Sunday, December 25, 2016

Welcoming the Light

Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV)

2 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Once upon a time, back in the 1960s, 7-11 ran a radio commercial featuring a guy who worked at 7-11.  He bragged about how wonderful it was to have a store opened from 7 am till 11 pm 364 days a year!  They were only closed on Christmas.  (This was kind of a first because, for those of you who may not know this, once upon a time there was no such thing as a store being open 24 hours a day.  Even gas stations closed up in the evening.  Pretty much everyplace closed on Sunday. Maybe truck stops stayed open, but that was about it.)  Then there was a pause, and he said rather plaintively, “But what am I going to do on Christmas?”

That conversation has been going on around places where ministers gather, too.  Because this year Christmas comes on a Sunday, so the question has been, “Are you going to have worship on December 25th?”  It seems that some of the very large churches are closing (again) so the staff can spend the holiday with family.  And I’m thinking that there wouldn’t be any need for family celebration if not for the birth we celebrate on this day.  So, why not worship today?

I mean, it is the day the light entered the world.  When we look at pictures like the one Leah chose to illustrate today’s message, our hearts fill with song.  There are so many songs that spring to my mind . . . O little town of Bethlehem, Silent night  . . . what songs do you think of when you see this?
(wait for someone to sing Rudolf . . .)  

Turning toward the screen, where I “expect” to see a scene of Bethlehem under the star, only to see Rudolf.  “Leah!  What is this?  I thought we were going with a more traditional look this year?”  Silliness continues for a moment.    Then . . .putting on my Santa hat . . .

All righty, then.  What do we know about Rudolf?
He had a very shiny nose - he was different.
The other reindeer laughed at him and called him names - he was bullied
They wouldn’t let him play with them - he was excluded.

I wonder  …  when Montgomery Ward first published the Rudolf story in 1939, do you suppose they were thinking about the bullying and exclusion of people who were different?  Because this has been reality for probably as long as there have been people.  Today, of course, people can get in trouble for bullying.  People who are different are protected by the laws of the land.  But back then, and forever before, people who were different in any way were often, usually,  mistreated.   It’s sad to see that reality reflected in a children’s story that has been repeated for almost 80 years!  But here comes the good part.

“Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, “Rudolf with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?’”  

Santa saw Rudolf’s shiny nose, not just as something different, but as a gift that could be used to help him, and the other reindeer, and save Christmas!  No longer something that made Rudolf stand out in a bad way,  “Now all the reindeer loved him!”  

Confession time.  All that fun with the Rudolf picture - Leah and I planned that.  We even made sure a lovely Bethlehem scene was in the PowerPoint distributed to the folks who help make sure we don’t have too many mistakes so everyone would be surprised. You see, my friend Danny Bradfield, Pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach, posted on Facebook a few days ago that he would be using this story to talk about accepting differences.  I loved it, and immediately told him that I would be sharing his idea with my own congregation.

Because this story, the way it turns out, is a teaching story, one we can all learn an important lesson from.  We might need some really good reason to change our minds about someone who looks or acts or speaks differently than we do, or who comes from a different place, or who follows a different faith tradition.  But when we look for the gifts that come with those differences, we will stop rejecting them, stop excluding them, stop bullying them, and accept them as equals.  

Jesus was also different.  It is possible, even pretty likely, that some of the children in his home town of Nazareth teased him, if their parents had been counting on fingers when he was born.   And as if that wasn’t enough, when he was only 12 he posed such intelligent questions to the priests and lawyers at the Temple that they marveled!  Which is a truly great thing, but probably didn’t make him any more popular among his peers.  I wonder if the boys in Nazareth excluded him from their games, as the reindeer excluded Rudolf.  

Rudolf and his shiny, glowing nose lit the way for Santa and the other reindeer that Christmas Eve, bringing light into the foggy night so that all the children of the world could get their Christmas Eve visit from Santa.  And that was a wonderful thing.

Jesus brought the light of God’s love into the world, and that is a great thing.  Jesus is the light of the world, bringing God’s love and peace into the darkness of sin and sorrow, opening hearts, healing souls, easing pain, instilling hope.  Let us fill our hearts with that light, singing praises to our God, and accepting all others as God’s beloved children, no matter how different they may be.  

Let us welcome the light, rejoicing in the birth of Jesus, the Christ.  And let us take that light out into the world with us, so that every one may know that the Christ is born, the light is come to take away the darkness, God’s love has entered our world.  

Sunday, December 11, 2016

What She Said

Luke 1:46b-55  (NRSV)

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


Once upon a time . . .  That’s how some of our favorite stories begin.  Either that or “It was a dark and stormy night.”   In the Bible there is really no standard formula to begin a story, but some of the best stories begin with, “Now in this particular place there was living a woman whose name was (blank) and she was barren and without children.  Her husband loved her very much, even though she bore him no sons.”    Sarah was one of those women, remember?  And in her old age she became the mother of Isaac, whose son Jacob was the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.   Elizabeth was one of those women, who also had a son in her old age, who we know as John the Baptist.  And Hannah, the mother of Samuel, last of the judges, first of the prophets, he who put both Saul and David on the throne of Israel.  

Hannah is one of my favorite characters.  Greatly loved by her husband even though childless, she was teased and tormented by his other wife, who had borne many sons.  Hannah’s husband tried to convince her it was ok, he would always love her.  But he didn’t have to live with that other woman the way Hannah did, you know?  She prayed for a child in Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept - because the Temple wasn’t built yet - and was so distraught and emotional in her praying that Eli, chief priest at the time, thought she was drunk.  But after speaking with her, he assured her that her prayer had been heard.  And truly God had heard her prayer, because she soon became pregnant and gave birth to a son who she named Samuel, which means Name of God.  Then she vowed to give him in to the service of God as soon as he was old enough.  When he was weaned, she took him to Eli and gave her son into his care.  Every year she would go and take Samuel a robe she had made for him, and she was rewarded for her faithfulness with three sons and two daughters.  I love that story, truly.  

But the best part of the story, in my mind, is what Hannah said after she took her young son to Eli, after she gave up her first born child into the service of God.  After taking her son to Shiloh
2 Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the Lord;
    my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
    because I rejoice in my victory.
2 “There is no Holy One like the Lord,
    no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
    let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
    and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
    but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low, he also exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
    and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:1-8  NRSV)

If you were paying attention during this morning’s scripture reading, this will sound familiar to you, because Mary pretty much repeated what she said.  

God has done great things for me, and my heart, my soul, exult in Him, magnify Him!

There is one very significant difference between the two stories, of course.  Hannah was receiving something she had desired for many years.  Her life was miserable before Samuel’s birth, and blessed afterward in ways that are considered normal.  She was no longer teased or tormented by the other women.  On the contrary, not only had she had a son, but she dedicated him to God!  That’s a big deal, and something the other women would have admired her for - especially once she had another son.  Mary, on the other hand, was young, at the very beginning of womanhood.  She wasn’t even married yet!  Once she was known to be pregnant, once other people began to count on their fingers, there would be teasing and tormenting. There would be whispers when she took her jug to the well in the mornings, where the other women were gathered.   She ran the very real risk of Joseph putting her aside, even of being stoned to death for her infidelity.  Her life was about to get very difficult.  Gabriel had said to her, “Do not fear.” But even after the angel had left, even after she had agreed to what God was asking of her, Mary had every reason to be fearful.

When she went to visit her much older cousin Elizabeth, however, she was greeted with the words, “Blessed is she who believed!”  Blessed is she who believed that what God said would happen actually would happen. Remember Sarah?  Remember how she laughed at the messenger from God when she was told she would have a son in her old age?  She didn’t believe.  She disbelieved so completely that she convinced Abraham to conceive a child by Hagar.  But Mary, she believed right away.  And Elizabeth knew this, because God’s messenger had been speaking with her, as well.   But believing you are doing the right thing doesn’t always take away the fear of doing something new and different.  

Believing God is with you in that new thing, now that’s an entirely different proposition.  The meditation in our Advent book from Tuesday said, in part:  “I am afraid” is a sentence.  “I am not alone” is a song.  “God is with me” is the chorus to that song. 

We have been hearing that song and that chorus in the stories that Alan and Christian and Jessica have told us during this Advent Season.  I was afraid, they said, but God was with me, and all is well now.  We all have fears to face, sometimes big ones, sometimes small ones.  I’m driving to our regional office on Wednesday for a meeting with the Committee the Ministry Recognition and Standing.  I’ve never been to San Ramon.  I’m not sure what traffic or parking will be like. I don’t know anyone on the committee.  I am prone to panic attacks if I get lost - hence my great love for Siri!   I really don’t want to go, because I have all these little fears, but I know I am not alone.  God is with me.  (And Siri.)  

But there is a lot more to Mary’s song and Hannah’s prayer than just, “the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name!”  There is also a very detailed description of God’s relationship with God’s people, more than just this one woman who is being blessed above all women.  
Mary said:   
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

And Hannah said: 
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.

The proud are cast down, the poor are made rich, the weak are made strong, the needy are given what they need.  This is who our God is, and we are his hands and his feet in the world.  Mary said: “His mercy is for those who fear him,” not in the, “I am afraid of God because God will punish me forever” kind of fear I was raised with, but more like awe - the kind of fear you might feel in the midst of a thunderstorm, looking out from the safety of your home watching the lightning strikes, seeing its tremendous power, but knowing yourself to be safe.   God’s mercy is for those who know his true power, and lift up their hearts and lives to God, who dedicate themselves to doing God’s work in the world.  God’s mercy is for those who walk through their fear of him, of whatever change they may be facing in their lives, knowing that God is with them, and that they will be ok, no matter what.

Mary said:  “He has helped his servant Israel,  
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And we are among those descendants, because we are the sisters and brothers of Jesus, the Christ, the son of the living God, the child of Mary.  

As we go forward into the days and weeks ahead, let us remember what she said.  Let us celebrate God, not just for what has been done for us, but also for what God does for all of our brothers and sisters in the world, for what God does in the hearts and minds of those who fear Him, those who worship him, those who need him in their lives.  And may the love of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, fill our hearts to overflowing, that we may truly be God’s hands and feet in the world, now and always.  Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Peaceful Kingdom

Scripture:   Romans 15:4-13 (NRSV)  

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
    and sing praises to your name”;
10 and again he says,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
11 and again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
    and let all the peoples praise him”;
12 and again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I know that we didn’t use the peaceful kingdom scripture, but I am in the enviable position of being able to see what is behind you all - an entire pew filled with woodland creatures, some of whom would normally eat the others with great joy, but because it is Advent, because it is the peaceful season, these natural enemies co-exist in peace, in honor of the birth of the Christ Child.  

There’s a story I love to tell during Advent that talks about this season, the time when all the world is at peace with each other, even predator and prey.  Some time back two children were hand raising a orphaned baby lamb.  On Christmas Eve there was a terrible snow storm, and the children kept running back and forth to the barn to make sure the baby was ok.  On the radio they heard that a ferocious lion had escaped from the circus train just a mile or so away and that made their worries even more intense.  Just around midnight they went to the barn one more time, and much to their horror, a giant lion was curled up in their barn, with the lamb nestled between its paws.  Before they could do anything or even call for help, the lion spoke.  “Please let me stay with my small friend and keep her warm tonight. For we are both alone, and need comfort.”  And the lamb said, “May Peace be on everyone’s heart, for this is the night when Peace came into the world.”   There are so many stories about animals talking at Christmas.  It is said that God gave the gift of speech on Christmas Eve to animals as a reward for being in the stable when the Christ Child was born, worshipping him even before any humans knew who he was.  

And so, here we sit, with a whole pew full of woodland creatures watching and perhaps, participating in our worship.  Including a Santa Bunny . . .

There are those of us who tend to think of Christmas decorations as rather frivolous, maybe even sort of irreverent.   Last week I noted that Advent Purists might object to some of the decorations we see in and around our sanctuary and promised I would tell you about the symbolism behind some of these decorations this week. What I didn’t tell you is that I have been one of those Advent purists until now.  I realized last Sunday, as I looked at the beauty that Jeffrey and his helpers have created in this space, which is so far beyond what I considered “appropriate” for church that I really needed to re-think my previous position.  Why not celebrate this gift of beauty inside a church?  Part of the reason I promised to tell you all about the symbolism of the decorations was to remind myself that all of it reminds us of the Holy, not just some few pre-approved symbols.  So here we go.

Evergreens -  As the only trees that do not lose their leaves in winter in cool climates, evergreens symbolize perseverance and resiliency to adversity.  They remind us of Jesus' words, "The ones who persevere to the end shall be saved."   We use evergreen trees and branches to decorate our homes and churches and stores and streetlights. Candles that smell of various evergreen trees fill our houses with the smells that mean Christmas to most of us.  

Garlands.  In ancient times, holly and ivy were considered signs of Christ’s passion. Their prickly leaves suggested the crown of thorns, the red berries the blood of the Savior, and the bitter bark the drink offered to Jesus on the cross.  

Ornaments.  People used to hang apples and other fruits in their Christmas trees, to symbolize the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Round ornaments came to replace the actual fruit, but continue to remind us of those blessings we receive as a result of our faith.  

Christmas Trees.  For those who wonder, yes, Christmas Trees began life as pagan symbols during their midwinter celebrations.  But when St. Boniface converted Germany to Christianity, he also converted their solstice trees to a symbol for paradise because they were always green, a reminder that in Christ they have eternal life.  It wasn’t until the 16th century that they began to see these trees as specific to the celebration of Christ’s birth.   There is a story that Martin Luther, while walking home one night in Advent, noticed his torch light reflecting off the ice on a pine tree’s branches. It reminded him of Christ’s birth bringing light into a darkened world, so he broke off a branch and carried it home, where he adorned it with candles.  Whenever you see a lighted Christmas tree, let it call to mind the One who brings light to our darkness, healing to our brokenness, and peace to all who receive him.

Wreaths.  Because the needles of pine and fir trees remain green from season to season, the ancients saw them as signs of things that last forever.  Isaiah tells us that there will be no end to the reign of the Messiah. Therefore, we hang wreaths of evergreens shaped in a circle, which itself has no end, to signify the eternal reign of Jesus, the Christ.

Candy Canes.   The candy cane is shaped like a shepherd's crook, reminding us that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came into our world at Christmas. The red stripe symbolizes Christ's sacrifice and the white background His purity.  It may have been invented by a candy maker in Indiana, or a priest in 17th century Germany, or have some other origin entirely. Sadly, says this isn’t true.  But I have decided to ignore Snopes in this particular instance, because …Christmas legends don’t have to be entirely factual, do they?  

Gingerbread men.  Just as we create Gingerbread men in more or less our own image, they serve as a reminder that God created us in the image of God.   

Tinsel.  There is a tale about a poor family who wanted to decorate a tree in honor of the Christ Child, but had no money for apples and other ornaments.  During the night spiders came and covered the tree is beautiful webs, which Christ turned to silver as a reward for the family’s great faith.  Tinsel reminds us that even when we think we have nothing of value to offer, Christ will accept us just as we are.  He values the gift of our hearts more than anything else.

Bells.  The High Priest of the Temple wore a blue robe with bells sewn to the hem under his ephod, which was worn only when conducting sacrifices to God.  Bells hung in our trees and rung everywhere are to remind us that Jesus is our High Priest, the one whose sacrifice to God is most holy.    

Advent wreaths.  The story I heard is that once long ago, a German priest became annoyed at the school children asking constantly, “How long is is till Christmas?”  So at the beginning of Advent he put candles on a cartwheel, one for every day between that day and Christmas, and lit one candle every morning when the children came to school so they could count the days for themselves and stop asking him.   As time went on, the Advent wreath got smaller, just four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent.  We light purple candles the first three weeks, and a pink one on the fourth Sunday to symbolize joy.  On Christmas Day we light the white Christ Candle in the center of the wreath.

And finally . . . my personal favorite, the giant Toy Soldier Nutcracker.  I am sorry, folks.  As hard as I tried, this one just doesn’t seem have any particular religious significance. The closest I can make it stretch is that the nutcracker toy soldier has been so popularized by The Nutcracker ballet that it eventually became a symbol of Christmas.  And, it is true that the toy soldiers did fight on the side of good in the great battle during the ballet, so I suppose we can stretch that into a sort of religious meaning - good triumphing over evil.  But that’s kind of a stretch.  Some of our decorations are simply decorative, I guess.  But if they make us smile, if they bring peace into our hearts for just one moment, I think that might just be reason enough to include them.

Researching and writing this message was a learning opportunity for me.  The thing I am learning about Christmas, well, about life I guess, is that there is always an edge that I need to stretch toward - a learning edge, if you will.  If I am so rigid in what does and doesn’t belong in church as decoration, especially at this joyful time, then I will also be rigid about other things that are very important to other people.  When we are rigid in our stances, whether it is about what decorations belong in the church, or any other thing, we cannot learn.  We cannot open our hearts to those things that have great meaning to other people in our lives.  I have learned from these decorations, and from the great joy that we all receive just looking around at them, that I have  a great deal still to learn, about a great many things.  Thank  you, Jeffrey, for being my teacher in this.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.   

If we are to live in peace with each other, if we are to be like those woodland creatures on the back pew, and the lion and the lamb in that story I love to tell, if we are to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, if we are to be truly Christian, then we must open our hearts and minds to new and different. We don’t necessarily have to agree, but we have to be willing to listen, and try to understand where the other is coming from.  

When we leave this place today, let us go out willing to do our very best to live in harmony, to seek to understand the other, to openly share the love we receive from Christ with all those we may encounter.   Let us go out willing to learn new things, and to embrace new concepts, expanding our idea of what this Season is supposed to mean, so that we may all glorify God together.    

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hope Sunday - Be Prepared

Matthew 24:36-44 Common English Bible (CEB) 

36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One. 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.

This morning I felt like I used to feel on Christmas morning growing up.  You see, we weren’t allowed downstairs before our parents on Christmas day, and it was all I could do not to sneak down just a couple of steps to see what Santa had brought.  I didn’t have any parents telling me not to come and peek this morning, so when I got here at 6 am, armed only with the flashlight in my phone, I crept down the stairs from the office and gasped at the beauty I could see in the dimness of that light.  So I need to say something right away about the way our sanctuary  looks this morning.  It is awesome!  Thanks, as Laurie said in her email, to all the Christmas elves who came in to set everything out and to Elf Number 1 (aka Jeffrey) for spending all day Friday here at the church creating Christmas magic.  Advent purists may find some details to criticize, but I don’t.  I am simply overwhelmed by the beauty that has been created here.  I think maybe next week I will spend some time going over all the symbolism involved in the wreaths, the evergreens, the poinsettias, the orbs hanging from the trees, and all the other decorations.  Even the woodland creatures watching our service, the wooden soldier standing guard, and the sparkly reindeer taking flight over the gifts of food we will contribute to Selma Cares, as well as the table set for a feast in the library, all say something about the way we approach this holy day.  Oh, there will be so much to say next Sunday.   

 And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. . . You should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.”   Advent is all about preparation.  We prepare for the coming of the Human One - the Messiah.  Not for his birth, because that is a historical event.  That is something that actually happened in the past, and isn’t questioned.  At least, not by historians, who know from documents other than the Bible that there was such a person as Jesus from Nazareth who was crucified while Pilate was governor of Judea.  If such a person existed, then obviously, he was born.  Thus, his birth is a historical event.   But his return, that is something we aren’t sure about.  We are sure it will happen, but we don’t know the circumstances that will bring it about and we don’t know when, exactly, it will happen.  The rabbis say that the Messiah will come when either the world is so bad that he has to come straighten us out, or the world is so good that he is inexorably drawn to be with us.  (I like the second option better.)  Oh, there are prophecies, and signs, and formulae that have been carefully worked out by all sorts of people, but we cannot possibly know the answer.  After all, Jesus himself said, “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows.”  If we are to believe Jesus about other things, then we kind of have to believe him about this, I think.  Since none of us are God, (for which I give thanks daily!), none of us can possibly know, for sure, when the end will come, no matter what prophets may have said or mathematicians and physicists have worked out.  And because we don’t know exactly when the end will come, we must always be prepared.  

I kind of like the homeowner symbolism Jesus uses.  If you knew when your house was going to be robbed, you could be ready for the thieves when they arrive.  Your house would be locked up securely, you would be standing just inside the door with your trusty shotgun (or with your cell phone all set to call 911 while taking a picture of the thief breaking in for evidence).   You would have no fears or worries the rest of the time.  You could leave all your doors wide open every day and night, not worrying at all.  But on that day when you knew you would be robbed, you would be ready.    However, reality tells us that thieves seldom advise the homeowners in advance, so we have to be prepared all the time.  

Thus is it with the coming of the Lord at the end of days.   We have no idea when that will be. We don’t know when our own individual end will come, and we don’t know when the end of days for all the people of the earth will come.  And so, we must always be prepared, ready for the end.  

Can I tell you how terrifying this passage always was for me growing up?  It was preached in such a way that my understanding was, “If I am not perfect, I will go to hell.”  If I had misbehaved and not had an opportunity to confess and be forgiven, I was going to hell.  If I had missed a chance to do good for someone, I was going to hell.  God was always watching to make sure I was behaving perfectly, and if I messed up in any way, I was going to hell.  And since there was no way to know for sure when the end was coming, I was pretty sure I was going to hell, whenever.   I could never understand how God was always so judgmental and angry and punishing and yet “Jesus loves me”, while both being equally God (along with the Holy Spirit, who was somehow always left out of these conversations).   As Philip Gulley and James Mulholland note in their book, If God is Love, it is as if God is the bad cop and Jesus is the good cop.  As long as we  respond to Jesus, all is well. If not, well, we wouldn’t want Jesus to leave us alone in a room with God  (pg 21)   I grew up fearful of God.  At about age 7,  I learned a prayer of confession which said in part, “I regret my sins because of the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.”  The prayer went on to say, “but mostly because they offend you, O God, who are all good and deserving of all my love,”  but really, I was sorry only because I was afraid of hell. I didn’t actually believe in a loving God.   I only knew about the angry one.  And so, I was always afraid.

This year the theme we are using for Advent is “Do not be afraid.”  We have heard Christian talk about the fear he had about his trip to Italy to study opera last summer, and how God helped him through that fear.  Each Sunday during Advent, someone will come forward with a story of something they faced fearfully, and light a candle in gratitude for God’s help.  We will learn, I hope, that we need not be afraid, for God is with us always.

It took quite a long time for me to learn that.  I mean, I knew the “God is watching you” part really well, but it never occurred to me that God was watching over me in love rather than to catch me doing something wrong for which I could be punished.  But eventually, and with the help of loving people in 12 Step meetings, I learned about God as I understand him to be today - merciful, caring, and forgiving.  I learned about the God that Jesus spoke of when he spoke of his Father, who was there for him always, who stood with him in good times and bad, who wept with him in times of sorrow, and rejoiced with him in times of gladness.  And, to quote Gulley and Mulholland, “The longer I was in relationship with God, the less I feared.” (pg. 22)   These days I understand that previously incomprehensible statement in that prayer, “I am sorry for the mistakes I make because they offend you, O God, who are all good and deserving of all my love.”  These days I do not fear.  Well, I don’t fear God, and I don’t fear outcomes as much.  I still fear fire and snakes and stuff.  But not God.  I know that no matter what happens, I will be ok because God is with me.

It is a scary time right now for some of us.  We are watching the news and wondering what the coming years will mean to those of us who are LGBT folks, or poor, or dependent upon Social Security and Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.  We are concerned about what the future will bring for family members and friends who are refugees, or undocumented, or Muslim.  Some friends of mine who are female and clergy are getting even more hate mail than they already were.  I, thank God, have received very little over the years, and none of it about me personally.  More like form letters than personal threats.  But scary, nonetheless.   I sat in a restaurant the other day listening to a man at another table rant loudly about what was going to happen now to all of “those people,” and about the laws that will be now passed to make America pure again.  It was scary.  And yet I say to you, fear not, for God is with you.  

Fear not, and be prepared.  Be prepared at all times for the coming of the Lord, for none know when that time will be.  And yes, it will be like the days before the flood, when everyone is behaving as they normally do, eating and drinking and marrying.  Working.  Getting water.  Gathering food.  But some will be prepared in their hearts for God’s embrace.  Some will be able to live without fear of what might come, because they know that God is with them.  Others, who do not know God’s love, will be fearful about what is to come, the way I was always fearful.   

And here is what we must do to be prepared. We must love one another.  We must work very hard at not being judgmental, but rather at loving the person who God has created.  Even those who threaten us. Even those who make us fearful.  Even those who rant loudly in restaurants about the people they hate.  We must forgive them, and pray that they will find love, the kind of love that we know in Christ.  The kind of love that calms hearts, and soothes souls.  The kind of love that sends us out to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and comfort the comfortless.  The kind of love that impels us to stand with our friends who have reason to be fearful.  The kind of love that allows us to see Christ in every person, and to reflect the love of Christ back upon them.  

We do not know when the Lord will return, but we do know how to live in expectation of that day.  We know how to invite him into our hearts, even before that day has come.  We know how to live as if every day is that last day.  My brothers and sisters, when we go from this place, let us go out to live in love as we await the coming of our long expected King.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thank you, Lord.

Isaiah 12 Common English Bible (CEB)

12 You will say on that day:
“I thank you, Lord.
Though you were angry with me,
    your anger turned away and you comforted me.
2 God is indeed my salvation;
    I will trust and won’t be afraid.
Yah, the Lord, is my strength and my shield;
    he has become my salvation.”
3 You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation.
4 And you will say on that day:
“Thank the Lord; call on God’s name;
    proclaim God’s deeds among the peoples;
    declare that God’s name is exalted.
5 Sing to the Lord, who has done glorious things;
    proclaim this throughout all the earth.”
6 Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion,
    because the holy one of Israel is great among you.

Thank you.  Such a simple phrase.  For some of us saying thank you is almost automatic in response to any act of kindness or service.  The waiter brings our meal.  “Thank you.”    Someone says “Bless you” when we have sneezed.  “Thank you.”  Someone holds a door for us.  “Thank you.”   We do that, usually, because our parents have taught us that Please and Thank You are magic words.  They make things happen for us that wouldn’t happen without them.  “I want a cookie!”  “What’s the magic word?”  When we receive a gift, we are prompted with, “What do you say?” and hopefully we will remember that “Thank you”  is the correct response.    

The Prophet Isaiah tells the people of Israel that there will come a day when they say to the Lord their God, “Thank you.”   And that day will be after all of Israel has been reunited, when all of the tribes are reconciled with one another, when Israel and Judah are again one nation, when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”  (Isaiah 11:9b)  It will be the time of the Peaceful Kingdom, when the lion lays down with the lamb, and the child will put his hand on the snake without being bitten.  Imagine.  After all that God has done for the people of Israel, Isaiah tells them they will finally get around to saying “Thank you” only after the entire earth is at peace with itself.   Only after the Messiah has come.  Only after there is justice for the poor.  Only after there is equity for the low in status.  Only after righteousness and faithfulness have become the order of the day.  

This is the part where we pat ourselves on the back because we’re always appropriately thankful, right?  We pray prayers of thanksgiving in worship.  We say prayers of thanks before our meals.  We sing hymns of thanksgiving after the offering is collected.  We even have an entire day once a year called Thanksgiving, a day we traditionally spend giving thanks to God for our freedoms and for all the good things we receive throughout the year.  (I will not say a single word about our tendency to spend Thanksgiving Day engaging in conspicuous over-consumption, watching televised sports and parades obsessively, and planning our forays into consumerism at the Black Friday sales events.)  We are seriously thankful people!  I mean, we say “Thank you” for everything, right?   

Well, you see, the Hebrew people to whom Isaiah spoke that day did all those things, too.   Well, except for TV watching and Black Friday sales, of course.  They had days of celebration and thanksgiving.  They spoke words of thanks before meals.  They prayed thankfully to God in their worship services, even as we do.    What they didn’t do was remain thankful even in adversity. What they didn’t do was remember that God was blessing them even when bad things were happening.   They put their faith in humans and not in God, and that is why God became angry.  They neglected to trust that God would bring them through even the most difficult times.  That is why they felt estranged and deserted.   

I love reading Geneva's posts on Facebook.  I love them because even when she is talking about a less than wonderful thing that happened, something that's painful or irritating or frightening, she always also names something in that is a blessing.  A co-worker is being a pain in the neck, but Geneva is grateful she has a job.  Her car breaks down, but she is able to get it fixed.  She is exhausted and in pain, but she gets to spend time with her family and that energizes her.  Her gratitude is a constant, her faith in God's grace and goodness shines forth in every post.  Geneva’s posts always lift me up when I am down, and for that I am  very grateful.  

I think I have mentioned before that one of my spiritual practices is a daily gratitude list.  Every morning I sit down and make a list of 10 things I am grateful for.  Coffee often makes the list.  So do Cats.  All of the things one would expect to see are there.  A comfortable home.  Friends. The ability to pay my bills. Good health.  Warm socks.  Fall leaves.  Wind chimes.  Rain.  My gratitude list also  includes things that might not be expected.   Having God in my life, which is something that was lacking for many years. Having the flu, which forces me to rest.  Pain, because that makes me pay attention to what I am doing.  When I have finished my list each morning, I send it to a friend, a person to whom I am accountable to make sure it gets done.   When she receives my list, she gets motivated to write her own.  It's similar to the idea behind the CWF’s Blessing Box.  We put money in the box every time we are blessed so that our blessing can help others.  That is much more than just a collection box for charity. It is gratitude in action.

In many Twelve Step Groups, November is known as Gratitude Month, a time during which every meeting has gratitude as the topic for discussion.  We are often directed to think of things that we are grateful for that could not have happened if we were still drinking and using drugs.  So people talk about things like going back to school, keeping a job for more than a couple of months, reconciling with family, improved health, and being of service to others.  Being of service is a huge source of gratitude.  Some, for example, will talk about the gratitude that overwhelms them every time they walk into a prison to carry a message to the inmates there.   We are taught that gratitude is an action word.  It’s not just something we say.  It is something we do.  “My gratitude speaks when I care.”     

Speaking of things we do . . . I would like to take a moment to talk about tomatoes.  Over here you can see a table with cans of tomatoes on it.  These tomatoes are going to be our contribution to the Selma Cares annual holiday food distribution event.   Selma Cares hopes to collect enough food to fill 550 boxes for families with children and for elderly folks in need.   Now, I don’t want to cause any of you to feel guilty when I tell you that the Church of the Redeemer has already collected two pallets of green beans, or that First Baptist is on track to getting enough corn to put four cans in every one of those 550 boxes, but . . .  What I am going to tell you though, is that collecting enough tomatoes to add a couple of cans to each of those boxes is not an act of charity.  It is an act of gratitude.  It is a very visible way of saying, “Thank you, Lord, for all that I have received.”   It is a prayer made physical.  I would make two suggestions about the tomatoes.  One, you could buy extra cans of tomatoes every time you go to the grocery store between now and December 11th.  Or you could put some money in an envelope, write “tomatoes” on it, and we (somebody) will purchase tomatoes to add to the congregation’s donation to Selma Cares.   

Isaiah told the people of Israel, when the time comes, you will say “Thank you, Lord”.  You will finally realize that God never deserted you, never left your side, never left you orphaned or alone.  Even though you made bad choices. Even though you trusted in human governments instead of in God.  Even though you tried to run your lives on your own instead of relying on God to guide you.  God was always there, always waiting to comfort you, always waiting for you to turn back to His ways.  There will come a day when you begin to understand what it means to love all of God’s children. There will come a day when your greatest concern is for all persons to be treated with justice and righteousness.  When you will stop worrying so much about your own well being and seek to serve those who need your help.  There will come a day when your greatest desire is for all persons on earth to be reconciled with each other and with the Lord. On that day your exile will be ended for all time.  On that day you will say, “God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid.”   On that day you will truly say, Thank you, Lord.”

As we enter into this week of Thanksgiving, let each of us find ways and places to make our gratitude felt.  Let each of us serve as the hands and feet of the Lord, our God to the best of our ability, so that all who we encounter will see God’s love through us.  Let each of us say, “Thank you, Lord,” with our lives.   

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Because of your faith . . .

Luke 21:5-19 Common English Bible (CEB) 

5 Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, 6 “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”

8 Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. 9  When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”

10 Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. 11 There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 12 But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. 14 Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. 15 I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. 17 Everyone will hate you because of my name. 18 Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. 19 By holding fast, you will gain your lives.

Last week I mentioned that there were very few times in the church year when I would have the opportunity to wear a white stole - Christmas, Easter, and All Saints Sunday.  You will have noticed, I think, that today is none of those.  But today is another time of great joy and celebration.  Today is the day we baptize a new Christian.  Will Thompson is sitting right up front here in a white baptismal robe, anxiously awaiting the moment when I call him forward to make his vows and go into the water of forgiveness.  

Will is probably happy that we no longer do baptism the way the early Christians did.  The picture on the screen is an ancient baptistery located in the Negev - a desert region of southern Israel - and was likely built sometimes between 250-600AD.  Early Christian baptistries were shaped like a cross, so, if Will was being baptized then, he would stand at the foot of the cross, remove all of his clothing, and walk into the water.  This symbolized his willingness to give up his old life, his old ways of understanding the world, and entering an entirely new life in Christ Jesus.  He would have spent a year or more studying the faith before the church elders agreed he was ready to become a member.  He would have attended worship services, but he most likely would have been required to leave the service before Communion, as that was restricted to baptized Christians only.   Once he was in the water, he would have been pushed under the water by the leader of the congregation, baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and given an entirely new name - his Christian name.  The old Will would have died - symbolically - under the water, his old life gone forever, wiped clean by the waters of baptism.  Emerging from the water a new person, with a new name, he would be anointed with oil, given a new robe to begin his new life, and would then join the congregation for the Lord’s Supper for the very first time.

If you all will excuse me for a few minutes, I need to talk to Will.   Things are a bit different today.  We don’t do that whole naked thing anymore.  We don’t give you a new name.  We don’t anoint you with oil.  We don’t even give you a new robe - although we do lend you the very nice, white robe you are wearing right now.  And because you are a member of this church, you’ve probably been sharing the Lord’s Supper with the congregation ever since you could eat solid food, so when you join us in that meal today it won’t be for the first time.

But it will be for the first time as an adult member of the Church universal.  You see, that’s what baptism is for you.  Your decision to become a Christian through baptism is the decision of an adult.  From here on out, you will be held to the standard of any adult Christian.  I know that is what you want. I know that you want more than anything to be a Christian - a baptized Christian, fully accountable to Christ.  I know that you want more than anything to dedicate your life to Christ publicly.  And that you want to do that in this church, your home church.  You have no idea how happy that makes, not just your family, but the entire church family here present today.  

I hope that you do understand what it means to be Christian.  I know that your parents and grandparents have taught you well.  I know that you pay close attention to what you are taught in church and Sunday School and Youth Group.  But now that you have made the decision to be baptized, to dedicate your life to Christ, to follow his commandments in your every day encounters, when the rubber hits the road, you will be required to act.  

Jesus said to his disciples, “they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. . . You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you.  Everyone will hate you because of my name.”    You may think this can’t apply to you, but it does. It applies to all of us, to all Christians.  In this country, we won’t be arrested for being Christian, and we are very grateful for that, as there are some countries in the world where you can be arrested or even executed for preaching your faith.  But even here you might be harassed by classmates and other people who think that all Christians are like the folks from a church that pickets military funerals, and think gay and lesbian folk ought to be executed, and openly practice racism, and say women aren’t allowed to be leaders.  There are a lot of churches like that, and unfortunately, many people don’t know that not all Christians believe those things.  So it is up to you to show them what Christians are really like.  You might find yourself in a situation at school where someone is being bullied, and as a Christian, you have to do something about it.  It doesn’t matter who the person is or why they are being bullied.  You cannot stand by and watch someone else be oppressed.  You have to keep from using ugly language, or speaking hatefully of other people.  From here on, and for the rest of your life, you have to demonstrate the primary commandment we have been given by Jesus - to love God and to love your neighbor - with every word and action.    Jesus said we should be grateful when people oppose us, because “This will provide you with an opportunity to testify.”  Sometimes we get to testify to our faith with actions.  Sometimes we get to testify to our faith with words.  Sometimes we get to testify to our faith with silence.  

All of this is a lot to ask of anyone.  It’s difficult, very very difficult to do.  Maybe close to impossible.  But it is what is required of us, so we all have to try, all the time.  

But here’s the Good News.   Even when we fall short, even when we do what is wrong and we know we are doing wrong, even when we don’t do the right thing and we know we haven’t done the right thing . . . God will forgive us.   We don’t have to carry the weight of that guilt for yelling at our little sister, or disobeying our parents, or shoving the dirty clothes under the bed instead of cleaning our rooms . . . not that you would do any of those things, but even if you did.   We do have to make amends to anyone we have hurt, intentionally or unintentionally, but no matter what our sin may be, God will forgive us.  Even though it is really, really hard to love one another the way God loves us, God will forgive us when we fall short.   God will wash us clean of our sins over and over again, forgive us over and over again.  And all we have to do is love God, love one another, and follow Jesus.   Are you ready?  Do you want to be a Christian?  Then come forward, Will Thompson, and present yourself as a candidate for baptism.

Let us pray:  
Creator Sprit, who in the beginning hovered over the waters,
Who at Jesus’ baptism descended in the form of a dove,
Who at Pentecost was poured out under the sings of fire and wind,
Come to us, open our hearts and minds,
So that we may hear the life-giving word
And be renewed by your power
In the unity of the Father and the Son, now and forever,  Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

For All The Saints

3:1-9. Common English Bible (CEB)

3 The souls of those who do what is right are in God’s hand. They won’t feel the pain of torment. 2 To those who don’t know any better, it seems as if they have died. Their departure from this life was considered their misfortune. 3 Their leaving us seemed to be their destruction, but in reality they are at peace. 4 It may look to others as if they have been punished, but they have the hope of living forever. 5 They were disciplined a little, but they will be rewarded with abundant good things, because God tested them and found that they deserve to be with him. 6 He tested them like gold in the furnace; he accepted them like an entirely burned offering. 7 Then, when the time comes for judgment, the godly will burst forth and run about like fiery sparks among dry straw. 8 The godly will judge nations and hold power over peoples, even as the Lord will rule over them forever. 9 Those who trust in the Lord will know the truth. Those who are faithful will always be with him in love. Favor and mercy belong to the holy ones. God watches over God’s chosen ones.


It may seem a bit odd to see me up here wearing a white stole today.  After all, white is generally only worn at times of great celebration:  Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of the Christ; and Easter, when we celebrate the resurrection, the re-birth of our Lord and Savior.  Today is All Saints Sunday.  We have lit candles in memory of those who have gone before, saints of the church, our beloved family members, and dearly missed friends.  It may feel sad.  It may not feel like a day of celebration, yet here I am, wearing white.  Because today is a day of great celebration - the day we celebrate their new life.   The day we celebrate their rising up with the Holy Spirit into the arms of our God.

This week, here is Selma, there were Day of the Dead altars on display at quite a few downtown businesses.  People wandered from altar to altar all week, admiring the different ways in which people were remembered and celebrated.  To tell you the truth, when I first came to California and learned about the Day of the Dead, I was quite confused.  I couldn’t understand the concept, really, of feasting in a graveyard, or building altars filled with things that were loved by  deceased family members.   While I was at Chapman University I attended several Day of the Dead events, to try to understand better.  Well, that and the fact that I went to all the multicultural events on campus, because there was always lots of food, don’t you know.  But even after that, I still didn’t quite get the celebration of life aspect.  In the tradition in which I was raised, we went to church on All Saints Day, and yes, the priest wore white, but it didn’t feel like a celebration.  It felt depressing.  Until, that is, I was in seminary.  In my very first preaching class we a local preacher come in to teach us about funeral preaching, an African American pastor who saw every funeral as a celebration, and who taught us to do the same.   After that, when I noticed the families having picnics in the cemeteries on All Saints Day I understood so much more.  

That’s not to say we shouldn’t mourn the loss of our loved ones.  One of my classmates in seminary told us about a conversation he had heard while sitting in on a meeting with his supervising minister and a family who had just lost their mother.   While the two sisters spoke eagerly of their plans for the funeral service, their brother simply sat there weeping.  Suddenly, one sister turned to him and said, “If you were really a Christian you would be happy!  She is with Jesus now.”   The pastor spoke to them then, of the need to grieve, using the words Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, reminding them that we do grieve, but not like those who have no hope.  His words - well, Paul’s words, really - comforted the brother and gave the sisters permission to allow their grief expression when they felt the need.  

Long before the birth of Christ, King Solomon wrote the words we heard earlier.  “3 The souls of those who do what is right are in God’s hand. They won’t feel the pain of torment. 2 To those who don’t know any better, it seems as if they have died. Their departure from this life was considered their misfortune. 3 Their leaving us seemed to be their destruction, but in reality they are at peace. 4 It may look to others as if they have been punished, but they have the hope of living forever.”   We tend to think of writings like this as being specifically Christian, but this is actually what Jesus and the other Jews of his time were raised to believe.  That those who were obedient to God’s will who have gone before were not truly dead, but that they would be at God’s right hand when the end of days came.  That death is not the end, not a punishment, but the beginning of something too amazing to understand.  “Those who trust in the Lord will know the truth. Those who are faithful will always be with him in love. Favor and mercy belong to the holy ones. God watches over God’s chosen ones.” 

God watches over God’s chosen ones.”  It there is one thing that gets us in trouble on a regular basis, it’s that whole idea of chosen, and the elect, and who is righteous and who isn’t.  One of the earliest groups of immigrants to these shores took that idea to a disturbing degree.  The Puritans, who were Calvinist in their beliefs, believed that each of us was destined for heaven or hell before we were even born.  They said that no one knew for sure, so it behooved one to behave properly, but what they actually believed was that it would be easy to tell who the elect were by the way their lives played out. Unfortunately, we can also look to Solomon for this concept.  He wrote, “10 The ungodly will get what their evil thinking deserves. They had no regard for the one who did what was right, and instead, they rose up against the Lord. 11 Those who have contempt for wisdom and instruction will be miserable. People like this have no hope. Their work won’t amount to anything. Their actions will be worthless. 12 They will marry foolish people. Their children will be wicked. Their whole family line will be cursed.”   So the Puritans believed if someone was very successful in business, or had a prosperous farm, and all his children lived, and all went well in his world, then he was certainly one of those destined for heaven.  The poor and the unsuccessful, on the other hand, were almost certainly going in the other direction.   

Jesus disagreed with that concept.  In the 6th chapter of Luke’s Gospel he tells us that right after Jesus selected his first disciples, he stood in front of a large crowd who had come to be healed, and to hear him preach.  And then,

20 Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:
“Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours.
21 Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh.
22 Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. 23 Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.

24 But how terrible for you who are rich,  because you have already received your comfort.
25 How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now,  because you will mourn and weep.
26 How terrible for you when all speak well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

There is a reason Jesus was not born to a royal family.  There is a reason he was raised by an ordinary family, near the bottom of the social scale in an oppressed nation.   Unlike King Solomon, who was raised in great wealth and privilege, Jesus understood what life was like for ordinary people.  He spoke as did the prophets of old. He said the same things that Isaiah and Zechariah and Micah and Jeremiah said.  But where they were prophets to the royal court and spoke primarily to the rich and powerful, most of whom didn’t listen, Jesus, a poor and ordinary man, spoke them to ordinary people who desperately needed to hear his words of hope.  Oh, the rich and powerful were there, and some listened.  Some heard what he said and took it to heart.  Some changed their ways, and their understandings of God’s will for them.  But his true message was to those who were considered less than.  His real message was to those who were outcaste and broken.  To the poor and disregarded.  To the powerless and unimportant.    Blessed are you who have nothing.  Who are depressed.  Who are frustrated.  Blessed are you, on the bad days.  On the days when you cannot see the point in going on, working day after day just to keep a roof over your head. Blessed are you, who are alone.  Whose children have left.  Whose family is gone.  Who have no one to turn to in times of trouble.   Blessed are you, for God is with you. God loves you.  God carries you through those times when it seems impossible to go on.  No matter who you are or what you have done, God loves you.  God doesn’t judge by your appearance, your relative wealth, or your status.  

Even his disciples had some trouble with all this.   “Who was the sinner, Lord, that this man was born blind?  Him, or his parents?”   No one!  It’s not anyone’s fault.  It just happened.  Stop blaming people for things they cannot help.  Stop chasing the children away. Let them come to me.  Let that woman who is crying my name come closer.  Stop thinking of them as unimportant.  Stop thinking of anyone as unimportant, or less than you.  All of you, you need to change the way you look at the world.  He told them they had to behave in exactly the opposite way to what the world taught and expected.  

I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.”   

I think perhaps it is at the time of death that we can see most clearly the different ways the world and the church look at people.  In the public view, in the media, we read a about the death of important people and the description is usually about where they worked, and whether they had achieved success in that work.  We read about who their family is, and if they are related to anyone noteworthy.  The media will tell us about their generosity in endowing charities, universities, and so on.  And then we hear how the church speaks of people, of the saints of the church.   Often not terribly important in the eyes of the world, but very important to us.  The words used to describe these people tend to be about relationship, about who they touched with joy and love, how they moved others with laughter, how they taught others to be better people.  The world thinks that death is a loss, that it is a punishment.  As Solomon said, “To those who don’t know any better, it seems as if they have died. Their departure from this life was considered their misfortune.”  

But we know better.  We know, that the saints who have gone before are blessed.  We know that those who have lived by God’s will are with God.  Those who have asked forgiveness are forgiven.  Those who are faithful will always be with God in love.   We come here on All Saints Sunday to celebrate them, knowing that the Holy Spirit has carried them ahead of us to be by God’s side until we meet again.

May we live well and faithfully, with mercy and compassion for all others.  Without judging.  Treating all others as we wish would to be treated.   May we work hard to love everyone, even the people we dislike or who dislike us, even those who mistreat us and threaten us.   And one day, we too will join that great crowd of saints, shining with glory, celebrating our new life in God’s presence for all eternity, 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

I will give . . .

Luke 19:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


Poor Zaccaeus.  He started out the day with three strikes against him.  He was a tax collector, and he was rich, and he was short.  He must have been very short indeed if the only way he could see past folks when Jesus went by was to climb a tree.  Even today, in a time when we struggle to accept everyone regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental ability, and body shape, a person who is exceptionally short gets looked at, and usually not in an admiring way.  In his time, people who were different were outcast and despised.  Zaccaeus was looked down upon because of his stature, yes, but also because of his occupation.  He was a tax collector.   He was chief tax collector.   

Now, when we talk about tax collectors in the ancient world, it would be wrong to equate that with an auditor with the IRS.  As much as we love to hate the IRS - present company excluded, of course - tax collectors in the Roman Empire were hated so much more and greatly feared.  You see, tax collectors didn’t apply for their jobs.  They were appointed by the Emperor or one of his governors from among the wealthy landowners in a province.  They were told what taxes were due for their area and they were responsible for collecting every penny of those taxes.   If, for whatever reason, they could not collect all the taxes that were due, the balance came out of their own pocket.  If they couldn’t pay the total amount, their property and even their families would be sold to make up the difference.  It was not uncommon, therefore, for a tax collector to collect more than the amount due from an individual in order to keep from having to make up the difference that someone else couldn’t pay.  He also had the power to seize property, including people, and selling that property to pay the taxes due if someone couldn’t pay.  So people hated and feared the tax collector.  The Chief Tax Collector was responsible for making sure the taxes due from all the tax collectors below him were paid, meaning his property and family were at even greater risk than those who worked for him.  Chief Tax Collectors, therefore, often required more than the amount due from the other tax collectors.  So he was hated and feared by all the people, including those who worked for him.   And he was short.  Zaccaeus was indeed greatly despised.  

And Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  Naturally, the crowd was displeased.  How dare Jesus stay with a tax collector?  And not just any tax collector, but a chief tax collector - the worst of the worst, as far as his neighbors were concerned.  And Zaccaeus said, “Lord, I will change.  I will repay any I have defrauded, paying back four times what I took, and I will give half of everything I own to the poor.”   Now remember, if anyone couldn’t pay their taxes, Zaccaeus had to make up the difference.  He was giving away his cushion, the money that was keeping him safe from the loss of everything - his home, his family, even his own freedom.   And Jesus, knowing all of this, reminded the crowd that Zaccaeus, too, tax collector or not, was a child of God, a member of the family of Abraham.  “Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  

Last Sunday you all turned in slips of paper that said, “My church makes a difference in my life by…”    I had filled mine out early, so when I got back to the church office on Tuesday morning after having been home sick for an entire week, the first thing I saw on my desk was a slip of paper that said “My church makes a difference in my life by loving me.”  I wrote that before I came down with the nasty yucky stomach crud.  Before I had to keep postponing or cancelling things I really wanted to do with the congregation.  Before I had to stay home in bed on Sunday morning!  Thursday I got the first offer to take my place in the pulpit if I needed to stay home.  People sent messages and asked if I needed anything from the store.  Alan brought me a cinnamon bun.  By Saturday I was getting messages that said, “We’ll handle Sunday. You just get well.”  Can I tell you how loved I felt?  

This week marks the culmination of our Stewardship Campaign for 2017.  Now, I know, and you all know, that one of the main complaints people have about organized religion is, “They’re always asking for money!”  To which I must say, “Guilty as charged.”  Every Sunday we talk about why it’s important to put money in the basket.  We are very careful how we say that, of course, because somehow giving our tithes and offerings to make sure we have lightbulbs to light the sanctuary just doesn’t resonate in our hearts quite the way giving toward feeding the hungry does.  The fact is, however, we do need light bulbs and toilet paper and copy paper.  We do need choir music and candles and the bread and juice for communion.  But when it’s time for Stewardship moments or the annual Stewardship Campaign, we are very careful to talk in terms of mission, not the minutiae of day to day ministry.   Preachers are not fond of preaching on Stewardship, because it feels a bit self serving, you know?  We are terrified that we will be seen as Zaccaeus was seen, a tax collector, money hungry and despised by all.  “Please give generously to pay my salary,” just doesn’t feel right.  But yes, that’s what a Stewardship campaign is about.  It’s about making sure we can pay the bills in the coming year.  But it’s more than that, so much more than that.  What it is really about is commitment.  

The slip of paper this week says “I will give….” and is a one year commitment to work toward the future of First Christian Church.  Never doubt that this is what it is.  It’s not a “here’s how I will help pay the electric bill,” although, it is.  And it’s not a “here’s how I will help  pay for office supplies, although it is.   And it’s not a “here’s how I will help  pay the preacher,” although it is that, too.  What this slip of paper is, in fact, is a commitment to spend the coming year supporting this congregation’s work in the world in every way you know how.  With your money, your time, your talents, and your prayers.  

It’s a commitment to do what the Young Adults did yesterday, getting here at ridiculous in the morning to buy donuts and make breakfast burritos and prepare coffee and set up a table and chairs out front for the Annual Choir Fundraiser, and then hang out there making change and being the face of our congregation till well past noon.  

It’s a commitment to collect canned tomatoes for Selma Cares, and volunteer for Christian Cafe, and spend one Saturday a month booth sitting at a Bringing Broken Neighborhoods  Back To Life Block Party, and fix what’s broken at the church, and sing in the choir, and contribute goodies to pot lucks, and decorate the sanctuary, and clean out dog cages at Second Chance Animal Shelter, and spend 24 hours at the Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and participate in Sunday School, and carry a message of Christ’s love to the women in Federal Prison, and serve at the Table, and help out planning the 100th Birthday party of our building, and hand write birthday cards, and visit the homebound, and take cinnamon buns to your sick pastor, and attend committee meetings, and hang out with our Youth, and play music on fifth Sundays, and pray . . . for all of the above, for our members, for the nation, for the world. It’s a commitment to stand up and do more, as much more as we possible can.   It’s a commitment to give of ourselves, as Jesus commands us to do.    

Jesus reminded the crowd that day he had come, not for those who already were doing all they were supposed to do for God, but for those who were lost; for the sinners, the despised, and the outcast.  Jesus came to heal the sin-sick souls of those who were unloved, unloveable, unlovely, those who felt that God would never accept them, could never love them.  Jesus came to seek out and save the lost.   Jesus commanded that we do the same - feeding the hungry, giving the homeless a place to sleep, healing the sick, comforting the prisoner, reaching out to the poor in funds and in spirit, to the mentally ill, to those who don’t know the loving God we know, to those who live in brokenness.  Our commitment on this day, this Commitment Sunday, is to give all that we can to do the work of our Lord in the world.    Zaccaeus offered half of all he had to the poor, and to pay back whatever he had defrauded others of four times over.  By doing so, Zaccaeus put his family and his own freedom at risk.  We don’t have to do that, exaclty.   We just have to commit our lives to God - our tongues and talents, our gold and silver, our hands and feet, our hearts and souls - our everything.   For just as Jesus came into the world to heal the sick and sinful hearts of the lost, so we, too, are to follow his example.  We are the body of Christ, called to be the hands and feet of our God, the gifts of grace and love He gives to all the people of the earth.   When we go forth from this place today, let us go joyfully, giving our all, so that all may see Jesus in us.