Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Why Doesn't God Answer My Prayers?" Luke 11:1-13

Sermon 1/21/18
Luke 11:1-13

Why Doesn’t God Answer My Prayers?


Are you a praying person? Do you feel like God answers your prayers? Have some of your prayers gone unanswered? As a young teen, I experienced the most powerful sense that my prayers meant something to date. I was at Camp Aldersgate, attending Senior High Creative Arts Camp. Our director, Bobbi, was pregnant, in her first trimester. She was a bit older than a “typical” first time parent, although honestly I say that from my teenage perspective – I’m not sure how old she was really, and I’m sure she was younger than I am now. But I know she was very anxious about the pregnancy. And while we were at camp, she experienced some spotting, and she had to leave to go to the hospital and get checked out, and it was clear, she was distraught and fearful. We were a small group of Creative Arts campers that week, and we pulled together, and we prayed, and prayed, and prayed for Bobbi and her baby. And when Bobbi came back from the hospital all smiles and announcing with tears in her eyes that everything was ok, I felt so completely: God has heard our prayers and answered them. My faith was so strengthened by that experience.
But what about those who have prayed a similar prayer only to face tragedy? I’ve certainly experienced loss and grief despite praying for healing. What about the prayers we share with God that express our deepest hopes and desires, and yet what we’ve asked for doesn’t come to fruition? Sometimes it seems that God answers our prayers, and sometimes it feels like God is silent. What’s the rhyme and reason at work here when it comes to prayer? Why does it seem like God doesn’t always answer our prayers?
And doesn’t God say that God will answer our prayers if we’re faithful in our asking? The scriptures seem to point to this idea in more than one place in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt … even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:21-22) That seems pretty clear, right? Whatever we ask for in faith, we’ll get, right? In our text today, in the conclusion of his response to the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus says, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” There is it again – ask, and you’ll receive! Everyone who asks receives! And yet, I know you must be able to immediately think, as I can, of prayers I’ve offered to God where what I was seeking never came to fruition, and what happened seemed to be the opposite of what I asking for.
What do we make of this then? Is the Bible wrong? Is Jesus not telling us the truth about prayer? Or, is there something wrong with us? Is there some sin in our life that is causing God to refuse to answer our prayers? Are we not praying hard enough? Often, people point to these kinds of explanations – blaming the pray-er – when prayers are unanswered. But telling a parent that their prayers for their sick child weren’t enough or weren’t right somehow seems heartless and wrong and contrary to the very nature of our God who is love. So what, then? Why doesn’t God answer our prayers, when the Bible seems to insist that God will give us what we ask for?
In his book Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will, Adam Hamilton suggests that when Jesus’ teachings in the Bible don’t match up with what we know from our life experience, perhaps what is at work is “our failure to understand what Jesus meant” by a certain teaching.[1] So what aren’t we getting about Jesus’ teachings on prayer? Hamilton writes “One of the features of hyperbole is that what is said is not logically possible, so that the hearer knows it is a figure of speech. You can see this in our own use of hyperbole. When a person says he is ‘so hungry I could eat a horse,’ we don’t scratch our heads and say, ‘That’s terrible, you shouldn’t eat horses!’ We understand by the nature of the statement that he is saying he is hungry. And when one of my daughters in middle school said, ‘Dad, if that boy comes to talk to me, I’ll just die,’ I didn’t call the paramedics to be on standby just in case the boy tried to speak to my daughter.”
He continues, “I suggest that Jesus’ hearers understood that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically when he said, ‘Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive’ … They did not think he was suggesting they could pray for wealth and have it, or that they could pray for the Romans to leave, and they would be gone. They did not think he was saying, ‘Pray for world peace,’ and it would instantly happen. Or that if they only prayed with faith all of their problems would magically disappear or be resolved. I think they understood that Jesus was saying, ‘Go to God with your burdens! Be bold when you pray! Trust that God hears your prayers! And, in ways you don’t fully understand, God will see you through this situation you face.’” (38-39) Hear that again: “Go to God with your burdens! Be bold when you pray! Trust that God hears your prayers! And, in ways you don’t fully understand, God will see you through this situation you face.” Like Hamilton, I believe that this gives us a good sense of what Jesus is telling us about prayer. Jesus isn’t trying to tell us that prayer is like giving God our shopping list and expecting God to deliver everything on the list. Instead, Jesus wants to encourage us to be completely open and honest with God in our prayers, trusting that God is listening.
Why, though, doesn’t God just give us what we ask for? Let’s think about that together. First, think about the challenges that would arise if God wanted to say, “Sure, no problem,” to all of our prayer requests. Have you seen the 2003 Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty? In one scene, Carrey’s character, Bruce, who gets to take on all God’s power and responsibilities for a brief time, is answering all the prayer requests that come to God. They arrive in email form, and Bruce thinks it will be so easy to do this part of the job. He decides to simply reply “yes” to every prayer request. You’d think that would be great, right? Everyone’s requests to God answered with a “yes, sure, whatever you want!” But in the film, when everyone gets a “yes,” the results bring total chaos. For example, everyone who prays to win the lottery does – but since so many people win, everyone gets only $1 or so, and everyone is livid. Or, what if two people have applied for the same job, and are both praying that God will give them the new position? Whose prayer should God answer with a yes? I think of the sincere prayers I offered as a young person of faith, including an occasional prayer that the current boy of my dreams might in fact turn out to be “the one.” What if God had said “yes” to some of those prayers, when sixth months later, I didn’t feel the same way? And what about what those boys had wanted? Should God have made them fall for me, just because that was what I wanted? Not if we actually value the precious gift of free will that God gives us! Or what if I pray to pass my math test, even though I haven’t studied? Is it helpful for God to say “yes” to these prayers, and set a pattern where we never bother to learn these skills on our own?[2] Sometimes, we must admit that we’re eventually thankful that God didn’t say “yes” to all of our wants. Sometimes, my new prayer is “thank goodness you didn’t force what I was asking for to take place.” Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that the only way God could answer our prayer is by taking away free will from someone else. And sometimes, we have to admit that our prayers are really requests for us to get what we want without working hard, striving toward goals, and using the gifts and tools God has already put into our hands.
            I think God also works within the natural order, the rhythm and law of the universe most of the time. Hamilton writes, “When God wants something done, god typically sends people. This has led me to conclude that God’s customary way of working in our lives is through what appears to be ordinary means. Rather than suspending the law of nature that God created to do God’s work, God typically works through natural laws and through people … Can God miraculously intervene in answer to our prayers to protect us from harm? Yes, but God’s normal way of working is found within the natural laws God establish and in human beings to whom God gave responsibility for tending this planet on God’s behalf.”[3] Most of the time, outside of miraculous occurrences that are by definition rare, God works within the patterns of the universe that God has created, which means that sometimes our prayers, which would require breaking and bending the order of the universe to fulfill, don’t get answered as we want.
            What I do believe, what the scriptures show, is that God never abandons us, even when God does not answer our prayers in the ways we seek. In fact, God gets right in our despair with us, experiences heartbreak and grief with us, walks beside us in the dark valleys, even coming to us in the person of Jesus to be closer to us and our experiences. God never abandons us, ever. And God takes the pain and sorrow we experience and draws new life even from the hardest moments in our lives. We’ll think more about that together next week.
            So, if God doesn’t promise to give us everything we want, and God might have many good reasons for not saying “yes” to our prayer requests, and God doesn’t often intervene in the natural order of the universe to make things happen the way we want them to, why bother praying? Why does Jesus emphasize how persistent we should be in prayer? What’s the point?  This is when our thinking of God as a parent is so helpful to me. You know my mom and I are very close. She knows my heart pretty well, and knows my hopes and dreams. She can’t always make want I want take place. She can’t fulfill every wish I’ve expressed. And certainly, she wouldn’t, even if she could, if you think about all my hopes over the years and the times that she knew better than I what would be meaningful in my life. Does that mean there’s no point in me sharing my heart with her? Does that mean she doesn’t want to know about what I want? Of course not! Of course, my mom wants to know everything about me, anything I’m willing to share with her. She wants to know about my hopes and dreams because she loves me, and sharing like this is a part of building a relationship, part of building trust and compassion. And the relationship brings me comfort, strength, and encouragement. That’s what God wants with us: to be in relationship with us, to have us pour our hearts out to God, to shower us with love and encouragement, to have us get to know God deeply, and be known by God deeply, to be comforted and strengthened by the constancy of our relationship. Prayer is our way of building relationship with God.
            Prayer is also about listening to God – we talked about that last week. We pray so that we signal to God and to ourselves that we’re listening and ready to hear what God has to say to us. Prayer is not so much about changing God as it is sometimes about changing us. In the words we call the Lord’s Prayer, a version of which appears in our text today, Jesus encourages the disciples to pray about forgiveness, to pray to learn to not hold things against each other, to pray for daily sustenance rather than food to store up, to pray for God’s way and God’s realm to be the way of earth rather than our own way and will. Essentially, Jesus guided the disciples to pray not that God would give them what they wanted, but that they might be transformed into the servants of God that Jesus knew they could be. Prayer changes us, because it helps us tune our hearts to God. It helps us remember that God has placed into our hands already the tools and resources and gifts and abilities to be the answers to the prayers we’re praying, to be the agents of transformation in the world we long for. Prayer changes us, and so we pray because it opens us to the work of God in our lives.
            I want to encourage you to think about your discipline of prayer. I have found keeping a prayer journal to be a helpful reminder of God’s faithfulness: recording prayer requests and looking back over time to see how God has been at work. Rarely does God seem to act in the ways I expect or ask. But always, God is at work, drawing life and hope and good out of everything. And always, God is with me, and with those I have lifted up to God.
            Friends, Jesus tells us to ask, search, and knock at God’s door. I don’t think he tell us this so that God can check everything off our wish list, or so that we can make fools of ourselves praying prayers that will never be answered. Rather, I think when we ask, God does give, even when what God gives is unexpected. I think when we search, we do find, even when what we find is not the original destination we were seeking. And I think when we knock, God always opens the door for us that leads to a deeper faith, a closer relationship with God, and a changed heart for us. And so we ask, with the disciples: Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.





[1] Hamilton, Adam, Why? Making sense of God’s Will, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011, 36.
[2] These scenarios are adapted from Adam Hamilton’s scenarios in Why?, 39-40.
[3] Hamilton, 46, 49. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Why doesn’t God speak to us like God speaks to people in the Bible?" Genesis 12:1-9

Sermon 1/14/18
Genesis 12:1-9


Why: Why doesn’t God speak to us like God speaks to people in the Bible?


            Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called “Why: Asking Tough Questions of Faith.” Each week, we’ll be exploring together one of the faith questions that seems to be a question that many people had, questions that I’ve heard throughout my ministry, questions that Christians have struggled with for generation upon generation. We’ll wrestle with these questions together, and see what we can learn from the scriptures, from God’s direction, from our experiences, and from each other. I have to warn you right at the start that I can’t promise to give the answer to these questions we’ll wrestle with. If they were easy questions to answer, they wouldn’t be questions that people have wrestled with over centuries. But we’ll do our best to be thoughtful and inquisitive and turn to our best sources of wisdom as we try to find God’s voice, God’s direction when it comes to challenging faith questions. Sometimes people get anxious when it comes to questioning and faith, fearing that expressing doubt or confusion or concern is a sign of a weak faith. But I feel strongly that asking questions about faith is a sign of strength. It’s a sign that we’re exploring and struggling and searching, and I think that our searching is what leads to growing in faith. So together, we’ll question, search, and hopefully grow together as we explore.
Today, we’re starting with this question: Why doesn’t God speak to us now like God seems to speak to people in the Bible? This is one of the questions I’ve been asked regularly throughout my years as a pastor. After all, in the scriptures, we read about God speaking out from a burning bush, or God walking through the garden where Adam and Eve lived, or speaking from an overshadowing cloud, or Moses speaking with God on the mountaintop, so in the presence of God’s holiness that Moses’ face is glowing – all these very dramatic ways of getting someone’s attention. Then, even when there are not appearances of God in these dramatic forms, instead, there are dramatic appearances of angels: the heavenly host singing of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, Jacob wrestling with an angel all night long, angels telling of Jesus’ resurrection to the women at the tomb. And yet, I’ve encountered very few people who have said that they have heard God’s voice in direct, clear way, or experienced angels in dazzling white. So why doesn’t God speak with us like this anymore?
Today’s scripture text from Genesis is a great example. In chapter 11 of Genesis, we find a long record of genealogy, and the first mention of a man named Abram, who with his wife Sarai and some of his extended family settles in a region called Haran, a place in present-day Turkey. We don’t know anything else about Abram at this point. And then as chapter 12 begins, it starts with these words: “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”” The next verse tells us, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” And I think, of course he did! Of course Abram did what God said – because what God said was clear and direct and unambiguous! When Abram gets to where he can look into the land of Canaan that God has promised, the text tells us that Abram builds and altar to God “who had appeared to him.” We don’t know any details about how God appears to Abram, but the point for us is that God did appear. And again, I think: Of course, if God just appeared to me, I would be able to hear what God was saying and know what I was supposed to do. So what’s changed? Does God not speak in the same way anymore? And if not, why not?
I think when it comes to hearing God speaking to us, there are a few things we can think about to help us understand why it seems like things are so different. First, I think what we perceive as a difference in how God acts in the world often might actually be a difference in how we speak about our experiences, how we use language, how we describe events. Our language is different today than it was in the Bible. We understand the mind differently, and we have different ways to express how people experience the world around them. For example, the field of psychology has given us lots of ways to speak about what goes on in our minds. We can speak about our conscience and our subconscious. That we might engage in thoughts and behaviors that we’re not really even aware of in the moment, or that we might have moral wrestling in our mind, as we struggle to determine the right course of action – I don’t find these themes anywhere in the scripture, because we didn’t study these concepts, find a way to describe them, until much, much later. So, we don’t read: Abram and his family started feeling like perhaps they should move to a new place, and that God might bless them in new ways if they moved, and this idea just kept tugging at them, and they weighed all the pros and cons, and finally decided that they needed to take a risk and that yes, God was with them in their decision, yes, God was leading them to a new land. Instead, we read: God spoke, and Abram went. Maybe, though, if the authors of Genesis were contemporaries of ours, they’d use different language, different metaphors, to describe how God spoke to Abram.  
Another reason I think it seems like God speaks to us differently is because we are different and so we’re expecting different things from God. Here’s what I mean: I’ve shared with some of you before that part of the process of becoming ordained in The United Methodist Church includes undergoing a psychological assessment. For part of this, you have to answer a survey with hundreds of questions that then get processed to assess your mental fitness for ministry. A repeated question on the tests appearing in multiple different ways is something like: “Do you hear voices telling you what to do?” The expected answer is, of course, “No!” But I always found this to be a fascinating question for potential clergy to answer. We speak all the time about feeling called by God, about God speaking to us. But we also have this clear sense that “hearing voices” in the way we often use that phrase today is a potential sign of a mental illness. If I started “hearing voices,” my first thought would not be that God was speaking to me. I might think I was being pranked or that there was a scam, a trick being played on me. And if that wasn’t the solution, I’d start to wonder, seriously, about my mental health. I’d go to the doctor. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. And so, if I am not likely to respond positively to God speaking in this way – if I’m more likely to doubt and question than trust and act, why would God try to get a message to me like this? I think God is pretty wise, and so God is wise enough to speak in ways we can hear. I think about how we send out meeting reminder messages from the church office. Usually, we send emails. But not everyone has email, and over time we’ve learned that some people who technically have email never actually check their email. How much sense would it make for us to keep emailing someone about a meeting when we know that they are never going to see the message? In the same way, why would God keep sending us messages that we aren’t going to hear?
Finally, I think sometimes God is speaking, but we’re just not hearing it, not listening, not recognizing God’s voice for what it is. We’ll be talking more about God and prayer next week, but I’m reminded of the illustration that talks about a person trapped in their home, praying for rescue from a flood. They’re convinced God will save them. A person comes by in a truck, and another in a boat to help, and finally in a helicopter, all trying to rescue the person, who keeps refusing help because they’re waiting for God to save them. When the person meets God face to face, and wonders why God didn’t save them from the flood, God explains that God sent help three times, only to be refused. I wonder, sometimes, if God is speaking to us in different ways, but we’re so focused on our plan of what we think will happen, how we think God will act, that we can’t see God right in front of us, calling our name.
So, how is God speaking to you? How have you heard God in your life? As a pastor, I’ve had lots of practice talking about my “call” to ministry. I can say that God “called me” to be a pastor, but that simple sentence doesn’t reflect the long struggle of trying to figure out what God was leading me to do. But since part of becoming a pastor includes being able to share my sense of call again and again, I’ve had more practice than many of you in thinking about how God speaks to me. I can tell you that I went through a period of time when I was sure I wanted to do anything but go to seminary, even though I wanted to find a way to serve God with my life. But lots of people that I trusted and looked up to kept asking me whether I had thought about seminary, whether I had thought about becoming a pastor. There was no single moment where I heard God’s booming voice telling me to be a preacher. But there were so many little moments of people pointing me in the direction of answering God’s call.
After I started on that journey, when I was in college and visiting seminaries, I had narrowed it down to two choices: Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, or Drew Theological School in Madison, NJ. After weighing the choices, I settled on Drew, and began sharing the news with folks in my childhood church. One woman there was Bertha Holmes, the widow of a United Methodist pastor. I, along with everyone else in the congregation, deeply admired her spirituality and strong faith. When I shared my choice with Bertha, she said: “Oh, I prophesied that you would go to Drew.” I’d never heard Bertha say anything like this before. She was more quiet and contemplative than someone I would call “a prophet” who made declarations about what she knew would be. And perhaps because of this, her words were all the more powerful. I immediately felt content with the choice I had made. If Bertha prophesied that I would go to Drew, to Drew I would go. I strongly believe that God was speaking to me through Bertha.
And I’ve told you before of the vivid dream I had about my late grandfather, Millard Mudge. There wasn’t much to the dream other than Grandpa looking healthy and whole and giving me a big hug, and me telling him, “I have missed you so much,” and it all feeling so very real that I woke up with tears in my eyes. I don’t think God is speaking to me in all my crazy dreams, but I do think that God was at work in this one, bringing me comfort, and an abiding peace knowing that my grandfather was well in God’s eternal care.
How has God spoken to you? How can we make it easier for God to speak to us? I think we can learn from our forbearers in the scriptures. They had no doubt that God would speak to them, and so they seemed to be ready to listen and respond. Can you cultivate your trust in God by studying the scriptures, by praying regularly, by listening more? If you are interested in exploring more deeply God’s call for your life, I also have resources I can share with you, tools for discernment, for figuring out what God wants you to do. Talk to me, and together we can find some practices that will help you listen for God’s voice. I think we can be on the lookout for God’s messengers: that’s the literal meaning of the word “angel.” If other people keep suggesting that you take a certain path, if they keep telling you that they see a certain gift or strength in you, it just might be that God is speaking to you through them. Will you listen? And when you’ve heard God’s voice, whether you hear God’s voice from the burning bush, or you hear God in the persistent tug of your subconscious, will you claim you call? Will you respond? Will you answer?   
            God does still speak to us. Let’s listen carefully. Amen.

           





Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sermon for New Year's Eve, "The Beginning and The End," Revelation 21:1-6a

Sermon 12/31/17
Revelation 21:1-6a

The Beginning and The End


            I had a hard time with my sermon this week. We’ve heard two scripture texts this morning – a reading from Matthew’s gospel, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and a text from the book of Revelation, near the conclusion of the work, where we read that Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, that God has made a home among us. Both of these texts are from the lectionary, the schedule of scripture readings, texts intended for New Year’s Eve or Day specifically. And I’ve wanted to use both of them. Only, I had sort of two separate sermons, one for each, running through my head this week. I wanted one sermon that could draw on both texts. But instead, I had two good sermons – just two separate sermons, and I’ve struggled to decide on which direction to go. See, the parable of the sheep and the goats offered a nice way to follow up from my Christmas Eve sermon, and most of the week, that’s the way I meant to go in worship. But from our Revelation text, one phrase has stuck with me: “See, I am making all things new.” It’s the same sentence construction that we find in our text from Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve, when the angel is delivering a message to the shepherds, “See, I am bringing you good news.” Revelation uses this device frequently, twice just in the short passage we focus on today. Like on Christmas Eve, the words here in Revelation, spoken by Jesus, are meant to especially grab our attention. “See, I am making all things new.” And so, at the last, I switched directions, which is why we read our scriptures in a different order today than you see them in the bulletin.
            “See,” Jesus says, “I am making all things new.” These are good words for a New Year’s Eve sermon, aren’t they? Even if we aren’t the New Year’s Resolution-making-type, we often are quietly thinking in terms of “fresh starts” anyway. It is hard not to. Come December, it’s hard not to shove off any changes we need to make until after the New Year, when we’re sure we’ll have more time and energy and willingness to tackle new projects, new endeavors. It’s hard not to feel like we’re able to shake the dust – or perhaps in our case, the snow – off our feet from the “old” year and that we get to come to the New Year with a clean slate. Everything seems possible. We’re hopeful. And of course, being hopeful is a good thing. But I worry, sometimes, about the pressure we’re putting on ourselves to “fix” everything we perceive to be wrong with our lives at the start of a New Year. I worry that we’re setting ourselves up to feel like we’re failures when the new year turns out to hold as many challenges and struggles as did the year before.
            Pastor Emily Scott shared a reflection on New Year’s Day that really moves me. She writes: “It’s New Year’s Day.  January 1 … This morning I took down last year’s calendar and hung a new one in its place. Last week, I made a new file in my drawer for my … financial documents [for this year]. And St. Lydia’s has a new budget, a fresh sheet on the accounting page. Most of the changes that take place as we shift from the old year to the new seem to take place in document form -- a new, clean sheet of crisp paper, fresh and ready for a new year.
“Accompanying all of this grand shuffling of papers and calendars is the lie: the intimation that, just like hanging a fresh calendar on the wall, we too can start over. Make a resolution. Decide that this year will be different. Somehow reset our lives and start fresh. A different us: [this year’s] version. Us version 2.0. This new us is fundamentally different from the us we were [last year]. This new us springs energetically out of bed and goes to the gym three times a week, or suddenly has no desire for cigarettes, or alcohol, or other vices, or magically keeps the house tidy and organized.
“This new us is shiny and new, and feels recently purchased, like a new car, with a fresh, new us smell and sheen, a smile that is whiter and skin with a healthy glow. This new us is even more photogenic than the old, as evidenced by the new … 2.0 us that appears on facebook, always smiling riotously and having just a little bit more fun than everyone else.
“This is the lie: That you can start fresh. That you can drop off the old, unwanted, weatherworn bits of yourself at the Salvation Army and pick up something fresher and more appealing. Something less complicated and easier to live with.”
She continues, “There are two big problems that I see with this lie. The first is that it has us thinking that deciding to change and changing are the same thing. It has us thinking that jumping out of bed to head to the gym three times a week is simply a matter of deciding to do it, and with a little good old American stick-to-it-tiveness, we can revamp our lives entirely.
“The truth is that our less positive habits are a bit like lily pads on a pond: from above, they seem to float on the surface of the water, but they’re rooted deep down, in the muck way at the bottom. Each afternoon you get fidgety and make a trip to the snack machine, not because you’re hungry, but because a growing sense of emptiness is blossoming within you, and somehow food seems to fill it. You keep meaning to go to sleep earlier, but find yourself browsing endlessly online, hours each night, paging around, as if looking for something you’ve lost. You're trying to fill that growing sense of lack, of emptiness. The truth is that changing our habits means addressing their roots, and addressing the roots is tricky, because there’s a lot that might get dredged up down there.
“The second big problem that I see with this lie, is that it assumes that there is no light in us. Out with the old and in with the new! The desire to “start fresh” with a shiny new version of ourselves implies that we are in fact, disposable. And things that are disposable are worthless. Out with the old and in with the new assumes that there’s something in us that needs to be gotten rid of: eradicated.
“Perhaps you feel that there are portions of yourself that you wish would simply disappear. Perhaps you’re wary of the long neglected pieces of yourself that lie fallow in the muck at the bottom of the pond. Perhaps you come before God, hoping that she sees only the pieces you’d like to present -- the pieces that are shiny and polished and ready for public consumption. As for the rest of you -- out with the old and in with the new.
“Here is the truth. Here is the Good News. God came to dwell among us. God came to pitch a tent, and she pitches it deep down in the muck. In the deepest, most forgotten corners of our hearts, the bits that we would rather set out with the trash. It is those parts of us where God loves us the most: wants most to dwell with us. God lives in the unwanted, weatherworn places, a light that shines even in the places we experience as dark or despairing.
“We can change, and do. Not by deciding to discard the unwanted or undesirable pieces of ourselves, but learning to acknowledge and recognize them. By allowing ourselves to gently explore the murkier depths of the pool, and finding with surprise that there is a hidden light that pulses even there, waiting to be uncovered.”[1]
The scripture tell us that new is possible again and again. These words we read in Revelation we hear first in Isaiah and in other variations throughout the scriptures. God is always up to something new, always making us new, always the author of new life. That’s a promise. Where I think we get confused is when we think about how and why we’re made new. First, we’re not the source of newness. God is. It is God who makes things new. We’re invited to be part of the process, but God is the source. So often, we’re trying to redeem ourselves, save ourselves. But though we are strong, the source of our strength is God. We have a redeemer, a savior already. God is the one who makes us new. Sometimes, we don’t like how God wants to make us new. Sometimes, even though we say we want to be made new, we really want to keep doing the same old things. Sometimes, when God makes us new, it feels like we’re a lump of clay that was made into a halfway decent bowl, but God decides to draw out from us something even more awesome…but it means that first we have to go back to being a lump of clay. Sometimes, we say we want to be made new, but we didn’t realize that that means God is about to stir up all the muck in our life and shine a light on stuff in our hearts that we never let see the light of day.
Second: Sometime we’ve turned away from God and we need to repent. In that way, seeking newness, new life, is a good thing. Whenever we’ve wandered away from God, of course seeking new life by heading back in God’s direction is good. But we often get mixed up, believing that we’re worthless, failures, beyond redeeming. We believe that our only options are to start all over, start from scratch, or give up altogether. We look at ourselves and our lives and we don’t see anything worth saving. But our text from Revelation along with the witness of the whole Bible reminds us that that is not how God sees us. We are God’s beloved! God choose to make a home with us! We are God’s people! God loves us. So God wants the very best for us. As Pastor Scott said, there is light within us, even if it sometimes get buried under a lot of muck. God loves us enough to want to make sure the light of Christ within us has a clear path to shine forth. Again, we get to be a part of the process. In the days ahead, what can you do to help God clear the muck? What can you do to be open to God’s work in your life? What can you do to immerse yourself in the certainty of God’s love for you? Our answers to these question are some goals worth our time and energy, tomorrow, and every day after that.
Finally, remember this: The text tells us not I’ve made all things new but rather, I am making all things new. The work of God in our lives is ongoing, not a one-time thing. In our Methodist tradition, we call this sanctifying grace, or “whole life grace.” God is never done with us. Rather, God, who loves to create, who is always making all things new, God is moving in, living with us, so that we can be even closer. Seeing that promised fulfilled is a blessing I’m looking forward to this year, and over all of our days. Thanks be to God. Amen.

  

Monday, December 25, 2017

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "Come and Behold Him," Luke 2:1-20

Sermon 12/24/17
Luke 2:1-20

Come and Behold Him


            Sometime last fall, I told you about a news article from the New York Times that was circulating quite a bit, showing results from a scientific study suggesting that two strangers could fall in love with each other by following a certain set of instructions: the pair answers 36 questions in a conversation with each other. The questions are increasingly more personal, beginning with easy things and moving on to deeper, revealing questions. And then, after that, you and your conversation partner are supposed to stare into each other’s eyes – sustained eye-contact, no talking, for four minutes. The author of the article actually fell in love with the person with whom she tried this exercise.
            I was thinking about this study this week as I was thinking about how significant making eye contact can be in our lives. There are many cultural expectations around eye contact. In some cultures, men and women are discouraged from prolonged eye contact with each other. In some cultures, people who are in subordinate work roles in hierarchical cultures are discouraged from looking into the eyes of their superiors. I think of our own culture, where we emphasize the importance of making eye contact when we’re engaged in public speaking, for example. Or how many have become frustrated with how the rise of smart phones and tablets and other electronics have decreased how frequently we’re making eye contact with each other, even while carrying on conversations. However we interpret it culturally, eye contact is certainly powerful and meaningful.
            I still remember attending an intergenerational retreat weekend at Camp Aldersgate when I was in Junior High. My friend Weston and I decided to go to the adult Bible study since we were very mature, and somewhere along the way during the study, we had to pair up and look into our partners eyes for a few minutes. I don’t remember exactly how long we had to do it for. I can’t remember why we had to do this, what the exact purpose was. I only remember that it seemed like an eternity. It was awkward and uncomfortable. That describes most of my junior high experience, so this was like that in sharp, intense focus. We survived, but I will never forget the experience – it was intense, and something about that time made me feel vulnerable and exposed. Seeing and being seen – it can be powerful, meaningful, vulnerable.
            My brother Tim is mostly blind in one eye. He was born with a scar on the center of his eye, which means he has only peripheral vision in that eye. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what exactly this means for how things look to Tim on a day to day basis. Basically, it’s like if you took a picture and folded it over so the middle section was hidden. You would only see the edges of the picture. That’s what Tim sees with his bad eye – just the edges, not what is directly in front of him. My mom still vividly remembers when the doctor discovered this at one of his appointments when he was about 5. The doctor covered up Tim’s good eye, which compensates and works extra hard to cover up for the other. And with the good eye covered, Tim’s other eye didn’t know what to do. His eye just sort of wandered all over, unable to focus on anything without the anchor of his other eye, because everything left was what was supposed to be peripheral. As I said, Tim has learned to compensate. As difficult, as vulnerable and exposing as it can feel to look someone in the eye, and to be looked in the eye, it’s a gift to be able to do so, not to be taken lightly. To focus on someone, to give them your full attention, to look them in the eye, to try to really see them is an important experience, even if it is sometimes challenging.
Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, two psychologists who met at Harvard in the late 1990s, developed an experiment that shows how limited our perception and attention to what is going on around us can be when we’re focused on something else. In the experiment, you are asked to watch a video of people in white shirts and people in black shirts passing basketballs to each other. You are instructed to watch the video and count how many times people in white shirts pass the ball. It is a little confusing, but if you are careful, you can produce the correct number: 15 passes. But then, the video narrator asks: But did you notice the gorilla?
Fifty percent of viewers of the video, including me, when I first saw the video as part of a lecture on preaching years ago, respond, scratching the head, what gorilla? Sure enough, when the video of the two groups passing the basketball is replayed, you, the viewer, now looking for the gorilla, instead of white shirts, can’t miss a woman in a gorilla costume walk directly through the group, beat on her chest, and walk off. The first time I saw this video I really wanted to believe that they were two different videos, that the gorilla was not there the first time. (Looking at these still images from the video, it seems hard to believe that one could possibly miss the gorilla!) But no, it is just how our minds work. When totally focused in on one thing, we can miss other things, no matter how obvious they seem, altogether. This is why my mother always likes to see Todd, my actor-brother’s shows, at least twice. One time, she says, the first time, she can only focus on Todd, no matter what else is happening on stage. But if she actually wants to see the whole show, she needs to see it a second time, so that she can pay attention to everything she missed by watching only Todd the first time through. As long as we are focused on the right thing, the important thing, our inattention to all the other details isn’t so bad. But if we’re paying attention to the wrong thing, we can end up in trouble. Scientists say that our limited attention capacity, our working memory capacity, is why you can walk right by someone you know and not notice them, if you are looking at or thinking about something else, or why you can’t really text and drive as well as you think you can, and people end up in automobile accidents. Sometimes there are big consequences for paying attention to the wrong thing.[1]
It’s Christmas Eve. Are we paying attention to the right things? What is holding our gaze today? What’s got our focus? What’s catching our eye? This year, as I read the Christmas story from Luke again, words I know so well I could practically recite them for you, I noticed how many phrases in the story seek to grab our attention, turn our heads, make us look, really look, at what is going on. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, and Jesus is born, laid in a manger because there is no room for them in the inn. And a spectacular attention-getting display unfolds to get the attention of some nearby shepherds to make sure that they know to go and see this newborn. A messenger from God stands before them, and we read, “the glory of the Lord shone around them,” and sensibly, they were terrified. But the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid, but SEE! I’m bringing you good news of great joy for all people: Today, a savior is born, a messiah, God-in-the-flesh.” And then, the whole sky is filled with angels, “heavenly host,” and they praise God saying, “Glory to God, and peace on earth!” When the messengers leave, the shepherds say to each other, “Let us go and see this thing that God has made known to us.”
They go and find Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the text says, “When they saw this,” they let Mary and Joseph know that the angels had sent them. Some who they tell their story to are amazed, but Mary treasures their words, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds head back to their work, but as they go, they praise God, give glory to God, telling everyone just what they have heard and seen. 
            “Don’t be afraid!” the angel says. “Don’t be afraid, rather look! See! See the sign of good news, the message of great joy! See this one who brings peace. See this one who is a savior. See this one who is God-on-earth with us.” “Let’s go and see,” the shepherds say. “You won’t believe how we ended up here,” they tell Mary and Joseph. “Thank God for what we saw today,” they told anyone who would listen.
            Eventually, Jesus too will invite people to “Come and see.” It’s a phrase he uses more than once in his preaching and teaching, and more than that, it’s a grounding in invitation to us that pervades his ministry. He asks us to look and see: look and see people we don’t usually see, but Jesus is so good at bringing to the center. Look and see God at work in the world in places we usually don’t give a second glance. Look and see God at work in our own lives, as we realize we are precious to God, of sacred worth, created in God’s own image. Jesus asks us to look and see him: living in our hearts, living in our world, living in each person we encounter. Look, see. Pay attention. Let Jesus at work in the world hold your gaze, and hold your attention.
            Tonight we’re being invited, encouraged, charged with the task: “Come and behold him.” We sing the words. We read them in the familiar story. Do not be afraid: Look! See! So let’s do just that. We have made it to the manger. Let’s make sure we’re really seeing what is held there. Let’s look deeper. Let’s give this child in the manger our full attention. Our time. Our focus. All of our eye contact. To us, a child is born. There are so many other places to look, I know. Let’s make sure we’re focusing on the right thing. As the messengers promised the shepherds, so they promise us still. If we’ll look, if we see, we’ll find good news, great joy, peace. We’ll find God, lying in a manger, filling our hearts, changing our world. Amen.  
             
             
           




[1] This illustration and commentary is adapted from my newsletter article at Liverpool First UMC, September 2013. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Advent, "Joy: Joyful All Ye Nations Rise," Luke 1:39-55

Sermon 12/17/17
Luke 1:39-55

Joy: Joyful All Ye Nations Rise

            Our theme today on this fourth Sunday of Advent is joy, and our hymn snippet, “Joyful All Ye Nations Rise” comes from the carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Charles Wesley, brother of John, founder of the Methodist movement, was a prolific hymnist – you can see how many hymns of his are still in our hymnals today if you look at the index on page 922 in your red hymnal. He wrote “Hark how all the Welkin Rings” in 1739. “Welkin” means something like “the heavens.” His colleague in ministry, George Whitefield, made some adaptations to the text, giving us the more familiar title we know today. Wesley imagined that his hymn text would be matched to the same tune as “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” – after all – both the resurrection of Jesus and his incarnation, his coming into the world, are key pillars of our faith story – but eventually the pairing with the tune by Felix Mendelssohn that we know and sing today became more popular.[1] Still, in Wesley’s original text, and in Whitefield’s adaptations, and in the version that we sing today, our theme phrase for the day has remained unchanged. In the first verse we sing, “Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies; with th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
            Joy! Are you a joyful person? What does it mean to be joyful? What makes us joyful people? Again, this week, I asked these questions online and got some great responses.[2] Donna Peck wrote that she finds Joy in being a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother, and she finds joy in knowing that God loves us no matter what, and in knowing that Christ is alive in us. Others, too, affirmed that some of life’s deepest joys seem to come as a result of our relationships – spouses, parents and children, family, and our relationship with God, abiding in God’s love. Others pointed to joy in vocation, in finding and living out a calling from God in their work in the world. I asked, too, if there was a difference between happiness and joy, and several people responded with similar themes: Melissa McCarthy, a pastor in our district down in Adams wrote, “Joy is not momentary or limited by environment or moment, it is a way of being. Happiness is a momentary thing, it ebbs, flows, and sometimes is not present. We can still experience joy in the midst of grief, in the midst of sorrow.” Heather Bowman wrote, “I do believe happiness can be influenced by memories and environment … Joy is in my soul, it wavers very little ... I have joy in my everyday even if I am not happy. It is an inner strength that I can always call on.” Another wrote, “I believe happiness is based on emotions and can be changed depending on the situations you are in at that moment. Joy can be felt everyday even in the midst of something bad happening.” And my friend Carmen, a United Methodist pastor in Chautauqua, NY wrote: “The etymology [that is the origin of the word] happiness is happen stance: happiness is dependent on the situation. Joy, on the other hand is cultivated by a discipline of giving thanks in all situations, by listening for the Spirit of God through study, worship, and communion with others so that we can discern the presence of God with us even in the most difficult times.”
            Carmen is exactly right. The word happy comes from the root words hap which means “chance” or “luck.”[3] It suggests that happiness is something that happens to you based on circumstances, something over which we have very little control. But joy comes from the Latin verb gaudia which means “to rejoice.” That’s something we have control over. Whether or not we have joy in our hearts is something that depends on us, how we respond to what happens, what we put into the world. Happiness can be fleeting and fickle, and sometimes seems available to us only when everything is going smoothly, which doesn’t match up well with the realities of life. But joy – joy is sustaining and enduring. Joy is a deep well in our hearts from which we can draw for strength even in the midst of struggle.
            We get into trouble when we consistently seek after and spend our energy and time on chasing after things that give us the temporary bumps of happiness instead of cultivating the life-sustaining and transforming practices of joy. Some images comes to my mind: I think about the hundreds and hundreds of Christmas cookies I’ve made over the past few weeks. I loved especially watching the kids come up to the cookie table at coffee fellowship last week, and seeing how many cookies they could grab at one time with no parent immediately by their side. I imagine some of them left pretty hyped up on sugar, and that some of them also hit the inevitable crash, where the rush of the sweets wears off and sometimes leaves a cranky and tired child behind. Let’s face it: this happens with adults too. This is why I had to wrap up all the cookies that were left for my family Christmas celebration in several layers and put them in my freezer, so I wouldn’t be tempted to try to survive on cookies alone for the next few weeks. As delicious as they are, cookies can’t sustain me in healthy ways.
            Think of the classic story of the tortoise and the hare. Everyone is sure that the speedy rabbit will win a race against the slowpoke turtle. But the rabbit can’t keep focused on the task at hand. It starts off in a rush, but eventually ends up off course. The tortoise steadily draws on its strength and perseverance, and finishes ahead.
            I’ve been thinking about what we seek after and what sustains us and gives us life as I’ve thought about this season of Advent and the experience of Christmas that follows. Sometimes I’ve found that there’s all this build up, build up, build up before Christmas, and then when Christmas comes, instead of experiencing the culmination of all that we’ve been longing for, I’ve instead felt a strange sense of emptiness, a kind of let down, like somehow I missed the point after all. Part of this, I’m sure, is because of the energy we as church leaders pour into getting ready for worship services and caring for all the details and making sure we’re ready for the high energy of Christmas Eve worship services, and sometimes on Christmas Day I feel like the best gift I can get is a nice long nap! But it’s more than that, I think. Despite our best efforts, we can end up spending a lot of time on Christmas focusing on how happy we are, what we’ve received, how perfectly all of our events unfolded, whether or not everyone liked their gifts. And after some moments of happiness, we crash, because we haven’t built up our hopes and expectations on solid ground. I think again of my friend Carmen’s words: “Joy … is cultivated by a discipline of giving thanks in all situations, by listening for the Spirit of God through study, worship, and communion with others so that we can discern the presence of God with us even in the most difficult times.” How are we cultivating joy in our lives in a way that will sustain us? How are we cultivating joy so that when Christmas comes, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus yet again, we’re not left feeling empty, but instead find ourselves with hearts overflowing?
Our gospel lesson today follows right after our reading from last Sunday, where Mary heard from Gabriel the amazing message that she would be giving birth to God’s child. Mary responds with acceptance, affirmation of what God has shared with her, a willingness to serve however God calls her to serve. And then we pick up today with Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman who is also expecting a child: John, who will be known to us as John the Baptist. When Mary enters Elizabeth’s home, Elizabeth’s child “leaps” in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. She says to Mary: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of the womb! When I heard your greeting, my child leaped for joy!” And Elizabeth concludes, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Her words can apply both to herself and to Mary, as both of them showed deep trust in God’s plans, as crazy as they might seem.
Mary answers Elizabeth with a song, a poem we call the Magnificat, because of the first words she speaks: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says. She means that her soul “exalts” the Lord, praises God, but I love the more literal image: her soul, her life, her embracing of God’s vision for her life magnifies God, makes God more visible for the world. Mary magnifies God. The Magnificat is Mary’s vision of what Jesus’ birth will mean: the lowly are raised up and blessed by God. The proud are scattered. The powerful are brought down from their thrones. The hungry are filled, while the rich leave empty-handed. These words were considered so revolutionary that at different times in history – in Guatemala, in Argentina, and in India, the public reading of the Magnificat was banned. After all, if Mary’s words were taken seriously, why, this Christ-child might upset the whole order of the world, indeed! Mary ends, like Elizabeth, with an affirmation that God is fulfilling God’s promises in the world.  
            We don’t see anything else of Elizabeth and Mary’s visit. The next we know, Elizabeth gives birth to John, and after that, Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem. I wish we could see more of their time together. But what we do see gives us a lot to go on. Both Mary and Elizabeth have a deep faith, a deep trust that God is at work in their lives and in the world. They know that they can count on God to fulfill God’s promises not just to them, but through them to the whole world. And in response, they are content, hopefully, expectant, joyful, and committed to exalting God, magnifying God with their lives.
            This season, we might be tempted to put our focus on and fill up on literal and proverbial Christmas cookies – sweet in the moment, but leaving us empty later on. There’s something more, but we have to choose it. We have to choose to live a life of joy, trusting in God’s promises, trusting in God’s unwavering love, and nurturing that trust as we live lives of thanksgiving, reflecting the joy of Christ to others. Elizabeth believed that God would fulfill the promises spoken to her, to Mary – not just for them, but for us, for others. Mary believed that she could magnify God with her soul, with her life, so that the world could see. I believe that we, grounded in the joy of Christ in our hearts, can trust in God’s promises too, and reflect the light of Christ to a world that needs something real and sustaining. Joyful, all ye nations rise. Amen. 







[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hark!_The_Herald_Angels_Sing
[2] Post and responses can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/eaquick/posts/10100260494454062
[3] McMahon, Darrin M., “A History of Happiness,” http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/a-history-of-happiness

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, "Love: Every Heart Prepare Him Room," Luke 1;26-38

Sermon 12/10/17
Luke 1:26-38

Love: Every Heart Prepare Him Room


            I think I’ve told some of you that my Greek professor in college had a stamper that he’d use when marking our papers. The stamper said “Be Specific!” in big, red letters. It was his huge pet peeve when students would write papers and not give clear examples to support the claims they were making. I’m afraid I saw that stamper on my papers more than once. Be specific, be specific, be specific! I hope I learned my lesson. Dr. Lateiner wanted to see supporting evidence for our claims in our work. You couldn’t just make a claim in a research paper unless you could show that you had good reason for your position. You needed to demonstrate that your claims could be supported. Be specific!  
            I was thinking about Dr. Lateiner this week when I posted some questions to ponder on facebook. For the past few weeks, I’ve been asking questions online about our weekly Advent theme. Last week, I got to share with you a lot of the great responses about peace that really shaped my thinking for my sermon. This week, I posted that today we would be focusing on Love, and “thinking about how we prepare room in our hearts, our lives, our world for Love Incarnate.” I asked, “What about you? Being as specific as possible, how are you preparing room in your life this Advent for Christ to dwell in your heart?”[1]
            I had a few responses. One friend talked about her upcoming journey to the Holy Land, anticipating the impact it would have on her faith, and she talked about the joy she has in knowing Christ’s love. Connie Waltz wrote about loving more, helping when someone needs help, and being confident that Christ is already and always dwelling in her heart. Nicole Fullerton, who is the youth leader at Richville United Church, wrote: “I think when I started leading the youth group at my church it opened my heart up more. Although I always believed and loved the Lord, his lessons have more meaning now. When preparing my lessons I think about how my lessons relate to my life and how it could relate to the youth.” And then Donna Peck commented, “[This topic] is more difficult than the other two topics.” I agree with Donna! It is difficult when we start trying to get specific. We like to talk about love all year round, not just on this Sunday, the Sunday we light our “love” candle, and it is easy to use the language of “preparing” during Advent. But what are we actually doing about preparing for Advent? Yes, we’re here together in worship, so that’s a good start. But how else are we preparing for Christ? And what about this “love” thing? We talk a lot about loving God and loving neighbor. But what specific examples can we point to that demonstrate we’re disciples of this one who is Love Incarnate in our midst? I worry, sometimes, that we are really good at theoretical when it comes to practicing our faith, and not so good at the actual practicing.
            I’ve been reading a book called The Art of Neighboring by Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak. I’m only a couple chapters in, but I’m already feeling convicted. The authors start by talking about Jesus’ call to love our neighbors. Runyon and Pathak say that we gospel readers immediately turn the specific commandment into a metaphor. Jesus just doesn’t mean our literal neighbors, he means for us to love everyone. And while this might be true, they argue, the result is that as we embrace this metaphor of “general” love for others, we are actually pretty bad at the specifics. They lay down a challenge: think of the 8 neighbors closest to you. Your literal neighbors, the people who live closest to you. And then write down everything you know about them. Not things you can observe from your window, like what kind of car they drive, but things that come from relationships you have with them. I know that I’ve only lived in Gouverneur for a year and half, but my personal results from this self-reflection were pretty depressing. I know the names of several of a few of my neighbors, but I can’t tell you much else about most of them, and with some of them I’m kind of cheating since I really know them from church, not from being neighbors. My mom, on the other hand, is such a great example of truly loving her neighbor. My mom lives in an apartment complex, and she knows the name of everyone in her building, and probably the next couple of buildings near hers, and has probably given a ride to, or made food for, or made a visit to most of them. Mom and I might both talk about loving our neighbors – but which of us has the evidence to support the claim?
             Today, on this third Sunday of Advent, our theme calls us to two tasks: Let every heart prepare room for Christ, and let us prepare through showing love for God and neighbor. That’s what I’m asking us to think about this week, this season. We know we’re supposed to prepare room in our hearts for the Christ Child. And it is easy to assent with our lips: “Yes, I’ll do that, I’ll prepare room in my heart for Jesus this Advent.” But imagine that my Greek professor is standing by you – by me too – with that stamper, saying, “Be specific!” What are you actually doing or actually going to do to prepare your life for Jesus to take up space, or to take up more space in your heart and life? When you commit to a life of loving God and neighbor, what do you mean by that? Specifically?
            Our song focus today is Joy to the World. You might think the song makes more sense for next week, when our focus is Joy, and truly, I got myself quite mixed up this week on which song and theme were when. But there are two phrases in Joy to the World that point to our themes for the day. Joy to the World was written by English hymnist Isaac Watts and first published in 1719.[2] The very first verse of the hymn brings us our theme for the day: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.” Watts draws on Psalm 98 for his inspiration, but this language of preparing our hearts comes from him, not directly the text, and is perfect for Advent and the themes we heard echoed in John the Baptist preparing a way for the ministry of Jesus that we talked about two weeks ago. How are we preparing for Jesus – Jesus the Christ Child, Jesus the Savior who we follow as disciples, Jesus who promises to come to us again, and again. How are we preparing?
And there’s another phrase that goes with our theme of love, from verse four of Joy to the World. We sing: “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.” Sometimes when we’re singing, the way that the phrases of hymns get broken up means that we miss the meaning because we’re taking a big breath right in the middle of a sentence. I’m not sure how often I’ve thought about this whole sentence of a verse and what it means. Jesus rules the world with truth and grace, and Jesus makes the nations – that is all people, - Jesus makes all people prove his righteousness – that is, his just and right relationships with us – and the wonders of his love. In other words we are the proof of Jesus’s righteousness, the proof of the wonderfulness of his love in the world. Wow! That just struck me. We are a demonstration, a proof of the love of Christ in the world. If my Greek professor was saying to Jesus: Be specific! How are you showing your truth and grace in the world? How are you righteous? How are you love incarnate? Then Jesus would respond by pointing to us; we’re the proof, the specifics, the supporting evidence of the love of Christ in the world.
Today, we heard in Luke’s gospel a young woman named Mary finding out from God’s messenger, Gabriel, that she would give birth to Jesus, God’s child. Mary quite literally prepares room in her own body for Jesus to enter the world. Gabriel tells Mary that nothing is impossible with God, and Mary believes it, and acts accordingly. Mary will head from here to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth, preparing by turning to a friend, a mentor, a family member who can help her in her pregnancy, as Elizabeth, too, is pregnant. And Mary prepares her heart, pondering and reflecting, and embracing God’s plan to come to earth and turn the world upside down. Everything an expectant mother does has the potential to influence the unborn child she carries. The way a mother prepares for a child’s birth can have a big influence on the health and well-being of the child at birth and beyond. The preparing makes a difference. We see its impact, with often tangible results.
We’re preparing too, hurriedly or calmly, thoroughly or half-heartedly, grudgingly or joyfully, earnestly, or reluctantly. Jesus is coming. We say we are preparing our hearts, and I challenge us, I’m asking us to give an honest answer: How are we preparing our hearts for Jesus? Be specific! We say that we love all people, that yes, the greatest commandment is loving one another, and I challenge us, again, I’m asking us to give an honest assessment: How are we loving one another? Be specific!
Here’s a hint: we can do work on the one by making progress on the other. The more we actively practice loving God and loving one another in tangible ways, ways that can be felt, ways that bear fruit, ways that can leave the other feeling loved, the more we will find that our hearts and lives have more and more room for Jesus to dwell there. And the more we actively make room for Jesus in our hearts, the more we truly make growing in faith a priority that we pursue with at least as much planning and intentionality as we put into other meaningful things in our lives, the more we will find our capacity to love increasing. 
            So, again: specifically, what will you do this season to prepare room for Christ? It is already the Third Sunday of Advent, and in two short weeks, we will celebrate Christ’s birth, but it isn’t too late. What will you do? What will I do? Here’s my start. This Advent, I’ve been being faithful and diligent in my devotional life. Just because I’m a pastor doesn’t mean I don’t sometime neglect nurturing my spiritual life, but I’ve committed, this Advent, to daily spiritual reflection and study of the scripture. This Advent, I’m committing to knocking on the doors of my literal neighbors, introducing myself where needed, and bringing them some Christmas cookies. It’s not much, but it’s a start. Ask me, over the next couple of weeks if I’ve done it! For the past couple of months, I’ve been giving myself weekly reminders about contacting my representatives in Congress. I see this as an act of love, because I’m calling to speak up for people who seem to get shoved to the sidelines. This Advent, I’m being mindful of my schedule, and trying to make room for God instead of cramming my schedule full of things that don’t really need to be a priority. This season, I’ve been working on plans to start having some of my office hours in the community instead of in the church building, so that I can be more intentional about meeting people. This Advent, I’m trying to prepare for Christmas Day and beyond for how I might spend more of my time on those days doing something for others, and less time thinking about myself, so that I might more meaningfully celebrate God-with-us in the world. I’m trying, friends, to be specific. I’m preparing room for Christ, and I’m preparing to love God and love neighbor more fully, and I plan to have some evidence, some specifics, to show for it. Because as wild as it seems, we – you and me – we are the proof, the wonder of God’s love in the world! Let’s go out there and show it. Amen.   







[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy_to_the_World