his mind.  One commentator has this wonderful quote that pretty much captures how many of us deal with our fears.  He writes, “Courage is a fragile vessel floating upon the abyss of fear.”  Sometimes it is all we can do to pump ourselves up to be courageous when fear lurks close at hand.  That is what this Psalm appears to be doing.  It sounds so confident, but then the anxiety and fear creep in.

Much of the Bible, and particularly the Gospels, encourages us to come to grips with our fears and anxiety.  Fear really is the enemy of faith and trust, not doubt.  Many feel guilty about their doubts, thinking they are not good Christians because of them.  Doubts are natural, especially for any thinking person.  Jesus does not seem to feel too worried about the disciples who doubt.  Even after the resurrection we are told some of his closest followers doubted.  They were still given the commission to go out and make disciples of other people.

Fear is another issue altogether.  It leads to terrible decisions.  It makes us overly protective and suspicious of others.  It can make us defensive.  At its worst it can lead to unnecessary violence because those who are fearful feel vulnerable.  They think the only way they will be safe is to destroy those who threaten them.

Sadly, fear and anxiety are rampant in our world and our American culture.  So many people are on medication trying to help them function in spite of their anxieties.  We are left with this question: how can our spiritual lives help us deal with anxiety and fear?

Psalm 27 can teach us.  The Psalmist writes, as I quoted before, “The Lord is my light. . .”  Scholars tell us this is an unusual way to talk about God.  In fact, this is the only place in all the Old Testament where God is referred to as “my light.” We read about God shining light into our darkness, but here God is called light. This is a very personal connection with God that is being expressed.  The author dearly desires to seek God’s face, to experience God’s presence.  When he/she can do this, fears are held at bay.

One of the places the Psalmist experiences God is in worship.  He says the one thing he will seek after is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of his life.  While this is probably not meant to be taken literally, it is an interesting idea to ponder.  How do we live, however metaphorically that is meant,  in God’s house all of our lives?  What do we do to reinforce our connection with God?

This Psalm mentions worship,and then instruction and inquiry as crucial to living in the house of God.  Find a community that speaks the language of your heart and worship.  Don’t rely on a childish understanding of God and then think it will see you through tough times.  So many Christians never continue to grow and mature in their faith.  They are stuck in a grade school understanding of God and then wonder why that cannot sustain them when life gets messy. Keep asking questions, says this Psalm.  Keep inquiring, whether that be in prayer or in a discussion with another.

I have come to realize the value of a good question, a question that does not lend itself to an easy answer or even any answer.  A good question can satisfy my spiritual journey for a long time.  When we are comfortable with questions we can’t answer, we are not afraid to let some sacred belief drop by the wayside as we reconfigure how we look at God and our understanding of how we relate to God’s Spirit.

What is fascinating about this Psalm, says another commentator, is that God’s invisible presence is more solid for the Psalmist than visible enemies in “the power of their threat, assault, and false witness.”  God’s shelter is more real than outside threats.

Because God’s presence is so real, though invisible, the Psalmist can deal with his fears without resorting to violence.  It is interesting that this Psalm does not ask God to destroy his enemies.  No, the author is content to seek shelter in God’s presence, comfort in God’s light, and hope in God’s salvation.  Sure, he hopes those enemies will stumble and fall, but there is a lack of vindictiveness in this Psalm that I find refreshing.  That is certainly not true of other Psalms.

Psalm 27 ends urging us to be strong, take courage and wait for God.  The Hebrew word translated wait can also carry the connotation of trust or hope in God.  The Jerusalem Bible translates verse fourteen this way, “Put your hope in (God), be strong, let your heart be bold, put your hope in (God).”

We are not just being told to be patient and wait for God to be present.  It is more we are told to trust in God’s invisible presence right now.  Be aware of it in the midst of our fears.  God is always present.  It is just that our fears can blind us to that presence.

Andrew Nagy-Benson, a UCC pastor in Connecticut, says this Psalm reminds him of a recent funeral service.  He said the “ten-year-old granddaughter of the departed stood in the chancel before family and friends.  She sang Robert Lowry’s ‘My Life Flows On in Endless Song.”

Part of it goes like this: “My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation, I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.  Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; It finds an echo in my soul-how can I keep from singing?”

I find that hymn incredibly touching. All of our lives are a journey with ups and downs.  We will know exquisite joys and devastating heart-ache. Being a Christian will not protect us from tough times. The issue is: how will we deal with all that breaks our hearts or causes us to be anxious or fearful?  What practices have we nurtured that will help us feel the music of God’s presence echoing in our souls?

When God whispers, so to speak, in our hearts calling us to seek God’s face, how will we respond?

Amen

Jim

 

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Sermon-1/19/14 “What Are You Looking For?”

John 1:29-42

First words out of the mouth of one of the characters in a novel or gospel are critical.  They set the stage for what is to follow.  They give us a first  impression about the agenda of the person speaking.  In John’s Gospel the first words out of the mouth of Jesus are, “What are you looking for?”  This is followed up with, “Come and see,” in his response to the disciples’ question.

Jesus addresses that question to those first two who followed him, but John most certainly intends for that question to be addressed to his readers, including us.  What are we looking for in life?  To answer that question is to disclose much about who we are and the trajectory our lives will take.

What are you looking for?  When I looked at this passage six years ago I came up with some possibilities people might say: health, riches or financial security, safety, power, happiness, a spouse or special friend, sexual satisfaction, stock tips, prestige or fame, a sense of purpose or calling, a stronger faith.  There are a whole host of possibilities.   The answer we give to that question is critical.  It is a question that comes up again and again at various stages in our lives.

One commentator said the enterprise of life is an exploration into God.  He says some of us enter that enterprise as tourists or sightseers, others as adventurers, and still others as pilgrims.  How would you describe your exploration into God?  Are you a tourist who dabbles in your relationship with God?  Do you give energy to it as long as it is interesting or captures your attention?  What happens if this journey to God becomes difficult?  Do we just go back to life as usual and take the first plane home from our little adventure with God?

The Gospel of John says we can answer Jesus’ question about what we are looking for by hanging out with Jesus, so to speak.  That is what the disciples in chapter one do.  Jesus says, “Come and see.”  That is John’s version of “Follow me,” in this instance.

John says the disciples took Jesus up on his call to come and see.  He writes,” they remained with him.” They abided with him is another way of putting it.  John had already said the Spirit descended on Jesus and remained on him.  That is what made Jesus such a great revealer of God in his life.  The Spirit abided in him. To be in his presence felt like being in the presence of God.

One scholar says the order of “come and see” is critical.  We need to come to Jesus first.  We need to take a risk and spend time with him.  We need to decide to follow him. It is only then that we have an epiphany of the divine.  It is only then that we see him clearly.

Being a Christian is not having all our questions answered before we make a commitment.  It is coming with all of our questions and taking a risk.  It is entering on an adventure of faith where the future is not known.  It is only in taking the first step and trusting the one who calls us that we begin to see more clearly the purpose of our lives, what we are looking for.

John says be careful here.  If you truly come and remain you will be changed.  The way the Bible shows us that people change is when they are given a new name.  In our passage Andrew’s brother Simon is given a new name, Peter.

We have come to see Peter as a normal name.  Many name their baby boy Peter.  But back in Jesus’ day that was not a normal name.  People did not name their sons Peter or Cephas (the Hebrew form of Peter).  One commentator said it would be like calling our child dirt, or tree.  It was a very odd nickname.  Surely it got the attention of those first readers.  What would Simon be like with this odd nickname?

We can’t help but ask ourselves whether our faith has changed us enough to require a name change. Are we different people because we have journeyed into this exploration into God?  Could anyone tell we are different?  Do we even want to be different?

Certainly when those first disciples remained with Jesus they started acting more like him.  See what Philip says a few verses after our passage.  John writes, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’  Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’  Philip said to him, ‘Come and see..’”

Philip is imitating Jesus.  When we remain with Jesus through thick and thin in this exploration into God, we begin to look, act, and speak more like him.  Rodger Nishioka, one of our Meekhof lecturers a couple of years ago, says that Jesus might be a difficult role model.  After all, we say that in Jesus we experience God.  Most of us don’t reveal God in our lives as clearly as did Jesus.

Rodger  says a better role model might be John the Baptist. He says, somewhat tongue in cheek, that instead of asking ourselves WWJD? (What would Jesus do?) as a popular movement not long ago promoted, we would do better to ask ourselves, WWJBD? (What would John the Baptist do?).  John is much more accessible.

When you take a close look at John we see someone who saw his life as preparing others to encounter the Messiah.  He says twice he did not know who that Messiah would be.  He was acting in the dark, in other words.  He did not have all the answers, or even the most important answer to his life’s purpose.  He just patiently went about baptizing folks and asking them to repent.

It was not until the Spirit descended on Jesus that John knew who the Messiah was.  It was not until he had this spiritual experience that he could name Jesus as the Lamb of God.  The other gospels talk about Jesus having a spiritual experience at his baptism.  Mark even hints that this was the time Jesus saw himself as God’s son in a special way.  But in John’s gospel Jesus’ baptism was more for John the Baptist’s benefit.

When John sees clearly who Jesus is he sends his own disciples to follow Jesus.  And when they see who Jesus is, they go out to tell others.  This is a chain event the gospel of John is describing.  It goes from John the Baptist to Andrew, and then to Simon.  It causes us to ponder.  Who turned us on to the search for God in Christ?  Who are we inviting by our lives and invitation?

When we come and see, when we remain with Jesus in our spiritual practices, our prayer or meditation lives, we get a glimpse of what the Christian life is all about.  Another of our Meekhof Lecturers, Susan Andrews, says that our faith journey begins with curiosity rooted in companionship that leads to commitment.  This colors how we see life and our faith journey.

She puts it this way.  Christianity is not an idea it is a life style.  It is not a destination, it is a journey.  It is not a product, it is process.  It not routine but a relationship.  And finally it is not an individual endeavor, it is all about community.

Those are very helpful distinctions for us to contemplate.  It all begins with our attempting to answer Jesus’ question, “What are you looking for?”  It continues with our response to his call to “Come and see.”  It ends with a changed life, a richer life, a life built for an adventure.  What are you looking for?  Amen

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Sermon-1/5/14 “Returning by Another Road”

Matthew 2:1-12

Houston Smith once had a PBS series on the world religions called “The Long Search.”  That title pretty accurately describes many of our spiritual lives and our journeys of faith.  We are on a long search for God, for an experience of the holy, an experience that will lift us above the mundane aspects of our lives that seldom inspire.

Herb O’Driscoll says the greatest of journeys is the journey to God.  He describes this journey as a kind of inner spiritual travelling to Jesus. Our Matthew text, a familiar one about the Magi travelling to Jesus, can be a useful passage for our own journeys to Jesus.  It is a rich text with hints for us as we negotiate all the twists and turns of that journey.

As the Magi arrive at Jerusalem they encounter Herod, the one who thought he was the true king of the Jews.  As we know, Herod was a ruthless leader and very paranoid.  He pretends to be interested in the Magis’ journey.  His real motives are not so benign.  He wants to use them to find this threat to his throne.  Certainly if the Magi found Jesus and returned to Herod their fate would be uncertain at best. He would probably end their journey before they could get home.

O’Driscoll says Herod is a symbol for all that might disrupt our spiritual journey.  He mentions a few things like a preoccupation with business and work, weariness, depression, anxiety, or cynicism.  Certainly most of us can relate to those realities.  Some of them may have disrupted our inner journeys to God at one time or another.

All of this is to say this spiritual journey is a tough one.  It will draw on all our imagination, courage and patience that we can muster.  It will require us to plow through many distractions.  It will require that we don’t let doubts discourage us, or be an excuse to just give up on the journey.

Let us, this morning, attend to the Magis’ journey and see what we can learn from them.  They started this long search for the Jewish king because they had paid great attention to nature and the stars.  Could Matthew be affirming that God’s handiwork in nature might be an avenue to pursue God?  I certainly think that could be possible.

Many people have found nature to be a good teacher and a pathway into an experience of the holy.  Those who, with care, pay attention to their physical surroundings can find themselves looking at life in a deeper way.  There are places on this earth that have become holy ground for me.  Just being there brings me closer to God.

But, notice, following the star, paying attention to nature, did not finally get the Magi to Jesus.  Walter Brueggemann says the Magi missed Bethlehem by nine miles.  He goes on to say that many of us look for God in the wrong places.  Nature is helpful, but sometimes it falls short as a complete guide to God.

The Magi finally get good advice from the chief priests and scribes as they read and interpreted the scriptures.  Matthew is saying scripture can be a very helpful guide on our journey to Jesus.  While that is very true, scripture is a complicated, and sometimes ambiguous, guide.

Scripture can be used to reinforce prejudices.  We’ve seen many sad, and even disgusting, examples of this among Christians down through the years.  Some Christians have read scripture to prop up slavery, the oppression of women,  hate for homosexuals, and to degenerate earnest believers of other faiths.  We must be careful with how we use scripture on our spiritual journeys.

Note, as well, how those who knew the scriptures did not let their knowledge lead them to Jesus.  Just being able to quote scripture, be a regular worship attender, and even be in leadership in a religious institution is no guarantee of a willingness to do the hard, and sometimes risky, work of traveling to God.  Still, scripture is a valuable guide in our inner spiritual journeys.

Another commentator says we need to pay attention to the Magi once they finally get to Bethlehem and Jesus.  Matthew says they pay Jesus homage.  They worship him.  This commentator says the life of faith is all about finding someone worthy of our worship.   He goes on to say it is important to note that the Magi did not give gifts and then worship.  No, they worshiped first and this resulted in giving gifts.  That is the correct order.  Our gift giving in church comes out of being touched by something, someone worthy of our worship.  We know our lives are richer as a result of this encounter and the only genuine response is giving back.

This gift giving is a symbol of something more than just offering gold, frankincense and myrrh.  When we have a true encounter with the holy, it drives us to reorganize our priorities, our possessions, and maybe even our politics.  This journey to God is not always safe.  We may be changed.  We may find ourselves journeying in our lives by another road.  You can’t go back to life as usual if you have a genuine encounter with God.  The Magi returned home by another road, and so will we.

Joan Chittister, one of my favorite spiritual mentors, once said the real question is not how many Magi were there.  We have come to believe there were three, but Matthew does not say.  We have even given them names.  But Chittister says that is not the real question.  The real question is: how many Magi set out on this spiritual journey but never made it?

It is tough to keep journeying toward God.  Many have given up.  They settle for life as usual.  They get lost in all the cares of the world that can suck the joy of life right out of you. We need to encourage one another on our spiritual journeys.  We need to seek nurturing experiences whenever we have an opportunity.  Certainly a regular time of prayer or meditation is helpful. Sacraments, like the one we will partake of this morning, are also helpful.  They remind us that the holy is often hidden in the ordinary.

As we enter this new calendar year, I urge each of us to keep at this long search, this inner traveling to God we know in Christ.  Let us give some of our best energies to this journey.  Let us glean what we can from nature and from scripture.  Let us not give up until we find something, someone worthy of our worship.  And then may the joy we experience at finding what we have been searching for lead to acts of generosity and compassion.  Amen

Jim

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Sermon-12/24/13 “Christmas Responses”

Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Eve. This is an emotion-packed night.  We bring many complicated feelings to this time of the year, and to this service.  The Christmas season, and especially this Holy night brings back so many memories, so many issues that crowd our heads and hearts for attention.

Some of us come with warm memories of Christmases past.  This night is filled with the sights, sounds, and smells that make us feel warm inside and very happy.  It is one of the best nights of the year as we anticipate gift giving and receiving, family reunions, and great food.  Maybe some of you have the tradition of watching a favorite old Christmas movie like Elf or It’s a Wonderful  Life.  Others of us look forward to just taking a nap by the fire as we listen to Christmas music or the music of the voices of the ones we love talking, laughing and telling stories.

Some of us dread this season where so many seem so happy and we wish we could be happy ourselves.  We dearly miss a loved one who has died.  We can only see the empty chair at the table or in the circle around the tree that should have been filled with a spouse, child, or grandparent.  Some of us have bitter feelings about this season due to not having enough funds to buy the gifts we want because of unemployment or under employment.  Some of us grieve the brokenness in our families causing estrangement, and silence when we wish the phone would ring.

Regardless of how we are feeling, we bring our happy and our messy selves to this service as we listen to very familiar texts in Isaiah and Luke.  If we listen carefully, we see that these texts understand our emotions.  They, too, are filled with people like us who know joy and hope, but also fear, and hard circumstances.  So, this Christmas Eve let us look at the people in our text, their feelings and responses on that first Christmas.

All of the main characters in our Luke passage know what hard living is like.  Mary gave birth in very uncomfortable circumstances because there was no room for her in the inn.  Jesus was homeless at his birth and would grow up to live a life where there was no place to lay his head.

The shepherds, the first witnesses to the birth of the Christ, were also homeless in their own way.  We tend to move quickly over what Luke says about them in verse eight.  He writes, “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields. . .”  This kind of living is far removed from our romantic notions of camping out.  There were no bathrooms or showers in the fields.  It was cold.  They were smelly as only those homeless can be when they don’t have a place to clean up.  It was these homeless men who were given a very prominent place in Luke’s gospel.  This is a gospel for the homeless, for those polite society would reject.

Then there is the emotion of fear.  One commentary says the word translated here as fear or awe is all about the recognition of the limits of human understanding and power before God.  The shepherds were out of their depth and they knew it.

We are told that there was a belief in that time that said when God comes to earth, the unrighteous will be judged and destroyed.  Certainly if the shepherds felt that the angel represented God’s presence they had reason to be afraid.  Most shepherds were not respectable people.  But that fear was calmed by the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

They may have stopped being afraid, but awe remained.  Awe is sorely lacking in our day.  We think we know it all.  We think we are in control and can protect ourselves from almost anything that might come down the pike.  It is not until a tornado hits, or an earthquake, that we realize we aren’t in control all that much.  Luke is saying when God’s presence makes an entrance in our world, it is like an earthquake.  His gospel is an invitation to accept our limited knowledge and allow awe, wonder, amazement, and joy space to be felt.

Finally there is that very interesting word, “pondered”.  Luke says, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  Commentators tell us pondered means considering but not necessarily understanding.  Does that not capture how we encounter the holy in our lives?

Mary is our role model in Luke.  She accepts her pregnancy which she did not fully understand.  She gives birth and is visited by these scruffy shepherds with words she does not fully comprehend.  We, too, hear these fantastical stories in the Bible of a virgin birth, of endless peace, and light shining into our darkness and are left with hope tinged with doubt.  Could it be true?  Dare we risk our hopes being disappointed?  Luke says to us, maybe the best thing we can do is just ponder these mysteries. Don’t dismiss them out of hand.  Make space in your hearts to let the seeds of hope and joy grow.

Fred Craddock wonders why there were angels in the fields with the shepherds but no angels in the stable where Mary was giving birth in less than ideal conditions.  He concludes, “Faith is usually one angel short, left to ponder these things in the heart.”

I suspect that is our experience of faith as well.  Where are the angels when we need them?  But, instead of focusing on what we don’t have, on all the ways that lead to doubt and cynicism in the face of Biblical stories and promises, maybe we can learn to ponder a bit more.  Maybe we can let awe overtake our arrogance.  Maybe then joy and amazement will have a chance to surface in dark times.

When Martin Luther preached at Christmas in 1531 he preached on Luke in the morning but moved to preach on our Isaiah passage in the afternoon service.  As one scholar notes, “He told them that they would not hear (the Christmas story) again; rather, they would learn how to make use of it.  Luther then turned to the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.’”

It is significant that Isaiah always seems to tie words about God’s deliverance of the oppressed with talk of a baby.  Commentators tell us Isaiah wanted to show how God’s power is often expressed in weakness.  If our hope for deliverance and justice is a baby, then we realize we are going to have to help.  These wonderful words of hope we read every Christmas in Luke and Isaiah are not just something dropped into our laps. We have a part to play.

May we accept all the emotions we bring to this service and not run from them.  May we also commit ourselves to be part of the solution, part of the realization of the astounding, perplexing words of hope we so cherish.  May our pondering lead us to work for peace with justice in our world.  Merry Christmas.  Amen

Jim

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Sermon-12/15/13 “An Advent Homily on Hope”

Isaiah 35:1-10 and Luke 1:46b-55

Here we are at the third Sunday of Advent.  This season is moving along all too quickly!  This third Sunday is known as Gaudete, or Rejoice, Sunday.  Both our texts for today speak of joy and rejoicing.  What is amazing is they can rejoice, they can compose these wonderful hymns to hope and joy, in the midst of very bleak circumstances.

Isaiah was speaking to captives in exile.  The Jews had been ripped from their homeland and brought to a foreign country by Babylon.  Some of the people were literally blinded by their captors.  That lends a particular poignancy to Isaiah’s words about the hope of the eyes of the blind being opened.

Mary’s Magnificat is sung in the context of a poor Jewish girl living in an occupied country.  The Romans could be very cruel to the Jewish people.  Not only that, but Mary was pregnant out of wedlock.  This would not be an easy time for her.  She would be subjected to all kinds of ridicule.  She could very easily be rejected by her husband-to-be, Joseph.  Yet, in the midst of this hard situation comes this powerful hymn to hope and joy.

We who read these passages long after they were composed know that the hopes their songs capture have never been fully realized.  While we live in a world where the lame and the hard of hearing have good medical care; where it is safe to travel on well-lighted roads without fear of being eaten by lions; we still live in a world that knows terrible violence. We live in a world where heartache is felt on both global and personal levels.  The peaceable kingdom has not become a reality.

The question for us is: what are we to do with these passages of outrageous hope?  Are we to dismiss them as naïve?  Are they just a cruel carrot for those who are hurting, promising better times that most likely won’t come?  Should we give in to cynicism?

What if we decide to be people of hope?  What if we commit ourselves to working to make that peaceable kingdom more of a reality?  What if we give our energies to end war as a strategy to defeat evil? What if we work to pass legislation that confronts income disparity where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the nation becomes unstable as a result?

One of the ways we can do this is to remember and point out all those moments in our lives and in recent history when the impossible became a reality.  I am thinking of things like the Berlin Wall finally coming down.  When I was younger that wall seemed awfully permanent.

How about the USSR finally breaking up and some of those republics becoming free from Moscow’s domination.  That, too, seemed highly unlikely.

Certainly as we remember Nelson Mandela in these days following his death we can marvel at the miracle of his basically non-violent revolution in South Africa.  The fact that he could leave prison after all those years and not seek vengeance on those who tormented him is almost beyond belief.  Yet it was true and his actions are a shining beacon to all the world.

Advent comes at the darkest part of the year before the winter solstice.  It is a time to remember our job as Christians is to shine a light into that darkness.  It is a reminder that we must keep hope alive even when it seems naive to do so.  We are people of hope.

We can do this on a grand scale as we push our politicians to work for peace, justice, and a budget that takes care of the most vulnerable in our society.   We can push them to pass more restrictive gun laws. We can do this on a very small scale as we bring light to dark times in our lives and the lives of those we love.

I was touched this past week when I visited Frances Horner the day before he died.  It was becoming apparent he did not have long to live.  The family invited our pianist/organist, Jennifer Greene, to come to his room in the care home and sing to him.

Jennifer brought her little harp and sang old hymns.  Frances’ favorite hymn was “It Is Well With My Soul.”  When Jennifer played and sang it many of us present had tears in our eyes.  Those words of deep faith and hope in the face of this dying man captured the essence of Advent for me.  We can affirm even when death is near, “It is well with my soul.”  Death will not have the final word.

At the lectionary class Peggy Felton reminded us of that great Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  It is one of my favorites as well.  It was written at a dark time in our country’s  history.  I am going to let some of the lyrics of this carol be the closing remarks of this sermon.

“The cannon thundered in the South, and with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men.  It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent, and made forlorn the households born of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head; there is no peace on earth, I said; for hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men! Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

While the language is not inclusive, still the message is stirring.  We do not give up hope even in dark times, even when all seems lost.  God is always present with us. That presence makes all kinds of improbable things possible.  We can rejoice and be hopeful in dark times.  That is the focus we cling to in Advent.  Amen

Jim

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