Monday, November 28, 2011

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, Year B: Sing We Now of Christmas: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

Sermon 11/27/11
Mark 13:24-37

Sing We Now of Christmas: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

            Come, Thou long expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee. Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art; Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart. Born Thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King, Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring. By Thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone; By Thine all sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
            This famous Advent hymn was written in 1744 by, Charles Wesley, a prolific writer of hymns, many of which are still in our hymnals today, and younger brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Charles knew that most people might not learn and memorize complicated theological doctrines, but they would indeed learn the words to songs, just as we do today. So he laced his hymns with the theology, the ideas about God, that he wanted to make sure people knew. What does this hymn say?
Well, you might notice, for one thing, that it doesn’t talk very much about a baby Jesus. Yes, it talks about why Jesus is born, and that he is born a baby, a child. But mostly, this hymn focuses on why we need Jesus to be born, why we long-expect this Jesus. Jesus is born to set his people free, to deliver us from fears and sins, so that we can find our rest in Jesus. Jesus is born to be our strength, our consolation, the hope of the whole earth, the desire of every nation, and the joy of every heart. Jesus is born to deliver his people, a child yes, but a King, born to reign, born to usher in the Kingdom of God, born to rule in our hearts, born to raise us up to God’s kingdom. For Charles Wesley, for this Advent hymn of longing, that’s the important message about what we need to know about Christ’s birth, why we should want Christmas to come so much. Why are you in such a hurry for Christmas to come? Are you?
Have you seen those Hallmark commercials for the Christmas countdown ornament? In them, a little girl follows her parents around the house telling them exactly how much time there is until Christmas, information she knows because of her ornaments with a digital display that lets her keep track. Right now there are 27 days and 16/18 hours or so until Christmas, just FYI. You may remember feeling just like this child – so eager for Christmas to come. Maybe the children in your life are like this today. Counting down the days. Is it so bad to hurry Christmas along? Is it so bad to be anxious and eager and excited for Christmas to arrive? Why not wish for Christmas to come, for the Christ-child to arrive? Children usually get the point that we adults are too serious to see, and maybe we all need to be a little more excited and anxious for Christmas to come.
Then again, during our stewardship emphasis we talked a lot about time – about wanting more time and wasting time. What time we have and what we do with it. The older we get, the more sense we have that rushing time ahead can be a dangerous thing. It already goes by way too quickly. I have told you that The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my favorite books. In the last volume, The Last Battle, some of the characters are talking about why Susan, one of the children from the first novel, has not returned to Narnia. Lady Polly explains, ʺI wish [Susan] would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.ʺ For a book first published in the 1950s, C.S. Lewis’s words remain remarkably timely. How many of us do this exact thing? We spend all this energy rushing to a certain age in life, and then the rest of life trying to figure out how not to get older, wondering at how quickly time is passing us by.
So which is it? Should we rush to Christmas? Advent may be a time of preparation, but if all our songs are about how we want Jesus to come soon, aren’t we really just rushing ahead? Is that good or bad? Or should we rest in the waiting of Advent? Be content to let the days unfold, not wanting Christmas to arrive until we have savored each day?
I think children are excited and anxious for Christmas to come, but I also know that young children have a very skewed concept of time. Take my nephew Sam. Anything past happened ʺa couple weeks agoʺ for awhile. Things that happened ʺwhen he was littleʺ could be things that were when he was an infant, two years old, or earlier this year. He does talk about growing up – he defines this as the time when his feet will touch the floor when he sits on a chair. And last year, he was perplexed over what had happened to his friend Alex – the same age as Sam – since he hadn’t seen him a while. Sam mused: I think Alex must be a teenager now! Sam is indeed excited for Christmas to come, as he is excited for most joyful things to take place in his happy life. But Sam isn’t rushing time by. Instead, I would say he is ready. He is ready for the excitement he knows is on the way. A day, a week, a month – they can all seem long or short to Sam depending on his mood. But he isn’t in a hurry. He is just happy, and ready for Christmas when it comes.
Our task in Advent isn’t to rush the days by to Christmas, and it isn’t to drag our feet in an effort to slow down time. Our task is just to be ready. In Matthew, Jesus is talking about when he will come again to earth, and how the disciples should prepare. His advice? No one knows the time, the hour – not even Jesus or the angels – of when Jesus may walk the earth again. In that case, it isn’t anything we can count down to, or hurry to, or dread, or wait for, or whatever really. What we can do is what Jesus advises: Keep alert. Keep awake. Be ready. We are called as people of faith to be ready for God however God shows up on earth, wherever and whenever.
Jesus, long-expected, is coming – born a child, and yet a king – in all his fullness, Jesus is coming. That is a promise we can count on. And so with faith in the promise, we can be filled with hope, longing, expectation, excitement. And we can be ready for his arrival. Amen.    

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sermon for Reign of Christ, Year A: Fed with Justice

Sermon 11/20/11
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

            This time of year always brings us an interesting conjunction of church events: today we celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday – it isn’t really a liturgical holiday – Thanksgiving isn’t on the church calendar exactly. But it certainly makes sense that we focus on Thanksgiving in worship – being thankful for all we have is hardly something we do enough of! It is also the last Sunday of the liturgical year today. As the church calendar goes, next Sunday is our New Year's Day. Today is then sort of a liturgical New Year's Eve as far as Sundays go. And on the church calendar, today is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is a day when we consider how Jesus is King, how Jesus is ruler of our lives. How is Jesus king? It’s kind of an interesting question for us to ask about Jesus, who shunned titles like king at every turn in the accounts of ministry. And yet we call him the King of Kings. There is a tension there. Not a king, and yet the most high king. On this Sunday, we explore that tension.
            For 21st century Americans, we have to figure out just what to do with kings anyway. Our own history shapes our views of course. In our history, people carried out a revolution to end living under the rule of a king that could make decisions for them without their input. We have never had a king. We want a say in who leads – not rules us – and how they lead. And if they don’t do it in a way we appreciate, we want the chance to elect someone new. This spring we observed with varying degrees of anticipation, indifference, distaste, or excitement as Prince William married Kate Middleton. Even in Europe, the royal family has limited power. They don’t rule, not in the absolute ways of days long past. And we aren’t quite sure what to make of it all, are we? What do we mean by saying that Jesus is king?
            We don’t often focus on readings from Ezekiel. You might be most familiar with the passage about the valley of the dry bones. But I find our text today particularly compelling for Reign of Christ Sunday. Ezekiel is writing in the time of the Babylonians exile. Babylon had invaded and occupied Israel and the people of Israel were scattered – what Ezekiel calls scattered sheep. Ezekiel spends the proceeding chapters of his prophecy criticizing the history of bad royal leadership Israel has had. When humans have tried to be king, we have done a pretty bad job at it. We are bad at being shepherds, Ezekiel says, and we aren’t even very good at being sheep. He writes, ʺYou pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.ʺ Without a good shepherd to follow, we aren’t even good sheep! In imagery that Jesus will draw on centuries later when he speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd, Ezekiel speaks of how God shepherds us.
Here is what God as shepherd-king does for us, says Ezekiel: I will seek the lost. I will bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak. I will feed them with justice. This is how God is king. And if God is king by shepherding us better than any human leaders, God can draw out of us our best sheep-behavior. We are the flock when we hear God's voice and follow Jesus our shepherd-king. What would it look like if we partnered in God's work?
            God seeks us when we are lost. How can we help those who feel lost, in the many ways we can feel lost in this world? I can’t tell you how significant being a listening ear can be for people. In my years of ministry, some of the kindest words of thanks I have received are from people who I visit for one reason or another. I find myself always wishing I had more time to give, more time to stay, because it clearly means too much to people. People who are lonely, or depressed, or struggling in some way – they need to know that someone is with them in the midst of their pain. We rely on knowing that God is always seeking after us, always calling to us, always longing to draw us closer in relationship. So in turn, how can we draw closer to one another in faith, hope, and love?
            God brings back the strayed. You might think being lost and straying away from God are the same thing. To me it is a bit of a nuanced difference. Being lost is something that usually happens by accident. We feel lost and alone without knowing how we got there exactly. Straying from God – well, that is a little more purposeful. Have you ever witnessed or experienced this: a child is walking quickly and deliberately away from a parent who is yelling more and more loudly, ʺCome back here!ʺ Or a child is not supposed to walk too far ahead, ride a bike too far ahead of parents, but keeps pushing the limits, going just a little farther? That is straying, and I believe we do that with God. We don’t start out intending to disobey God or test God. But somehow one small questionable action on our part leads to one more and one more, and pretty soon we are living in a way that we aren’t proud of. God brings back the strayed. There is no distance – no distance that you can stray from God that is too far for God to close the gap. We are not very open in our society to others pointing out when we seem to be straying from God. And we try to mind our own business when we see others doing something that we know will be harmful to their spirits. We think it is between us and God, them and God. While we are called to not judge one another, we are also supposed to help each other keep from stumbling, and be open to someone else helping us stay close to God.
            God will bind up the injured. I believe God can heal us. I think we have all witnessed God's healing – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Some of us may have witnessed miraculous healing. Or we may have witnessed the slow and steady healing that God works over time. But Jesus was a healer – he was known far and wide for his healing, and it was the reason why people flocked to him at first, only to then find their souls were healing along with their ailments. We are in need of healing, aren’t we? We pray for healing for ourselves and our loved ones. In fact, prayer is one way we partner with God in healing. How often is prayer our last resort, instead of a tool of healing that we use with intention and purpose? I pray for healing for you and me, for our congregation, for our nation, for our world. We so need it. God binds up our wounded hearts, and makes us whole
God strengthens the weak and feeds them with justice. God is not into survival of the fittest. God is into the thriving lives of each precious child in creation. This week we focus on giving thanks, but we also might spend a lot of time focusing on what food we will have on Thursday (and Friday and Saturday), right? I have been part of very few Thanksgiving meals where we didn’t indulge and indulge some more. God says we will be fed with justice. What an image! In the scriptures, justice and poverty, concern for those who are weak or low in society often go hand in hand, as the prophets envision God's world as a place where all have enough and no one suffers at the expense of others. We can certainly be partners with God in feeding justice as we reach out in mission. Last night I had the true privilege of handing out food baskets to folks in need in our community. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy seeing the expressions of shock on people’s faces when they realize how much we will be able to give them. And it is just one way, one part of what we can do. It is to our human shame that we throw away about 50 million tons of food each year when 900 million people are hungry. We know something is wrong and needs to be corrected, brought to right. That is what God means by justice – bringing things to rights. How will you partner with God to feed justice until all are filled?
This Jesus, God on earth, come to us, we celebrate as a king. But he is a king like no other – a king who seeks the lost, who protects, who returns strays to the right path, who heals, who strengthens the weak, who feeds us with justice. This is a leader worth following. Let us give thanks, today and always. Amen.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Non-Lectionary Sermon - Stewardship Focus: Consecration: The Steward and the Ship

Sermon 10/30/11
Genesis 9:8-15

The Steward and the Ship: Consecration

Today we wrap up our journey with Noah. We watched Noah build the ark, just as God commanded, then survive the flood, then leave the ark and give thanks to God. Today is God's response, you might say. Noah's response is to give thanks, and God's response is to make a covenant with Noah – a promise – and to share a beautiful symbol of that promise. God sets in the sky a rainbow – the very symbol that our baptismal liturgy referred to today. And God promises to Noah and his offspring never again to destroy creation. Of course, we know the conditions that make for a rainbow: they appear in the sky when the Sun shines on to droplets of moisture in the Earth's atmosphere. That’s the science of it. But the heart of it is that rainbows often appear after storms, perfect timing for a reminder of God's promise to us. The promise, and the symbol to remind us of the promise.
The scriptures are full of God's promises to us, and symbols of God's faithfulness to the promises God makes. Abram and Sarai and Jacob all receive new names a symbols of God's promises to be with them and to bless their families. Circumcision becomes a symbol of that promise for Abraham. Jacob sees a ladder to heaven as a sign of God's promise to him. Moses and the Israelites receive the Passover meal as a symbol of God being with them and promising them and leading them to freedom. At Jesus' baptism, God shares a dove, the symbol of God's Holy Spirit, as a sign of his love for Jesus, a promise to be with him in his earthly ministry. Soon we will talk of a star in the sky, a symbol that guides people to find baby Jesus, the promised Messiah. And when Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples, he tells them of a New Covenant – a new promise – of God's forgiveness for all – and seals the promise with the reshaped symbols of bread and cup. The promise, and the symbol to remind us of the promise.
We do the same in our relationship with God. We make promises, and we make signs of our promises. Covenants are two-party agreements. God promises to be with us, and we promise to follow God and only God. Sometimes we mess up on our end, but God is always faithful and forgiving. But we still try – because promises, covenants, are made in relationships, between parties that care about each other. When people are married, they make promises, and then use symbols – usually rings, to remember the promise. When we confirmed our young people last year, they made promises to God and this congregation, and we used symbols – stoles – with their personal choice of symbols on them – as reminders of their covenants. And today, we celebrated Carter's baptism, we acknowledged God's promises to us – unconditional love already at work in Carter long before this day, by promising that his parents, his family, and his extended family, this body of Christ, would be faithful to nurturing him as a child of God. A promise we seal with holy, blessed water. And because we are part of the whole Body of Christ, even though Carter lives far away from us, and even when his own family will be far apart from each other, we know the promise stands because we make it as the Body of Christ. His grandparents and great-grandparents are a part of us, and a part of Carter, and so we are a part of each other, and all part of Christ's body, bound by our promises to God and one another. The promise, and the symbol to remind us of the promise.
            Over the summer I shared with you about being a chaplain at Music Camp at Sky Lake, one of our church camps, and talking about Holy Communion as a place where we celebrate God's ability to make the ordinary holy. Remember? We talked about the parables of Jesus, and how he always used ordinary things to describe the kingdom of God – seeds and plants and bread and yeast and fish and water – the stuff of everyday life – to illustrate that God was in everything and everything can be holy because God is in our midst.
            Today we celebrate our Consecration Sunday, and that word, consecration, means something like this – making an ordinary thing a holy thing. It literally means to associate something with the sacred – con/with, sacre/sacred. When we offer something up to be consecrated, we are asking God to make it sacred and holy. When we celebrate communion, the last prayer I pray over the elements is called the prayer of consecration; I say, ʺGod, make these gifts be the Body of Christ.ʺ In other words, God, please make this bread, this juice, into holy stuff.
            Today, we are offering up our financial commitments to God, and we are asking God to make them holy commitments, not just forms we filled out. We are asking that God make them a symbol of our hopes and dreams, not just numbers in a budget. By consecrating these financial commitments, we are asking and expecting that God give them a weight and significance that goes beyond other bills we pay, even other charities we might support. More than business as usual – consecration is committing a serious act with God.
            Maybe I have made Consecration Sunday sound pretty serious all around! And it is! Not because I want to scare us all into giving more or less than we planned to give. As Anne mentioned last week, these commitments don’t represent binding contracts with the church that are burdens that can’t change if your life changes. But Consecration is serious because without Consecration, we can expect everything to unfold just as any income and expense report would. Money in, money out. Budgets and balances. But when we ask God to make the ordinary into the holy, we ask God to make it extraordinary. And then our financial commitments aren’t about dollars and cents anymore. They are about sharing God's love with as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible. They are tools that enable us to feed hungry people and clothe them. They are ways we support our children as they grow in faith and as they teach us about faith. They are symbols of the promise we make – to God, to one another, and to our community, about how we want to be together, serve one another, work together. The promise, and these little commitment cards that are the tangible reminders, the symbols of our promise.
            Today we consecrate our financial commitments. Today we make promises. Today we ask God to make our commitments sacred and holy. Today we trust in the promises of God. Today we can trust that God makes our ordinary offering into our extraordinary future. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...