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.