The News: Do Not Be Afraid. Sermon by Laura, 12.24.15 Christmas Eve

Scriptures: Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-14

“The News.” (A mini-movie by reThink Worship).

“Do not be afraid” said the angel to the shepherds. This Christmas, those words blaze out from scripture like a shooting star in the darkest night. The video we watched touches on just a few of the many fearful events of this past year.  If you haven’t noticed the way fear and despair is fogging up our psychological and social atmosphere, you haven’t been awake or sober. Or maybe you aren’t awake or sober now, in reaction to that very atmosphere! Because what do we humans do when we are afraid? Fight or flight.

We’ve seen the fights, the shaming and blaming and ugly finger-pointing in our national politics. Some of us are drawn into such behavior to manage our fear.  Others of us flee, numbing ourselves to anxiety. Consumer culture is delighted to provide us a variety of means to hide from our fear that the world’s suffering will pull us under.

But then, in the darkness of this fearful night, we gather here to remember: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…”

On that Bethlehem hillside, the shepherds lived in a climate of bad news, too, at the utter margins of society, in an occupied country with minimal economic means. More immediately, though, it’s the incredible light in the sky which seemed fearful. But they receive the angel’s announcement, moving through and past their fear, staking their lives on a new reality: taking the risk of leaving their hillside to see and touch the baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, sign and sacrament of God’s good news.

The deeper reality is not fear but joy for all people. It is a risk to believe in the coming of God in Jesus Christ. It makes us vulnerable to enter into hope and joy. In our world, where bad news always seems to outweigh the good, to believe that a baby in a first-century Bethlehem manger has anything at all to do with you and me seems ludicrous. We risk looking like fools if we choose to believe those angels. Even worse, we risk being disappointed when the bad news comes pouring in again.

So we have to be very clear what the good news is. The good news is that God comes to be with and for us. God comes, not as an almighty force coercing obedience, but small, quiet, vulnerable, a child in a manger.

The good news is that in this child, God becomes a man, a man whose teachings and healings question the political and religious powers of his time and ours, a man those powers attempt to silence, a man who is killed by those powers.

The good news is that this man who comes to the earth as a baby and goes to the cross to die who does everything with ultimate trust in the power of God’s vulnerable love, is vindicated when God raises him from the dead.

The good news is that because, in that man, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, “God with us,” God experiences with us every brutal and beautiful part of human existence, and in the mysterious way of faith, everything changes when we know we are never alone, we are never beyond the bounds of God’s attention or care, and even when we think we’ve gone beyond redemption, we are always accepted as beloved children, we are always worthy of God’s presence and love.

This is the “good news” which is offered to you again this Christmas. It is a gift against the darkness of fear, a light the darkness has not and cannot overcome. You have the choice. Will you receive it?

To receive it means not so much assenting to an intellectual concept of some doctrinal creed, but rather allowing the good news to become the bedrock truth of your world. And once you’ve received it, your job is to release it. To release your fear so that you can share Christ’s hope. To release your anger so that you can share Christ’s peace. To release your shame so that you can share Christ’s acceptance. To release your hate so that you can share Christ’s love. Like the shepherds, you will be sent to share the good news you’ve seen and heard in Jesus Christ, to “repeat the sounding joy…far as the curse is found” as the hymn reminds us.

Friends, tonight, you have chosen to be here, and so you have chosen again the good news. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, has come to be with us and for us, and we will not be afraid.

(We are still catching up, friends. We hope you enjoyed reading a Christmas sermon when it is just about Easter!)

{Image attribution: Laurence OP under CC License}

She Who Believed in a Fulfillment: Sermon by Laura, 12.20.14, Advent 4C

Scriptures:  Luke 1:39-56, Micah 5:2-5a

 God nudged me the other day. It was very gentle, a little burst of warmth and awareness somewhere between my mind and heart, and suddenly there was a new idea,a motivation to do something that hadn’t been there before. Do you ever get nudges from God? Author Margaret Feinberg, calls them “God whispers.” She writes, “God is big. [God] could use anything to communicate with [God’s] people…[God] could fill the sky with a Star Wars presentation,leaving messages beaming in the atmosphere for hours…But…[God] takes a much more subtle approach. Instead of shouting, [God] whispers…Why? Because God is not as interested in imparting information as [God] is in a relationship.”[1]

The God-whisper I experienced was indeed about a relationship, as they usually are,about my relationship with God or with others,which amounts to the same thing. In this case, God suggested I contact a friend with whom I haven’t really connected in 10 years. I’d been rereading old journals, in which God revealed to me how this friendship made a difference for me during a particularly hard time. This friend gave me acceptance and wisdom which invited me to a new awareness of myself in God.

As this truth became clear, deep inside me, the Spirit wondered, “Does she know she had such an impact on you? Perhaps today’s the day to bless her with your gratitude.” My response to this nudge was a little thing—just a Facebook message!—and my friend hasn’t yet responded. I have no idea how it will affect her, or how it fits into God’s larger plan, but in receiving and responding to God’s whisper, my eyes have been opened in a new way to appreciate God’s gracious provision of friends who offer welcome and wisdom.

Of course, God didn’t just whisper to Mary. She got an angelic visitation with a big picture promise of the impact she would have in her willing participation with God’s call upon her life: “You will conceive and give birth to a son…He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and…his kingdom will never end.”

A spectacular message for certain! But God also knows that the scope of Mary’s calling to be the mother of Christ means she will need especially sturdy companions to help her stay the course. At the end of his message, Gabriel gives Mary a little hint, a nudge: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary wisely responds “with haste,” heading straight to Elizabeth’s door. This was a significant undertaking—the hill country of Judea would have been an 80-100 mile journey for Mary, a teenage Jewish girl on her own in an occupied territory. She needed strong motivation to make that trip.

What is going on in Mary’s mind and heart The signs of her pregnancy are not yet visible, so I don’t think she’s primarily motivated by the not-unfounded fears of becoming a village outcast in her unmarried, pregnant state, or being rejected by her fiancée, Joseph. But more immediately, Mary has a need to share her incredible story with someone who might understand, even a little, what it means to have accepted God’s strange and wonderful calling. Mary needs a friend.

The good news is that God has already been at work to provide just the friend Mary needs. As one author writes, “In truly stunning fashion, God orchestrates Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies six months apart. It is a testament to God’s care and provision that each woman has someone to journey with as she navigates the peculiar seasons in which she finds herself. The gift of a believing community can make all the difference in the form our challenging waiting seasons take.”[2]

Elizabeth offers Mary the priceless gift of friendship, welcoming her to a safe haven, not just accepting Mary in her present state, but rejoicing in Mary’s faithfulness, offering wisdom from the broader perspective of her longer faith journey even as she remains present with the new thing happening in Mary’s life. Elizabeth is for Mary a “believing mirror,” recognizing, naming, and reflecting Mary’s power, strength and beauty back to her.[3]

Whenever we say “yes” to God’s invitation to whatever creative and transforming work God wants to do in us, whether birthing a baby or a work of art, starting a business or shaping a community, the companionship of such “believing mirrors” is vital. These are friends who not only affirm and reaffirm the value of the calling upon us but who also strengthen our courage, energy, and capacity to pursue the call.

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” says Elizabeth, offering Mary the powerful gift of believing with her that God will do what God has promised. In the warmth of Elizabeth’s friendship, Mary moves more profoundly into her calling. Elizabeth’s prophetic blessing draws forth Mary’s powerful song of praise for the Redeemer and Restorer who scatters the proud and uplifts the lowly, who indeed fulfills the promises made to God’s people, generation upon generation. What an amazing moment in scripture, when two obscure pregnant women on the margins of their world, become aware of themselves as powerful prophets at the center of the eternal story, agents of God’s blessing for all humanity. These women, these holy friends, bless each other, giving each other “shelter and sanctuary” even as they free each other to “imagine and live into a world made new.”[4]

My friends, in this Fourth week of Advent, Mary and Elizabeth invite us to reflect on the people who have walked with us in our faith journey, people who have offered us welcome and acceptance and blessing. As we wait on God’s promises in Jesus Christ, God provides us with the sustenance of friends and communities to encourage and strengthen us. In such friendships, we practice sharing ourselves and our stories, risking vulnerability and receiving grace. They pattern us in daring to trust and receive the steadfast welcome and wisdom of friendship with God, the fulfillment of God’s covenant to God’s people.

Even further, the holy friendships God brings us not only bless who we are in this moment, but invite us to imagine something greater, a yet-greater outpouring of ourselves in love for God and God’s world. We are blessed by such friends so that we may in turn be sent as a blessing for others.

Friendship. In one light, it seems such a small and ordinary thing. Yet in our world these days, where ugly divisions and debates claim all the airwaves, a current of fear seems to cling to us, and we are often tempted to despair, I can think of little we need more than people who offer of themselves the kind of acceptance and welcome, affirmation and blessing Elizabeth and Mary give each other. These two women provide an example of the life-giving hope God provides us in the friendships God brings us, especially friendships across differences of circumstances and generations.

It is not always easy to offer our friendship. It often feels messy and awkward. Children trying to navigate the ins and outs of school-yard friendships remind us that bravery is often necessary in learning to communicate our God-given authenticity to others and in trusting it will be graciously received.

Yet I am proud to say that this congregation is a place where we have the privilege of witnessing such friendships being offered on a weekly basis between women and men and children who are related through Christ and care deeply, not only for the old friends they know well, but for the new friends they haven’t met yet.

So in these last days of Advent, amidst the busy-ness of preparing Christmas for you and yours, consider this a holy nudge, a God-whisper, inviting you to notice and give thanks anew for the friends God has brought into your life. Who are your “believing mirrors,” who are the people whose blessing enriches your life?  Notice, too, how you are being invited to offer such blessed friendship to others. For whom might you serve as a believing mirror, as a welcoming sanctuary? Ask God this week to open your eyes to someone you may normally have passed over; how might God be inviting you to offer friendship to that person?

The One who comes to us through Mary, the babe to whom she gives birth and lays in a manger, is the One who says to his disciples, “I have called you friends.” My friends, you who are friends of God, let us receive Christ’s friendship and let us share it with the world he loves. Amen.

 

[1] Margaret Feinberg, God Whispers: Learning to Hear His Voice. Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books, 2002, 21.

[2] Enuma Okoro, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2012, 67.

[3] http://juliacameronlive.com/2011/09/26/week-3-task-believing-mirrors/

[4] Jan Richardson, “Introduction,” in Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015, xiv-xvii.

The Voice: Sermon by Keith, 12.6.15 Advent 2C

Scriptures: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6

December has to be the craziest month of the year.  In many ways, if we could step back and look at all the somewhat wild and out of the ordinary things we do this month, we would realize just how crazy this month and how crazy we just might be.  Why is it so crazy?

It is because we are preparing.  You see the husband up on the precariously balanced ladder, getting directions from his wife who should be holding the ladder but is instead giving instructions on where to hang the icicle lights just right.  And it is about 20 degrees outside.  And the wind is blowing.  They are preparing.  You see stores filled with people with a high level of intensity and aggressiveness as they shop, shop, shop; people making their shopping lists and checking them twice.  They are preparing.  With the flip of the switch, the day after Thanksgiving, the radio stations start adding in old nostalgic songs to their playlists about chestnuts and walking in a winter wonderland.  The airwaves are helping us to be prepared.  Even our sanctuary is now set to help us prepare.  We have all the greens this year, but also the smell of the sanctuary that is helping us to prepare.  Not just the smell of the evergreen tree and swags fill the air, but also the cinnamon smell of the cookie tree ornaments hanging from our lights.  People are preparing, we are preparing, because soon it will be Christmas.

But we as Christians do more than just prepare for Christmas, we prepare for Christ.  Last Sunday, Ellen Jones helped us mark the first Sunday of Advent, a season that lasts right up until Christmas.  Advent is that time of year when we prepare for the arrival of Christ.  We prepare to celebrate his first arrival, that humble, quiet birth in Bethlehem.  But we also prepare for his second coming, that day that Jesus promised at the end of the book of Luke and the beginning of Acts when we would see him coming again in his glory.  The Sundays of Advent go backward in time, from the future return of our King down to his modest birth on Christmas.

And during this time of preparing, we, as individuals and as a community of believers, do all kinds of physical things to prepare for Christmas.  We hang the lights, we fill out and mail cards, we shop for gifts, and menus are planned as we prepare for visits from family and friends.  Here the sanctuary is decorated, we light a new candle every Sunday to mark time through the Advent season, and Joan has been in the back meticulously counting candles to make sure have enough for everyone on Christmas Eve. But there is more than just the physical parts of preparing for Christmas.  There are the spiritual things we do to prepare ourselves for Christ.  It’s easy to prepare for the holiday of Christmas.  But how do you prepare for Christ?  I bet there are some of you out here right now who could exclaim this early in December, “I am ready for Christmas!”  But my question for you is, are you ready for Christ?  And I think we can get so distracted by getting ready for Christmas, we forget who we are getting ready for.

Thank goodness we have someone just as crazy as we are to help us prepare for Christ as we get ready for Christmas.  He shows up like clock work every second Sunday in Advent.  No, it’s not Rudolph or Frosty or even Santa.  They are the list of those helping us get ready for Christmas.  It is John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair and eating wild honey and locust who helps us get ready and be prepared for Christ.  He had no church but the desert wilderness by the Jordan River.  He was a wild nobody.  Luke even begins this section by letting us know who the “somebodies” of the day were.  The lengthy list of the Roman political and Jewish religious leaders of the day reminds us of the power structure and systems that existed at this time.  But it wasn’t the emperor, the governor, the local kings or priests that God chose to prepare the people for the coming Christ; it was this long-haired, locust eating prophet calling out in the wilderness.

This wasn’t his idea.  This was his calling, God’s purpose for his life.  John was talked about hundreds of years before this scene from the prophet Isaiah:  “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord!”  John had been called by God to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah—Jesus was about to begin his pubic ministry, and John was preparing people, getting them ready for Jesus and his message.  He did that by teaching people to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

For John, to prepare for the coming Christ meant to turn around, to change direction in both actions and attitudes.  Repenting doesn’t just mean feeling remorse or regret for an act or decision and then getting up and doing the exact same thing over and over again, it literally means going in an entirely different direction.  Stop the crazy acts that you are doing and turn around, turn back towards God, because in that turn around, you will meet the coming Lord.  John’s hearers were going one way, unprepared for Christ.  They might have thought their religious affiliation or their political ties were going to save them.  But, John told them to turn their lives around and go another way.

“What then should we do?”  they ask John.  How do we prepare?  How do we repent?  How do we change directions?  It is interesting that three different groups ask John what they need to do to prepare, covering the entire gamut of those who were considered “in” and those who were considered “out” by the political and religious leaders of the time.  They begin with the closed group of those who believe they are OK because they have the membership card of being Abraham’s descendants who are oppressed by the Romans.  The next group is the tax collectors who move between the occupied Jewish community and the occupying Roman authority.  They are agents of the political reality, making decisions of self-interested compromise every day.  The third to ask are the occupiers, the soldiers.  They wield the sword of the world’s power, but they too are capable of sensing they needed to turn around and change what they were doing.

Notably, John does not demand that any of these groups leave their places.  Repentance is a change in direction of actions and attitudes that requires them to stay where they are.  They do not run from their sin, they seek forgiveness for it from those around them.  They stay where they are, but they are to be different where they are.  John identifies what each group needs to repent from and turn to.  From those who would claim the protection of status, affiliation, or membership, John demands that generosity replace self interest.  The needs of the other should take greater priority, higher status, than one’s own protection or security.  From those, who like the tax collectors, have learned survival skills in an unjust system, John demands integrity.  No more stealing, no more gaming.  They must demand less for themselves so that others may be treated fairly.  And finally from the soldiers, whose tool is raw power, John demands respect for others.  John tells these that the fruit of their repentance will be seen not in personal gain but in true modesty.

So, how do we prepare for Christ?  We repent!  What would John’s words be to you if you were standing on the banks of the Jordan and you asked, “What then shall I do?”  First, identify what is separating you from God in your life.  This will take some quiet time during this crazy time of year.  Turn off the TV, the radio, the internet.  Take a break from shopping and decorating.  And just sit, and think, and identify those things that separate you from God in your life.  And just because you are coming to church on Sunday doesn’t mean you don’t have some brokenness in your life that needs to be addressed.  Are you materialistic?  Do you like to be surrounded by things, more things than you could ever need or want? Are you selfish?  How are your thoughts?  Are you impatient with others?  Do words spill out of your mouth that are hurtful and angry?  Identify those things.  And then the second, do the opposite, right where you are and where you live and work.  Ask for forgiveness from those you have hurt.  If it is time to clean out the closet, both literally and figuratively, do it.  Change direction in your life.

Are you ready for Christmas this year?  More importantly, are you ready for Christ?  Are you ready to celebrate his first coming?  Are you ready to receive him, when he comes again in all of his glory?  If you listen closely, over the songs about Rudolph and Frosty and White Christmases, over the craziness that surrounds us this time of year, you will hear a voice, a voice of one calling in the desert:  Prepare the way for the Lord.  That is the message of this second Sunday of Advent, prepare your life, prepare your heart, prepare your whole being by turning toward Christ, seek his forgiveness and wholeness, and expect his grace.  Because it is only by his grace we are able to make that turn-around and be prepared for the day we see him, not in a card or manger scene, but for the day we will see him face to face.

 

The Truth is a Person: Sermon by Laura, 11.22.15 Christ the King B

Scriptures: John 18:33-38, Rev. 1:4-8

Arno Michaels found himself on trial. It wasn’t in a courthouse, in front of a judge. It was in a T-shirt factory where a Jewish man named Jack Kupper had given him a job. On this day, Arno had come to work hung-over, without a lunch. At lunchtime, he was miserable in a corner. One of his co-workers, an African-American man, saw Arno and offered to share his sandwich, calling out, “Hey, Skinhead, do you want some of this? You look kind of hungry.”

You see, at the time, Arno belonged to a white supremacist Skinhead gang and was the lead singer of a white power metal band. As he tells it: “So, here I am, in my off-time, I’m writing songs about how Jewish people take all of my money to give to the lazy black people who don’t want to work, when in actuality I have a means of supporting myself, thanks to the good graces of a Jewish man who didn’t fire me for wearing swastikas into his factory, and black people actually feed me.”

At Jack’s factory, Arno began to see others differently, person-to-person. Today, he says that his boss, Jack, “changed me by planting seeds of humanity…I couldn’t suppress despite my best efforts…” After leaving the Skinheads, Arno authored My Life after Hate, and became an activist for peace and reconciliation.

When truth showed up in Arno Michaels’ life, by God’s grace, he received it and was transformed. But the moment of truth when Jesus of Nazareth came into the life of Pontius Pilate had a very different outcome. At first glance, it appears Jesus is the one on trial. Betrayed by Judas Iscariot, condemned by the high priests, Jesus is brought by his captors before Pontius Pilate, who want him to execute Jesus. But, as John’s gospel depicts Pilate, whose job is to maintain the Roman Empire’s rule in Judea, he does not perceive Jesus to be an actual threat.

Now, Pilate likely thinks of himself as the ultimate center of power and control in Jerusalem. As he later tells Jesus, Pilate has power to release or crucify him. But there are a knot of thorny issues connected to either decision. If Pilate refuses to give the Temple leaders what they want, can he maintain control if they stir up riots? If not, how will go back in Rome if things fall apart in Jerusalem on his watch? But what cost to his integrity will it be to execute an innocent man?

So, it seems that Pilate wants to sort this problem out quickly. He gets right to the point, asking, “Are you the King of the Jews?” But, N.T. Wright notes, “Pilate then discovers, as many discovered before him and many have since, that when you ask Jesus a question, the answer is likely to be another question.”

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” asks Jesus, and suddenly Pilate, who thought himself in control, finds himself on trial.

It’s a revealing question. To claim to be a “King” in the territory where there’s “no king but Caesar” is to ask for death, so if Jesus affirms his kingship, Pilate has an easy out. On one level, Jesus is asking, do I really look like an insurrectionist to you?

But Jesus’ question also probes on a deeper level. Jesus is asking: Where does your question come from, Pilate? What are the assumptions behind your words? Are you honestly inquiring, or are you compelled by others’ agendas and interests? Are you free to seek truth, or are you bound in fear to hide the truth of your own questions, fears and doubts because you need to maintain control at any cost?

Jesus’ question also reveals something about Jesus. Jesus doesn’t ask it, except as a genuine invitation to enter into a relationship. Even now, before the Roman procurator, Jesus cares, not about Pilate’s dominating role, but about Pilate-the-person, really wanting to know the human being beyond the illusions of power and control. Throughout John’s gospel such folks as Nathanael, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, have each discovered that coming face-to-face with Jesus is an invitation to come face-to-face with the truth of God and ourselves. Jesus’ person draws out our hopes and fears, our deepest assumptions, convictions, and questions about how to live faithfully as people awake in this world.

But Pilate cannot or will not receive this invitation. He waves Jesus’ question away. “I am not a Jew, am I? Your people handed you over to me—so what have you done?” It’s like a scoffing shrug—why should I know or care anything about you and your peculiar people?

It’s a means of reestablishing control over this prisoner with probing questions. But on a deeper level, Pilate is saying: That’s your world and this is mine. I refuse to enter into and share your reality.

I think that’s why Jesus makes his next statement: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Now, this statement has often been misinterpreted to suggest compartmentalization, that Jesus’ kingdom is an other-worldly, solely spiritual realm some place out there that has nothing to do with our present world. Such interpretations allow us to claim Christ as Savior on Sunday while keeping our daily lives separate from Christ’s rule.

But Jesus is not content with half-hearted faith or shallow lip-service to his authority in our lives. He wants our whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength to be ruled by God’s love, that we might love one another as he has loved us.

To say that Jesus’ kingdom does not come from this world, is to say that it does not originate in or have the qualities of it. Jesus’ kingdom does not come with his followers fighting and killing for his throne. Jesus’ kingdom comes as he gives his life in exchange for the terrorist Barabbas, as he is “lifted up” on the cross and we see the glory of God’s self-giving love.

So while Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t come from ‘this world,’ it is certainly for this world. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son.” Jesus’ kingdom comes for a world longing for the transforming power of  love, longing for freedom from the fear of death, a freedom which comes by grace when we begin to claim and trust God’s love as the bedrock Truth of our entire existence.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” says Jesus, making one more invitation to Pilate: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

As one author writes, “Even to Pilate, Jesus offers to be the good shepherd, the good shepherding king, who, when his sheep listen to his voice, are led into abundant life…This is always Jesus’ offer. But to receive it means facing the truth about our lives, the truth Jesus holds up before us. Pilate refuses to face the truth. ‘What is truth?” he declares dismissively.”

So what about us? How many of us struggle every day to sort through the array of claims which seek to become our truth as we watch the news, check our Facebook feeds, and go about the practical business of everyday life?

How hard it can be to experience clarity, integrity and freedom in ‘this world,’ where we so often find ourselves trapped in patterns of managing and controlling fear. How painful it can be to face the truth of ourselves and our world which Jesus holds up before us! To be truly seen as a human being, the truth of both our powers and limitations, can feel vulnerable and exposed, and it takes courage to face the truth we see in Jesus’—and in one another’s—eyes.

For it is in our person-to-person encounters with family, with friends, and with strangers alike that Christ so often shows up with his uncomfortable but liberating Truth. Arno Michaels was shown the Truth in encounters with his boss and coworkers, as they responded to him, one human being to another, refusing to fear the intimidating persona he’d put on. Everyday we have opportunities to put aside our false belongings and reveal ourselves to be God’s children with the courage to face ‘this-worldly’ hate and violence with integrity, confidence, and hope.

On Christ the King Sunday, we stake our claim in a Truth which is greater than anything which comes from the barrel of a gun. Our Truth is revealed, not in threat of violence or punishment, but in sacrificial, self-giving love, as one man gives up his life, person-to-person, one man dying and many others going free. Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, who encounters us face-to-face, who looks lovingly, seeing both our brokenness and our hope, who invites us to look at others with his eyes. The Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth…him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom.” In Christ we enter a new vision, a new attitude, a new worldview, the reality, the realm and reign, of the life abundant sourced in God.

A poignant expression of Kingdom vision came to via Facebook this week, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris. I hope some of you saw the video clip that went viral from a French news show “Le Petit Journal,” in which a reporter interviews a young boy, 
four or five years old, who with his father, is visiting the floral tributes outside the Bataclan theater. The boy is aware and afraid of the “very bad” people who had guns and hurt people there. But his father comforts his son, saying, “They’ve got guns, but we’ve got flowers.” The candles are “so we don’t forget the people who have gone,” but the flowers are to “fight against the guns.” The boy is at first unsure—flowers don’t appear to do anything, but as the interview closes, there is this silent moment when the truth passes between the two, as the father gazes with such love and calm at his little son, who receives and accepts his father’s strength and confidence. “Do you feel better now?” the reporter asks, and the boy smiles and says “Yes, I feel better.”

My friends, they may have guns in ‘this world,’ but we who live in Christ’s reign of resurrection love have the much greater power of remembrance and hope, the power of compassion and courage, through which the most hateful suffering is transformed into a crowing vision of God’s love. Let us stake our claim on the Truth from which the first Christians refused to back down: “Jesus is Lord!” Let us live as wholehearted citizens of his reign which is even here, even now at work turning swords into plowshares and hatred to love. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Notes:

image: By Dianelos Georgoudis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sources which helped to shape this sermon include:

http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/radical-hospitality-building-bridges-respecting-differences-revelation-14b-8/

N.T. Wright, John for Everyone: Part 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 114.

Pete Peery, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Feasting on the Word, Year B. Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 335.

Torn down to build up 11.15.15

Today I delve into one of those texts of scripture that often cause stress and anguish not only for the reader, but also for the preacher who decides to wade in the apocalyptic waters of texts that deal with things yet to come.  Chapter 13 in the Gospel of Mark has often been referred to as the “little apocalypse,” because of all the dire language.  Oft-quoted texts like “wars and rumors of wars,” of earthquakes and famines, have been used by alarmists throughout the history of the church.   Which is ironic, because in the midst of this bleak picture of wars and earthquakes, you will hear Jesus give words of comfort to not only his disciples, but also to us as we live in a world where nightly the news broadcasts bring the horrors of wars and natural disasters into our living rooms.

Even though I completely believe Jesus’ predictions in chapter 13 dealt with the destruction of the temple that happened in 70AD, any good prophecy speaks beyond the moment it was intended for and has a word for us today.  Jesus consoles his disciples then and now with the words, “Do not be alarmed.”  These texts aren’t meant to strike fear into our hearts, but to teach what is needed to sustain us as we life out our day-to-day discipleship in a world of transition and turmoil.  Let us hear the words of our Lord from the opening verses of chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 13: 1-8

Many of you are well traveled and have seen some pretty spectacular structures during those times abroad.  Which of all the buildings you saw was the most impressive or most beautiful? What was your initial reaction when you first saw it?  How many pictures did you take?  Now imagine as you are taking your last picture, the guy standing next to you says, “It won’t be long before all that will all be gone.”

The feeling you have only begins to scratch the surface of what must have gone through the disciples’ heads and hearts as Jesus told them that the temple would be destroyed.  This was the temple, the very dwelling place of God.  It was huge.  The Roman historian Tacitus described the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold.  There were immense courtyards, grand porches and monumental stairs.  Herod, the great builder of this temple, not only built it to impress his Roman allies, but to show off his power to the common Jewish people of Israel.  And he succeeded.

For these Galilean fishermen, the daunting power of the temple and the Roman forces may have seemed irresistible and immovable.  But Jesus lets them know that the powers of the present age are transient, they will not last.  The world they are living in of imperial rule from both outside and inside the temple is not the way that God intends the world to be.  They would have been in complete agreement that the sooner the Romans went the better.  But the temple?  It stood for so much.  Sadly, the temple became a metaphor for how God would save the people of Israel from the world, but it had originally been built so the people of Israel would be a light unto the world, pointing the world back to loving presence of God.

In sharing this story of the foretelling of the destruction of the temple, Mark is not denying that crises exist or that there are times when present suffering calls for urgent action.  But what it does is present the cataclysms Jesus describes as the “birth pangs” of God’s transformation of the world, where God’s new heaven and new earth intersect with the old.   Because of this, whenever you hear people ascribe disaster experiences as part of God’s judgment, they are to be held at arms length.  In almost a way that is un-apocalyptic, Jesus says that earthly disasters are not necessarily an indication that God’s judgment is near.  They will happen, but don’t try and interpret them for what they may not be.  God is at work in the world, but labeling God’s actions and motivations as judgment is not the job of his followers.

Jesus is aware of our human tendencies, to lock in on more powerful forces and to be overcome with fear due to threats, violence, war, the tenuous standing of the church, the finitude of our existence, or to be lured by all those enticing voices promising the false security of other idols, quick fixes and scapegoats.

In response to our inevitable reaction to such powerful forces, Jesus provides us with three important spiritual disciplines for navigating transitional times.  Things were changing and about to change very fast for the disciples in the next several days and years, with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and then the destruction of their beloved temple.  How are we to respond in this world of constant change and flux?

First, believers must engage in discernment in the face of threats from both without and within to determine God’s goal for the life of the world.  For the disciples between that time of the resurrection and destruction of the temple, history tells us that resistance fighters were going through the Palestinian countryside calling on all Jews to join the battle.  Many in Mark’s community would have been tempted to join the cause and saying “no” would have marked them as traitors.

For us, the threats in this age are more subtle such as allowing the false security of a cultural, consumer driven theology to creep into our community.   In today’s culture in the church, this often takes shape in the assumption that a church that is growing, vibrant, and happy is “filled with the Spirit,” as though these are visible indications of being spiritually dressed for success, or that a church in decline has necessarily lost the steadfast faithfulness of bygone years.  God in Christ calls us to be faithful to him and not successful as defined by the world’s standards.

Second, believers must be patient.  Birthing a new heaven and new earth takes time.  There are many evils to eradicate and many more hopes to realize.  These are the birth pangs of God’s new age.  God’s transformation and the witness of believers must compete with many forces, biases, demons, and appetites.  Working out God’s promises occurs during the life of the world as well as in and for the world.  Being patient requires the recognition of the truth that, while the powers of the world are imposing and strong, they are not unmovable and invincible.  The love of God that is transforming the world is the one thing we can rely on that won’t change.

Trusting that God is transforming the world and that believers are called to participate in God’s saving work is fundamental to Mark’s conception of the Christian life.  In that task, believers are sustained by the third reminder:  for the Christian, there is always hope.  There will be times when we feel beleaguered, beaten up, bruised, and vulnerable.  Growth, change, and the coming of new life are a painful process, but in this suffering there is always hope and the promise of a new day.  Hope sustains us through the birth pangs of change and the necessary struggle that leads to growth.  It is Mark’s prescription to the disciples as they move into a time of great change and transition, and it his prescription to us, Christ’s church, in a world of change and transition:  Discernment, patience, and hope.  They are given as a provisional sign to stand in the midst of tension in a passing world.  Amen.

Out of Her Poverty: Sermon by Laura, 11.8.15 Pentecost 24B

Scriptures: Mark 12:38-44, Hebrews 9:24-28

Here’s what I want to know: Is the widow a hero or a victim?  Is she an example to emulate or a  to be sufferer to be mourned?Are we to lament her naivete or marvel at her generosity? Traditionally we’ve been taught to view this widow’s offering as an occasion for praise. Held up in contrast to wealthy donors,she appears to be an example of humble faithfulness, giving-till-it-hurts from her impoverished state. Jesus seems to commend her willingness to give all she’s got.

However, close attention to the larger context of this story yields a different perspective. From the moment Jesus rides into Jerusalem, his deeds and words signal that he is God’s anointed, the true King of Israel, with authority over and against the Temple. He uses that authority in protest. He turns over money-changers’ tables, protesting the Temple’s economic injustice. He preaches the vineyard parable, accusing the religious leaders of callous disregard for God.

All told, Jesus points to hard truth. If love of God and love of neighbor is true worship, “more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices,” than what is happening in the Temple falls far short. Human corruption and greed have displaced God’s welcome and compassion in the place intended as God’s dwelling a midst God’s people.

So it is that Jesus intentionally situates himself “opposite” the treasury, where he observes various people making offerings.The collection, presumably for Temple maintenance, was taken in metal, trumpet-like vessels,such that you could hear the size of the coinage rattling into them. The large sums of the rich ring out loudly enough for anyone nearby to notice their generosity. The tiny clink of the widow’s gift sounds feeble in comparison.

Not that anyone is paying much attention to her anyway. A widow in first century Palestine, she is on the margins and without safety nets. With no husband to identify her or protect her, she is painfully vulnerable and nigh invisible to her society.

But Jesus sees her, and he calls his disciples to notice her. I wonder what tone of voice he uses when he speaks of her. Is Jesus tender or outraged or resigned? “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance;but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Some scholars note that last phrase should be translated “her whole life.”

Only moments before, Jesus has warned about the self-promotion and special privilege assumed by legal scholars to misuse their position and “devour widows’ houses.” Here is just such a widow, giving to a system which cares nothing for her welfare. So is Jesus praising this woman’s selflessness, or is he lamenting that he’s just witnessed her willingly “participating in her own devouring?” What can it mean that this woman has given away her whole life in support of an institution which Jesus shortly predicts will be thrown down, stone from stone?

It’s tempting to try to simplify and resolve the hard questions of this story to distill a “timeless principle” to guide us in faithful living. Let’s say the widow is a hero; then, celebrating her wholehearted giving, we aspire to it ourselves.Or let’s say the widow is a victim; then we take up her cause and fight the injustice of unfair systems which create the conditions of her poverty.

Now, both of those interpretations are possible, and both options for response are valid. But the trouble is, like so many moments in our lives, it’s not an “either/or” situation. Good or bad, winner or loser, wise or foolish: we so often use such categories to tidy up situations that are uncomfortable in their ambiguity. Making up rules or parsing out numbers to control our generosity, we hedge our bets and guard our hearts, especially when it comes to giving the things we believe belong to us, our money, time, and presence. It’s a basic survival instinct, after all, to manage our resources and vulnerability in a world where scarcity seems to hold sway.

When I lived in Bangladesh, I was in constant inner conflict as to whether or not to give to beggars. In marketplaces and especially train stations, there were always large swaths of people whose destitution I could scarcely have imagined. Many of them were terrifyingly disfigured with conditions we keep hidden from view in our county. I was shocked and overwhelmed with a desire to help, yet I felt paralyzed in responding. What I could give them would scarcely improve their lot, and I had been warned that my money would likely end up in the hands of heartless thugs who exploited poor and suffering people. I wanted to be a wise steward, reserving my gifts for worthy recipients, but there was just no way to control where my money went. And frankly, there were just so many of them!

So I tried to maintain a rule of not giving. “If I give to one, I must give to all,” I chanted to myself, trying to numb away the grabbing hands and pleading eyes. Yet sometimes what I saw was impossible to ignore,and I spontaneously gave whatever I could muster. And as I did, despite my mixed feelings, there was a joy and a release in giving. I learned, bit by bit, to let go of insecurity and share when the Spirit moved me. I learned to trust that, however compromised the situation, God does not let sincere gifts go to waste. I learned to stop bowing to fears of scarcity, as I experienced God’s economy where loving and sharing with my neighbor means everyone has enough.

I know I am not alone in facing these uncertainties wherever and whenever I am asked to give. Many of us struggle to discern the best places to share our money, time, and talents in a world where there’s so much need. I am grateful for tools like Charity Navigator and the wise stewardship policies of our congregation here which seek to avoid supporting co-dependence or corruption. It is important to discern in any situation what sort of gift is most appropriate, whether to give money, time, or presence to charities, or to focus on fighting injustice that makes charity necessary. God calls us to all of these things at various times.

What comes to the fore in all of these questions is that we are people with hard choices. And that’s something I often forget when I read this story of the widow. She, too, is a human being with the dignity and responsibility of making a choice.

Now, I don’t want to downplay the societal injustice which gave rise to her precarious situation, or the way almost everyone around her averted their eyes from her plight. The powerful grace here is that Jesus did not avert his eyes; he noticed her, and he called others to see her, too. The clearest call for us to “go and do likewise” in this story is for us to look and see with Jesus what we so often deem too small or insignificant to notice in our busy and self-absorbed ways. Jesus sees, and Jesus cares, and so are we called to see and to care.

He sees that the widow is not simply a victim or a hero, but a little of both: a human being making hard choices from those available to her. And while we know so little else about her, we do know she chooses to give it all with no pretenses or fanfare. She doesn’t count the cost or try to control the gift. She holds nothing back. She gives out of her poverty, knowing she has nothing but what God has given her, trusting that God, defender of widows, will ultimately provide what she needs. To see her fully is to be invited
to enter into that kind of trust.

Seeing her give her whole life over in the broken and corrupted Temple, I think Jesus feels a kinship with her, for he is just days from the betrayal and arrest which will take him to the cross, where he will give his whole life,an outpouring of extravagant costly love for a corrupt and broken humanity.

17th Century mystic Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote, “… If you would live according to the Gospel, abandon yourself simply and entirely to the action of God.”

We have a choice, like the widow did, like Jesus did. It is not an easy choice—
no matter what our circumstances—the choice to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength, the choice to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

To choose to live wholeheartedly and give of ourselves generously is a risk in an ambiguous world, and sometimes we end up with nothing. But let us not forget that we worship a God who creates out of nothing, a Lord who gives up everything, dies, and then leaves behind a tomb full of nothing,a Holy Spirit who shows us it is in having nothing that we have everything, for nothing is impossible for God.

Whenever and whatever amount we choose to give, we give out of our poverty, because anything we give was first given to us by God.Our very lives belong to God, so let us hold nothing back,trusting in the community of the Triune God and the strange and wonderful economy of grace. Amen.

Saintly Job Description: Sermon by Keith, 11.1.15

Scriptures: Mark 12:28-3

A lot of people had been arguing with Jesus this day in the temple.  This house of worship, where God was to be glorified, had become a hostile environment where different groups with differing religious and political agendas would quarrel about who was right. Our reading this morning is preceded by stories of antagonism between Jesus and these different segments of ancient Jewish leadership.  Group after group, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, shuffle on and off the stage with questions to trap or antagonize Jesus.  “Where do you get your authority?” “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” “Is it right to pay taxes to the Romans?” “In the resurrection, who will get to marry the women who had been married to the each of the seven brothers successively?”   Each of these questions are meant to either trap Jesus into saying something that will get him in trouble with the local authorities or attempt to find out what side of the religious/political fence he is on.  And in each and every case, Jesus offers a variety of responses to the questions that leads the one asking to be rendered silent and amazed.

But then another man enters the scene.  Mark just calls him a scribe who has been listening to all the heated conversations.  We don’t know much about him.  As a scribe, he would have known the Jewish law, the Torah, inside and out and probably would have been asked his interpretation of the law in a dispute.  He likes what he has been hearing Jesus say in his discussions with the others who have come before him.  He is drawn to Jesus in many ways because of his personal position and Mark casts this scribe as one sincerely interested in engaging Jesus in further discussion not to trap and determine political allegiances, but for the sake of piety, for the sake of deepening one’s understanding of what it meant to be a follower of the God worship at the temple.

This scribe enters the conversation by posing his own question to Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  And Jesus answers it in two parts, but they are two parts that are so entwined that they can’t be pulled apart.  We will discover that the answer isn’t complete without those two parts.

The first portion of the response Jesus gives is rooted in the law in what is known as the Shema, a prayer that has been said by pious Jews throughout history, “Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  The point is to love God completely and comprehensively, with all of one’s being.  And that love of God through our whole being begins with worship.  NT Wright puts it this way that since we are created in the image of God, “we will find our fullest meaning, our true selves, the more we learn to love and worship the one we are designed to reflect.  No half measures; heart, mind, soul and strength—that is, every aspect of human life—is to be poured out gladly in worship of the one true God.  Whatever we do, we are to do for him” (Mark for Everyone).

The reason this is the first and greatest commandment is not that God wants us to ponder how and if we are loving God with our entire being, or feel guilty that we may not be loving God enough, but it is there to help us respond to the love of God that is poured out upon us.  God is love, and the book of 1 John tells us that we love because God first loved us.  We don’t love God to try and get on his good side or get favors; we love God in response to the deep love he has given us.  We respond back in praise and gratitude to that deep love in everything that we say, think, and do.

In many ways, what Jesus answered up to this point could be considered a complete answer.  What’s the greatest commandment?  Love God!  And I have always wondered if the scribe expected Jesus to stop there, but Jesus doesn’t.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  When he sums it up, Jesus is using a mix of singular and plural words, “There is no other commandment (singular) greater than these (plural).”

But here is why they are one and the same.  Loving God fully means living in ways that God’s kingdom is experienced and shared in concrete ways.  As we grow in God’s gift of grace and love, we grow in our capacity to love and serve as God commands and we do so both within and outside the walls of the church.  Love turns prayer and worship into concrete actions in the world because, above all, it is love made real that reveals the kingdom of God.  I think this is why the scribe, in responding to Jesus, says that this is much more important than all the offerings and sacrifices done in the temple worship.  It is the love of God that leads to loving the other.  If the focus only becomes worship and how to live a holy life before God, that worship is worthless, that life becomes self-centered.

But also notice what Jesus doesn’t say as he talks about the love of neighbor.  He doesn’t say, “Love others instead of yourself” nor does he say “When you have figured out how to love yourself then go love your neighbor.”

I don’t usually listen to radio preachers mostly because when I listen to one, I want to hear the entire sermon.  The couple minute drive from home to the church doesn’t cut it, so it is usually only on road trips that I tune into the sermons on the airways.  On one trip, the pastor was preaching on this particular text, but his main thrust was that the church needed to provide classes to help people love themselves.  Now, I’ll be the first to say that it is easier to come worship and praise God when I’m feeling good about myself and it seems much more doable to reach out to my neighbor when I’m not worried about the chaos that is happening in my own life, but that misses the point of this text.  Most people, on a daily basis, get up in the morning and dress them selves, feed themselves, make sure the kids or parents (depending on the life situation) are taken care of.  We love ourselves and our close clan naturally, instinctively in these ways.  This is the love of neighbor Jesus is calling us to, a love that sees our neighbor as part of the family that is enveloped not only in God’s love, but also our love.

But if this radio preacher would have said the church needs to have a class on teaching people to receive love, my response might have been different.  In this culture that pushes self-sufficiency and individualism, it can be hard to admit we need to receive love from God and each other.  Time after time, when I’ve met with people in need, going through hardship such as illness or loss, when it comes time to pray, they say, “But don’t pray for me, there are bigger problems in the world.”  Yeah, there might be bigger problems in the world, but this response says, “I can take care of it myself.” Or it says, “I’m not worthy of receiving love.”  This closes the door on love that can be shared, I believe, even the power of God’s love.  Take a risk and say “pray for me!”

We don’t know what went through the scribe’s mind as he left this encounter with Jesus.  The text said no one dared to ask him any questions.  I know I would have had questions.  Here Jesus has simplified the life of faith:  Love God and love neighbor.  But simple doesn’t mean easy.  One could get paralyzed by the enormity of what it means.  Do I run off to Africa and operate an orphanage?  Do I start knocking door-to-door down my street handing out pamphlets about knowing Jesus?  Do I sing a little louder in worship on Sunday?  As a pastor, do I hand everyone an application to go to seminary as they leave today?

No, I don’t think that’s how it works, even though if you are feeling called to go to Africa to run an orphanage, Amen!  But how do we, in our busyness of our lives, live into this commandment?

It boils back down to love.  God’s love for you and God’s love for the larger world cannot be separated.  Your day-to-day life, which God has given you and lavishly poured his love into, is the place where you can glorify God and love your neighbor as yourself.  It doesn’t mean working harder, it means opening yourself to the Holy Spirit so you can recognize the needs of those around you as you live out your life.  Margot Starbuck in her book, Small Things with Great Love, points out that in the story of the Good Samaritan, we don’t know why the Samaritan was on the road to Jericho.  For all we know he was on his way to coffee at the Jericho Mall to discuss a possible business merger.  He was just on his way somewhere—Walmart? A dentist appointment?  Starbucks?—when he recognized someone in need and pulled over his donkey to check it out.  The regular stuff of our lives–the commute to work, the workout at the gym or gym class, the church fellowship night dinners, home improvement projects, errands, play dates—these are the places in which we express and experience God’s love for a world in need.

Friends, today is All Saints’ Day.  And being a saint isn’t about knowing the right answers.  The scribe knew the right answer, but Jesus says that only brought him near to the kingdom of God.  A saint is someone who lives the answer, who participates with God in God’s reign by living joyfully in the love of God and sharing it with everyone they meet along the way.  It doesn’t mean adding a bunch of stuff or tasks to your life, but it may be inconvenient and uncomfortable at times.  But it’s about taking one step at a time, each and everyday, with Jesus into his kingdom.  Amen.