Sunday, December 31, 2017

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

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

The Beginning and The End

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


Monday, December 25, 2017

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

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

Come and Behold Him

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

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

Sunday, December 17, 2017

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

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

Joy: Joyful All Ye Nations Rise

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

[2] Post and responses can be found here:
[3] McMahon, Darrin M., “A History of Happiness,”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

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

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

Love: Every Heart Prepare Him Room

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


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Sermon for Second Sunday in Advent, "Peace: All Is Calm, All Is Bright," Isaiah 11:1-10, Mark 13:24-37

Sermon 12/3/17
Mark 13:24-37, Isaiah 11:1-10

Peace: All Is Calm, All Is Bright

            “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon’ virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
            This week, I read news stories about North Korea testing a missile that perhaps could reach across the whole of the United States.
            This week, I spoke with a colleague in ministry who had, like all churches in our conference, received from our church insurance company information about how to respond in an active shooter situation. She was trying to figure out how to respond to anxious parishioners and yet not get caught up in spending all of their ministry time on creating safety plans.
            This week, we’ve continued to hear stories from people who have experienced sexual assault and harassment, as the actions, sometimes over decades, of men in positions of power have been uncovered.
            This week, I saw more than one story of a young person – in one story 13, in the other 10 – who took their life because of the relentless bullying they were experiencing.
            This week – I’m sure we could add more to the list. Pain. Violence. Anger. War. Aggression. Suffering.
            And in the midst of it, we sing: “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon’ virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
            Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of peace. Are we naïve? Are we, people of faith, followers of Jesus, foolish for talking about peace? Do we mean it, when we talk about peace? Is peace only something that happens “by and by” at some far off future time, out of our control, out of sight and out of mind? Sometimes, it seems like the news is always bad. Talking about peace seems like just that – talk. It feels ridiculous.
            And today, the gospel of Mark seems to agree. Every Advent in the lectionary cycle, usually on the very first Sunday, although we’ve switched our weeks around a little bit, there’s a text like this one, that welcomes us to Advent with doom and gloom and foreboding. Right before our passage for today, Jesus is telling the disciples about the kinds of things they might encounter as followers of Jesus. He says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.” Jesus says, with no regard for those of us who will one day read these words from the North Country of New York: “Pray that it may not be in winter.”[1] In such a context, in those days, at that “kairos” time, God’s right time to act, Jesus will come again to earth, he says in today’s text. No one knows the day or hour, not the angels, not Jesus himself. Only God, creator of all that is knows. And what are we to do about this? “Keep alert,” Jesus says, “for you do not know when the time will come.” He compares the situation to slaves of a household needing to make sure that things are always ready for the master of the house who might arrive home at any time. You don’t want to be caught asleep, he says. He concludes: “And what I say I say to you all: Keep awake.” Well, that sounds exhausting, and a little frightening, and certainly not peaceful at all, does it?  
            And yet, Jesus arrives into the world heralded by angels who are proclaiming peace on earth in the skies. Some of Jesus’ first words after the resurrection are words of peace to the disciples who have been fearfully hiding away. And when Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit that is our advocate and strength, Jesus says that he also leaves us with peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” We heard from the prophet Isaiah this morning his vision of a messiah who brings about such radical change to the world that the wolf and the lamb become friends, and a child can play with a snake without fear. How do we reconcile these words of peace with these anxiety-filled words we hear in Mark’s gospel? How do we talk about peace when we feel so afraid? How can we imagine peace in the world when it feels like there is danger all around us?
            Some of my favorite books, as you know, are The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. In the first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the four main characters, siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy find themselves in the magical world of Narnia. They’re eating at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, and the beavers are telling them about their hope that Aslan will return soon. Aslan is the Christ-figure in the books. The children ask the beavers who Aslan is. The beavers answer, “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver, "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”[2]
Peace and safety aren’t the same things, much as we’d like them to be. We’re not called to safety though friends. We’re called to be disciples who walk in the ways of peace. When I read in Mark that we’re meant to be prepared, awake, and alert, I think this is what it means to pursue peace, not as a passive state of mind that we can achieve when we hide ourselves away, or protect ourselves from all harm. I think being prepared, awake, and alert is what happens when we actively work to create a space for peace, when we cultivate peace, when we pursue peace with the ways we live in the world. Cultivating peace is being always ready to receive the Christ, God-with-us into our hearts and our world, again and always again.
I asked online this week for people to share with me their ideas about whether peace was possible and how we might actively cultivate peace, and I got a lot of wonderful responses.[3] I want to share a few of them with you. Several folks commented on peace starting with our own hearts and spirits. One wrote, “All peace starts with inner peace. If you don’t have a peaceful heart you will only add to the chaos of the world even if you think you are out to do good.” Another said, “Peace is that quietness in your spirit when you know you are well with the Lord. Then you share it with everyone you meet.” One of our own here, Danielle Atria wrote, “I believe that peace is possible to achieve. Things around us are going to happen, it’s all in how we choose to react that can create peace.” Another wrote, “I have always felt that we cannot have peace on earth until we have peace among nations; and we cannot have peace among nations until we have peace within the nations; we can’t peace within our nations until we have peace amongst our people; we can’t have peace amongst our people until we have peace within our families; and we can’t have peace within our families until we have peace within our own hearts that only Jesus can bring." 
Part of cultivating peace in the world is cultivating peace in our hearts. It can be tempting to do that by trying to tune the rest of the world out, shutting ourselves off from others. When I was little, if I didn’t like something my mother was saying to me, I would cover my ears and say, “I can’t hear you!” Sometimes I think that’s our peace strategy! I don’t think that that’s the way of Jesus, though. He never tuned others out. Instead, he tuned in even more deeply, listening to others, hearing their pain and struggle, opening his heart, pouring himself out for others, looking and acting always with compassion. Having the peace of Christ in our hearts means trying to make as much room in our hearts for Jesus to take up residence as we possibly can. We do that by a commitment to prayer, by studying God’s word, and by living by Jesus’ example as much as we can. 
Two other responses I got to my questions about peace really stuck with me. My friend Rachael wrote: “Calls for peace can make me weary... peace is beautiful, but not passive acceptance of a harmful status quo. Inner peace is amazing, but not uncritical denial of ways we can grow. Social peace is essential, but not calls for civility that ask the already suffering to ignore history and identity to make the privileged feel comfortable. Of course we must strive for peace in all things, but that striving must be accompanied with vigilant work toward justice and righteousness.” Whether she knows it or not, Rachael is channeling the prophet Isaiah. In his beautiful vision of peace, the world he describes comes about because the messiah comes clothed in righteousness, seeking justice for the poor and equity for the meek. To cultivate peace, we have to work for righteousness, justice and peace for those who have had no such experience. To cultivate peace, we have to be ready to put ourselves on the line for others. That’s what my friend Harold wrote. He’s a pastor at the United Methodist Church in Dryden. He said, “Yes! Peace is possible, but those who would bear the burden of being called peacemakers, the ones who give their lives to help others be reconciled to God, must be ready to suffer. Through their poverty others may grow abundantly alive.” What would you be willing to give so that others might experience abundant life? So that others know peace? 
  And so, I think Jesus’s words in the gospel of Mark aren’t a call to fear and anxiety, where our best course of action is to put our heads in the sand or lock ourselves away from it all. Jesus is calling us to be awake, be alert, be ready, because peacemaking is hard work, and we need as many laborers working for peace as we can get. This Advent, friends, and always, let’s not wait for peace to drop into our laps. Instead, let’s grow peace: cultivating it, tending it, watering it, sharing it. How will you be a peacemaker? 
            And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. Amen. 

[1] Mark 13:7-11, 18.
[2] Lewis, C.S., The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
[3] Post and responses:

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, "Hope: A Thrill of Hope," Mark 1:1-8

Sermon 11/26/17
Mark 1:1-8

Hope: A Thrill of Hope

            Are you a pessimist or an optimist? Is the glass of life half empty, or half full? My mom and I have gone back and forth about this a bit over the years. She’s wildly optimistic about most things, and sometimes I would say her optimism, her hopefulness borders on the irrational. If the weather forecast says there’s a 70% chance of a snowstorm coming, my mom will focus very seriously on that 30% chance that it is going to be a nice day after all. I, meanwhile, will begin adjusting my travel plans and making a backup plan for the day. My mom says I’m a pessimist, but I would argue that I’m simply a realist, trying to prepare for the thing that is most likely to happen, whether I like that thing or not. My mom, however, says she doesn’t want to be disappointed twice, both by thinking something bad is going to happen, and then by having the bad thing actually happen. She’d rather be hopeful, and enjoy her state of hopefulness, even if it doesn’t work out that way later on. How about you? Pessimist? Optimist? Realist? Are you a hopeful person?
            Each week, our themes in worship – hope, peace, joy, and love – will be matched with a familiar snippet of a Christmas carol. This is lucky for you all, since I tend to be a stickler about singing Advent carols during Advent and Christmas carols when it is finally Christmas. But this year, we’re mixing it up a little, and using the familiar carols, along with the moving, more somber hymns of longing for Advent, to help us prepare for the season. This week, we’re thinking about hope, and what it means to be hopeful in this season of Advent, and our song snippet is “A Thrill of Hope,” taken from the classic “O Holy Night.” “O Holy Night” was written in 1843. In the town of Roquemaure in France, the church organ had recently been renovated, and the priest asked a local writer, Placide Cappeau, to write a Christmas poem. He wrote what we know as O Holy Night – “Cantique de Noël” (Song of Christmas) in French – and composer Adolphe Adam wrote the familiar lilting music. A few short years later, Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight wrote the English version of the text, much more a paraphrase than a translation.[1]
            But the phrase “thrill of hope” appears relatively unchanged in both French and English. In our familiar version we hear, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” The text tells us that the world was waiting, longing, pining for something, as it sat mired in sin and error. Perhaps you can relate to that feeling – when you know that your life is off track, when you know you’re going the wrong direction, when you know that you aren’t living either as you or as God wants you to live, when you know that life seems unfulfilling – you don’t relish staying where you are. You are longing, hoping, pining for some way to get out of the pit. This is the state of the whole world, waiting on God-in-the-flesh in Jesus Christ. And then – a thrill of hope. We’re weary, but rejoicing: morning is breaking, and light is canceling out the darkness. Advent is a season of hope. But I believe we’re called to something more than a passive  hope, something more than a vague feeling, as we sit at the bottom of that pit, that something better might come along eventually. So what kind of hope are we meant to cultivate in this season?
            Let’s look at our gospel text for today. Mark’s gospel sometimes seems like a surprising place to start when we’re beginning Advent. After all, we know that at Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but when Mark begins, he skips any mention of how Jesus is born, and jumps straight to Jesus as a thirty-year old, embarking on the beginning of his ministry. Matthew and Luke are the gospels that treat us to the stories of angels and shepherds and Wise Men and mangers that we love, and even John’s gospel, with its image of a light in the darkness feels appropriately like a Christmas story. But Mark gives us nothing more than this at the start of his gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Boom. And he’s off and running.
            But I love it. I love Mark’s gospel. He is so intent on making sure you know about Jesus and the good news Jesus brings that he can’t slow down long enough to give us more than what he considers the essentials. And Mark isn’t so much concerned with how Jesus was born as he is with the fact that Jesus is here, and we need to be ready, and we might want to do some self-reflection and some changing of our lives, changing our heart and minds because of Jesus’s presence.
            So, as Mark opens his gospel, he centers us in words from Isaiah: God is sending a messenger who will prepare the way for the messiah, the voice of one who crying out in the wilderness, calling us to “Prepare the way of the Lord” and “Make straight” a path for God in the world. These may not be nativity words, but they are definitely Advent words. Prepare. Get ready. Someone is coming and we need to get ready.
            John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness, calling people to repent, so that their sins might be forgiven. To repent means to change the direction of your life, to change the direction of your heart and mind, to get off the wrong-way road you were traveling on, and turn back to God. John tells people to do this – to repent – and they do. Mark says that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” were coming to John, confessing their sins. John tells them: someone else is coming, and I’m just his servant. I’ve baptized you, cleansed you with water. He will cleanse you by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
            John the Baptizer tells the people to get ready, help is on the way, and the people respond by getting to work at once, so that they are ready for this arrival of this hopeful good news that is coming. They’re repenting. Confessing. Being cleansed in baptismal waters. When Jesus arrives, they want to be ready for what is next, ready to live into the hope that John has given them.
            How about you? Are you a hopeful person? What are you hoping for this season? How are you longing, pining for God to be at work in your life right now? And what are you doing because of that hope? Mark describes a whole people filled with expectation about this one that John was describing to them, but they didn’t just listen to John’s words and sit passively, waiting for Jesus to show up. They were filled with hope, and so they got busy. They were filled with hope, and so they started repenting now, not waiting for Jesus to arrive. They were hopeful, and so they let John cleanse their spirits as they confessed their sins, so that they would be ready to do whatever Jesus wanted them to do. They were full of hope, and their hope led them to act, because they had faith that their hope in God would not disappoint them.
            I think how we hope is important. Sometimes we know why we’re hopeful, but we don’t let that hope spur us into action. Deep hope, built on faith and trust in God, is an active longing that starts working right away to embody and enact the very things for which we are hopeful. This summer I read a book called Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In it, they write, “The longer we pray, the more we are sure of this: Prayer is not so much about convincing God to do what we want God to do as it is about convincing ourselves to do what God wants us to do.[2] That’s sort of how I think about hope: we hope for the possibility of God’s work in the world, and then we get to work as God’s laborers in the world, trusting that God will do what God promises, and getting started on our part as soon as possible.
            So, as we begin this Advent season, what are you hoping for, when you think about God coming to us in-the-flesh? What is your Advent hope, and what are you going to do about it? Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove write: “Often when Christians talk about “eternal life,” we mean life after death. That’s not all bad. We’re both pretty excited about life after death (though neither one of us is in any rush to get there). But we’ve been asking together with our communities whether there is life before death. What we’re really looking for in our life together and in the church is what [1 Timothy] calls the “life that is truly life” … We have to stop promising people life after death when what we are all really asking is if there is life before death. And the good news is – there is. Eternal life begins now. It is living in the presence of God.”[3] “What really excites us is the way our God stirs up the ruins, always eager to give new life. The world will not believe that the gospel is true because we struggle hard enough to save a sinking ship. The world will believe when we practice resurrection where we are because we know the joy of new life.”[4]
            This Advent, I’m hopeful – even if I still expect snow when the forecast tells me it is likely! I’m hopeful that Christ is continually born into our midst, continually reminding us that God is with us. I’m hopeful enough that I want to prepare my life, my heart again. Hopeful enough that I want to make sure that I’m going in God’s direction, not the wrong direction. And hopeful enough that instead of waiting passively, I’m going to wait actively, working to carry out the good news right now, because my hope is built on faith in God’s promises, which never disappoint us. We’re waiting, yes. But with a thrill of hope in our hearts, let’s get to work while we wait. Amen.

[1] All notes on the song “O Holy Night” are from
[2] Claiborne, Shane and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, 11.
[3] Ibid., 71, emphasis added.
[4] Ibid., 88.