Sunday, December 27, 2015

It's not over yet!

Colossians 3:12-17   (CEB)

12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.


The birth of the Christ is such an important event in human reality that it can be found represented in every conceivable way.  And because that is true I have a small collection of Nativity sets from all over the globe.  It doesn’t begin to rival Liz’s collection, mind you.  But just as with her collection, each of my sets means something special to me.  Each depicts the birth of the Christ in a way that is consistent with a particular culture.  In both materials used and the appearance of the persons and animals present at the scene, each of my nativity sets is very different from every other one - some are made of straw, some of clay, some of glass, some of wood.  Some look like actual people, others represent people much less realistically.  Here in the sanctuary we have a set that clearly comes from the European Renaissance period and is representative of the realities of that place and time.  I’ve seen nativity scenes made up of various cartoon characters, and even some that include Santa Claus.  And on the screen, in honor of the new Star Wars movie that was released this week, we have a scene made up of Star Wars action figures, set in a small Galilee far far away.  

The Christmas Shopping Season is over, although some will have already started buying next year’s gifts at the massive after Christmas sales.  Although I am spared the incessant demands that I buy this or that because I don’t have cable, I do get lots of sale ads by email, so I know that all the stores are busy trying to clear their shelves of Christmas stuff so they can move on to the next Sale season.  Just to make it quite clear that in the secular world Christmas is effectively over, I even saw one cartoon on Facebook yesterday proclaiming that there are only 364 days until Christmas!     For a lot of people Christmas ends pretty much as soon as the presents are unwrapped.

And I have to admit that it’s hard to stay in the season when all the planning and hubbub have passed.  Like most other clergy people - and department stores - I am beginning to look ahead to the next season.  Yesterday I sent an email to Dee Anne asking her to pull previous year’s Ash Wednesday services so I can get an idea of what we have done here in the past.  I’m considering a Lenten sermon series, maybe even a Bible Study, or perhaps a Members Class aka what it means to be a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I have had to keep reminding myself that it’s not over yet.  It’s still Christmas.

But as I mentioned last week, It’s not over yet.  All of those things that we sing about during Advent and Christmas, all the peace, hope, joy and love, don’t end when the Christ child is laid in the manger.  All our desire to help the helpless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, have compassion for the enemy . . . these things don’’t end when the angels head back to heaven, and the shepherds head back to their fields.  In fact, it is now that all those things begin.  As the hymn says, now that all those things have ended, the work of Christmas has begun.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written in response to a situation that had arisen in the congregation.  All his letters were, of course, but we know a little more about this particular situation because it was arising everywhere in those early days.  Some had begun to teach that it was necessary to add other practices to their religious lives.  Some were teaching that if you didn’t observe this festival or refrain from eating certain foods, you weren’t really a Christian.  Others were saying that by fasting and other ascetic practices Christians could attain a higher state of ecstasy than with mere prayer and worship, thus becoming closer to God than others who did not practice these things.  There were those, also, who claimed that there was a secret knowledge that would likewise bring a person into a deeper experience of and relationship with Christ.   Some of these teachings came from the continual disagreements between Jewish and Gentile Christians, some were imported from the secret religions some of the Gentile converts had practiced before finding Christ, some came from the more ascetic Jewish practitioners such as the Essenes.  

And who doesn’t want to be closer to God really?  For some, it’s almost a competition.  Take the story of the two church ladies, Mary and Joanna.  They were both involved in Sunday School and the women’s ministry, served on various committees and had their fingers pretty firmly on the pulse of the congregation.  Joanna had dropped by Mary’s house for a visit one Sunday after leaving church.  While Mary’s husband sat reading his paper, they proceeded to dissect the personal lives of every member of the congregation, including the pastor and his entire family.  Once they had convinced themselves of their own personal righteousness in comparison to everyone else’s sinfulness, Joanna took her leave.  After closing the door behind her dearest friend, Mary turned to her husband and said, “You know, dear.  Joanna is a good Christian woman, but I do believe I’m closer to God than she is.”  Her husband never looked up from his paper as he responded, “I don’t think either of you is crowding Him any.”

Paul said if you have faith and live your life in imitation of Christ’s life, then you will be close to God. Period.  You don’t have to do any more than this. Regarding those other things being taught he said,“If you died with Christ to the way the world thinks and acts, why do you submit to rules and regulations as though you were living in the world?  “Don’t handle!” “Don’t taste!” “Don’t touch!”  All these things cease to exist when they are used. Such rules are human commandments and teachings. 23 They look like they are wise with this self-made religion and their self-denial by the harsh treatment of the body, but they are no help against indulging in selfish immoral behavior.”   (Colossians 2:20-23)

All you have to do is live the way Jesus would have you live.  Give up those things you know are not pleasing to God.   “Take off the old human nature with its practices and put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it.”  (Colossians 3:9-10).  And put on these virtues as if they were clothing - compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.   Be tolerant.  Forgive each other even as God forgives you.  And over everything, put on love, which is what binds us together in unity.  

And be thankful, people! . . .   Or is it, be thankful people.??

I love those cartoons that remind us just how critical it is to properly place our commas.  For example, writing; “Most of the time, travelers worry about their luggage” has a very different meaning from “Most of the time travelers worry about their luggage.”  Just as “let’s eat, grandpa” is completely different from “Let’s eat grandpa.”   

With Paul, however  . . . You may know that not all of the letters attributed to Paul were actually written by Paul.  Some were written in his name by students and followers after he died - which was perfectly acceptable behavior at the time.  One of the things that makes Paul’s authentic writing easily identifiable is his complete disregard for punctuation. He made run on sentences into an art form!  Later on, editors and translators would add punctuation as they thought best.  Which means that I really don’t know whether Paul meant “Be thankful people.” or “Be thankful, people!”  For that matter, neither do the editors and translators.  

Anyway - Paul told the people to be thankful, a theme he returns to repeatedly in his writings.  And to sing!  Go out into the world singing God’s praises in hymns and psalms and spiritual songs!  Sing with gratitude in your hearts, Paul says.  Sing all the time!  And whatever you do, everything that you do, do it in the name of Jesus the Christ.

These virtues of which Paul speaks don’t stand alone, but all relate to each other.  You cannot be compassionate and not kind. You cannot be tolerant and not patient.  You cannot love and not forgive.  Each of these virtues is intertwined with all of the others.    

Here is what we are told to do.  We are to go out from this place to live in imitation of Christ.  We are to act in all things with kindness, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, humility, and gentleness.  We are always to love one another.  We are always to be thankful to God, even when it’s hard to find something to be thankful for. If nothing else, we may be thankful that today we know Christ, and are known by God.   

I know how hard it is to be all those things simultaneously all the time.  I’m thinking it’s close to impossible, sometimes. Sometimes the best I can do is act as if these virtues are part of me.  You know?  Sometimes the peace of Christ is miles away from controlling my heart, because I am focused on the things in the world that bring dis-ease and pain instead of God’s grace.  

Paul said, “…live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him.  Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught.”  

The Good News is that it’s not over yet.  The work of Christmas is just beginning.  Although we only celebrate the birth of the Christ for these few short weeks, for the whole rest of the year will celebrate his life, his work and his resurrection.  For the rest of the year we reach back to these weeks to remember what that peace feels like, how that joy came into our lives, how aware we had become of God’s great love for us, and how hope filled our hearts.   

So come, all you faithful people, and together we will go forward to continue Christmas, to live as Christ’s family, to be one body together, serving God by serving the world God created, with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, with tolerance, forgiveness, and love for one another, doing all things in Jesus’ name, and above all, singing our gratitude to God.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Like New!

Psalm 80:1-7  Common English Bible (CEB)

 Shepherd of Israel, listen!
    You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
    You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
    Wake up your power!
    Come to save us!
3 Restore us, God!
    Make your face shine so that we can be saved!
4 Lord God of heavenly forces,
    how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
5 You’ve fed them bread made of tears;
    you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!
6 You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;
    our enemies make fun of us.
7 Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
    Make your face shine so that we can be saved 

God, hear us, please.  Help us!  Restore us!  Make your face shine upon us!   You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors!  Relent and save us!

Did you notice what is different about this psalm?  Usually the people are crying out saying something like “God, save us, just this one time. Get us out of this and we promise we will NEVER EVER do that bad stuff again!”   The prophets spent a great deal of time begging God to relent and to forgive the people for the error of their ways.  They also spent a lot of time telling the people just where exactly they have gone wrong.  

But this passage blames God for their problems.  “You put us at odds with our neighbors.  Our enemies make fun of us [because you aren’t smiting them for us.]”  Strange, right?  

Because . . . listen.  You know that only some of the psalms are attributed to King David.  This isn’t one of them. David’s psalms always talk about how God had never abandoned him.  Even at the lowest points in his life, David always said “and You, my God, are always with me. You protect and embrace me.”  This psalm was written sometime after the death of King Solomon, after the tribes split, with most refusing to have anything to do with David’s family and the Temple in Jerusalem.  You can tell that because only the three tribes who stayed are the ones being named as being at odds with their neighbors.  This was written in the period when the Bible's writers said repeatedly of the kings in Jerusalem that they turned their backs on their people, lusted after foreign women and went up to the high places to worship other gods, and did what was evil in the sight of God. 

When Hezekiah came to the throne, he became known as a man who always did what was good and right and faithful before the LORD his God.  He had the priests clean and purify the Temple, for it had fallen into disuse and disrepair.  The priests came back to him with the Tablets of the Law, which had been found totally forgotten in a back storeroom.  He ordered a time of national mourning and fasting, put on sackcloth and ashes and had all the people do the same, and then read the Law out loud to all the nation.  The nation returned to the ways of Yahweh and all was good - until Hezekiah died.  And then the kings did what was evil in the sight of God again.  They appointed prophets who would say what they wanted to hear and ignored the words of the real prophets, the ones God appointed.  Those they tried to kill.  They did what they wanted, whenever they wanted, and let the Laws go back to that dusty storeroom.  And as the kings and other leaders did, so did the nation.  

And when things started to go really, really wrong . . .  they blamed God.  They said, “God, you keep telling us that you are in charge of everything.  Well, fix this, because obviously you are the one who caused all these bad things to happen.  We are completely innocent, mere victims of your bad temper and inconsistent moods.”  They went looking for powerful allies among their neighbors, and when that cure turned out to be worse than the original problem, they blamed God again.  “They’re laughing at us!  You’re supposed to be all that and a bag of chips - you sit enthroned on cherubim and seraphim, for Pete’s sake!  If you really are powerful, if you really are our God, then do something!  Prove yourself!”   

Frankly, they sounded a little bit like Janis Joplin, 
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town. 
I’m counting on you, Lord, Please don’t let me down. 
Prove that you love me, and buy the next round.  
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.”   

By the way, did you all know that Janis Joplin began her singing career in the choir of a Disciples congregation in Texas?  

Anyway, the leaders of Judah had the whole relationship with God thing seriously backwards.  God isn’t the one who broke the covenant.  God isn’t the one who stopped believing in them.  God isn’t the one who turned away.  God never promised to drop everything to save them every time they got themselves into trouble.  God never has to prove anything to anyone.  As a result of their bad behavior - as a result of generations of bad behavior - the people of Judah, the leaders, the wealthy and the powerful, were finally taken away to Babylon where they would languish in exile.  They were, as we know, eventually returned.  But frankly, things never got totally great for the people of Judah.  They would be independent for a bit, but then another powerful nation would defeat them.  And then that nation would be defeated by another, more powerful nation. At the time of Jesus’ birth Rome had been their overlord for about 60 years.  And the people kept remembering God’s promise to send someone to make their nation like new again.

Here is what God promised.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.     (Isaiah 11:1-5)

And the people waited.  They assumed that God would send a powerful leader, a military genius, another David.  But what they got was exactly what God promised - a faithful follower of God.  A man of compassion and righteousness,  wisdom and understanding, whose words would defeat evil.  More like Hezekiah than David, really, because Hezekiah’s strength was in his faith, not in his military prowess.  His reign was one of reform and reconciliation. His greatest accomplishment was in bringing the nation back into covenant with God.  

They waited.  People aren’t very good at waiting.  We want everything to happen right now.  We want to go faster than the speed limit so we can get wherever we are going sooner.  We want the line we are standing in to move faster so we can go on to the next thing sooner.  If we apply for something, we want the answer by return email.   I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook lately of young people I know holding up college acceptance letters.  I know how long that wait seems.  Getting into the right school might very well determine how the rest of your life goes, so waiting for that letter is torturous.  And waiting for Christmas is . . . 

Well, you know what that’s like.  Everyone I meet asks me,”Are you ready for Christmas?”  I’m never quite sure how to answer that. I know that what they are thinking is, “Have you bought all your presents?  Is your Christmas dinner planned? Is your baking done?”  But what I am thinking is, “I have three worship services that week, none of which are quite completely ready.  I don’t have enough time to spend meditating and writing on Advent and the meaning of the birth of the Child.”  So I answer “Yes” to their real question and wander off wondering if I’ll ever really be ready for Christmas.

I’ve told you, I think, that I have to be reminded of events that fall outside of the liturgical calendar.  I was totally not kidding about that.  So the other day when Pat and Jennifer reminded me that this Sunday - today - is Christmas Sunday, I was truly surprised.  My immediate response was, “No, this is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.”  But yes, according to the Disciples Planning Calendar, it is also Christmas Sunday.  I’m not sure why, since it is before Christmas.  Maybe because Disciples don’t worship on Christmas unless it happens to fall on a Sunday.  The founders of the Disciples were serious about only doing what the Bible tells us to do, and Jesus never told us to celebrate his birth.  Baptism, yes.  The Lord’s Supper, yes.  The Resurrection, yes.   But Jesus never mentions remembering his birth. So we don’t.  The fact that we now observe Advent would probably have them spinning in their respective graves.  I suspect, however, that it might be because so many folks won’t be here the First Sunday after Christmas.  Some people don’t even realize that Christmas doesn’t end for another couple of weeks!  My first Christmas as a pastor I walked into the sanctuary the Sunday after Christmas to discover all the Christmas decorations had been taken down!  I was so disappointed!  I asked why, and was told that Christmas was over.  Not!  It’s only over in the stores.  Not in the church.  

God promised that he would send a Savior, a righteous, compassionate, wise man, whose words would have the power to defeat sin and evil.  God promised that the world would be made like new again when that Savior came.  What the waiting people didn’t realize is what we now know to be the Good News.  The world is made like new again, beginning with each individual heart.  As each of us embraces the love, peace, hope and joy that is brought into the world with the arrival of the Christ Child, each of us is made like new again . . .  and through us, through our actions, bringing God’s love, peace, hope and joy into the world, the entire world can be made like new again.   Go out, my sisters and brothers, and love the world.  Go out, and proclaim the birth of the Child, the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Savior, our All in All.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

I Just Want to Thank You

Philippians 1:3-11 Common English Bible (CEB)

3 I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. 4 I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. 5 I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. 6 I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. 7 I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. 8 God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

9 This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. 10 I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. 11 I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.


Every time I read this passage this week I thought - how true.  I thank my God every time I mention you - this congregation - in my prayers.   You are all my partners in God’s grace.  I feel affection for you all with the compassion of Christ.   I have been welcomed and encouraged and fed with such love and hospitality.  I am grateful for the stories you are telling me and for your guidance as I learn my way around this new situation.  Thank you, so very much.  

Paul was also grateful.  He wrote this portion of this letter to the churches in Philippi because throughout the entire time he was in prison they sent messages to him, encouraging him by letting them know that they were still going strong, they were still making converts and teaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, as he had taught it to them.  They probably also sent food and money so he could survive in prison.  Prisons at the time weren’t places where you got three meals and a bed.  You got whatever corner of the floor you could claim for yourself and ate very little indeed unless you had money or friends and family who would send you food, maybe a mattress, warm clothing as necessary, or money to give the guards so they would go get you whatever you might need.  So they probably helped with those things.  But most importantly, they sent messengers and letters to keep him up to date on what was going on with them.

And Paul was grateful.  So very grateful.  Knowing that in Philippi the church was thriving was great comfort to him.  His arrests were intended, in large part, to keep that from happening.  The rulers of the land didn’t want to hear that the riffraff were being told not to worship the Emperor. It was one things when Jews didn’t - they had special dispensation, since they were the only people in the known world who worshipped only one God and that one not a part of any pantheon the rest of the world knew.  They didn’t have to add Emperor worship into their rituals.  But Paul was preaching to Gentiles, non-Jews, and teaching them not to worship the Emperor.   That was intolerable.  He was preaching to Gentiles, and converting them and teaching them not to worship the Greek gods or the Roman ones or the Egyptian ones.  The artisans who made religious images were losing money.  The temples in the cities were losing followers, and income.  That was perhaps even more intolerable than teaching them not to worship the Emperor.  After all, Rome wasn’t exactly next door, but it was never a good thing when the merchants and the local priesthood were upset.  So Paul and other church planters found themselves imprisoned with some regularity, in hopes that without the preachers the congregations would fail.  As we know, that didn’t happen.  But Paul wouldn’t know that, of course.  The letters he received and the support of his converts, his beloved congregations, kept him hopeful even in confinement.  He knew, he said, that they would continue the good work that had been started there.  And so they did.

The second paragraph in this passage is Paul’s expression of hope for the church as it moves into the future.  Hope - prayer - that they would be given insight and knowledge as they grow in faith.  Hope - prayer - that they would be able to make the right life decisions, to decide what was truly important and what wasn’t.  Hope - prayer - that they would become righteous, that is to say, that they would do the things that are right in the eyes of God. 

Hope is one of those words that seems to mean different things at different times.  There’s that phrase, “Hope springs eternal.”  We use that in situations like, when Bullwinkle the Moose announces that he is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat, saying, “This time for sure!” and once again, it’s not a rabbit.  His gazillion previous failures don’t faze him.  He just keeps reaching into that top hat over and over again.  It’s what my cat, Doofenschmirtz, feels when he is sitting at the sliding glass door crying to go outside.  He’s never been allowed outside, but he is certain that if he just cries enough I will relent. 

There’s the kind of hope that I had on Wednesday when the news came of the shooting in San Bernardino. I have a lot of friends in San Bernardino.  I have clergy friends and teacher friends and friends who work with the developmentally challenged there.  My initial reaction was Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God.  Oh God, please, let Samantha and Pam and Petra and all my other friends and all their people be ok.  I was hoping and praying and knowing there was nothing I could do but pray and wait to hear.  I gave thanks for Facebook later, when all my friends had checked in and were ok, although some were locked down and some were worrying about their kids in schools on lockdown. 

And there’s another kind of hope, one that is a powerful impetus to make changes.  In 1993 I had been sober a few years.  I had learned that the angry, judgmental God that I had been taught about wasn’t entirely true and I had come to believe in a loving, caring, forgiving God who would guide me to lead a better life.  I did all the things that I had learned how to do to improve my life and my relationship with God.  But something was missing - I wasn’t really happy.  Mind you now, I always thought of myself as Christian.  I always believed in Jesus as the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world. I just didn’t do church.  

After a number of other things happened - and I’ll tell you that story some day - I found a Disciples pastor who gave me hope.  Listening to Pastor Betsy talking about what it means to be part of a Christian congregation, I started to hope. I started to hope that, if I became part of a congregation, if I did more than just show up for worship but helped with their mission and ministry, and if I taught others what I was learning about living a Christian life, then I would feel better inside.  I would become closer to God and I would feel better inside.  I started to hope that if I showed up on Sundays and listened carefully to her message, and learned something from it, and then went out and used that something to change myself, then I could also change the world just by being in it in this new Christian way of being.   That hope is being realized.  It’s a life-long process.

I learned from Pastor Betsy that being Christian is more than belief.  It is more than following a list of rules.  It is a way of living and being that enlivens and encourages others.  It requires being part of a community, a Christian community.  Not part of an audience on Sunday morning, but part of a community of believers who work at making the world better in some small way.  I needed to become part of a community like this one, that works to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and find homes for unwanted dogs and cats, that springs into action when a member or even a stranger is injured or there’s a house fire or some other local situation comes up where they can be of help.  I needed to become part of a congregation like this one, that makes so many opportunities to help others available, whose members walk through the town living their Christianity.

The Advent Candles were lit this morning by two others who know that kind of hope, who chose this as the place to become part of a Christian community, who turned their lives over to God in a very real way when they entered the waters of baptism earlier this year.  I believe that their hope will be realized as mine was, and that this community will nurture their growth as the community at Treasure Coast Christian Church nurtured mine.

The community in Philippi that Paul was writing to was this kind of community.  It was one of many communities that grew out of the realized hope that is the Christ.  It was one of many that survived and thrived despite the attempts of Empire and competing religious leaders to squash it in its infancy.   

Strange thing, hope.  As most of us have learned on many Christmas mornings, we don’t always get exactly what we hoped for.  We hope for a pony and get a book.  We hope for a new bicycle and get underwear.   The Jewish people, too, hoped for one thing and got something totally different.  

They were a people despised by their rulers, taxed unmercifully, regulated rigidly, whose men and women could be taken and forced into labor, raped, beaten or even killed for no good reason except that they were Jews. They wanted to be liberated from that life, and looked with great hope for a Messiah who would be that liberator.  When the majority of the Jewish people prayed for the Messiah to come, what they hoped for was another like those whom God had sent before - another Samson, or another Deborah and Siserah, or another David, a great judge or warrior, who would lead them forward into victory against Rome and end the oppression they had known for so long.  What they got was something entirely different - a Messiah whose rule is over the hearts and souls of humanity.  What they got was a Messiah who was sent, not just to them, but to all the world.  What they got, what we got, was a Messiah who would act in a certain way and then say to us, “Go and do likewise.”  What they got, what we got, was a Messiah who cannot be defeated in battle, who cannot be defeated by imprisoning his followers, who cannot even be defeated by death.  

The Good News is that  . . . .

At this point, frankly, I got stuck.  A sermon is supposed to swell to a finish. It’s supposed to make a grand statement of what the good news is.  I don’t have a grand statement.  What I have is . . .  

We had an Elders meeting in my office this morning.  And everyone shared about things going on in their lives.  Every single story I heard today had a hope filled ending.  Every single story I heard attested to the power of prayer and community.  And what we decided, or determined or agreed upon is that being part of a congregation, being part of this community, being part of the body of Christ, part of his family on earth, really does make a difference in our lives, and in the lives of all those whose lives we touch.   

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Imagine . . . peace in our time

Scripture Readings
Malachi 3:1-4       Common English Bible (CEB)
3 Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
2 Who can endure the day of his coming?
        Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
        He will purify the Levites
            and refine them like gold and silver.
            They will belong to the Lord,
                presenting a righteous offering.
4 The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
        as in ancient days and in former years.

Luke 3:1-3       Common English Bible (CEB)
3 In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 


A couple of disclaimers or maybe just things you should know to begin with.  First, not all of my messages will be filled with things to laugh at, like last week.  Second, while nearly every other church in the world will be celebrating Hope this week, when I looked at my Disciples Planning Calendar I saw that this is Peace week, so we are going to be a bit out of step.  It happens sometimes.  Third, I’m a bit of a geeky science fiction loving techie person.  Since this is a multigenerational crowd with a variety of interests, I suspect that some of my references will fly right past some of you.  But don’t worry.  Your turn to know what I’m talking about while others are saying “what?” will come.  And, finally, I love history.  I really love history.  There will be history lessons and stories. I just can’t help myself. . . 

I watched the second Avengers movie - Age of Ultron - the very same day that Dee Ann asked me to send my scripture readings and sermon titles for the November Caller.  So as I looked over the passages for today, Peace Sunday, I kept hearing the voices of Tony Stark and his accidental creation, the super robot Ultron, saying “peace in our time.”  They had different ideas of what peace meant, however.

For Tony Stark it meant the end to conflict.  He and the Avengers had been running around ending armed conflict all around the world, fighting against oppressors and generally  . . . well, fighting.  But he was mainly worried about the fight that would come from the stars - from aliens attacking the earth. He figured that if they could just put a strong enough shield around the earth they would be safe, and they would know peace.  

Ultron, on the other hand, strongly believed that the only way the Earth could know peace was if there were no humans on it.  So the Avengers sprang into action to defeat this incredibly powerful robotic foe and his legion of robotic clones.  They won, of course, although one of the good guys died!  *gasp!*   A new good guy though, not one of the first group of Avengers, more like “the guy in the red shirt” on the original Star Trek.    There would be no real peace though.  The Avengers would go on fighting against evil.  Which for the movie industry is a good thing.  Not so much for the real world, though.  

The phrase "Peace for Our Time" was spoken on 30 September 1938 by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in his speech concerning the Munich Agreement and the Anglo-German Declaration. Ironic, that.   A year later Germany invaded Poland, France and England declared war on Germany, and WWII began.

Chamberlain was deliberately echoing the words of Benjamin Disraeli, who upon returning from the Congress of Berlin in 1878 stated "I have returned from Germany with peace for our time.”   His prediction was a little better.  WWI didn’t begin until 1914

President John F. Kennedy adapted that phrase in his 1963 American University Commencement Address, saying he sought "not merely peace in our time, but peace in all time.”  

Have I mentioned I kind of love history?  Not all the dates and such, but the stories, the relationships, the causes and effects of historical events.  The Bible is mostly history, but like all history it is told from one particular viewpoint. Other reports of the same events might be a tad different - like the differences between Euro-Americans and Native Americans telling the history of the Massachusetts Colony, for example.  

There was no real peace in Jerusalem in the time when Malachi wrote this passage.  It was somewhere around the year 450 bce.  The Jews had returned from their Babylonian captivity, rebuilt the Temple with the help of the Persian King Cyrus, and settled in to their own lands again.  But things weren’t going well. The rulers were greedy and power hungry.  The priests were corrupt.  The poor and the immigrants weren’t being cared for as the Law said they must be.  The people had forgotten who exactly brought them out of captivity - again.  People are generally pretty good at forgetting about the good things God does for them once their crisis is over.  The Book of Judges tells us that over and over again they would forget about God, stop following the Law, stop caring for the widows and orphans and immigrants, and had to be defeated by some foreign power before they would remember to turn to God.  Then they would be pretty good for a while, but before long selfishness, greed, anger and hatred would creep back in and the cycle would start again.   Once they were rescued and back in their own comfortable place, they forgot who was ultimately responsible for their good fortune.    

And the prophet Malachi said, “Really people.  Again?  You have to go through this again?  Wasn’t the captivity in Babylon enough of a message for you?  The first thing you do when you get home is return to your old ways?  It’s been less than 100 years!  Less than the blink of the eye for God.  And again, you are doing what is evil in the sight of God, just as you did in the days of the Judges.  Just like you did before you were taken away to Babylon.  It is pretty clear what is going to happen next, as has happened so many times before.  So God will send another to come save you.  But this one won’t return you home from some dreadful defeat or rescue you from exile.  This one will save you from yourselves.  This one will purify you.  This one will reach into your hearts with the fire of God’s Holy Spirit, and burn away the hatred and corruption and greed and lust for power.  This one will change your hearts.”  

A few weeks ago David preached from Isaiah, that slightly scary bit where the angel of the Lord comes with a coal and burns Isaiah’s lips to purify them.  Frankly, that always makes me shudder.  I stepped on a hot coal that had spilled out of a bbq grill once,  barefoot, and the pain was unbelievable.  The idea of a hot coal touching my lips . . . . I don’t even want to imagine it.  But fire purifies, and Isaiah was concerned that he was impure. Specifically, he stated that his lips were impure so he was unworthy to carry God’s word to the people of God.  So his lips were purified, with a live coal from the altar of God.  I can’t even imagine . . . I don’t want to imagine.

David also quoted from Soren Kierkegaard, which I thought was kind of fun because every time I sit to write a message I look at a quote from Kierkegaard that says, “When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, “It is talking to me, and about me.”  When I preach I am not preaching to you, but to myself.  You, too, of course.  

Quite frankly, when I first planned this message, when I selected the readings and gave it a title, I was thinking of the John Lennon song.   Imagine no war, no countries, nothing to fight over.  Imagine a world at peace.  Imagine everyone getting along.  No muggings because everyone has what they need.  No addiction.  No oppression.  Sort of a constant feeling of serenity world wide, where everyone greets each other with a smile.  

And then Leah sent out the Power Point, and Marsha asked a grammar question about one of the slides. I hadn’t really looked at that slide closely . . . it’s the one that was on the screen during the reading of the Scripture passages, titled Refiners Fire.  It matches the readings, but wasn’t going exactly where I thought I was going . . . until I started to consider the passages from the “it’s speaking to me and about me” point of view.

I realize, of course, that the world John Lennon describes in “Imagine” is a pipe dream.  Perhaps literally, considering, you know,  John Lennon.  Because a world with that kind of peace would also be a world without passion.  Nothing to get excited about.  Perhaps, no real art.  Pretty pictures, perhaps, like Thomas Kincade, but not the kind of art that pulls at you, that you have a sort of visceral reaction to.  There would be no real music, because . . . try to imagine a musician without passion.  There is no such thing.  

I would hate that world!   Wouldn’t you?  

In a world like that, there could be no real love.  Pretty love . . . maybe even romantic love, leaning over a balcony for the sight of your beloved, like in the days of knights and ladies and chivalry.  But none of that keep you up at night, stomach flips when you see him, breath stopping,  time stops when you aren’t together, Romeo and Juliet willing to die for love, “hunk, a hunk of burning love,” kind of love.  Real love.  God’s love. 

Because, you need to know that our God loves us with that kind of love.  That fiery, passionate, life changing, soul burning, kind of love.  That love, that passion, that need to be with us, to be loved by us, is the love that caused God to send another, a savior, one about whom Malachi said “ is like the refiner’s fire. He will purify them and refine them like gold and silver.  And they will belong to the Lord.”   

It would be nearly 500 years before, finally, the messenger came that Malachi spoke of, to make a way for the Lord.   Not until after the rise of the Roman Empire, in the days when Tiberius was Emperor and Pontius Pilate was ruler over Judea, and Herod sat on the throne of Galilee, did John begin to preach and to baptize, calling on people to repent, to change their lives, to walk into the river to symbolize the washing away their old lives, beginning life anew.   John doesn’t say it in this passage, but he will say it soon enough, that soon one will come who baptizes, not with water, but with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  That one is Jesus.

And when that one comes into our hearts, when Jesus comes into our hearts, when that fire refines us, truly purifies us, then we can know peace, because if we let the Christ in, truly allow him to change us, then all that hatred of others, all that fear of the things and people that are different, all the resentments and anger and unwillingness to forgive the other . .  all of those things that separate us from our God, will be burned away, and we will know peace.

Peace can only exist in a pure heart, in a heart without hatred, without greed, without lust for power and possessions and control - in a heart without sin.  And we are human.  We, most of us, can’t keep a pure heart for more than brief periods of time.  We are blessed, though, because we have the example of Jesus to follow, and we have evidence of his humanity. . . in the knowledge that he began his life as a defenseless infant, just as we do, and in the stories that have been passed down to us;  the story of the young boy scaring his parents when they discovered him missing, the story of the Syro-Phonecian woman who begged healing for her daughter and was denied (briefly), and the story of the turning over the money changer tables in the Temple courtyard, and the many stories of him being a bit annoyed with the disciples when they had trouble getting his point.  We can take some comfort in the fact that Jesus, too, felt what we feel and sometimes acted out a bit. 

Imagine  . . . . peace in our time. Not the passionless kind of peace John Lennon espoused.  But real peace  . . . the peace we only know when we allow Jesus’ burning love to  touch our hearts, to burn away our sin.  

We know that letting Jesus in isn’t a once and done kind of proposition, because we are human, and we will mess up.  The Good News is that repentance isn’t once and done.  God will forgive our sins and mistakes and and debts and trespasses over and over again.  We can repent over and over again.  We can open our hearts to him over and over again. We can commit to letting him in over and over again.  We can do that today, and again tomorrow and again the day after, for as long as we live. 

Advent is the season to commit ourselves anew.   If you are ready to allow Jesus into your heart, if you are ready to let him burn away the dross and refine your heart, if you are ready to repent your sins, if you are ready to know peace in his love, this is the time to commit yourself to him.  Let us each commit ourselves to him, so that we may know peace in our time.

If you are not yet part of the body of Christ, and wish to become his sister or brother through baptism, or if you are seeking a church home and want to be part of his family here at First Christian, you are invited to come forward during the singing of Come, O Long Expected Jesus.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Doing is Loving

Scripture Reading
1 John 3:18-24     Contemporary English Version (CEV)  

18 Children, you show love for others by truly helping them, and not merely by talking about it.

19 When we love others, we know that we belong to the truth, and we feel at ease in the presence of God. 20 But even if we don’t feel at ease, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if we feel at ease in the presence of God, we will have the courage to come near him. 22 He will give us whatever we ask, because we obey him and do what pleases him. 23 God wants us to have faith in his Son Jesus Christ and to love each other. This is also what Jesus taught us to do. 24 If we obey God’s commandments, we will stay one in our hearts with him, and he will stay one with us. The Spirit that he has given us is proof that we are one with him.


My first sermon at First Christian Church in Selma, California!   Someone asked me yesterday if I was ready or nervous.  My answer was “yes.”  I was ready and nervous.  See, I’ve got this history with first sermons.  

My first “first sermon” was as a student chaplain at Robin Run, a Disciples Retirement Community in Indianapolis.  The passage I was to preach was Matthew 10, including verse 35, which says in part, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”.  It was Grandparent’s Day.  Luckily, when it came time for my first sermon as a student minister in a congregation I was in a preaching class, and just used whatever sermon I’d preached in class that week.  While delivering my first sermon during Clinical Pastoral Education at the Indiana State Psychiatric Hospital - well, let’s just say I learned when not to ask rhetorical questions.  

My first sermon at my first church was an amazing thing.  I wrestled with it for two weeks, crafting it with care, placing each word precisely in the best possible place, tweaking and re-writing over and over until I was convinced it was exactly what I was supposed to preach. Because that’s the thing, you know. I’m supposed to preach what God wants me to preach, not what I think would be a good thing to say.  I went to bed on Saturday night quite certain all would be well the next morning.  And I woke up that next morning, that Sunday morning, that first sermon at my first church morning, that Pentecost morning, and realized I wasn’t supposed to use any of those words.   Thank you ever so much,  Holy Spirit.  And just so you all know why I tend to look tired on Sunday mornings, I haven’t slept really well on any Saturday night since.  I have no idea what the Holy Spirit is going to give me.    
The passage I really wanted to use today was from Isaiah 43, especially verse 19a in which God tells the exiles in Babylon, “I am about to do a new thing;  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  I mean, it just seemed sort of like a no brainer for my first time preaching to you.  A little obvious, maybe. But it wasn’t the lectionary reading for today, and after all, I did use it for my last sermon at my last church . . .

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that one of the lectionary passages for today was actually much more appropriate.  “You show love for others by doing, not by just talking about it.”  I said to you during the interviews that what I was searching for was a congregation I could love, and who would love me.  This seemed very much like that place.

And then I got here.  I spent my first week in Selma trying to unpack and get acclimated to my apartment and the town.  Then last week, my first official week at the church, I spent unpacking and settling in to my office and trying to figure out who all these people are that are in and out during the week.  In that process I discovered how much and how very well you love.  Not just the home baked cake delivered to my door, and the dinner invites and the calls to see if I would like to come have coffee and treats in the morning.  And not just the opportunity to sit around the dining table playing board games with a family, and go to concerts and have burgers at the Mad Duck.  All those things were great.  And welcoming.  And loving. I have to tell you I have been crying tears of gratitude all week that God has brought me to this place at this time in my life.  

But the real love I have been seeing in you has nothing to do with this place or with me.  Rather, it has to do with how you love people who may not ever set foot inside this door.  It’s Undies for Others - buying underwear for the adults served by the Salvation Army.  (And I have to tell you that the Salvation Army folks were delighted to hear how Janice introduced that program in worship a couple of weeks ago.)   It’s going to the SMART Center (pictured above) early in the morning and making sure the families who show up there have food to get them through the week.  It’s spending entire days volunteering at Twice as Nice to help keep the local hospital open.  It’s spending every Friday at the Second Chance Animal Shelter trying to make sure no dog or cat has to be put down.  It’s fostering kittens from that shelter.  And Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life.  It’s some of the service you all perform for others who aren’t part of this worshipping community, just because it is the right thing to do - that’s the kind of love that Jesus told us to have for one another.  That’s the kind of love that John is writing about in this letter to the First Century church.

You know, I would like to talk about Isaiah for a moment - that whole “new thing” thing.   What I really wanted to do was preach my first sermon here on Isaiah 43 on the First Sunday of Advent.  The timing for that didn’t quite work - God is funny about not letting me have my way much of the time.  But we are moving into a time of new things  - Advent.  

Now I know that, while some of us are pretty well versed in the liturgical year and how the church calendar works, for others of us . . . not so much.   So let me give a quick lesson about Advent so you can be fully prepared next Sunday.

First, Advent is a time of waiting, not a time of celebrating.  We light candles in an Advent wreath, adding a new one each week as the light, Jesus, gets closer to being here.  We decorate with the sorts of images that remind us of his death - wreaths and poinsettias to remind us of the crown of thorns  - and of his resurrection - evergreens and garlands to symbolize his eternal life.  We sing music that looks east, that begs for his arrival, that cries out in longing for the birth of the Savior.  We do not sing music that celebrates his arrival, because in a very real sense he isn’t here yet.  If we set up a nativity scene, the cradle is left empty until midnight on Christmas Eve.  We read the prophecies so we might have some idea what to expect.  Some years the scripture readings come from the book of Revelation, reminding us we await his second coming just as eagerly as the Jews awaited the arrival of the Messiah.  

Also, Advent is the beginning of the Church year.  I know some (many) think it would make more sense to begin the Church (aka liturgical) year with Easter or Pentecost, but the fact of the matter is that the first Sunday of Advent is the first Sunday of the church year.  No idea why, but there you go.  Some things just don’t make much sense and we have to roll with them anyway.  

Now I do realize that all of the stores and all of the TV commercials and all of the emails you are receiving from all those places where you have some kind of member card are yelling “IT’S CHRISTMAS!”  It’s not.  And it won’t be for another month.  Advent helps us remember that.  Advent helps us escape from Grinches and Red Nosed Reindeers and Scrooges and the never endings stream of Christmas Carols in stores and elevators and Facebook and even on our car radios.  Advent helps us slow down in the middle of the craziness and remember what the season is about.   During Advent we can wander in here, sit down and breathe, knowing that the time is not quite here yet, that we are still waiting to see God’s love made flesh.

Because what Advent really is, you see, is God doing love.  Advent reminds us that God doesn’t just say “I love you.”  Advent reminds us that God loves us in a very particular, very concrete, very real way.   God loves us so much that God sent Jesus to live as a human, to share our lives, our pain, our joy, our entire human experience.  God stands as the best example ever of doing love.

As does Jesus - as an adult, of course. Not the baby. The baby is just a baby - helpless and adorable.   But Jesus the adult, Jesus the rabbi, the healer, the compassionate and loving man, he is the one whose example we try our best to follow when we are doing love.  We ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” and sometimes we get it right.   When we are driving on the 43 and that big white SUV pulls up on our back bumper . . .  how would Jesus do love in this situation?  I suspect he would shake his head and pull to the right, making room for the silly person to go past.  When we see a stranger looking confused on a street corner . . .  how would Jesus do love in this situation?   He might greet that person, who might then feel emboldened to ask for directions.  

When we love others, we know that we belong to the truth, and we feel at ease in the presence of God.”  Doing is loving.  Doing the best we can, not just for the least of our brothers and sisters, but for every one we meet.  I heard someone say a couple of days ago that every day when she goes to work she tries to remember that her work there is to be done for God’s glory.  So even when the clients are difficult, or the bosses are overly demanding, or the deadlines are looming large, she tries to remember that her work is always for God, that everything she does is always for God, because she knows just how much God has done for her.  Doing her work as an act of love for  God makes it easier for her to remain focused and positive.

We are about to enter that time of year when the evidence of God’s love for us is about to come to life.  Let us go out from this place ready to do love, in gratitude and thanksgiving.  As we share our annual Thanksgiving meal with families and friends, let us also do love, serving one another, refraining from the kinds of arguments that can spoil our remembrances of God’s great and abiding love for us, seeking only to bring God’s light into every interaction.   Let us go out from this place today ready to commit ourselves to doing love for all our brothers and sisters, for all of God’s creation, in every thing that we do.