Sunday, December 24, 2017

How is that possible?

Luke 1:26-38   New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)   

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
How many of you here have played Mary in a Christmas Pageant?   I did, although not at my own church. My Girl Scout troop did a Christmas program the year I was in 5th grade and since I was the only one with long, straight, dark hair, I was chosen to be Mary.   My mother made me a beautiful blue robe and pinned a white cloth on my head like a veil, like all the pictures we had of Mary.  I felt so special, to be chosen to play Jesus’ mother.   

Mary is special, in so very many ways.  She has been revered by Christians since the beginning, as we can tell just from the fact that Luke’s includes her story in his Gospel.  She encounters an angel.  Now many people in the Bible have had encounters with angels, but most of those angels aren’t named.  Mary however, is approached by not just any nameless angel, but the Angel Gabriel, who had previously appeared to the prophet Daniel and the priest Zechariah.   He greets her as “favored one” and goes on to tell her that because she has found favor in God’s eyes she will bear a child who will rule the Israel forever.   This hasn’t happened before.  Other women had been told they would bear a son, after having been childless - Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, and Elizabeth.   And like Mary, they were told their sons would be special, chosen by God for great things - prophets, priests, leaders, the father of nations, even.  But all of these were married women, struggling with infertility, and none were told their son would rule Israel.  Mary would have known these stories - well, except for her cousin Elizabeth’s story, and Gabriel tells her that one.  And she would have wondered how on earth this was supposed to work for her, since she wasn’t yet married.  We all know the story - we tell it every Christmas.  But over the millennia this story led the Church to revere Mary in ways that no other human is revered.  

In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the immaculate Conception, saying “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin.”  In 1950, after experiencing a vision in which Mary spoke to him while he walked in the Vatican gardens, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of Mary, saying that “the Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”   No other human was born without sin.  And according to scripture, only one other, the prophet Elijah, ascended bodily into heaven.     And although these particular beliefs about Mary are not scriptural, many Christians believe them to be true.

Unfortunately, Mary has also been used by the Church to teach women to be mild and self-effacing, and to allow themselves to be guided in all things by men.  She is presented as the example of the perfect woman, pure, meek and obedient in every way.   And yet, that isn’t really the way the Bible portrays her.   Nancy Rockwell, in an article titled, “No More Lying About Mary,” (  points out a number of things that would contradict the image of Mary as meek and mild, or even as a traditional woman of her own time.  Unlike most other women portrayed in Scripture,  she isn’t engaged in any household chore at the time the angel appears - or at any other time she appears in Scripture.  Frankly, we don’t know what she was doing when the angel appeared, but later she will usually be portrayed as traveling or visiting someone, even attending a wedding, but not in her own home.    When Gabriel tells her that God has chosen her to bear this special child, she doesn’t agree right away.  She wants to know how that will be possible, since she isn’t married.   She knows what could happen to her if she is known to be pregnant and unmarried - she could be stoned to death.  She knows that God is asking her to literally put her life on the line.  It is reasonable, if a bit bold, that she should stand up to this terrifying creature and ask him, “How is that possible?”  She doesn’t agree until Gabriel tells her about her elderly cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy and assures her that with God all things are possible.  And then she replies, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

A meek and mild Mary wouldn’t have been God’s first choice, I don’t think.  She was going to have to face great difficulties - traveling in the last days of her pregnancy, fleeing into exile in Egypt, raising a son who she knew would be special but having to keep that all to herself, his death, and all that happened in the years following his death.  No, God was going to need a strong woman, a self-reliant woman, a faithful woman, to do all the things that lay ahead for Mary.   Just giving birth for her was going to be more difficult than for her contemporaries, most of whom would at least be in the comfort of her own home.  Not Mary.  Nancy Rockwell said of Mary,  “She gives birth in a barn, lies down with animals, and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive.” (Nancy Rockwell December 3, 2017

How is that possible?  Mary’s story is about faith.  She is told that she has been chosen to walk a certain path, she accepts that path and proceeds to walk, no matter how frightening or potentially dangerous that path might be.   Many of us here have been at a point in our lives when we know what it is we are supposed to do, but we have no idea how that’s going to happen.  During Bible Study Wednesday night we shared stories of things that had been obstacles, things which might have kept us from doing what we believed God wanted us to do, how we had faith that God would bring us through - and how God did bring us through.  If God really wants us to do whatever, then it’s going to happen no matter what obstacles got in the way.  There is a prayer form known as, “Name it and claim it,” in which you proclaim that the thing you need has already happened, and it’s just a matter of walking forward into a future in which that thing exists.  I’m not entirely comfortable with that in every situation that comes up, but there are times when “name it and claim it” is appropriate.  If I believe that God wants me to do something in particular - like, be a minister, or a teacher, or a music therapist - then I must also believe that God will give me what I need to surmount any obstacle in my way.    

“If God brings me to it, God will see me through it.”  When everything seems to be going sideways, when troubles and trials seem to be outnumbering the blessings, this helps.  No matter what is going on in my life, God will be there with me to help me walk through it.   For Mary, this thought probably became a way of life.  In the very near future, she was going to have to deal with a confrontation with Joseph, and probably her parents, and then the whispers of her neighbors.   Who is going to believe her if she tries to tell them that the child came from God?  Only Elizabeth.  Joseph would require angelic intervention.  There would be times, I suspect, when Mary wondered, “Why me?  Why couldn’t He have picked someone else?”  Like, maybe when Jesus decided to stay behind in Jerusalem the year he was 12.  But you know, I don’t think that happened too often.  Because if 10 year old me felt so much awe and wonder at being allowed to play the part of Mary one Christmas, with a plastic doll taking the part of baby Jesus, I can’t even imagine what the real Mary must have felt when she held the the Christ Child in her arms.   I think that no matter what came her way throughout her life, that awe and wonder must have been constant, because she knew that the child, the boy, the man, who came from her body, was truly the Son of God.   

Tonight, a Child will be born to us, again.  Tonight, new life, new meaning, will come into the world, again.   Tonight, we will be reminded again that nothing is impossible with God, for the Child is coming.   Therefore, let us be like Mary, and go forward from this place knowing that All things are possible with God.   Let us lift up our voices, our souls and our hearts, to give Glory to our God.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

How to build a Christian

 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24   (NRSV)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[a21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
It is Advent - a time of waiting and anticipation.   It is a time of looking back to the birth of the Christ and looking forward to his return.   Paul wrote this letter to the church in Thessalonica at a time when they were dealing with uncertainty and not a little fear.   This letter is almost certainly the earliest of the letters, the earliest Christian writing that we have available to us today, and yet already there was confusion and uncertainty.  Paul and all the other leaders of the Christ followers had been so sure that Jesus would return soon, next week or maybe the one after.  They had gone out from Jerusalem to carry the Good News to as many people as they possibly could reach before the end of days arrived . . . and here it is some twenty years after the resurrection and he still hasn’t come.  In this letter, Paul comforts his people, telling them that just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.  He counsels them to faith and patience, and reminds them that God, the one who called them, is faithful.  Meanwhile, all around them are people who chase after wealth and pleasure, whose only care is for themselves, whose lifestyle and attitudes could easily tempt these young Christians away from their new life in Christ.  He  urges them to remain faithful, and to behave always in ways that will encourage others to respect them, and perhaps even emulate them. 

This may sound silly.  I play a game called Township on my iPad.   It’s a city building game.  We each have our own Township - mine is Parsonville - and players form co-ops to compete with other co-ops in growing crops and manufacturing goods.  Each person in the co-op can see what everyone else is doing as far as completing tasks and we help each other to complete their tasks. I like helping people so I help, a lot.   And it didn’t occur to me that I was doing anything different or that anyone was even paying attention until last week, when for some unknown reason, our co-op went from 8 members to 30 in a day or so.  One of the new co-op members said something about how she liked that we all help each other, and one of the established members said, “I just keep trying to catch up with Parson, but no success so far.”  As the conversation continued I became aware that my willingness to help everyone had spurred others to quietly compete with me.  They all want to be the leader in helping!  I think that is so cool.  What if my co-op members go out into the real world looking for ways to help others without fanfare or reward?  That would be even more cool.  

That’s kind of what church is for, you know.  We come here to worship, first and foremost.  But we also come here to learn how to live in the world while being somehow apart from the world.  We come to learn how to help and do good things, without fanfare.  Like the people of Thessalonica, we live in a time when social norms are all about getting attention, and acquiring stuff, getting the best of others in every situation, seeking pleasure even at the expense of other people, looking for someone to blame when stuff goes wrong, even looking for the worst in others instead of the good.   For anyone who thinks that this kind of ugliness is a modern phenomenon that only happens on Facebook . . . did you know that early Christians were thought to be baby killers and cannibals?  Yes.  People heard that they shared the body and blood of their dead God, and decided what that really meant is that they stole babies and ate them at their worship services.  They also thought that Christians were incestuous - people heard them calling each other brother and sister and talking about loving one another and immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion.  It wouldn’t have been hard to get up a mob with torches and pitchforks - or stones - or crosses - with rumors like those making the rounds of the city.  Persecution of groups of people generally  happens because falsehoods are told that create fear and incite hatred.  Even today.

Paul was well aware of the dangers his people faced.  He, himself, had been stoned, beaten, imprisoned and otherwise persecuted for his preaching.   He had been lied about and heard mobs call for his death because of things said about his actions and his preaching that were totally untrue.  So he gives them a list of admonitions.  A list of ways to live their lives in Christ.   
Rejoice always.  We spoke of this at some length last month, when our focus was on gratitude.  Even when things go wrong, there is always something to be grateful for, or rejoice about.  I presided at a memorial service yesterday, and there is a reason we call them Celebrations of Life.  Even when grieving the loss of husband and father, brother and friend, there are funny stories to share, joys to lift up about that person’s life.  Rejoicing, even then, is possible for the Christian.  

Pray without ceasing.  You know, I used to wonder how this is possible.  How can I pray without ceasing if I am supposed to be working or driving - ok, scratch that one.  I pray while driving all the time!  But how can one do that?  You can do that if you make your life a prayer.  If you offer your entire life, everything you do all day, to God.  And then there is popcorn praying, which I something I tend to do. If I think of you during the day, I will pray for you at that moment.  Usually just a quick “God bless them,” or “Thank you, Lord, for putting them in my life today,” kind of prayer, offered up on the spur of the moment.  In this way you don’t get to the end of the day and realize you forgot to pray today.  Because you did, in fact, pray without ceasing.  

Give thanks in all circumstances.  Again, gratitude for everything, even the bad stuff.  Pain makes me ask for help - and I am really bad at asking for help.  So I become grateful for the pain, because it forces me to do what I know God would prefer for me to do. 

Do not quench the Spirit.  No matter what, let the Spirit have her way.  Inspiration comes from the Spirit - new ideas and aha moments.  Don’t let tradition bog you down, as it did for the Pharisees of Jesus time, but allow new ideas to flow through and catch fire in your hearts,  like the wind and flames on Pentecost.

Do not despise the words of the prophets.  Just as in Paul’s time there were disagreements between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians about the importance of the Law and Prophets to followers of Jesus, even today some Christians think that only the New Testament is relevant to Christian faith.  Yet Jesus was a Jew. He preached from the words of the prophets.   Paul spoke of the lineage of Abraham coming to the Gentiles by adoption through the Holy Spirit.  Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, whom we have come to know and to love through the teachings of Jesus, his son.  So we must respect and try to understand the words of those whom God sent to prepare the way for the Messiah - the prophets.

Test everything, hold fast to what is good.  Not all preaching and teaching will be in accordance to the will of God or God’s Spirit.  So when you listen, test the words in your heart.  If you feel that the preaching fits the teachings of Christ, then accept it. If not, do not accept it.  Not everything that you hear will be of God. Sometimes it will be driven by the personality or agenda of the teacher.  So test everything.  (In other words, just because the preacher says it, doesn’t mean you have to believe it.  That’s one of my favorite things about the Disciples of Christ.  It is one of the things that attracted me here in the first place.)  

Abstain from every form of evil.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds.  There is so much that could be considered evil - gossip, jealousy, acting out in anger, greed  - all of those sins that seem to be part of the human reality.  Consider everything you do before doing it, and choose the good.  Always, choose the path of love, compassion and mercy.  

Have you ever been to a Build a Bear workshop?  I think building a Christian might be a little like building a stuffed animal.   We take a body, and there are so many different kinds of bodies.  And we fill that body up with stuffing - teachings to help it develop faith.  Some will develop a faith that seems "Soft & Cuddly,” some will seem more "Hard & Firm," but most will fall "Somewhere In Between.”  Into each will go a heart, and each heart will be a little different.  Some have a heart for the poor.  Some have a heart for animals.  Some have a heart for the hungry, or the elderly.  Some hearts focus on sharing musical gifts.  You might not know what you have a heart for just now.  But you’ll figure it out.  And then we add the outer stuff - clothing and accessories for the stuffed creature translates into the way each of us lives our faith differently.   No matter what each one ends up looking though, each one is loved so much by its Creator.  Each one is different, and precious and beloved.

And so the Thessalonian church grew.   Each Christian grew in faith and strength.  And they waited, just as we still wait, for the return of the King - for the coming of the Lord.  Paul assured them, and us, that Jesus would return.   

Christians all, your Lord is coming.  Let us sing out our faith in the one who called us, for he is faithful, and will do as He said he would do.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Are you ready?

Isaiah 40:1-5, 11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.

Are you ready for Christmas?  Don’t you just hate when people ask you that?   NO, I’m not ready.  Do you have any idea what all it’s going to take for me to be ready?   The silliness of some people!   Don’t they know that December is the busiest month of the year in the church?

Take yesterday, for example.  Here, in this building, we had four different events going on.  Early in the morning, Pastor Josue’s congregation met to pack food boxes to take out to the barrio.  Meanwhile, downstairs Jane Ono and friends were setting up for a Holiday Bazaar to benefit the Relay for Life, while Vonnie and I were up here getting ready for the Community Church Open House.  After those events ended, there was time for a breather before the final rehearsal for the Community Choir Christmas Cantata - and then the performance, which was awesome, by the way!   Meanwhile, our CWF Esther Circle met and collected soap and shampoo for the Selma Convalescent Hospital, there was a performance of the Nutty Nutcracker at the Arts Center, and families could get free Santa pictures in the park.  Those are just the things I know about - I’m pretty sure there was more going on here and there around town that I don’t know about or forgot.   

Usually when people want to know whether you are ready for Christmas they are asking about things like, are your decorations up?  How far along are you on gift shopping?  Are you baking?  How’s that coming along?  Family dinner plans going well?   Did you get your cards out yet?   (My answers are Yes, I have purchased 1 gift, I made cookies for yesterday and I think people liked them, I don’t have a family, and Cards?  I set them out on my desk and that’s where they sit.  Again.  As usual. *sigh*)

But I don’t really think of Advent and Christmas in quite those terms.  Oh, I know that is what most people are thinking of, but I’m one of those odd people who live by the Church calendar.  I select outfits for church based on the color stole I will be wearing in any particular season.  I often have to be reminded about National Holidays.  In December, when everyone else is looking at end of year stuff, and Christmas of course, I am living in a New Church Year, and preparing for the new thing God has already done for us and still has in mind for us.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.

When I was reading this passage during the week I happened to remember  something I saw once. I visited some people in West Virginia one time, who lived on top of a mountain.  As I drove up a very curvy, steep, scary mountain road, off to my right I could see HUGE earth movers building a new highway to ease the journey through the Appalachian mountains. . . They were absolutely the biggest machines I have ever seen before or since.   And it looked like they were driving straight up the side of the mountain, as they leveled and smoothed it.   

It had to be a really difficult road to build, because it went up the side of a mountain.  And the mountain was made of rock - not the easiest substance to dig through.  And yet, those huge machines were running up and down the side of the mountain as if they were on a plain.

At this time of year we think mostly about preparing our homes and workplaces and churches for the celebrations to come.  For the parties and dinners, for Cantatas and Concerts and Christmas Eve services.  We think about finding ways to give to our community, making donations to Selma Cares and the Salvation Army and the Selma Convalescent Hospital, serving food at the Christian Cafe, and all the other ways we try to help others at this time of year.   This is all good and important.  And all of this keeps us so busy . . . John said to me last night that he has no idea how he did all of these things before he retired.  But there is more to do.   The whole making straight the way of the Lord - that’s an inside job.  

Yes,  the penalty is paid in Christ.  Yes, our sins are forgiven.   But just because we are forgiven, we don’t get to just sit back and coast.  We can’t just pray to be made new and have our life change.  We have to do the work of changing ourselves.   Because making straight the way of the Lord happens first.   Then we see the Lord’s glory.  Making straight the way of the Lord is not about following certain rules or adhering to particular sets of beliefs.  It’s about becoming new people, different people, preparing the way of the Lord in us, in our hearts, in our minds.  We become new people by digging out our own sins and defects of character, - judgmentalism, jealousy, hatred, greed, envy, fear - all of those things that keep us from having peaceful hearts, just as the earth-movers in West Virginia dug out the rocks and debris that were in the way of a straight highway.  And replacing those things with virtues like acceptance, love, generosity, willingness.  As we do this, we begin to change, and those changes show on the outside.  When the changes are made, we can know peace in our hearts.  We can experience serenity.   We become the kind of Christians hymns are written about, who are known by their love.   Once we have changed ourselves, we are better prepared to change the world.  And make no mistake, It is our job as Christians to change the world, to heal it, to make it into the Beloved Community that God so desires for us.  

We begin changing the world by learning to accept others where they are.  Not coming up with the right arguments to persuade them to our way of thinking, but working on really understanding where they are coming from.  Finding out why they feel or believe what they do.   Finding out what our real differences are.  And then trying to find a point where we can have conversation and begin to understand each other.  In today’s climate of division, fear, and hatred, that seems like an almost impossible task.  But it is our job to try, to do our best to be reconciled with each other so that all of us together can be reconciled with God.  We have to be willing to try to understand the other, to listen to each other, really listen.  This is difficult.  Most of us listen just long enough to figure out how we are going to respond.   Even after listening and coming to a place where we have some understanding of each other, we still may not be able to agree.  But we don’t have to agree.  We simply need to be able to live together peacefully.  

Because, you see, if we can live together peacefully, if we can all learn to accept one another as beloved children of God, then much of the anger and animosity that is present in our world will go away.  I know.  Wishful thinking on my part.  But I believe in miracles. I believe that we are capable of creating the Beloved Community.  I believe that a day will come when no one need fear walking alone or driving while Black or being transgender. I believe that a day will come when slavery is ended everywhere forever, and all people truly have equal rights.  I believe that one day we will live in a world where the hungry can be fed, the sick can be healed, the lonely and bereaved can know they are loved.   I believe that one day, when the way of the Lord has been made straight, the Glory of the Lord will be revealed and we will live in the Peaceful Kingdom, here on the earth.

Today’s Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that the time is near.  It is the beginning of another new year in Christ.  It is time to once again read the prophets and hear their words, follow their directions, be the people Jesus, our Lord, calls upon us to be.   It is time to change, to prepare the way for the Lord, for the day of the Lord is upon us.   Let us go from this place, willing to change ourselves, and our world. Let us go forth, to proclaim the Good News, speaking words of comfort to all the people of God.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Waiting - hopefully

 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 NRSV

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Happy Advent!  It is the beginning of a new season.  Turkey comas are a thing of the past, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are, thankfully, behind us.  The air is filled with Christmas music and my neighbors seem to be competing in the annual “Highest PG&E bill at the end of December” contest.   Bushes, trees and the eaves of houses are weighted down with miles and miles of lights, while projected light displays play on the fronts of homes.  It is not at all uncommon to see Nativity scenes sharing yard space with Sponge Bob Santa, Rudolph, and the Grinch.   Likewise, in some municipalities religious symbols share space with more secular decorations.  For example, for many years the center of the traffic circle in Old Town Orange displayed a Nativity Scene, a giant lighted Menorah, and a Santa house.  I haven’t been there in a while, so I don’t know for sure whether they still do that.  But it’s pretty common to see both Santa Christmas and Jesus Christmas in decorations in homes and public spaces.   And no  - there are not two different Christmases, just two different ways of focusing on and thinking about the holiday.)  In other countries and cultures, the birth of the Christ and the gift giving day are completely different - often gifts are exchanged on St Nicholas Day, December 6, and Christmas Day is strictly a religious holiday.  But in the U.S. we do it all at once.  So it’s really no wonder that we get Jesus and Santa confused sometimes.

Not at church, though.  At church we only do Jesus Christmas. 

I must admit, when I first saw the decorations in our church this year I was a bit taken aback.   To me, it looked like a mixture of Jesus Christmas and Santa Christmas in the sanctuary.   We have trees and ribbons and toy soldiers and reindeer and family pictures and a fireplace . . . and Advent candles and greenery and wreaths . . . all in one place.  It was disconcerting, at best.   It is not churchy.  And everyone knows that we can only have churchy stuff in church.  I know that I can be a bit rigid about churchy stuff - like the colors we decorate in for the different seasons, and using Advent music during Advent, and so on.  

But  there are a couple of things that I know. I know that rigidity is not a good thing.  I know that when we say “We’ve always done it this way,” or “We’ve never done it this way.” that we are saying we are unwilling to consider different ways of doing things, that we are stuck in the what used to be, and not ready to head into what is coming.   Those two phrases have been the death knell for entirely too many congregations.  So I started to think a bit more about the decorations that we can see all around us today. 

I don’t know about you all, but I learned about Mary and Joseph and the birth of the Christ Child and the Magi and shepherds and angels and all of that at home, from my parents, probably in front of the fireplace in our living room, with its mantle covered in family photos.  One of our favorite Christmas activities was setting up the Nativity scene in the living room, and telling the story to each other again.  Even playing the parts as we set each character in its place. (Not Baby Jesus, though.  He didn’t get set out until Christmas morning.)  I learned about Santa from them, too, and later I learned how to “help” Santa.  You know, like the way we all help Santa - and Jesus -  by bringing in canned tomatoes and toys to be distributed to families in need by Selma Cares.    We, the people of this congregation, think of ourselves as a family.  Our gathering here together is a family gathering, and maybe we can think of this space as kind of God’s living room. We call it God’s House, after all.   So maybe, maybe this living room up here isn’t such a stretch after all.   Maybe it’s good to be reminded that Jesus Christmas is in our homes as well as in our church. 

One thing that this lovely display surely reminds us of is waiting.  That’s what we do during Advent. We wait, and prepare, and hope.  Some of us are waiting to see what will appear under the tree on Christmas Day.  Some are preparing for the cantata and for welcoming visitors to the Community Church Open house and for all the many events going on in town over the next few weeks - not to mention family dinners and parties at work.  And all of us, hopefully, are waiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ.  Not the child. We will celebrate his birthday, of course, but we know he has come. We know the story of his birth and his ministry, his death and his resurrection.  What we are waiting for now is for his return, for that day when all will be set right. What we are working toward now, is the setting right of the world, as we are directed to do by God.

As I thought about how we wait and hope for the return of the Christ into the world, I happened to think of this little dog.  Generations of music lovers will recognize this picture as the logo for RCA Music since 1899.  “His Master’s Voice” was painted by English artist Francis Barraud, who noticed that the little dog he inherited from his brother Mark loved listening to recordings of Mark’s voice.   I have seen cats and dogs respond the same way to answering machines when they hear their human’s voice coming out of that little box.  Nipper the dog is fascinated, listening to the voice of his master even though he cannot see him, even though he has gone and not returned - yet.  He is hopeful, always, because that’s just how dogs are.

We have heard our Master’s Voice, and no, we can’t see him anymore than Nipper can see Mark Barraud.  We know that our Master, Jesus the Christ, has left this earth.  But we also know he will return, because he promised that he would.   We wait and we hope, but we cannot just wait passively.  While we wait, we must be about the work of setting the world right.   According to N.T. Wright, in his study guide for the book of Acts, “The gospel is all about God putting the world right — his doing so in Jesus, his doing so at the end, and his doing so for individuals in between, as both a sign and a means of what is to come. . .we are the people in and through whom God is putting into effect the setting right that happened in Jesus, and anticipating the setting right that will happen at the end.” (pg. 110) 

The putting right of the world, our part in it, is simply following the directions Jesus gave us.  It is done by simply obeying the two greatest commandment, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:37b-39)  The putting right of the world means ending oppression and injustice, caring for the sick and wounded, especially those wounded by church or by people in positions of power.  One of the ways we can engage in putting the world right, just this minute, is in listening to and believing the victims of rape and assault and harassment who are coming out in public for the first time - female and male - who are gaining the courage to stand up to their abusers.  Or sharing our own stories with others.  It means telling those in power that some things simply are not acceptable, and that they can no longer get away with behaving however they want just because they are authority figures or celebrities.  

We must do these things because Jesus told us to do them.  In Matthew 25:31-40, Jesus said that blessings will fall upon those who treat everyone as if they are he.    ‘Come,” he said, “you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him,‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.  Doing these things puts the world right.  Doing these things prepares the way for the return of the Christ.   These are the things we, Christians, are called upon to do - all the time.  

And so we wait - hopefully.  We have heard our Master’s voice, and like Nipper, we wait hopefully for his return.  It could be today, or tomorrow, or in another one thousand years.  As Paul said to the church in Corinth, “ the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—  so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We do not know when that time will be, but we wait hopefully, working to set the world right, strengthened by our knowledge of Jesus, and by our obedience to his teachings, and we pray for him to return, saying “Come, O Long Expected Jesus.” 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Gratitude - for your love

Ephesians 1:15-23        (NRSV)  

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love  toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.


Today is the last Sunday before Advent and the beginning of the New Church Year.   One of my daily meditations called it “New Church Year’s Eve,” although the author did note that we seldom celebrate with parties and fireworks.    It is also the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when you never know for whether or not folks are going to show up, especially if they travelled over the holiday.   But most importantly, it is Christ the King Sunday.  Paul said to the church is Ephesus, “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And Matthew said “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.”  (Matthew 25:31)

You know, it’s funny.  Americans don’t really do kings.  We fought two long, bloody wars in order to get and maintain our independence from kings.  When folks began talking about declaring our independence from England, others said that was against Biblical teaching, because Paul said to the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)    Indeed, this passage is one which royal houses used to justify their reign over kingdoms and empires.   Because surely they would not be the rulers if God had not approved of their rule.  Oftentimes those rulers were also the head of the Church in their kingdom, particularly after the Reformation.  (Does everyone know that we are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation this year?)  Queen Elizabeth still is the head of the Church of England.

But we rejected kings 241 years ago, and have managed to live without them ever since.  We elect our leaders, and when it seems like too many of those leaders are related to each other, we tend to rebel against those situations.   As a society, we are kind of individualistic.   Even as Christians, we might be more focused on Jesus as personal savior than Jesus king  and ruler of the world.  We might look at religion as more personal than corporate.   That’s probably why it is so easy for us, Americans, to stay home and watch church on TV, worshipping in comfort and solitude, or go to huge congregations where we don’t have to be involved in the life of the church, where we don’t have to do anything much beyond show up and maybe sing a little, and listen, and put something in the basket.  

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus saying, “ I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love  toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.  Now when Paul speaks of the love the church in Ephesus showed toward all the saints, he wasn’t talking about hugs and happy feelings.  He was talking about the actual work the church folk there were doing - feeding the hungry, welcoming newcomers, reaching out into their community to do good for others, even taking up special collections to help the people of Jerusalem and other places where there was great need.  And he gave thanks for them, because they were living the Good News.  They were returning God’s love by their faith and their actions, by their attitude of gratitude.  They were expressing their gratitude to God for Jesus in the best way they knew how, by obeying the commandments Jesus had spoken.  

There is so much more to gratitude than merely saying we are grateful for something.   When I first started writing gratitude lists I was told to only put down the things that would not happen automatically.  So, I couldn’t write down sunrise, because sunrise happens every day whether I am paying attention or not.  But I could be grateful for the beauty of the sunrise, because in the past I could not appreciate that beauty.  And then I pray, giving thanks to God for the gift of appreciation.  Paul was grateful for the church in Ephesus, for the love they expressed so beautifully through their works and faith, so he lifted them up in prayer, thanking God for them and asking God’s blessing upon them and their works.  We, too, are grateful for what we have received, so this past Thursday we sat down to meals with friends and families and gave thanks to God for all those gifts.  And on Facebook on Thursday, I saw folks posting, “If you have no where to go today, come eat with me and my family.”  These folks were truly showing their gratitude by sharing what they had with whomever showed up.

Many times we express our gratitude for others by saying “Thank you.”  Sometimes that is enough.  However, there is more to giving thanks than simply saying “Thank You.”  When I was growing up we wrote thank you notes when we received gifts.  And because my mother didn’t think simply saying, “Thank you for the gift,” was sufficient, the worst part of the day after Christmas was always the sitting down to write thank you notes that said something meaningful.  When our gratitude is great, we look for even more meaningful ways to say Thank You.  

There may be people in our lives whose love for us is shown so openly and consistently that we may not be quite sure how to express our gratitude.  So we might make a presentation to those special people.  We might even do that in the middle of a sermon.  I’d like to invite Hector and the Youth to come forward now.   

(Here the Youth make a surprise presentation of gifts to Leah Torosian and Kathleen Schales, for their great dedication and love.) 

In gratitude for their love, Paul’s prayers for the people of Ephesus are that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.  This prayer is not just for the people of the church in Ephesus, but for all of us, all members of the Church universal, all members of the body of Christ, who accept Christ as King and Lord of all, as the one who, fully human and fully divine, sits beside God showering us with blessings.

In gratitude for God’s love, for God’s gift of Jesus Christ, may we go from this place today to show our love for God, for Jesus our King, and for all of humanity.  May we go out to give thanks in the best way we know how, by sharing the love and blessings we have received with all people we meet along our way.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Gratitude - for goodness' sake

Psalm 100 NRSV 

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.


Have you ever had one of those mornings?  You know, the ones where you wake up to the reality of cats fighting for their favorite spot in your bed - on top of you? And the outfit you were going to wear has a somehow acquired a stain right on the front that you didn’t notice before?  And the tech you depend upon for pretty much everything decided it didn’t like the new operating system that was installed  automatically while you slept?  So you had to go to work extra early so your computer could talk to your iPad and make it all better?  You hope.

Oh wait, that was me.  Today.  *sigh*

On days like that, it’s a bit harder to do that gratitude list I talk about all the time.   It’s a little harder to make a joyful noise, and celebrate God - celebrate anything at all really.  As we enter the holiday season, for many people, gratitude becomes more and more difficult.   We have to work hard to focus on anything positive.   Sometimes it’s hard to be grateful in the way of Psalm 100. Sometimes we have to turn to Psalm 30, the 2nd verse, which says  “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.”  Sometimes we have to be reminded of the words of American poet, Andrea Gibson, “You are not weak just because your heart feels heavy.“  

I think most of you know that my husband of 25 years died two weeks ago today.   The first week just happened to be one of those insanely busy weeks that happen to everyone, so I really didn’t get any time to think about it.  I did the things I needed to do with the insurance company and the funeral home in Florida, and then continued just doing what I do.  I was emotional and a bit over-reactive, and doing my best to hold everything together.  But Monday . . . Monday there was nothing on my calendar.   Monday I started crying, off and on, for no apparent reason.  Monday the reality hit, that the man I had spent 25 years with was gone.  We’d been apart for 3 years or so, and divorced for a year, so I was really surprised to find myself grieving so hard.  And because I am who I am, I wrote a blog post about my feelings.  And I posted it on Facebook.  And miracles started to happen.   People responded on Facebook - hundreds of them.  My phone started to ring.  Messages and texts started piling up my phone.  And all of the people who contacted me had stories to share, stories of me and Ton’Ee and how we had touched their lives together and separately.  And how, if it was so hard for them to see him go, it must be so much harder for me after all those years together.  Those calls and messages filled me with gratitude, and reminded me that, even in the worst of times, there are always things to be grateful for.  The people who called and wrote reminded me of all that was good about him, and about us, and I am so grateful for them.   

I’ve found myself being grateful for very stange things over the years that I’ve been practicing gratitude.  Things like being grateful for the flu, because it made me slow down and take care of myself.   But it’s hard, sometimes, to see past the hard stuff, the pain, the grief, and the day to day stuff we all have to deal with.  
It’s at times like this that people who do gratitude lists end up with something like this one I found on Facebook (picture attributed to a radio station KKLA 99.5 FM).  

Early wake-ups = children to love
House to clean = safe place to live
Laundry = clothes to wear
Dishes to wash = food to eat
Crumbs under the table = family meals
Grocery shopping = $ to provide for us
Toilets to clean = indoor plumbing
Lots of noise = people in my life
Endless questions about homework = kids brains growing
Sore and tired in bed = I’m still alive!

There is so much to be grateful for - so many reasons to praise our God as the psalmist did.  So many reasons, really, to make a joyful noise, to come into God’s presence singing.  This morning, when Virgie came in to my office to tell me all her good news, we shared tears of joy over the wonders and miracles of life.  There is nothing quite so wonderful as sharing our gratitude with each other.  So, although I know I already did this once this month, I’m going to ask you to share the things you are grateful for today out loud.    

I’ll start - I’ve been here as your pastor two years!  And every single day, I feel more and more strongly that I have come home, to the place I am meant to be.    I am so grateful that we found each other and that you called me to come be with you here.   (Time for people to share gratitude.)

I imagine we could go on for half the day sharing our gratitude, and I know that we will share some stories with each other during our Pot Luck. Many of us will be doing that again on Thursday as part of a Thanksgiving family tradition - in between the turkey and football or whatever your own family’s traditions are.    

As we give thanks to our God for everything we have received, may we remember those who have no where to go, no feast to eat, no family to care for them.   As we lift our voices in thanks and praise to the Lord our God, who placed us here to care for the earth and for each other, let us recall that Jesus taught us to share what we have with those who are in need; to pour out our love on those who are unloved; to reach out to the sick, the tired, the depressed with healing hands; to comfort the prisoner and the lonely.   On this Thanksgiving Sunday, let us go forth from this place to show our gratitude in very tangible ways, to those outside these doors who need our touch, our help, our love.  

The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that we are God’s people, God’s own beloved children, upon whom God’s blessings flow like water.  Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God, whose faithfulness is eternal, and whose grace-filled forgiveness and steadfast love endures forever.   


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Gratitude - For all that we have received

Joshua 24:1-3a, 13-25  NRSV 

24  2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.   

13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive yards that you did not plant.

14 “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”


It’s November.   Gratitude month.   We decorate our homes and classrooms, and the sanctuary, with the sorts of things that remind us of our history and heritage.  Of Fall and Harvest, and the super humongous meal we will be sharing in a few weeks.  I will actually be sharing several of those meals, because just about every organization I belong to is having some kind of Thanksgiving dinner event.     We complain because the stores are all Christmas-y already, and we haven’t even had our first turkey of the season yet.  We try to think of things we are grateful for, but sometimes life gets in the way, and we forget about gratitude.

Normally, when this scripture reading comes around, the focus is on that last half sentence.  As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  And usually the preacher talks about what it means to serve the Lord, and what false gods or idols might be taking our attention away from God.  But this time as I read it, that statement in the middle stuck out as if it had been writ large, on a billboard, with bright lights shining on it.  Verse 13. 

Thus says the Lord … 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive yards that you did not plant.”

So be grateful, you silly people.  Because . . . seriously.  Did they really need to be reminded of what God had done for them?   Well, frankly, yes.  These people did nothing but complain, even with God personally guiding them into their new home.  Even though God provided manna and quail to feed them every day.  Even though God provided sweet fresh water, enough for all the people and all their livestock.   When we run into someone like this, we might say something like, “He’d complain if they hung him with a new rope.”   Now, I have no idea why someone would complain about being hanged with a new rope.  Maybe it’s scratchier around their neck than old rope?   Anyway . . .

They had so much just handed to them, but still they complained.  Still they neglected to be grateful.   Still they turned to other gods, the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia and even the gods of the people whose land they had just occupied.  

There’s an old story about two friends who were shoemakers.  One was doing pretty well, while the other was less successful.  He asked his old friend for a loan so he could get a shop in a better location, and his friend, wishing all the best for him, gave him the loan.  That new location was a success, and over the years his business flourished, eventually becoming a large and very popular shoe manufacturing firm.  Meanwhile, the old friend, who still had his little shop back in the old neighborhood, was facing financial difficulties.  He went to his successful friend to ask for a small loan, and was turned down.  He did not understand.  He said, “But back in the day, I lent you that money to put down on a better location and now you are one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the country.  If I hadn’t helped, today you would have nothing.”   “I know,” said his friend.  “And I appreciate that.  But what have you done for me lately?”  

I think the people of Israel were a bit like that.  I think maybe sometimes we are a little bit like that.  I was so very grateful to qualify for student loans so that I could attend college and seminary.  I celebrated each semester when the money came to pay for tuition and books and housing and all of the other expenses involved.   Years later I am somewhat less grateful when I make that payment every month.   Truthfully, I’m not at all grateful.  I can always think of “better” things I could do with that money than pay my student loans.   But you know, I have enough.   Even after I pay the loans, I have enough to live on, and feed the cats, and keep the lights on in the Parsonage, and get a pedicure now and then.  I have all I need.  And were it not for those student loans and the education they paid for, I wouldn’t be here now.    So I really should be grateful.  

Everything we have today comes from God.  Everything that we have received throughout our lives, comes from God.    Sometimes we forget that.  Sometimes we think that the things we have come from our own efforts, and that we have no one to thank except ourselves.  Yes, we have worked hard to achieve all the things we have achieved.  But without God given talent, we wouldn’t be great musicians or singers or dancers.  Without God given intellect, we wouldn’t be teachers and preachers and attorneys.  Without God given compassion and care, we wouldn’t be willing to work with people less fortunate than ourselves.  Without God’s love, we wouldn’t have any love to share with others.  

“Gratitude turns what we have into all we need.”  You all know, I think, that I have a practice of writing down ten things I am grateful for every morning.  It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that coffee is almost always at the top of that list.   And we all know that coffee is a gift from God.  Sometimes I write down things, like a car that runs and my Roomba, but most of what is on my list every day can only come from God.  Bird song in the morning.  Sunrise.  Rain.  Cooler weather.  Cats.  Friends.  People who understand me.  I often note on my list that my needs are met.  Maybe I don’t have everything I want, but certainly, I have all I need, and more.    

Gratitude is more than a good feeling.  Acknowledgement of gratitude has to be more than just a list.  Gratitude is an action word.  It is something we do.  When we are grateful, we share that for which we are grateful.  We are grateful that we have enough, so we buy tomatoes to put in food boxes for those who don’t have enough.  Or toys for children who might not get a gift this Christmas otherwise.   Or we help out at Christian Cafe.  Or with food distribution at the SMART Center.  We are grateful we have furry children, so we help Second Chance Animal Shelter with donations or by volunteering.  We are grateful for our education, so we make donations to the schools we attended, or to the Disciples Mission Fund to support all of our institutions of higher education (especially Chapman University).   We are grateful for our police, and firefighters, and city workers, so we say good things about them on Facebook and support them however we can.  We are grateful God gave us voices, so we share our talent in the choir, or during congregational singing.  We are grateful we have a church home, so we show up, and we help out where ever we can.   As greeters and presiders, or decorating the sanctuary or baking cookies, or where ever our gifts and talents are needed.   

And we are grateful that someone told us about Jesus, so we share the Good News with other people.  April tells a story about telling one college classmate about Jesus while her roommate sat nearby.  And then, how her roommate turned to her and asked, “Why did you never tell me that?”  Our gratitude for God’s gifts - all of God’s gifts - should be shared, loud and proud, so that others can know how much God loves all us, and them, and all the people of the world.  

It’s Gratitude month.  Go out and be grateful.