Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lectionary Notes for First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C

Readings for 1st Sunday after Christmas Day, 12/30/12:
 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26:

  • V. 26, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature…” Compare this to the description of John the Baptist in Luke 1:80 – “The child grew and became strong in spirit…” and of Jesus in Luke 2:52 – “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor.” These statements seem to indicate a child marked by God, for some special/divine purpose.
  • V. 18-20 – Samuel’s mother, Hannah, played such an important role in her son’s life. Remember that it was her prayers during a time of barrenness that brought to her the gift of Samuel, and she promised to give Samuel as a servant to God if she was able to bear a son. Her faithfulness continues to God indirectly through service to her son. In other words, how we care for others links to how we care about God, and is ‘credited’ to us as service to God.

Psalm 148:

  • Praise, praise, praise! That’s the theme of this psalm. This psalm has beautiful imagery about creation – it is not just that humans praise God or even praise God for the gift of creation. It is creation itself that praises God for it’s own existence. “Praise [God], sun and moon; praise him all you shining stars!”
  • This image sort of reminds me of “The Lion King” when all the animals come to see the new baby Simba be ‘baptized’ – all creation is joining in. What a picture!
  • Creation is commanded by the psalmist to give praise because of its existence. Do we require more of God to give God praise? Do we only feel like praising when things are going our way or when we've received some desired request? Or do we praise because we are, because we have being?
  • V. 11-12 say that Kings and the regular people, rulers, young men and women, old men and women, all should praise together. Is that a good picture of worship today? How do we worship together from different walks of life? Who is missing from this full picture in our own congregations?

Colossians 3:12-17:

  • This is a popular favorite scripture passage, not only from Colossians, but from the whole Bible. It’s a picture of a community’s way of living in Christ, and it’s an ideal we probably all seek.
  • “God’s chosen ones” – from the Greek “eklektoi”, meaning literally ‘say out’ but translated as ‘chosen out’ or ‘selected.’ (Humorously, the verb form can mean “to pull out one’s gray hairs”!!!)
  • Images of clothing ourselves, with compassion, kindness, humility, etc. Compare this to imagery of clothing ourselves with the armor of Christ that we find in Ephesians 6. Also, this metaphor loses some of it’s punch if we think about today’s clothing styles. But imagine something from biblical times, long and flowing robes, draped over the body in folds, and you get a different idea of how this “clothing ourselves” can function.
  • “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” The word dwell comes from the Greek “enokeito”, which does simply mean “live in” or “dwell” as translated, but it is a word used for people living in a house, not Christ’s word. Paul is suggesting that Christ’s word come to live with you, to be as much a part of your life and your home as your children or spouses or parents are.

Luke 2:41-52:

  • This is the only canonical story we have of Jesus from the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew until Jesus begins his ministry around age 30. Why is it included? What else happened to Jesus in his childhood, his teenage years, his twenties? These are questions people wonder and dream about.
  • I think of the series “Smallville” on the WB – the account of Clark Kent/Superman’s high school years, previously unknown to us. This is what we wish we had of Jesus – a way to learn about all the things that went into shaping who he became as an adult.
  • “Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey.” It’s hard to imagine parents traveling a day without knowing for sure where their 12 year old was. This let’s us know we have a disconnect between today and Jesus’ day in terms of customs about travel, child care, community relationships, etc.
  • Probably this story is included mostly to illustrate Jesus’ already divine nature, the fact that he was already set apart even at a young age.
  • “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” Imagine being the parent of one like Jesus, and trying to let go of the usual ways that you would act toward a child in order to let something greater take place. Today’s lectionary features the acts of two mothers: Hannah and Mary. We also have to let go of things in our lives in order to let God’s greater purpose be at work in our lives. 

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "What Brings You Here?" Luke 2:1-20

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

What Brings You Here?

            In our church newsletter this December, I shared with folks the results of a study done by one of my colleagues, about why people come to church services on Christmas Eve. The number one reason: Family — People responded, “this is what my family does and I want to be with family. That was 30%. Then came music – “I love the Christmas music and want to sing the familiar and favorite songs.” (22%) Then came Experience – “I love the songs, the candles, the story, the feeling.” (16%) Next was Focus – “Christmas has gotten so crazy; I like the clear focus on the reason for the season.” (12%) Next, Habit: “We do this every year.” (11%) And then, at number 6, faith. “This is the most special and important event in my faith; I wait all year for this.” (5%) Why are you making this Advent Journey? Why will you show up on Christmas Eve? Habit? Family? Music? Faith? To see the child in the manger? Where do you fall in those categories? What brought you here tonight?
What brings You here? That’s the question we’ve been asking. All throughout Advent, all season long, as we’ve been preparing our hearts and lives for Christmas, we’ve been looking at different figures in the stories of Jesus’ birth, and we’ve been asking: What brings them to the manger? Literally, or figuratively, what brings them to this intersection where their life and their journey brought them into an encounter with this Christ-child? We’ve looked at King Herod, at Joseph, at Elizabeth and Mary, at angels and shepherds and Innkeepers, some of whom we hear from throughout this very night. And to each, we ask, “What brings you here?”  
What might surprise you, what surprised me in rereading a story that is so familiar to me, is realizing that almost no one in Christmas story set out looking for a Savior, for a Messiah, for a Christ-child. Mary and Joseph – they were probably faithful Jews, and maybe they had a vague hope of a messiah to come, like many of the people of Israel. But they clearly had no idea that they would become key players in the unfolding of God’s plans. They were just a couple, engaged, planning their future life together. And what brought them to Bethlehem was the government! Most of the people who would have been near Jesus, near the stable, near the inn, in town – they were all there to make sure they paid their taxes! That’s what brought them to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph had encountered angels – messengers of God’s good news. So their faith brought them spiritually to the hour of Christ’s birth. King Herod gets mixed up in the story, brought by fear, motivated by the need to make sure he kept as much power as he could for as long as he could. The shepherds: the first Christmas started out just as another day keeping sheep for them. We don’t know anything about them. Their names are not recorded for us. We have no idea what happens to them after this night. We don’t know why the angels chose to appear to them, of all the possible witnesses to Christ’s birth. But it seems to me that their very ordinary-ness tells us something about how God works, and who God’s good news is for. If anything, shepherds were people who lived on the fringes, the edges of society. They lived outdoors most of the time, spent most of their time with animals. They weren’t looking for a savior. Their journey to Bethlehem was a last minute trip, a decision made on the spot because they were curious to see this strange thing the angels told them about, and they couldn’t pass up such a fantastic invitation. No, no one set out on this night looking for a Savior. But the Savior they found. And to most – it brought overwhelming joy, or abiding peace, pondered in a mother’s heart.
            That’s what brought them here. But tonight, what I most want to know is not what brought this collection of characters together two-thousand years ago, on the first Christmas. That’s important. That’s compelling, a story I want to hear. But what I’m most interested in tonight is this: What brings YOU here? What brings you, you in the pews, here, to this place, at this time, on this night? Why are you spending time here on this night?
            Maybe we are like the innkeeper. Here because it is our job, because we have to be, just getting it done, not really involved in the action, observing from a distance. Maybe we’re like those who were just in town to pay their taxes – we’re here without a big plan, a big purpose, big expectations. Maybe we are like Mary and Joseph – here because we think God has big plans for us, even if we’re nervous, unsure, overwhelmed with what those plans might be. Maybe we are like Herod, fearful of what God might be up to, what God might want us to change about the way we’re living, what God might do to shake up our priorities. Maybe we’re like the shepherds, and we’ve stumbled onto the manger, brought here out of curiosity, because someone invited us, because it was something different in the midst of our ordinary lives. What brings You here?
            But whatever brought you here tonight, the main thing is that you are here. To some of you, maybe it was an easy decision to come here tonight. Maybe there is nowhere else you’d want to be. But increasingly, there are a million other options for where you could be tonight. And however it happened, whatever other choices you had, whatever your reasons were, somehow, you made it to this place today, to this worship service. We are so glad you are here, soaking it in, even if don’t know quite what to do with it all, with the story of Christmas, with this Christ-child who is Savior, with God-with-us.
            Whatever brought you here tonight, whatever made all of our paths intersect on this evening, the main thing is that you are here. Because child in the manger, whose birthday party you’ve stumbled on, this child was born because of you! Because God is for you, with you, in you, and delighted in you, full of love for you. God has come for you. Your path, whatever road you took to get here, has led you to the manger, and the child Jesus was born because God wanted to be closer to you. This gift is for you. That’s the good news, and we so need some good news!
            Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

Readings for Fourth Sunday of Advent, 12/23/12:
Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46b-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

Micah 5:2-5a:
  • “But you, O Bethlehem,” – Bethlehem is described as a little town (like the hymn!), making it special that a ruler would come from such a small place.
  • Image of a woman in labor – this is a common Advent image, for obvious reasons of the expectation of the Christ-child, but also for other reasons. Pregnancy is indeed a time of expectation, but there is a sense of inevitability too. It’s not like expecting the unknown, wondering about an unsure future. Unless something goes tragically wrong, the result is a new child. Images of birth pangs are also common in biblical metaphors (like when Jesus speaks of signs of the times) to describe a time of distress/pain/confusion. But again, despite this pain, a new life follows.
  • “And they shall live secure” – What does that mean? Today ‘security’ is a word we think about a great deal. There’s the financial security that we all seek that feels too hard to get in this economy – job security. There’s national security – in the midst of the war on terror, we walk a fine line between security/safety and taking away of human/constitutional rights. What’s the difference between that kind of security and the kind described here?
  • “And he shall be the one of peace.” That’s just such a breath-taking, beautiful image. Our heart’s desire.

Luke 1:46b-55:
  • “magnifies” – from the Greek megalunei, meaning, “to make great, to magnify, to exaggerate.” When we use a magnifying glass, we do it so the image is larger, easier to see, but also so we can see all the fine details of an image.
  • Mary thanks God for God’s ability to switch the usual order of things, to make things opposite of how they usually are: the powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted. The hungry are filled, the rich go away empty-handed. Ties in with Jesus’ teaching emphasis on the first being last, last being first. A change of the whole existing social order, everything turned upside-down and inside-out.
  • Mary signifies that she believes the child she is carrying to be the fulfillment after a long time of a promise made by God to Abraham and his descendants  Imagine the patience! We seem to want God to fulfill promises a lot more quickly – preferably within our own lifetime! What if we could know that God’s promises would reach to our great-great-great-great grandchildren? Would that satisfy us?

Hebrews 10:5-10:
  • Preceding this passage, the author is talking about how animal sacrifices made in the temple fail to fully atone for sins, since they must be repeated year after year, thus not really freeing people from the guilt they experience. Christ has come to be the one sacrifice we need, the only thing strong enough to really take away our sins, the author argues.
  • Vs. 6 & 7 draw on language similar to Psalm 51, the one that contains the “Create in me a clean heart” verses, a favorite Psalm for those who feel guilt and seek forgiveness and repentance.

Luke 1:39-45:
  • Mary has just been visited by the angle Gabriel and accepted the news that she is carrying “the Son of the Most High.” She goes to be with her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also, even in her old age, carrying a child, John the Baptist.
  • “Blessed are you” – The Greek word for blessed is eulogemene, root words meaning good and word. The same as the root of our word “eulogy”, good-speaking about somebody. To be spoken well-of, to be praised, to be blessed.
  • “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” What makes Elizabeth ask this? Does she feel unworthy of this visit from Mary and the unborn Christ-child?
  • “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” These are key words that speak to us today! God has spoken many things to us, many to me at least. But in doubt I wonder if God’s promises for me are as good as expected. Our blessing comes in our belief, our trust, our faith.

Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, "Journey - What Brings You Here?: Elizabeth"

Sermon 12/16/12
Luke 1, selected verses

Journey – What Brings You Here?: Elizabeth

            Why? Why? That’s the question that I’ve heard and read and seen since Friday’s unfolding events, the tragic taking of lives in Connecticut this week, lives of children so young it makes our heads spin with confusion at the total senselessness, the total out-of-order-ness of it all. All anyone has to do is picture the child in their life closest to this age – your own child or grandchild, your niece or nephew or neighbor or godchild – experiencing a moment of the fear that these children in Connecticut did – to have your head swimming, your eyes filling, your mind asking: Why? Why has this happened? How can we make sense of something so awful?
I spent a lot of time yesterday reading people’s reactions to the tragedy online – in news articles, facebook posts, blog entries – some of the forums that people are using to try to make sense of something awful. I came across this prayer from Walter Brueggemann, written in a different circumstance, but perfect in the context of yesterday’s mid-Advent horror. It’s called Christmas…the Very Next Day:
Had we the chance, we would have rushed to Bethlehem to see this thing that had come to pass.
Had we been a day later, we would have found the manger empty and the family departed.
We would have learned that they ­fled to Egypt, warned that the baby was endangered, sought by the establishment of the day
that understood how his very life threatened the way things are.
We would have paused at the empty stall and pondered how this baby from the very beginning was under threat.
The powers understood that his grace threatened all our coercions;
they understood that his truth challenged all our lies;
they understood that his power to heal nullified our many pathologies;
they understood that his power to forgive vetoed the power of guilt
and the drama of debt among us.
From day one they pursued him, and schemed and conspired
until finally…on a gray Friday… they got him!
No wonder the family ­fled, in order to give him time for his life.
We could still pause at the empty barn—
and ponder that all our babies are under threat,
all the vulnerable who stand at risk before predators,
our babies who face the slow erosion of consumerism,
our babies who face the reach of sexual exploitation,
our babies who face the call to war, placed as we say, ‘in harm’s way,’
our babies, elsewhere in the world, who know of cold steel against soft arms
and distended bellies from lack of food;
our babies everywhere who are caught in the fearful display of ruthless adult power.
We ponder how peculiar this baby at Bethlehem is, summoned to save the world, and yet we know, how like every child, this one also was at risk.
The manger is empty a day later… the father warned in a dream.
Our world is so at risk, and yet we seek after and wait for this child named ‘Emmanuel.’
Come be with us, you who are called 'God with us.'

Our world is so at risk. And into this context, the Christ-child is born, yet again. Today, it seems fitting that our scripture focus brings us into the lives of two pregnant women, both in precarious, risky situations in different ways. Last week, I shared with you that Matthew’s gospel tells the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Joseph and his dreams. This week, we turn our focus to the gospel of Luke, who tells the story from Mary’s perspective. But today, we particularly focus in on Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her role in the story.
            To understand Elizabeth, we have to back up to the beginning of Luke 1. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is a priest in the temple. We read that both of them were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” This statement is important, because right after it, we read that Elizabeth was barren, and that both Elizabeth and Zechariah were “getting on in years.” In other words, both of them probably had reconciled themselves to the fact that there would be no children for them. Today, many people, many families, still have to struggle with infertility issues, not being physically able to have children when they are so wanted. We can sympathize with Elizabeth and Zechariah in this. But I’m not sure we can fully understand how linked having children was in the ancient world to fulfilling your duty, your destiny, your purpose. Children meant security and financial stability, in addition to being able to carry on a family line. But more, children were signs of God’s blessings, God’s promises being carried out, and so the inability to have children was seen as a cause for concern. Was God punishing sinful people, by making them barren? Many would have thought so. Today, still, many of us wonder “why,” when facing these struggles. But the scriptures spell it out for us, in multiple places: A couple’s childlessness was not equivalent to God’s judgment on them. I am not sure I can even convey what radical new thinking this was. So when we read that Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous, blameless, following the commandments, we aren’t being told how impossibly perfect they were, we’re being told that they didn’t have children because they didn’t have children, not because they’d done something wrong that God was punishing them for. That’s important.
            Zechariah is chosen for duty in temple. The priests draw lots for service, and Zechariah’s turn is up to offer the incense, an honor. Alone in that part of the temple, Zechariah is greeted by a messenger from God. He’s terrified, overwhelmed with fear. But the angel tells him not to be afraid. God has heard his prayers, Elizabeth’s prayers. She will bear a son, John. He’ll be full of the Holy Spirit even before he’s born, and his purpose will be to make the people ready for God. Zechariah asks one question: “How will I know this is so? Because Elizabeth and I are getting rather old.” Gabriel, the messenger, seems astonished at his doubt. Because of it, Gabriel says, he will not be able to speak until John is born. Zechariah exits the sanctuary, and it is clear he has had a vision of some kind. I wonder how he communicates to Elizabeth what is about to happen, what signs and gestures and notes he must resort to. But Elizabeth doesn’t seem surprised. She becomes pregnant, and Elizabeth notes it as a sign of God’s favor.
            It is months after this when we encounter Elizabeth again. Gabriel has visited Mary and announced to her that she would bear a son, Jesus, the Savior. And Gabriel also tells Mary that Elizabeth is now six months pregnant, and that her pregnancy is a sign of this: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Upon hearing this news, we read that Mary goes “with haste” to visit her cousin. We don’t know why she does this, but we can speculate that Mary would enjoy the privacy this would give her, there in the hill country, with her pregnancy that could be the cause of a community scandal, that she could be of aid to her older cousin, who undoubtedly will experience a more physically stressful pregnancy than young Mary, and that Elizabeth could be a comfort and source of knowledge and wisdom for Mary, especially given their parallel journeys.
            We don’t know if Elizabeth knew of Mary’s pregnancy before her arrival or not. But immediately when Mary enters, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps, and Elizabeth herself is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” the first person in the New Testament to earn this description. Elizabeth says to Mary, “‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’” I think her words describe both Mary’s response and her own to what God has shared with them. After this scene, we see Elizabeth give birth to her child, and with a now-vocal Zechariah, name him John. And then, Elizabeth is never mentioned again. We next see John, her son, as an adult, in the wilderness, preaching repentance, just before he baptizes his cousin, Jesus. But this is the only snippet we have of Elizabeth’s life.
            Today, our gospel lesson brings us an encounter between two women who might have asked a lot of questions, might have asked a lot of “Whys” in response to what has happening to them. We have Elizabeth, who the Bible describes as “getting on in years,” and barren, conditions that make her husband even doubt the angel Gabriel when he tells him Elizabeth will bear a son, and she is here several months pregnant with a child we know will be John the Baptist. And we have Mary – probably a young teen, who is engaged, but not yet married, also suddenly found to be with child – the child Jesus. These two women could have, might have, wondered about God’s timing in their lives. Why couldn’t Elizabeth have become pregnant 20 years earlier? Would it have made a difference if John were 20 years instead of a few months older than Jesus? Why couldn’t Mary have become pregnant after marrying Joseph? For a young unwed woman in Mary’s day to be found pregnant could carry the penalty of death by stoning. Why put Mary at such a risk?
            But Mary and Elizabeth gave birth to children who, in the very act of fulfilling God’s promises spent virtually their whole lives being at risk. John grows to be a man known for being odd, eccentric in his lifestyle, and one who speaks the truths that no one wants to hear. He loses his life when he won’t stop saying things that make other uncomfortable. More than uncomfortable: John’s words make them dangerous, violent. And of course, Jesus – he is pursued throughout his entire ministry. Constantly, religious authorities tried to trap him, corner him, trip him up. Ultimately, they arrested, beat, and executed Jesus. Oh, we know the story of life from death. We are Easter people. But Jesus, infant so tender-and-mild, was at risk, always.
A few weeks ago, I got to give the message at LIFE, during the worship time of our youth program. We’ve been focusing on the themes of our Advent candles, and I was talking about peace. The Bible talks a lot about peace. We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. Indeed, Jesus speaks of the peace he gives to us. But as we were talking about the dividing walls we build up between ourselves and others, both literally and figuratively, we talked about the difference between peace and safety. I think, so often, we mistake the two, think they are the same thing, peace and safety. We build walls of all kinds, thinking we will find peace, but safety is the best we can hope for with our methods. Jesus never promises us safety. He calls us to follow him by taking up crosses – not pretty crosses, decorative, gilded, or glittering – crosses that were symbols of giving up your life. Seeking peace is risky and costly.
             I keep returning to Elizabeth’s words to Mary: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Elizabeth and Mary’s pregnancies were risky, and yet God was working through them, to fulfill God’s promises. John was at risk, and yet he prepared the way, fulfilling God’s promise. Jesus was at risk from day one, and yet he drank the cup that was place before him, humbling himself in death on a cross for us, fulfilling God’s promise. Our world is at risk – and yet God-is-with-us. Our children live in a world where we cannot promise safety. But we can promise Jesus. We can promise God-with-us, even when God must weep with us. We are at risk, and yet it is only in risky, costly discipleship that we walk the path of peace, the path of Jesus. Christians are always called to walk this strange, tenuous line. At risk – yet God is with us. It only takes one candle to cancel the power of darkness – and we are preparing again and always for the birth of the light of the world, God’s promise in the flesh.
            “Our world is so at risk, and yet we seek after and wait for this child named ‘Emmanuel.’
Come be with us, you who are called 'God with us.'” Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

Readings for Third Sunday of Advent, 12/16/12
 Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Zephaniah 3:14-20:
  • V. 15 - “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.” Imagine being given a clean slate, and having all our mistakes wiped out! Think about presidential pardons given, and how controversial they are, either applauded or bemoaned, depending on circumstances. How much do we have to pay for our mistakes? Are their sins that God should not take away judgment for?
  • V. 19 - “I will change their shame into praise.” Shame often seems a feeling/emotion that we have whether or not we also have guilt for a situation. For example, someone who has been abused may feel shame despite not being responsible for being abused.

Isaiah 12:2-6:
  • I can’t read these verses without thinking of anthem my home church sang on this text, “The First Song of Isaiah,” by Jack Noble White. It’s really gorgeous.
  • Here is a passage where the understanding of ‘salvation’ in its most basic sense of safety, safe-keeping from harm, is quite evident. In God, we are safe, safe from ourselves, safe from others, safe from being lost and destroyed.
  • I love the word 'surely' that shows up almost every week in one of the Advent texts. A promise guaranteed. Surely God is our salvation.

Philippians 4:4-7:
  • V. 5 – “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” The Greek might translate also as “reasonableness”, “fairness”, “goodness”. Gentleness is not necessarily a trait we value, is it? Particularly not in both genders. It’s ok for a woman, but we don’t often praise men for gentleness. How can we let our gentleness be known? What does that have to do with our faith? The command from Paul flows into the second phrase, ‘The Lord is near.’ How do they relate?
  • V. 7 – “And the peace of God which passes . . . “ – The ‘passes understanding’ is from the Greek ‘huperech├┤’, which means, “to be above” or “to hold over”, “to prevail.” God’s peace is above everything. That’s comforting.

Luke 3:7-18:  
  • We’d probably write John the Baptist off as a crazy man today, and probably many did then too!
  • V. 8 – “We have Abraham as our ancestor.” – we might smile at this excuse of John’s listeners, but the phrase is actually all too familiar. Calling on our past and our heritage as a justification for our current behavior is a common tactic of church people!
  • When John is asked what to do since the portrait he paints of the alternative is so dismal, he responds, like Jesus normally did, with a prescription of what to donot what to believe. We get very wrapped up in what to believe in the church, and awfully complacent about what we must do and how we must live.
  • Some of these images of the threshing floor, the granary, etc., lose their meaning for us if we don’t understand these processes ourselves. A winnowing fork, for example, was used to toss wheat into the air, where the wind would separate the wheat grain from the light chaff. 

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "Journey - What Brings You Here?: Joseph," Matthew 1:18-25

Sermon 12/9/12
Matthew 1:18-25

Journey – What Brings You Here?: Joseph

            Are you the kind of person who can remember your dreams? Some people seem to be able to recall them easily, and some people never remember their dreams. I usually fall into that latter category, not remembering anything other than blurry images from my dreams. Do you wonder what our dreams mean, if anything? Are they just leftover thoughts from our day, thoughts our full and busy minds could no longer hold? Some dreams seem pretty straightforward in meaning. When I first became a pastor, I prepared my sermons much earlier in the week than I do now. This wasn’t because I was so much more diligent or because I was so much less a procrastinator. No, this was because like clockwork, I would have nightmares about forgetting to write a sermon and being caught unprepared on Sunday morning, unless, in real life, I had already finished my work early in the week. Pretty easy to figure out what those dreams meant! Other times, I just have no clue. I once had a very elaborate, multi-part dream, that involved train tracks, coins falling, and chasing after a seminary friend. I was curious about it, since it was so vivid and I actually remembered it, so for fun I looked up in a “dream interpretation” book what each of the items in my dream might mean. Every single thing in my dream meant: money. Money, money, money. So much for that!
            Still though, dreams can be powerful. Shortly after my grandfather died, back in 1998, my mother had a clear dream, where my grandfather, no longer frail from illness, but healthy and happy, visited her at work, and assured her that he was ok. This dream gave my mom an incredible sense of peace, in the midst of the pain and grief. She felt like God was reminding her that her father was ok – more than ok – and she trusted the message she received and was comforted. What have your dreams been telling you?
            The scriptures are full of stories of God communicating through dreams. In Genesis, we encounter Jacob dreaming a vision of a ladder ascending into heaven, Pharaoh, dreaming of feast and famine in Egypt, Joseph, Jacob’s son, dreaming of his role that will set him apart from his eleven brothers. And the dreams continue through the prophets, and into the New Testament, where we encountered Peter, back in October, who experienced in a trance a vision of God opening the table to Jew and Gentile alike. Dreams can be powerful. And dreams play a significant role in the story of Jesus’ birth, as today, we turn our journey’s focus to Joseph.      
Now, you might think Joseph is a pretty significant figure in the New Testament, in the story of Jesus, and of course, he is: He is the husband of Mary, Jesus’s mother, and he is Jesus’ earthly father, the parent who raises him. But if you think about what we read about Joseph in the scriptures, you might be surprised to realize that other than passing mentions, like, “Hey, isn’t that Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph?”, and the scene where Jesus is twelve and stays behind in the temple while his parents, not even named separately, are searching for him, Joseph is only mentioned, only appears in relation to the birth and surrounding events of Jesus. That’s it. So, it is significant, too, for us to note that every scene in the birth story where Joseph appears, we hear about a dream he’s had that contains a message for him about God’s plan, how God will use Joseph to help usher in the birth of Jesus, the savior.
            We first encounter Joseph in the gospel of Matthew. Luke’s gospel tells the birth story mostly from Mary’s point of view, but Matthew focuses on Joseph. Matthew tells us that Mary has been found to be with child, from the Holy Spirit, and then tells us how Joseph responds. Joseph, we read, is a righteous man. We don’t know what Mary has told Joseph about her pregnancy – whether she told him the child was God’s, and Joseph doubted, or whether Mary even had a chance to explain at all – we don’t know how Joseph learned the news. But Joseph, preparing to divorce Mary, a legal step that would have to be taken even after an engagement, chooses to do so discreetly, wishing to shield Mary from the full punishment she could have received – death by stoning. Just as he is planning the divorce, he has a dream. A messenger from God tells him in a dream that indeed, the child Mary carries is from the Holy Spirit. They’re to name the child Jesus – which means savior – and he will be God-with-us – Immanuel. When Joseph wakes up, we read that “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded, and wed Mary, who eventually gives birth to Jesus. After Jesus is born, we encounter Joseph in Chapter 2, as twice more, a messenger appears in Joseph’s dreams, and directs Joseph where to flee, where to move to so that Jesus is safe from those, like King Herod, who would do him harm.  
            I’m amazed by what we don’t hear in these short passages with Joseph. We don’t hear Joseph ask questions. We don’t hear Joseph say, “Why me?” or, “I don’t think I heard you right,” or “I don’t believe you” or “that’s totally ridiculous, God,” or “that’s just not a practical way to have the savior come. Don’t you have any more sensible ideas?” Joseph dreams, and when he wakes, he acts. Throughout my ministry, a common question I’ve had people ask me is this: “Why doesn’t God speak to us as clearly as God spoke to people in the days of the Bible? Why don’t we hear God or see God in the same ways anymore?”
But let me ask you, if God spoke to you like God spoke to these biblical figures, would you believe it? Even as you are ready to say, “of course I would!,” try to be very honest with yourself. When Aaron and I went through the process to be ordained, we had to take a psychological assessment, with hundreds of questions, and several of them asked the question, “Do you hear voices?” in one way or another. Now, for pastors-to-be, that’s a loaded question! Do you mean the voice of God? But no, we knew that “hearing voices” was something that would be sign of concern, of mental health issues. If we encountered God in the ways folks did in the scriptures, I suspect we, and others, would mostly think we were crazy. I think God speaks to us in ways that we can hear God. And so if it is easier for us to hear God through careful study of the scripture, through prayer, through practices we somehow consider “logical,” God will speak to us that way.
            But what if our relationship with God could be so much richer, what if our discipleship could be so much deeper, what if the dreams we could dream with God could be so much more vivid if we could learn to believe what we proclaim: nothing is impossible with God! I recently took my nephew Sam to see a movie, “Rise of the Guardians.” The story is about Jack Frost, who joins Santa Claus, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny as guardians over the children of the world. Deep stuff, right? The conflict comes when children begin, because of a villain, to stop believing in these guardians, causing them to lose their powers, and eventually to disappear altogether. Jack Frost eventually finds a way to help the children believe again, by helping them to use their imagination, have fun, and experience joy.
            What kind of imagination, what kind of believing did it take, do you think, to believe that the automobile could exist? The airplane? The television? The computer? The smartphone? Just yesterday, I downloaded an app for my phone where you can hum a tune into the phone, and the app will tell you what song it is. I was just marveling, awe-struck, that such a thing is possible, and it isn’t even new technology anymore! Sure, all of these inventions and innovations have hard science behind them, facts and figures. But without imagination, without believing there must be some way to make it work, we would never have all these things in our world. 
            Is God speaking to you? Is God trying to find a way to make God’s dreams into your dreams? Our aim is to be more open, more willing to hear and see God in unusual ways, so that we are ready, like Joseph, to acts, when God puts a dream – sleeping or waking – into our mind. There’s a brainstorming exercise that we’re going to try soon with our Visioning Team at Liverpool First, where you imagine all the ways you might build a better bathtub. There’s no restrictions. Every idea you think of gets written down, and no one is allowed to say, “Well, that wouldn’t work because…” A carpeted bathtub? Sure! A bathtub on wheels? Sure! A bathtub where you soak in peanut butter? Sure! No wrong answers! I’ve used this activity before, and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is for sensible adults to let loose and dream about a better bathtub. It is nearly impossible for people to refrain from trying to limit themselves to practical suggestions. Nearly impossible.
            Could a baby be the savior of the world? Impossible! …Nearly. Could Mary’s pregnancy be from the Holy Spirit? Impossible! At least you’d think. Could Joseph endure the scandal of staying with Mary anyway? He couldn’t stand it, could he? Could he believe in dreams? God’s dreams? Impossible? Essential. Life-changing. Life-saving. World-transforming.
            Let’s dream, friends, and be a bit impractical. Nonsensical. Unbelievable. Occasionally even a little ridiculous. Because God-with-us has a dream to share. Let’s make God’s dreams our reality. Amen.       

Monday, December 03, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Readings for Second Sunday of Advent, 12/9/12:
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Malachi 3:1-4:
  • Malachi is called a ‘minor prophet’ – which just means shorter book, not lesser words.
  • Malachi uses a Q & A styles, supplying our question, his/God’s response.
  • This section is titled “The coming messenger.” We often of course interpret this as meaning Christ. His hearers probably interpreted it in some more immediate and less immediate ways.
  • Refiner’s Fire and Fuller’s Soap – Tools of purification, that God will use with us, as Malachi said he would to those he addressed. A perfecting process. Wesley talked about Christian perfection. In Christ we are made perfect.
Luke 1:68-79:
  • Instead of the usual Psalm, we have this ‘prophecy’ spoken by Zechariah at the event of John’s circumcision, when his mouth is opened, after his silence for doubting God’s promise of a child. In it, he states his son’s purpose: “to be prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” 
  • The scriptures often have people who've had an experience of God responding in song - particularly a prevalent occurrence in our Advents texts. Have you ever burst in song at God's action in your life? Maybe not, but how do you react? How do you give thanks? Show your wonder?

Philippians 1:3-11:
  • Paul writes this around 64 AD, while under house arrest, probably/possibly in Rome, as a thank-you letter for a gift sent from some of the members of the church in Philippi.
  • Paul wants to lose all things in order to gain Christ. “I want to know Christ . . .by becoming like him.”
  • "I thank my God every time I remember you." - What a thoughtful sentiment! My mom has shared that she thinks this of her children. Do you thank God for the people in your life?

Luke 3:1-6:
  • John the Baptist – A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Reference to Isaiah. Repentance – from the Greek metanoia, literally, after-thought/know, of change of mind after reflection/thought. Interestingly, sometimes this word can have the connotation of “knowing something too late, after the fact.” But in terms of God, we’re not too late – that’s the gift of grace, that we can have a “change of mind” without being too late.
  • Sin – from the Greek hamartia, literally, “to miss the mark.” In Greek theatre, this is the word used to describe the fatal character flaw in tragedy, the hubris characteristic that causes the downfall of the tragic hero.
  • Forgiveness – from the Greek apheimi, literally, to be from, more specifically, to let pass, to send forth from oneself, to loose oneself from.
  • “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Salvation – from the Greek soteria, meaning, safety, keeping save, deliverance, safe return.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Lectionary Notes for First Sunday of Advent, Year C

Readings for First Sunday of Advent, 12/2/12:
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

Jeremiah 33:14-16:
  • "surely" - check out the Advents texts this cycle. The world 'surely' appears almost every week. Maybe that's nothing, but I like it - it's a word of promise, a word of sure fulfillment. Definite.
  • "Fulfill the promise." What promises have you made? Broken? Kept? Which have other made/broken/kept with you? What promise is Jeremiah referencing here? Do you believe God fulfills promises made to you? The world? How?
  • "execute justice" - I like this phrase, because it has such a different meaning than the meaning 'execute' usually has in our system of justice today. Today, when we execute, we mean we take life for life out of revenge. But God means bringing real justice to those who have been oppressed. That's execution in justice that I can support and work for.
  • A name: "The Lord is our righteousness." That is a powerful name. What does your name mean? What would you like God to call you?
Psalm 25:1-10:
  • The psalmist mentions shame several times - his shame, the shame of those obedient to God, shame he hopes is put on others by God. Shame is a powerful emotion, a powerful motivator, a powerful weapon of oppression. Of what are you ashamed in yourself? In others? How do you shame others? Does God shame us?
  • "Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions" - Many people probably echo the psalmists worries - will be judged by all the things we did when we didn't know any better? I think we can trust in God's abundant grace, who calls us into a more mature discipleship. Indeed, verses 8 and 9 talk about God as a teacher, The One who instructs us. How have you learned/grown in your faith over the years? Are you a mature disciple? Or an early student?
  • "Be mindful of your mercy." That's sort of an audacious thing to say to God!
  • "way," "paths," etc. This psalm has good Advent imagery, relating to our journey toward Christ's birth. .
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13:
  • This reading opens with high praise - "how can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?" Who has brought this kind of joy into your life? Have you thanked them? How? Has someone thanked you for such a thing? I think so often we don't thank each other, praise each other enough, especially for the gifts of service given in the life of the church. And yet, giving thanks for one another is a powerful thing to do, and is sooo appreciated.
  • Vs. 11-13 are great words of blessing - a good benediction perhaps. "May God direct our way to you." "May God make you to abound in love for one another and for all." "May God strengthen your hearts in holiness." Those are blessings I'd like to receive. 
Luke 21:25-36:
  • Advent always begins with surprising "end times" texts that probably catch parishioners off-guard, who are ready to sing Christmas carols. How do we refocus them and us? This text is about time, and expectations and waiting. So is Advent. What we do while we wait is important. Whether or not we live like something exciting is going to happen in our world by God is important.
  • It is easy to look around our world and see evidence of these signs Jesus is talking about, and get pretty worked up about "Armageddon"-type stuff. But is that how Jesus means us to react to this text? He says that when we see such signs, we'll know that "your redemption is drawing near" and that "you know that the kingdom of God is near." Elsewhere, we understand that Jesus means these things are already hear. Now is the time that we are redeemed, and now is the time that the kingdom is at hand. Now and soon, coming and already here. That is the crux, the irony, the strangeness of advent, the kingdom, and the whole gospel.
  • "Be on guard" - I think in the world today we're often told to be on guard - we're to be on guard against terrorists, suspicious activities and packages, etc. Being on guard always in this way can be exhausting. Is this what Jesus means? I don't think so. In fact, he says almost the opposite. We're to be on guard against being weighed down with the "worries of this life" so that Christ's coming doesn't catch us not ready. I think God often tries to enter into our lives and hearts but finds us not ready. This is what Jesus wants us to live ready for.
  • "this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place." Another passage talking about end times, if that's only as far as you are wanting to look. Better to think of it this way: so often in my life I am putting things off - procrastinating - not so much about day to day things, like sermon-writing :), etc., but about big things: I will start giving more ... when I'm out of debt. I will take risks for God .... after I get my PhD. I will speak out about what I really believe .... after I'm ordained elder (Ok, I can check that one off my list now...). But God arrives unexpectedly. I should stop acting like I have something to wait for before I get to work the way God wants me to. The time is NOW.

Sermon for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Year B, John 18:33-37

Sermon 11/25/12
John 18:33-37

In Between: Christ, the King

            How many of you know what Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday is? If, by chance, you do know what it is, is it anybody’s favorite Sunday on the church calendar? I didn’t think so! Often, Christ the King Sunday gets a bit neglected, because most years, it falls on Thanksgiving Sunday, which isn’t technically even part of the liturgical calendar, but usually takes precedence for Christians in the United States. If we have to choose between Thanksgiving as a focus in worship and Christ, the King, we usually choose Thanksgiving! I’m not complaining – we don’t do enough of thanks-giving. But I am glad for these occasional years where the calendar falls just so and there is a Sunday left between Thanksgiving and the start of Advent, and Christ the King can stands on its own. It is the last Sunday of the year, in terms of the church calendar, and next Sunday we begin anew, with a new church year on the First Sunday of Advent.
            Actually, Christ the King Sunday is a relatively new addition to the Christian calendar. In 1925, Pope Pius XI announced a new feast day, the Feast of Christ the King. He said that he felt that the rise of atheistic communism and secularism were a direct result of people turning away from Jesus’ sovereignty, and of people denying the authority of Jesus and the Church. He saw it as a move away from Divine Order in favor of human order, which he called disorder. So, this Reign of Christ Sunday is about reclaiming Jesus’ place of authority in our lives. Throughout the scriptures, we hear God called our King, hear Jesus described this way. We have plenty of hymns in our hymnals that use this language for the divine. But what does that mean for us?
I think it is a particularly interesting and challenging question in our American context. After all, as a nation, we rebelled against having a king. No longer wanting to be under the absolute authority of a monarchy, but desiring instead to participate in a democracy, was a primary component of our founding. We fought wars over it, this right not to be ruled by a king. Sure, maybe lately, with the stylish, young, and admirable William and Catherine marrying last year, people are suddenly a little more intrigued by the idea of royalty. But mostly, we seem, as a society, to be more into Disney princesses and their costumes than in submitting to the authority of a king.
            Still, we all have to submit to forms of authority, right? Even if we don’t have a king, governments still exert authority over us. We pay taxes, right? We follow laws, or are punished or fined for our failure to follow. And we have authority figures in many other places too. We have bosses – or bishops! We have teachers and principals. We have parents and grandparents. All these people might be in positions of power over us, at least in some matters, able to tell us what to do. They have power. They have authority. We can push the boundaries of that authority – can and do. We can reject it, but usually not without major consequences.
            So when we talk about Jesus as a King – what does that mean to us? How do we, independent people, private, prizing our individualism and autonomy, let someone be our king? What does that mean, exactly? Let’s take a look at our text:
            Although next week we suddenly find ourselves thinking about the coming Christ child, a tiny baby at the center of everything, today we are inserted in our text right into the trial of Jesus, just before his crucifixion. Jesus has been arrested, and the religious leaders have brought him to see Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who ruled over occupied Judea. They seek to use his authority to have Jesus executed. Pilate questions them, and asks what crime Jesus has committed, but they’re vague in their answers, saying only that they wouldn’t have brought him if he wasn’t a criminal. So Pilate goes back to speak to Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks. Pilate cuts to the chase. He only really cares if someone is trying to start a revolutionary movement that would usurp his authority, or at least threaten his regime and cause trouble, warfare, in the region he’s responsible for. He and Jesus have an intriguing exchange, where you sense that every question and statement is layered with multiple meanings. “Why do you ask?” Jesus responds. He essentially wants to know if this is Pilate’s own question, or if someone put him up to it. Pilate responds with his own question. “Am I a Jew? Your own people handed you over. What have you done?” Pilate gives off the aura that he can hardly be troubled by this internal strife of this small sect of people over whom he has power.
            Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” In other words, Jesus lets Pilate know that he isn’t out to start a revolution – at least, not a revolution that would result in Pilate losing his power. Not a military coup. In fact, just before this scene, Jesus stopped his disciples from fighting the guards who arrested him. Not a violent political overthrow – that’s not what Jesus’ kingdom is about, not how Jesus gets his power. But Pilate picks up on the way Jesus responds – Jesus has admitted that he does have a kingdom, and Pilate zeros in on that. “So you are a king?” Jesus answers carefully, making sure to say nothing he doesn’t mean, while aware that he and Pilate are talking about two different things, even if they are both talking about kings and kingdoms. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus is the king of truth. The authority of truth.
            Jesus is trying to convey the idea to Pilate that whatever idea of king Pilate has in his mind, whatever the people are saying about Jesus, they’ve got the wrong picture – the wrong understanding of king altogether. Jesus is something different than what people are saying or thinking about him. Jesus is unwilling, even when it is about to cost him his life, to let Pilate define him, or to let the crowds define him, or let accusers define him. “Are you the king of the Jews,” Pilate asks? “You might say so,” Jesus seems to be saying, “but the kingdom I’m bringing is a completely different one than you’re expecting, and I’m ruling with a different kind of authority.”
            That’s what I think we need to be sure of on this Sunday: What kingdom are we a part of? Who is our king? And, toughest of all: Do we accept this king as the authority of our lives?
What kind of kingdom? All the time Jesus is talking about God’s kingdom – all the parables, all the lessons, they all point to the kingdom of God. We can rightly assume that Jesus is some kind of king. But in everything that Jesus does, in everything he teaches, in the ways he lives, in all these things, Jesus is painting the picture of a kingdom that isn’t one people would recognize. We talked about this last Sunday: Jesus speaks of a kingdom where first is last and last is first, where those who are humbled are exalted, and the exalted are humbled. He talks about an order of society where the poor are the blessed, where the humble see God, where the peacemakers inherit the earth. He talks about a kingdom where typical dividing lines of race and gender and class and place of origin don’t matter as much as how one treats the other. He talks about a kingdom where one is meant to love even enemies. He talks about God as a Ruler of this kingdom who cares for and loves even – especially – the least member of the kingdom. He talks about a God as Ruler who will search for us at all costs, and considers us of extreme value. And for Jesus to be king of this kingdom, he dons a crown of thorns, submits to death on a cross, and asks us to follow, giving up the lives we know in order to claim the abundant lives God promises. When we celebrate the Christ, the King, we’re meant to remind ourselves of just what kind of kingdom we’re signing up to be part of. Jesus tells Pilate “My kingdom is not from this world.” I think our immediate response is to understand Jesus as saying that his kingdom is instead from heaven – it is otherworldly, godly, not earthly. But I think Jesus is saying that his kingdom isn’t part of the world we know – it isn’t part of the typical structure we recognize – it isn’t something that fits nicely into the world we experience. Instead, the kingdom that Jesus brings is one that transforms the world we know.
What kind of king? It is about putting the emphasis in the right place. This Sunday is perhaps not about the fact that Jesus is King, but about the fact that Jesus is King. Do you hear the difference? This Sunday is not about the fact that one characteristic of Jesus is his Kingship, his divine royal status, one characteristic among many others. Instead, this Sunday celebrates the fact that it is Christ who is supposed to be placed as King, or highest authority, in our lives. We spent the last several weeks talking about what is enough in our lives, and especially thinking about our money and our stuff. Sometimes we act as though it is our desire and drive for more that is actually the authority in our lives – when we let the want of more make our decisions. Addictions can become the authority in our lives. Personal success. Other people. Anything we make more important than God, than following Jesus, has become our true King. Who is your king, really?
Toughest of all: Do we accept the authority, the kingship, the reign of Christ in our lives? Is Jesus the ultimate authority in your life? How? In what ways does Jesus have authority over you? Jesus won’t force your obedience. Jesus doesn’t coerce us. Remember, this king is powerful in weakness, strong in humility. But just like with Pilate, Jesus always turns the questions back to us. Is Jesus king? Is Jesus your king? If not, then who or what? Who will you follow?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Reign of Christ/Christ the King, Year B

Readings for Christ the King/Reign of Christ, 11/25/12:
2 Samuel 23:1-7, Psalm 132:1-12,  Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

2 Samuel 23:1-7:
  • "the last words of David." Handily, David's last words are eloquent and of faith. What do you hope your last words will be? We never can be sure which will be our last. My grandfather's last words were "I love you," and my family all carries the comfort of those words wit us.
  • In verse 3, David talks about a just ruler. Do you think he sees himself that way, or do you think he wishes he could have been more like the description he gives?
  • Unfortunately, the last of his last words are about his enemies being consumed "in fire on the spot." I hope I'm not worrying about enemies on my deathbed. But I guess David was worried about the future of the nation he had rules as a whole.
Psalm 132:1-12:
  • This Psalm ties into the Old Testament lesson, a sort of eulogy or prayer for David's soul, perhaps right at the time of his death. What do you think others will say about you at your death? In the immediate context? Years later?
  • "until I find a place for the Lord." It is funny to think about having to find a physical place for God to 'hang out' in. But I can relate to trying to find a place for God in my heart. Where is your place for God?
  • There is a lot of concern in this Psalm over family legacy. What do you want to be passed down and kept in your family for generation after generation?
Revelation 1:4b-8
  • People have a fascination with the End Times. Witness the obsession with the fast approaching 12/21/12 and Mayan calendars. Revelation is a book that confuses, and scares, but in my mind is rarely interpreted in congregations in a way that is helpful. I took a class while at Drew on Revelation with Dr. Stephen Moore. Everything, while still over my head sometimes, made more sense after learning much more about the context in which Revelation was written. Learning that, I could finally let the text speak to me in meaningful ways! Anyway...
  • "I am the Alpha and the Omega" - Unfortunately I have read this text too many times recently, at the funerals of dear church members. But there is comfort in knowing that our beginning and our ending and everything before, after, and in between, is with God, in God, of God.
  • "Look, He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him." Human nature wants to make sure people pay and get what they deserve, right? All while being convinced that we deserve better than they do! Here is Jesus returning, and the biggest concern is that the bad guys get what's coming to them. Where is the joy at being with Christ?
John 18:33-37:
  • Before moving to Advent, we're suddenly jolted to the last days of Jesus' life on Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday. The move is a bit jarring, and I think it is mean to be. In Christmas, we always must have some Easter, and vise versa.
  • "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus wants to know why Pilate asks this question. What do you think? Pilate evades a direct answer. He implies no knowledge of Jesus prior to this exchange. Do you think Pilate had heard of Jesus already? What would it be like to hear of Jesus first and only from those who hated him, like the chief priests?
  • What does it mean to testify to the truth? Have you ever had to give testimony in court? Can two people describe the scene of an accident differently and still think they are telling the truth? Jesus says we "belong to the truth." What do you think he means?
  • Jesus talks about his kingdom being "not form this world." Some people take that to mean that God's kingdom has no earthly place, but I don't think that's what he means. The kingdom of God is here and now and arriving and at hand. But I think he reminds us that the source - the origin - is with God.

Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday, "Enough: Defined by Generosity," 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Sermon 11/18/12
1 Timothy 6:17-19

Enough: Defined by Generosity

(The structure/content of this sermon is shaped by the book Enough (Stewardship Guide), by Adam Hamilton, and adapted for use in the context of Liverpool First UMC)

            A couple of weeks ago we celebrated All Saints Sunday, and I asked you to share the names of the saints in your life. I was deeply touched by all the names that you brought forward, by this great cloud of witnesses that you lifted up. How truly blessed we are to be so shaped by the people that God has put into our lives for different seasons. I have two saints in my life that I particularly carry in my heart with me. First is my Grandpa, Millard Mudge. Grandpa died fourteen years ago, which seems impossible, so vivid is his memory in my mind. And you’ll hear about him a lot over time, I suspect. But today I particularly want to share with you a bit about my Great Aunt Clara. She died in January after a struggle with lung cancer that caught us all off guard, because she was just a vibrant, full-of-life kind of person, and it was hard to believe she’d really gotten sick. My Aunt Clara lived a pretty colorful life, and at different times over the years she was either what I (as a child, at least) considered quite wealthy (something I measured as a child by the fact that she had an in-ground pool complete with a cabana for changing), and also quite broke, living in questionable apartments in questionable neighborhoods. But no matter what her situation was, Aunt Clara was always incredibly generous. There was just no way you could leave her house empty handed. She wouldn’t have it. If you came to her home, she had to give you gifts. It was hard to express your like of any of her possessions, because you would be afraid she would just give it to you, from the shirt she was wearing, to the sheets on her bed, or the curtain in her windows. When it seemed like she had everything, and when it seemed like she had nothing, Aunt Clara always had enough to give something to you, and it was clear that giving to you gave her incredible joy. Refusing her gifts would be the quickest way to hurt her feelings. Aunt Clara was defined by her generosity, a trait others could easily see and recognize in her. What a way to be remembered! How about you – what do you hope to be remembered for? What are your defining characteristics?   
Today, as we wrestle with this theme of “Enough” for the last week in our series, we are looking again at 1 Timothy, picking up where we left off on our first week with this theme. The text reminds us that our security does not come from our things, from riches, from accumulating stuff. Instead, our hope rests on God, who fulfills promises even beyond our hopefulness. We’re called to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,” so that we might store up the kind of treasure that is eternal, and take hold, the author says, “of the life that really is life,” rather than the cheap imitations of real life we are too often willing to accept. Are you living the life that really is life? What characteristics define who you are? Are you marked by the good that you do? Are you rich in good works? Are you always ready to share? Are you defined by generosity?  
            God has created us not only with a willingness to give, both back to God and to others, but with a need to give. We’re meant to give, to be generous. When we do give, the joy we experience is transformative. How many of you have had more fun, been more full of anticipation about a gift you planned to give, rather than a gift you were hoping to receive? And yet, we find, every day, that voices in our life tempt us, war within us, leading us to selfishness, greed, holding on tightly to what we have. There’s the voice of fear: we fear what might happen to us, and want to feel secure, and we think that accumulating money and things will make us secure, and so we fail to be generous. But our things, our money – none of that offers us any real security. None of it is guaranteed forever.  
There’s also the voice of self-gratification. Our culture tells us that our lives consist of our stuff and pleasurable experiences, and so we find ourselves thinking, “if I give, there won’t be enough left for me.” I’m reminded of a story I learned first as a camper at Aldersgate as a child – the story of warm fuzzies and cold pricklies. People had bags with warm fuzzies that they could give out – an endless supply of them. And you would never keep a warm fuzzy – you would always give it away – always share it. But eventually, someone convinced them that that they would run out of fuzzies, and so people started hording them, turning their warm fuzzies into cold pricklies. Of course, being a camp story, people eventually realized in this village that you had to give fuzzies away for them to stay warm fuzzies, and that you would never run out of them. But even though it’s a children’s story, I’ve always felt it has a message we need to keep hearing. We let our fears about not having enough for ourselves keep us from giving to God and one another – and then, everyone loses.  
            So how do we defeat these voices? How do we stop letting fear and insecurity overtake our call to be generous? Of course, we ground ourselves in Christ, seek to follow his example, and search the scriptures, which are full of guidance on these very issues. I find it interesting that we hone in on all sorts of controversial issues that the scriptures may address for a handful of verses, but we tend to overlook some of the major topics. Did you know that almost 40% of what Jesus talks about in the gospels is related to money and stuff and how we use it? It must be pretty important, don’t you think? Jesus speaks repeatedly about the way we are called to live, a way that flies in the face of the messages we find most anywhere else. The first will be last. The humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled. If you want to save your life, you have to lose it. You lead by being servant of all, not master of all. To be a disciple, you have to take up the cross, the symbol of the ultimate sacrifice, and follow Jesus.
            There’s a theme, isn’t there? In losing ourselves to God, we find life. Because our very lives are gifts – everything belongs to God. Very early in the Bible, we encounter people giving back to God. You’ve heard Pastor Aaron use the phrase “first and best tenth” when he is talking about the offering – that’s a tithe – giving our first and best tenth to God. It’s a practice we find in the Old Testament, when people would offer their first fruits to God – the first and best tenth of their flocks or crops or income. Not the last, and not what’s leftover. As followers of Jesus, living together under the new covenant, we’re not bound by the rule of the law any longer. But tithing is a pretty good guideline for us when we are thinking about giving.
            Do you remember a children’s sermon I gave back in the summer about putting God first, where I showed how rice, representing all the things in our life, could fit in the jar with a big rock, as long as you put the rock in first, and everything else after that? The point was that our lives could be full like we want them, as long as we keep God first, not try to shove God into our lives last. That’s what my own experience with tithing is like. When I first started in ministry, I made a pledge to tithe, but found that every month, I would need to spend more than I expected, and I would end up only giving a very small portion of what I had planned – whatever I had left over. So, instead, I started having my tithe directly withheld from my paycheck. And suddenly, because it came first, I no longer had an issue making my tithe again, giving to God what I meant to give to God. Let me show you this video from Adam Hamilton, and see if it resonates with you. *VIDEO*
            Tithing can be challenging. But it is a good biblical goal for us as we seek to be defined by our generosity. If you aren’t able to tithe right now, God understand where you are at, what you are facing, and perhaps you can take a step in that direction, a step towards deeper generosity. If you are already tithing, ask yourself if God is calling you to grow beyond a tithe, to offer your gifts to other projects in the community and beyond that are important to your faith.
            We are created by God to be generous, and our giving affects not just us, but our giving affects God, too. Adam Hamilton shares this story: Eight or nine years ago, our family took a camping trip to the Grand Tetons. We arrived on my birthday and set up our little pop-up camper. After we were settled, we told each of our daughters that they could have $20 spending money for the three days we would be in and around Jackson Hole. We then went to the gift shop before heading out on a walk around a small lake. We had no sooner walked into the gift shop than Rebecca started looking at ball caps. She found one, tried it on, and said, “Dad, what do you think of this hat?” I said, “Becca, it’s really cool. But all you have is $20, and that hat will take all of your money. Why don’t you wait and make your money last for the next few days.” But she said, “Dad, you told me it was my money and I could get whatever I want. And I really want this hat!” As hard as I tried to talk her out of it, and to convince her that she would have other opportunities to buy a cap in town, she would have no part of waiting. Finally, exasperated, I said, “Okay, Becca – but this is it. You’re not getting any more money the next three days.” I gave her her $20, and she bought the hat.
            We went for a walk around the lake, and then came back to watch the sun set from a park bench. That’s when Becca handed me the hat and said, “Daddy, I bought this for you. I love you. Happy birthday.” I sat on the bench, took her in my arms, and started to cry. That hat is among my most treasured possessions, my most often worn hat to this day because every time I wear it, I think of Becca’s sacrifice for me. All these years later it still touches me to think about how my little girl gave up all her spending money because she wanted to tell her daddy that she loved him.
            That’s how God looks at your offerings. They are not financial transactions or business deals. Your offerings are a way of saying, “God, I’m returning to you a portion of what I have and what I’ve earned to say thank you and I love you. I hope you’ll use this somehow to make a difference in the world.” When we give, we don’t give because God needs what we have. We give out of love, and God who loves us, loves our gifts because of what they tell God about how we feel, because of what they say about our desire to be in relationship with God, because of what they say about how we want to care for the other beloved creations of God in this world.
            We do not give because we think God will give us back what we gave with interest. Our giving to God is not a loan program to God, where we’ll get a good financial return on our investment. That’s an abuse of what it means to give with a generous heart! And frankly, it goes back to that issue of safety and security. God doesn’t guarantee that giving – tithing or beyond even – will mean that you will never lose your job in the future, or have struggles. But when we live lives that are defined by generosity, the “unmistakable blessings of God” of all kinds flow into our lives. When we give generously, our hearts are filled with joy. They grow larger through the very act of giving. And in turn, we are yet more generous! It’s a cycle that keeps us growing in faith and love, a cycle that leads us to taking hold of the life that really is life.
      Let us pray: Oh God, we thank you that you have given us life, that you sustain us by the power of your Holy Spirit and that you gave Jesus the Christ who showed us how we are to live in relationship with you and with our neighbor. We thank you for the abundance that we have in our lives. And we pray that you would help us. Help us, oh Lord, to honor you with our tithes. Help us to care for the poor and those who are in need. Help us to recognize that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We offer ourselves to you. Help us, oh Lord, to do your will. Lead us, we pray. In your holy name. Amen. (prayer adapted from Enough Stewardship Guide)