Saturday, December 28, 2013

Lectionary Notes for First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year A

Readings for First Sunday after Christmas, 12/29/13:
Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23

Isaiah 63:7-9:
  • Isaiah can pack a lot into a few short verses. "I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord." Will you? What are the gracious deeds of God in your own life?
  • "It was no messenger or angel but [God's] presence that saved them." Excellently said. God came as God's own self to save us. We see that in Christ's coming to earth, but even more generally speaking, we can say that God throughout the scriptures is always directly involved with the people. A hands-on God. No intermediaries will do what God can do and does do.
Psalm 148:
  • I like Psalms that are simple and clear in their focus: Praise God, everything and everyone. It is a reminder to me, to us, in our worship preparations, to remember what is our focus: Praise God, everything and everyone. Sometimes we try so hard for something fantastic that we lose focus on why we put together such wonderful music, beautiful liturgies, and carefully crafted sermons. Praise God!
  • Psalms like this that include things like: sun, moon, starts, mountains, fire, hair, hills, trees, cattle, birds, young, old, men, women, rules, snow, and wind, all in one litany remind us of our relationship with ALL creation. A little stewardship of the earth, please? If the psalm says all creation praises God, we do a good job of putting a stop to the praise when we destroy the creation...
  • 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?
Hebrews 2:10-18:
  • Overall, the theology of this passage is not how I would articulate my theology. But nonetheless, some good points: "perfect through suffering" Have you experienced anything like this in your own life? Suffering making you stronger? More perfect? I don't think that God creates suffering for us to make us stronger, but I certainly believe God can work through our suffering to make us stronger.
  • "Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters" I do like this part of the passage - the imagery throughout that we are siblings with Jesus Christ - his brothers, his sisters. He is like us, human like us. Yes, we view him as also divine, but without his being human, Jesus wouldn't mean much to us, or be able to reach us, and we wouldn't be able to seek to be like him, our brother.
  • "he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham." Similar to the sentiments in the Isaiah text for today - God didn't send someone else to save us, Isaiah says, and likewise, we read in Hebrews, God didn't come to save someone other than us. It's God and God's people. That's it.
Matthew 2:13-23:
  • I find Matthew's obsession with showing Christ as fulfilling Old Testament prophecy distracting. Count the times in this passage: at least three times in this one passage. I find Jesus' life and ministry compelling enough without his proof-texting. But obviously, to Matthew, it was very important to show this dotting of 'i's and crossing of 't's.
  • Complain, complain :) - Another thing I don't like about this passage is how one-sided the account is - Matthew talks all about Joseph here, and Joseph's taking "the child and his mother" - Mary is not even named! What are Mary's thoughts on all this?
  • Oh - Herod's killing of the babies. How terrible. It makes me think of the plague on the first born in Exodus, which was even more terrible since the scriptures attribute it as being carried out by God's hand.
  • What is the message for us here? This is about establishing Jesus' identity, for Matthew at least. It also tells us about God protecting the Christ-child. And Joseph's obedience to the angel's directives.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Sung Communion Liturgy for Christmas Eve

A Sung Communion Liturgy for Christmas Eve

Lift up your hearts unto the Lord. Sing unto God your praises.
We gather on this holy night. We gather at this table.  
Lift, lift your hearts up high! Sing praise to God, and glorify!
Praise, praise, the Prince of Peace, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

God breathed in us the breath of life. God gave the gift of Eden.
We turned away and sin was born; We sought for greener gardens.
Lift, lift your hearts up high! Sing praise to God, and glorify!
Praise, praise, the Prince of Peace, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

God called to us from age to age through messengers and prophets,
When we would not our hearts give way, the Word-made-flesh God sent us.
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

O Holy God of power and might! Hosanna in excelsis!
Blessed be the one who in your name comes! Hosanna in the highest!
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

The Word-made-flesh, Emmanuel; God, come to live among us!
He preached good news: the kingdom come! A light shone in the darkness.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through! The Cross be borne for me for you.
Hail! Hail, the Word made flesh; the Babe, the Son of Mary.

And on the night he was betrayed, Christ took the bread and broke it.
Thanking God, he shared this gift. “Remember, when you eat it!”
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through! The Cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail! Hail, the Word made flesh; the Babe, the Son of Mary.

He took the cup and raised it up. “My life I pour out for you.
From sin, set free! Remember me! We covenant anew.”
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through! The Cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail! Hail, the Word made flesh; the Babe, the Son of Mary.

Pour out your Spirit, Holy God, upon these gifts, and bless them.
Make them for us the Bread of Life, the Cup of our Salvation!
Raise, raise the song on high! The Virgin sings her lullaby:
Joy, joy, for Christ is born, the Babe, the Son of Mary!

Prayer after Communion:
Thank God for Holy Mystery; Body of Christ; the gift of life!
As we depart, let us take heart: God’s light will lead us always!
Raise, raise the song on high! The Virgin sings her lullaby:
Joy, joy, for Christ is born, the Babe, the Son of Mary!

Text: Beth Quick, 2013.
Refrain text, vs. 3-9: William C. Dix, 1865.

Creative Commons License
A Sung Communion Liturgy for Christmas Eve by Rev. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

Readings for Fourth Sunday in Advent, 12/22/13:
Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 7:10-16:
  • "Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?" This is such a uniquely worded statement - an expression of exasperation from Isaiah, perhaps. I bet we do wear God out sometimes, with all our antics.
  • Ahaz doesn't want to put God to the test, which is, I guess, how we might feel in a similar situation. We're afraid of testing God. But who better to withstand the test? We're so afraid of being angry at God, questioning of God, demanding of God. We're so afraid it is as if we don't think God can withstand all of our emotions. That would not make for a very powerful God, would it? So test God, if you need to. Ask for signs and directions. God is up to the test.
  • "Emmanuel." God with us. So simple, so much meaning.
  • "before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good . . ." Interesting statement if you take the passage as a prophecy of Jesus' coming. This implies a child who is not born with all the knowledge and perfection of an adult divine-one, as some might like to believe. Just a thought.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
  • "let your face shine, that we may be saved." I like this - God's shining face can save us. twice emphasized. Think about Moses' face shining after he'd visited with God on the mountain - the brilliance and glory of being in God's presence.
  • "how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?" Is God ever angry with our prayers? Probably, when they are so self-centered and calling on God to bring harm to those we deem enemies. But if we interpret God not doing what we ask for as God's anger, I think we've got it wrong...
  • "you have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure." Again, what beautiful imagery - very poetic. I'm not sure I agree with the theology expressed - but good writing! :)
Romans 1:1-7:
  • This is a strange sort of text selection - mostly preamble, and very little 'story' or 'meat', so to speak. So what's being said here?
  • A lot about the nature of Christ in a small space though - Christ is: fulfilling in the gospel of God what was written in the prophets/scriptures of the Old Testament. A very explicit claim. Also, reference to Christ's being descended from David's line.
  • "including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ." A sense of belonging is very important to us, to humans. It's nice to belong - and we can belong to Jesus Christ. We're called to belong to Christ.
Matthew 1:18-25:
  • This is the first very explicit Advent text, probably what our congregations have been waiting for(!), in that it is clear that we're talking about Jesus' birth. We don't have to read between the lines here. But the straightforward nature of them doesn't mean they have less to say to us. Remember - it is still Advent here, not Christmas. This text has Jesus' birth at the end, but it's not quite Christmas yet. Live into that tension!
  • "unwilling to expose her to public disgrace" - call me a skeptic, but I wonder if Joseph also wanted to avoid public disgrace for himself. After all, if he ditched Mary - she would still be pregnant, but without a spouse - how would that help her out? It would get him off the hook, though, wouldn't it? The harder path was for Joseph to stick by Mary's side. Fortunately, a messenger from God helped him out with a tough decision!
  • "God is with us." Again, Emmanuel, as in Isaiah. God is with us. The people then, and perhaps too much so today, see God as "up there" and very separate from human affairs. But Jesus' coming promises that God is with us. Here. Now. With. Us.

Sermon, "Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully," Luke 1:46-55, Luke 2:8-15

Sermon 12/15/13
Luke 1:46-55, Luke 2:8-15

Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully

            It might sound strange to say, but of our four Advent Conspiracy themes, the one I find the most challenging, personally, is this week’s: Worship Fully. I spend most of my time planning and leading worship. This week, Pastor Aaron and Laurel and I sat down to do some worship planning. And so here, in the midst of Advent, we were planning for January, and Lent, and Easter, and even worship themes through the end of June. It can be a little disorienting. And it can be a little challenging, while leading worship to actually just worship. One of my favorite things about pastoring at Liverpool as part of a team is that I have regular opportunities to not preach. Preaching is one of my favorite things about ministry, but I’ve found that regularly having a week where I’m not preaching helps me prepare spiritually better for the weeks I am preaching. On top of that, I’m blessed by Aaron and Laurel and their insights into the scriptures. It’s the same reason why I value our lay servants who help at our 8am service so much. Could one person lead the whole worship service? Sure. But aren’t we richly blessed by the different words and voices and prayers and forms of expression we use when together, we worship God.
What does it mean to worship fully? I believe it means giving our whole hearts to God in praise, prayer, studying the word, in acts of thanksgiving. The scriptures throughout remind us that the greatest commandments are to love God and love one another with our whole hearts. The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the core, the center, the meaning. We worship because God is God and we are not! We worship because God is love and we seek to love in response. We worship because as God chooses us, creates us, we in turn want to say that we’ve chosen God above all else. It is God who we promise to love with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And because of that, and to show that, we love our neighbors, our fellow human creations. We worship because God is who God is. And we worship because we want to know this God, encounter this God, hear from this God, be moved by this God. That’s why we worship.
How do we worship? As you know we have a group of confirmands going through classes and one-on-one sessions with their mentors this year. They have a couple of essays to write, and some service projects to complete, but mostly, I consider the confirmation requirements to be fairly easy. Accomplishable. I followed a pastor once who required confirmands to pass regular tests, and if their grades were too low, they had to take them over and over until they achieved a high enough grade. It sounded pretty stressful to me, and a little unfair since adults joining the church didn’t have to do nearly as much! I think confirmation is vitally important – all of our faith formation activities are. But I’ve told the youth that with confirmation, like with most things in life, you get out what you put in. You can probably make it through confirmation here with some half-hearted efforts. And then joining the church family officially will probably feel a little half-hearted. But if you put your heart and mind and energy into confirmation, it just might be one of the best faith experiences of your life!
We get out what we put in. That concept works for worship as well. How do you prepare yourself for worship? How do you come to this space or other times and spaces of worship? Do you come expecting to encounter God? Do you come offering yourself to God? Expecting to learn? Expecting to be bored? Expecting nothing? And what do you bring to worship? How do you give your heart to God in worship?
            Have you ever taken a look at John Wesley’s Rules for Singing? Maybe you didn’t realize the founder of Methodism had rules – unless you took my John Wesley study this summer – but right in your hymnals each week you hold his rules for singing in your hands on page vii. He writes,
1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.
3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

Of course, we get a chuckle out of these. But especially #5 – what Wesley writes about hymn-singing is how I feel about worship. “Have an eye to God” in all we do in worship. Aim at pleasing God more than ourselves and more than others in worship. Offer our hearts to God continually. That’s worship.
            It is so easy for us to become consumers of worship just like we consume everything else. It’s easy for us to slip into a “the customer is always right” mindset when we’re worshipping, where we’re the customers and God is the salesclerk. Of course, I want you all to find our worship time together meaningful and engaging. But I want that because I want worship to be a place where God can transform your hearts and souls, where God can invite you into a life of discipleship and you can learn to be ready to respond, “Yes.” Worship is for God. When worship is about something other than giving our hearts to God, it is just another kind of idolatry. Worship is saying yes to God.
            We have two scripture readings today. One we read as a responsive litany in our Call to Worship – from Luke 1. This is commonly known as the Magnificat, for the opening lines of the words of the song Mary sings when she meets with her cousin Elizabeth shortly after finding out from the angel Gabriel that she is pregnant with a child from God. Mary has the opportunity to respond to Gabriel’s news in so many ways, all of which would seem justified. But Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In other words, “My soul exults God.” “My soul worships God.” Far from thinking about how this child she carries will impact her personally, even though her life has been in turmoil, her response to the news from Gabriel is to give herself completely to God and sing with joy, worshiping God for God’s goodness, God’s saving plan for the lowly, the oppressed, the overlooked. Mary doesn’t just say “yes” to God. She says yes with a song, with her whole heart, with joy.  
            And then today we get a sneak peek at the Christmas story. The shepherds have no idea what they’re getting into when messengers from heaven break open their night announcing the birth of a savior. But the shepherds don’t ask questions, even though they’re afraid. They just go. They say yes with their actions. And they make haste – they go quickly. They see and are amazed. And they tell everybody everything they’ve seen and heard and been told. And then they get back to work – but they’re praising and glorifying God all along the way. I’m struck by their willingness to get caught up in this story that must have seemed to strange to them. But they say yes, with their whole hearts, with utter joy.  
            As we approach our celebration of the birth of Christ, it can be easy to get caught up in the traditions that we love, the sights and sounds of Christmas, the pageantry, the beauty. We are surrounded by such beauty that it can take your breath away! But let us remember where every symbol, every song, every candle flame points us: they direct us to the manger, to worship God-in-the-flesh. To bring us to cradle so that we might offer our gifts to Jesus. To say, “yes, we’re in,” with our whole hearts. I promise, you’ll get out everything that you put in, and then some. And then some.
            “My soul magnifies the Lord.” “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.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” Thanks be to God! Amen.  

Monday, December 09, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent, 12/15/13: 
Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 1:46b-55, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah 35:1-10:
  • "the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly." Can you picture the way crocuses boldly shove up through the snow at the first hint of spring time? (I hope you live where there are crocuses!) It really is a vision of hope and life after a long, cold winter. Imagine, then, hope and life springing forth from the desert. That sharp contrast of color in the midst of a sea of uniformity, where it is not expected.
  • Opposites - did you ever have an 'opposite day' when you were young, where everything you said meant the exact opposite of the expected meaning? That is Isaiah's vision here: blind see. deaf here. lame leap. the desert streams. dry is wet. When God come, everything is completely changed, totally altered by the experience of God.
  • "Make firm the feeble knees . . . [God] will come and save you." God's strength puts our fears to rest.
Luke 1:46b-55
  • context: This is Mary's song of praise, the Magnificat, a response to her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also with child. This is a song, and can be set to music in worship, or read responsively like a Psalm.
  • We usually think of magnifying in the sense of making something bigger. Thinking of it this way, what would it mean if you soul, your spirit, made God appear larger to others?
  • Mary speaks as one who sees God's greatness already complete in the not-yet-complete actions of the birth of her baby, we see by the fact that she speaks about what God has done in the past tense. What trust, and what vision!
  • Mary's images of God are all about God who changes the usual order of things - a God who lifts up the lowly and removes the rich and powerful from their usual places. Obviously, as a young woman going through a strange ordeal, these concepts of God would be extremely meaningful to her, giving her hope.
James 5:7-10:
  • James seems at first a surprise choice for a text for Advent. Isn't James all about faith and works? But here is a most appropriate text.
  • "Be patient . . . until the coming of the Lord." Patience is not something we seem to value anymore. We value speed and efficiency. When have you had to be patient? When has patience brought you something better than what you could have gotten right away?
  • See how many times James uses the word patience? He mentions a farmer - what happens when crops are harvested too soon? When I was little and used to garden with my Grandpa Mudge, I remember pulling up onions to look at them, and carrots, way too early in the season, 'just to check'. It usually meant bad news even when they were ready to be picked, that I could be patient...
Matthew 11:2-11:
  • If you've seen The Matrix, think Morpheus to Neo for John the Baptist to Jesus. John wants to know if Jesus is the one he's been waiting for. If he is, John will invest himself in this Jesus, and prepare to direct people to Jesus. If he's not the one, fine, but John wants to know the truth up front.
  • Jesus responds by saying: don't ask for confirmation of who I am in words from me. The confirmation of who I am is in my actions and what I have done. We can say the same of ourselves, can't we?
  • What did you go out to see? Jesus repeats this question three times. What are you looking for? A spectacle? A circus side-show? Jesus suggests that whatever misguided notions people had in seeking John out, they would get more than they bargained for: "A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet." Have you ever gotten more than you bargained for, in a good way? Done something without hope of much meaning, but found instead a life-changing experience? I went to the Central Park Zoo once during seminary and found great 'meaning' in watching the Polar Bears swim.
  • "yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." Here's the puzzle Jesus lays out for us today. What does he mean by this? Well, if Jesus' message of good news is to announce that the kingdom of God is at hand, and John had been trying to prepare people for the coming, once the good news 'arrives', so to speak, John is - not irrelevant, exactly - but his task is done, his purpose has been served. We who live in the kingdom - our purpose is not yet served - we've more to do.

Sermon, "Advent Conspiracy: Give More," John 1:1-18

Sermon 12/8/13
John 1:1-18

Advent Conspiracy: Give More

In my premarital counseling sessions, I sometimes use a resource called The Five Languages of Love, by Gary Chapman. Chapman argues that one of the reasons why we struggle in relationships is because we don’t realize that we’re speaking different languages from the people we love, and so we don’t realize that they’re telling us they love us, and they don’t realize that we’re telling them that we love them. We say, “I love you,” in different languages, Chapman insists, and only one of the five languages he describes is based on verbal communication. The languages of love he outlines are Acts of Service, Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, and Gift Giving. My mom first introduced me to this book, after she’d been introduced to it by her pastor. She figured that between her four kids and herself, each one of us spoke in a different “love language.” And so while Todd, who understands Words of Affirmation best, might have said, “I love you,” to Mom, it would really have meant something powerful if they were accompanied by his willingness to do the dishes! And my brother Tim really appreciates a hug or a back rub. And my older brother wants your time – quality time. Me, my love language is Gift-Giving. Oh, you don’t have to buy me extravagant, expensive things. My favorite gifts are those that simply tell me that someone knows me well, or that someone was thinking about me. I love gifts that tell the story of a relationship, things that remind me of the giver when I see them. Usually, that “love language” that makes us feel most loved is also the language that we speak to others most often. I love giving people gifts, and anticipating giving a gift when I feel like I’ve found just the right thing. Chapman urges us learn each other’s languages, to speak not just in our own language, but in the language we know others need to hear, and to try to hear when others are trying to tell us they love us, even if they aren’t saying it in our primary language. And so, if I speak the language of Gift Giving, I can try to view Words of Affirmation as a gift, or someone’s Quality Time as a Gift. In essence, Chapman encourages us to be translators, so that we learn to speak love, and hear love spoken, in whatever language love is shared.
            This week in our Advent Conspiracy journey, the theme is right up my alley: Give More. That might seem like a conflicting message, since last week we were talking about Spending Less. The authors of the program write, “We know what you're thinking. “Wait, didn't they just say I should spend less, and yet here they are telling me to give more? What gives?” The most powerful, memorable gift you can give to someone else is yourself. And nobody modeled this more than Jesus. So what does this look like for you?” “The best gifts celebrate a relationship.” (1)
            Indeed, God’s best gift to us, the gift of Jesus, represents not only God’s dearest relationship, a parent giving a gift of their own child, but also God’s relationship with us, also claimed as God’s children, God’s beloved, as God becomes God-with-us, God-in-the-flesh, just to get closer to us, just to get through to us, just to love us more fully, in a way we can reach out and touch. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This is the incarnation – God-made-flesh. A gift of presence. A gift that is personal. A gift that is costly – in fact, priceless. God speaks loves to us in the gift of Jesus. How do we receive the gift? How do we accept it? Are we getting God’s message?
            As we prepare our hearts to receive the gift of the Incarnation, the gift of God-with-us, the gift of the Christ-child, I’d like us to think about whether we’re hearing the language of love God is speaking to us in the gift of Jesus. Because I think some of our responses to God’s gift suggest we’re not speaking the same language. Sometimes we outright say “no thank you” to the gifts God seeks to give us. Have you ever refused a gift? Every year about this time a bake about a million cookies and send packages to friends from high school, college, seminary, and so on. One year, after I sent out some emails to get updated addresses, one of my friends responded saying that she didn’t really want any cookies. They would go to waste. I have to admit – I was crushed! I’ve moved on, but I’ve never forgotten that I offered her the gift that represented much more than showing off my baking skills, and she said, “No thank you.” Have you ever refused God’s gifts to you?  
            Sometimes we receive a gift from God but we don’t open it or don’t use it. Last week we talked about Black Friday – the busiest shopping day of the year. But another very busy shopping day is – the day after Christmas. That’s the day when everyone goes to the store to return gifts they’ve received the day before! Of course, sometimes sizes are wrong or things don’t work or duplicates were purchased. Perhaps we’ve all experienced receiving a gift we really didn’t want. A shirt that just isn’t your style. A gift card to a restaurant you don’t really like. But maybe we’ve also experienced the painful feeling of realizing you’ve given a gift that was unwanted. A gift you give and never see again! Sometimes this giving mishaps take place because the giver and receiver don’t really know each other so well, don’t have a clear picture of each other. Maybe you’re giving to someone you only know through work or school or in one setting. But God – God knows us inside out. God can’t give us a gift that doesn’t suit us. And God gives out of God’s own self the gift we have in Christ. A gift marked with our own name. This is not a gift to put on a shelf! This is not a gift to return to the store! The gifts God gives are meant to be used and opened.  
Our biggest misunderstanding of God’s gift to us is when we try to put a price tag on something that God offers to us freely. Any of you watch The Big Bang Theory? Eccentric physicist Sheldon Cooper hates exchanging gifts with people. Watch this quick clip: ( Of course, we laugh at Sheldon’s behavior. He’s ridiculous, of course. But don’t we do just this with God? Don’t we turn God’s gift into an obligation, a favor, something we’ve bought, something we owe God for? If a gift comes with strings attached it is not a gift. And when we try to attach strings to God’s gift of Jesus Christ, to God’s gift of love, to God’s gift of grace, we’re turning God’s offering of love into an exchange of goods for a price. And that’s no gift at all. Costly but free. God offers us a gift. Let’s stop trying to figure out the rules, the strings, the obligations, the fine print.  
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Thanks be to God for the gifts we have received. Let’s learn to speak this language of love, and give more, even our very selves, to God and one another. Amen.


Thursday, December 05, 2013

Sermon, "Advent Conspiracy: Spend Less," Matthew 6:19-24

Sermon 12/1/13
Matthew 6:19-24

Advent Conspiracy: Spend Less

            This Advent, our theme for worship is Advent Conspiracy. The Advent Conspiracy is a movement started by some pastors a few years ago who felt like they were somehow missing Christmas – that the folks they served were missing Christmas – that our whole culture was missing Christmas. They felt that the way we prepare for Christmas would set us up for nothing but a giant letdown when Christmas day arrived. And so they crafted their Advent Conspiracy. They said, “We all want our Christmas to be a lot of things. Full of joy. Memories. Happiness. Above all, we want it to be about Jesus. What we don't want is stress. Or debt. Or feeling like we "missed the moment". Advent Conspiracy is a movement designed to help us all slow down and experience a Christmas worth remembering. But doing this means doing things a little differently. A little creatively. It means turning Christmas upside down.” You’ve often heard me describe Jesus as one who turns our world, our expectations, our assumptions upside down. So it seems only right that we think about how Jesus wants to turn our Christmas upside down too. (1) The Advent Conspiracy movement has four themes that we’ll explore in the next week: Spend Less. Give More. Worship Fully. Love All.
            The word conspiracy is something that can sound so sinister. We normally think of conspiring against. Two parties conspire against a third. But the broader meaning of conspiracy is a “coming together” of things. In fact, literally, con-spire means to “breathe with.” I really like that. That’s what I hope we’re doing this season. We’re learning to breathe with Advent. That’s our Advent Conspiracy.
            We start with thinking about “Spending Less.” And to focus us on this, we find ourselves in the gospel of Matthew, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount. We looked at the Sermon on the Mount this summer, but we couldn’t cover everything, and we actually skipped right over these verses. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He talks about the eye being the lamp of the body, and needing that eye – how we see the world around us – being so important. And he says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I’ve always loved thinking about this verse, because I think it is a pretty verse that most of us know – and because we’re so familiar with it, we forget to think about it critically, and to think especially about what the verse doesn’t say. What it doesn’t say is: Where your heart is, that’s where you treasure is. No, but where your treasure is, there you will find what you really love. I think the order matters. Jesus is telling us that it is the evidence that determines where our hearts are, not whatever we pay lip service too. So, if we claim our hearts are with our families, for example, but what we “store up,” what we spend our time thinking about and worrying about and spend the bulk of our time doing is making sure we have enough money and stuff – well, what we “treasure” is actually where our heart is, no matter what we say, and not the other way around. So what do you treasure?
When I think about treasuring something, two images pop into my head: First, I think of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, obsessed with, consumed by the One Ring – “my precious.” That’s treasuring something – the ring is the only Master Gollum serves, and indeed, his heart is with the ring, no matter how much he struggles to put his heart elsewhere.
            And then I think about my favorite line in the Christmas story, the story of Jesus’ birth, the story we’re longing to hear and tell already as we begin our season of waiting: When Jesus is born, and the shepherds hear the angels and arrive to greet the baby and they tell Mary and Joseph all that had happened to them, we read, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” What Mary treasures in that moment is every precious word and experience and part of the process that has brought her child – God’s child – into the world. And so indeed, because of what she treasures, her heart is full of love. What do you treasure?  
            We gather for worship a couple of days after the busiest shopping day of the year. But whether you shopped on Friday or are shopping some other time, probably most of us will be doing some spending on Christmas presents in the days ahead. I love shopping for people – I love giving gifts – but that’s next week’s sermon. But today, I want us to think about what we spend – and what we’re thinking about when we spend our money. We spend year round, of course. We buy things all the time. So when you’re spending, what is it, actually, that you’re trying to buy? Sometimes we spend money, buy things, because we have an actual need we’re trying to fulfill. We need food. We need sneakers. We need school supplies. We need supplies to fix a repair at home. But sometimes when we spend, we’re really trying to buy something else: a reprieve from our loneliness. A break from the boredom. Trying to earn someone’s affection or influence behavior. Trying to buy a bit of happiness, fill a bit of emptiness.
            Some of you might remember that last Lent I tried to fast, as much as possible, from spending money. And I was amazed at how many times I day I thought about buying something. It was kind of alarming. And I’d bet much more than 50% of those impulses to buy had nothing to do with something I “needed.” I often think of words from the prophet Isaiah: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” It seems silly, doesn’t it, that we would spend and spend on things that don’t satisfy us or the people we’re buying for. When we’re spending, this season, let’s think about this: What is it we’re trying to buy really? And what is it that we’re treasuring?
            Jesus says we can’t serve both God and stuff, God and money. Of course we mean to serve God. But Jesus says we better make sure that we’re taking a good look at what we actually treasure. Because that’s where we’ll find our hearts. Let’s make sure our treasure is worth what we’re spending.



Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

Readings for Second Sunday in Advent, 12/8/13:
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah 11:1-10:
  • The peaceable kingdom. This is one of my favorite passages from Isaiah. From the Bible really. We need a vision like this today, don't we? How would you describe your vision of peace? What does God's kingdom look like to you? What is your peace-picture?
  • "a should shall come out from the stump" - good imagery. After 9/11, I preached on this passage for my preaching class in seminary and visualized what life might come out of the 'stump' - the wreckage of the twin towers and Pentagon. New life coming out of destruction and wreckage. I think we can ask all the time, not just after disaster - what life can come from the destruction we see? 
  • "He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth." - another good image. Not with a weapon of pain and physical violence, but with words of judgment, words that bring justice and equity to the meek and the poor.
  • "the wolf shall live with the lamb" - this is a vision where what was harmful can live in peace, and where, particularly, the defenseless never need to fear again. a threat-free, fear-free place. Today, when we live with fears on so many levels, from so many areas, isn't it wonderful to think about a place where fear does not exist? And note, fear is eliminated with out eliminating the things that used to cause fear. The wolves aren't all killed - they just have come to be at peace with the lambs. Hm.
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19:
  • Judgment and Justice - To me the word justice is so powerful because of its double meanings. We want to bring criminals to justice, to make sure they get what they deserve in terms of punishment, but we want to bring the oppressed justice, to make sure they get what they deserve: equality, shelter, food, health, etc. I'm reminded of the Newsboys song with the lyrics, "When you get what you don't deserve, it's a real good thing . . . when you don't get what you deserve, it's a real good thing."
  • This psalm is written as a sort of call for blessings on a king, perhaps at the beginning of his reign/coronation/special ceremony.
  • In my NRSV translation, some of the phrases sound quite demanding of God. "Give the king your justice, O God." Are we willing to demand of God so boldly when we have wants/needs? When is or isn't this appropriate?
  • "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things." (emphasis mine) God alone does wondrous things. Surely the psalmist meant his God over other gods of other people. But I read it as God does good wondrous things, not humans. Remember who Creator and who is creation! The good we can do we can do because of God.
Romans 15:4-13:
  • "live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus." Ah, we're not so good with this one, are we?
  • and like it, "welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you." How is it that so many perceive the church as so unwelcoming? How can we close so many people out of our walls and not see our behaviors as directly in conflict with the scriptures and with Christ's desires for us? We should be ashamed of ourselves!
  • note "the root of Jesse" theme here and in the Isaiah reading.
Matthew 3:1-12:
  • John is such a fiery character. His energy, his righteous anger is infectious. Jesus' style is so different, but sometimes I think he need John's anger too - we need to be angered and upset about hypocrisy and false behavior. Jesus and John were family, and their bond is evidenced elsewhere in scripture. I wish we knew more about their relationship. I'm intrigued.
  • "God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." God is God - we can't rest on our claims of connections and heritage. We need to be tied in our own way to God - no excuses will get us around needing to bear our own good fruit.
  • 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.