Fish or Cut Bait?

Mark 1:14-20

You heard about Sven and Ole? Sven and Ole died in a snowmobiling accident, don’t ya know, and found themselves in the company of the devil.  But the devil observed that they were really enjoying themselves.  So, he said to them ‘Doesn’t the heat and smoke bother you?’ ‘Vel,”Ole replied, ‘ya know, ve’re from nordern Minnesota, da land of snow an ice, an ve’re just happy fer a chance ta warm up a little bit, don’t ya know.

Well, the devil decides that these two aren’t miserable enough, so he turns up the heat even more. And when he returns to the room of the two from Minnesota, he finds them grilling Walleye and drinking beer. The devil is astonished and exclaims, ‘Everyone down here is in misery, and you two seem to be enjoying yourselves?’ Sven replies, ‘Vell, ya know, ve just got ta haff a fish fry vhen da veather’s dis nice.’

Now, the devil is absolutely furious. He can hardly see straight. So, he decides to turn all the heat off in Hell. The next morning, the temperature is 60 below zero, icicles are hanging everywhere, and people are shivering so hard that they’re unable to wail, moan, or even gnash their teeth. The devil smiles and heads for Sven and Ole’s room. But when he gets there he finds them jumping up and down, cheering, ad screaming like mad men.

The devil is dumbfounded, ‘I don’t understand, when I turn up the heat you’re happy. Now its freezing cold and you’re still happy. What is wrong with you two?’ They both look at the devil in surprise and say, ‘Vell, don’t ya know, if hell is froze over, dat must mean da Vikings won da Super Bowl.”[i]

Okay.  That has nothing to do with the Scripture for today, but this one does! One day, Sven and Ole were bragging about their secret fishing spots.  Sven said, “Ole, I got the best fish ‘in hole in all the nort-woods, don’t ya know?” “Really,” said Ole. “Yep,” said Sven, “As a matter of fact, da fish are so hungry and ready to bite, dat I have to hide behind a tree to bait my hook.”

Now, as we look at today’s text, the calling of Andrew and Peter and of James and John, it seems like evangelism is a piece of cake.  Whether we’re the one being called or the one doing the calling, Jesus’ example makes inviting others to “come and follow” seem simple. Mark makes is seem like people are so anxious to join us that, like Sven, we must hide behind the nearest tree to keep from being overwhelmed. But you and I know both know that’s simply not the case.  People today are resistant to even acknowledge the existence of God, let alone commit to joining a faith community. But why? Why do we have so much trouble getting others to join us?

Well, it might be helpful here for us to look at some of the features that set Mark’s Gospel apart from the others. First, it’s the shortest gospel and moves at the quickest pace. And Mark’s Gospel conveys a sense of the urgency in the ministry of Jesus. There are no birth narratives; no manger, no shepherds, no elderly prophets singing praise to God in the temple as they hold the promised One in their arms. Instead, Mark sets the scene with some very concise accounts of John the Baptist preaching, Jesus being baptized, and then driven out into the wilderness. And then he moves very rapidly into the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. I mean, by the end of today’s reading, we’re not even halfway through chapter 1! Time, then, and urgency are at the heart of this passage.[ii]

So, Mark isn’t saying that inviting others is going to be an easy proposition, but instead, that evangelism contains or requires a certain sense of urgency. But how does that translate to our experience of God? How is this “urgency” a part of our call to fish for people?

Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, says that, “True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, despite our best efforts to deny it or avoid it. In fact, the best of modern theology is revealing a strong ‘turn toward participation,’ as opposed to religion as mere observation, affirmation, moralism, or group belonging. There is nothing to join, only something to recognize, suffer, and enjoy as a participant.”[iii]

And this makes a whole lotta sense to me. Evangelism, extending the call of Jesus to others, is best done through example; through participation in the mission of Christ.  In my first call, I became involved in an area wide ministry called Outreach Africa. This group would gather a couple of times a year to package thousands of meals for people who were starving.  Now, when I presented this opportunity to my congregation, I could have just shown them the poster and said, “If you’re interested go.” But instead, I decided to give a power-point presentation about the plight of those in the Sudan. And I concluded my presentation by telling them that Becky and I were going to help and invited the whole congregation to come and participate with us.

Now, this might seem like a little thing, but you must understand that participating in a mission project, beyond just bringing canned goods once a month or giving money, was way outside the comfort zone of this congregation. So, an invitation to “join” us rather than just “go” was important and effective.  You see, 30 adults and about 15 youth joined with many others to package meals for people an ocean away.  As a matter of fact, participating in this mission was so heartwarming, that the mission committee began to wonder why we couldn’t host such an event ourselves.

So, participation, boots on the ground outreach, is a vital component to inviting others.  In other words, our actions speak louder than our words. But in addition to participation we must also be authentic.  We can’t be all things to all people. We must be ourselves. We must be the church that God is calling us to be. So, as a congregation, who are we? How is Jesus calling us to be fishers of people?

Well, maybe the words of Anne Lamott might help us out here as we approach this question.  She says, “I think joy and sweetness and affection are a spiritual path. We’re here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.”[iv]

There’s an awful lot of wisdom in her words. Joy and sweetness and affection, these aren’t your typical theological words: but I like um.  Too often, I fear we get caught up in the dogmatic “thou-shalt-nots” and forget to meet people where they’re at.  We forget to be authentic as we relate to others, sharing our vulnerability, our fears, and our doubts.

But Jesus was authentic, and his authenticity drew others to come and participate in a gathering movement. A movement that would change the face of the world. A movement that would be vehemently opposed by the religious authorities and catch the notice of Rome. A movement that would lead to a ministry of reconciliation and restoration, of social justice, and the propagation of peace.

But Jesus didn’t begin this ministry in the Temple or by recruiting the religious mucky-mucks.  He started with simple fisherman. He began his ministry at the grass roots level.  He chose to reach out to the common people, meeting them on their terms and amid their crises.  When he went fish ‘in, Jesus didn’t use doctrine or arcane rules or traditions as bait, rather he used the promise of healing and restoration, of compassion and kindness; he promised a closer relationship with God. And yes, he challenged his followers to take up their cross, but these metaphorical crosses we bear are not cast upon us by God, rather made lighter because of Christ.

And this is where it all comes together. Our ministry begins with a wide welcome.  In our church and in the United Church of Christ we offer an extravagant welcome to “all” because we are a part of the “all.”  We’re no better or worse than anyone else. And it’s this understanding of being on equal footing that allows us to echo and expand upon the words of Paul. “In Christ,” he said, “we are no longer male or female, Greek or Jew, servant or free,” …and we might add: “In Christ we are no longer rich or poor, white or black, citizen or dreamer, native or refugee, gay or straight; in Christ we are no longer us or them. But in Christ, because of Christ, we are “all” one people.

So, here’s the question we’re left with today; are we going to fish or just cut bait? Are we going to hide behind the nearest tree or are we going to step out into the world, participating in the mission and ministry of our congregation and of the United Church of Christ? What’s preventing us from dropping our symbolic nets, whatever those nets may be, and offer an extravagant welcome to all our neighbors, inviting them to join us on this journey of faith? What’s stop us from offering an authentic invitation to those who are on the fringes of society, to come and walk with us, pray with us, weep with us, laugh with us… just as we are? What’s to prevent us from go ‘in fish ‘in? I don’t know. Perhaps, nothing…?

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

 

[i] (an email forward from Patty Anderson)

[ii] Kathryn Matthews Casting Call (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Richard Rohr.  Falling Upwards (Jossey-Bass, 2011)

[iv] Quote from Anne Lamott (www.goodreads.com) 2018

Known & Loved

Psalm 139

How do you experience love?

Well, back in 1995 a minister and marriage counselor named Gary Chapman considered this question.  You see over the course of his years as a therapist, he noticed that couples experienced problems in their marriage because they did not understand how their partner experienced love.  So, he wrote a book that outlined five ways to express and experience love which he called the “love languages.” These five ways or categories are: gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of devotion, and physical touch. The book is called The Five Love Languages. And in this book, Chapman suggests that to discover another person’s love language, one must observe the way they express love to others. He theorizes that people tend to naturally give love in the way that they prefer to receive love, and better communication between couples can be accomplished when one can demonstrate caring to the other person in a love language that the recipient understands.

Here’s an example of what I mean. If a husband’s love language is acts of service, he may be confused when he does the laundry and his wife doesn’t perceive that as an act of love but rather as simply performing household duties.  The disconnect in communication here comes because her love language is perhaps words of affirmation; verbal affirmation that he loves her. Thus, she may try to use what she values, words of affirmation, to express her love to him, which he would not value as much as she does. But if she would come to understand his love language and let’s say, mow the lawn for him, he would perceive it as an act of love; and likewise, if he would tell her that he loves her, she would value that as an act of love.[i]

So, the crux of Chapman’s premise leads us to conclude that understanding how another person feels love and being able to communicate in that language is the key to a successful relationship.  Now, what if we were to apply this same logic to our relationship with God. What if we were to take a step back and think about how we feel loved by God.

This is where Psalm 139 might help up out. 139 is a “creation psalm.”  But not one that delves into the vast mysteries of how the universe came into being.  Instead, this psalm is about God’s ongoing work in bringing human beings to fullness of life, unwrapping the mystery of us, and loving us all the while. In a very real way, this psalm expresses God’s love language in a very personal and intimate way.  You see, while much of the Bible is about “the people,” this one is about a person, you, and tells you that you are unique and of immeasurable worth.[ii] I’ve heard it said like this: “we are not mass-produced but custom-made.”

But isn’t a relationship supposed to be reciprocal? If we are known and loved by God, how might we express our knowledge and love back to God? Well, a couple of things come to mind here.

First, we need to be authentic. I read a story recently about a “young Rabbi Zusya, who was quite discouraged about his failures and weaknesses. In his desperation he consulted and senior rabbi, saying, “why can’t I be more like Moses?” Said an older rabbi to him, ‘When you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, “Why weren’t you Moses?” No, God will say, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” So why don’t you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?'”[iii]

An important part of being uniquely created is to recognize, and then live out, our uniqueness.  We’re all different from one another.  We’re all on individual paths of faith; the path we were created to follow.  And all people are created in the likeness and image of God; an image that transcends color or race or nationality; it transcends gender or sexual orientation or religion. And this is important.  It’s important because none of us travel this path alone.  We’re surrounded by family, friends, and a faith community.  And our journey is affected by relationships beyond our inner circle; we are influenced by the wider culture.

But it’s within this diversity that we find our greatest strength and purpose. And that leads us to the other aspect or our “expression of love back to God” that I would like to lift-up today; we authentically live out our love of God, and our uniqueness, by loving others. And this speaks to the purpose of the church.  We are a diverse collection of individuals finding our way together.  Walter Brueggemann says of this journey, “What a stunning vocation for the church, to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful – and to think, imagine, dream, and vision a future that God will yet enact.”[iv]

My friends, as we move forward into the coming year, how might we, as individuals, think or imagine our way ahead? How might we as a church community dream into reality a future that God will yet enact?

One final thought this morning.  This weekend we are invited to celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by serving our neighbor. His nephew said (and I’m paraphrasing here) he said that Monday isn’t a day to rest, or a time to pull out the grill, rather it’s a day to live-into the ideals of his uncle.  It’s a day to think of the other before self. It seems to me that this invitation is in lock-step with the gospel message.

However, as a nation, I fear we’ve wandered from the path. Over the course of this past year, we see racism, sexism, isolationism, and fear-mongering dominate the conversation. Make no mistake, these -isms and perpetuations of fear fly-in-the-face of the gospel message. And this isn’t a political position, it’s a Christian position.  The core of Christ’s ministry and the tone of his message challenged his listeners to be more accepting, more loving, more compassionate; and he challenges us, still today, to think of the other before self. Psalm 139, along with many other passages from the Hebrew Scriptures informed Jesus’ teachings. He treated all people as if they were beloved by God. Because he knew they were. He crossed religious and social boundaries because for him the ideals of justice and equality and peace outweighed the dogma of the religious and political leaders. Jesus respected the uniqueness of all people while showing them, and us, a better way.

I would like to leave you today with a quote from Martin Luther King.  It’s one that I’ve used before, but I’ll say it again because it finally leaves us with at least a fragment of hope today. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he said, “but it bends toward justice.”[v] May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Gary Chapman The Five Love Languages (Northfield Publishing) 1995 (via Wikipedia)

[ii] Kathryn Matthews Discerning God’s Call (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Ibid Matthews.

[iv] Walter Brueggemann. Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel)2018

[v] (www.brainyquote.com/quotes/martin_luther_king_jr)

Defining Moments

Mark 1:4-11

Who’s seen the movie Finding Nemo? Well, if you haven’t, it’s a classic children’s movie about a father clownfish, named Marlin, whose searching, against all odds, for his lost son, Nemo.  And after a long and harrowing journey across the sea Marlin finds his son in the fish tank of a Sydney dentist. And with the help of the other fish in the tank, Nemo escapes and they all lived happily ever after. That’s a very quick synopsis of the movie.

My favorite scene, however, takes place at the very end, after the credits begin to roll. Even though the main story has ended, we soon discover that another story has just begun. You see, the fish who had helped Nemo escape from the tank had managed to free themselves, too. While their tank is being cleaned, they manage to roll the plastic bags they’re in along the counter, out the window, across the street, and into Sydney Harbor. When the last one finally reaches the water, there’s a collective cheer and sigh of relief. But then the reality of their situation begins to dawn upon them. Bobbing in the ocean, still encased in a thin layer of plastic, Bloat, the puffer fish, breaks the silence with the words: “Now what?”[i]

As we look at Mark’s account of the Baptism of Jesus today, I wonder if those who were baptized that day in the wilderness, had that same thought.  Now what? I mean, John seemed to know what to do.  He kept on doing his thing.  We can surmise from the larger context of Mark’s account that he kept on preaching repentance and forgiveness.  And that he wasn’t afraid to challenge the powers that be, which unfortunately, lead to his head on a platter.  And Jesus knew the score. Immediately, he was taken into the wilderness to face his own inner temptations and overcome them. Which, combined with the baptism kicked-off his earthly ministry.

So, the future of the main characters was pretty much set in stone.  But what about John’s followers; what happened to them?  Did they switch over and follow Jesus? Some probably did. Some probably became a part of “the crowds” we read about later in the gospel. But was that all of them? Did some of these folks leave the wilderness, go back home, only to have the fervor of the moment wear off as the struggles of life returned? Maybe. It stands to reason that the realities of life, planting crops, keeping food on the table, raising children, might obscure the memory of their wilderness experience. I don’t know.

But here’s the thing. We’re not told what happened to those dripping wet souls after the party broke up.  But I’d like to think that some of them took the words and experience of their Jordan cleansing to heart, and shared that experience with the folks back home. I’d like to think that it was a defining moment in their lives.

We know it was for Jesus.  The baptism in the Jordan was a defining moment for his mission and ministry.  It was the beginning of “something more.” And that something more was defined, moment by moment, in his life and teachings. Jesus lived and taught a way of justice and peace, of equality for all people regardless of social status, religion, or nationality. And he showed us that these ideals were the ideals of God. And it was this defining moment that charted the path of his life and ministry.

But what about our path? What about the times when we’re like those wet souls standing on the riverbank, when we’re bobbing on the sea of life in our plastic bags; what about the times when we find ourselves asking: “Now what?” I know from my own experience that the path sometimes seems unclear or obscure and that God’s ideals sometimes seem too lofty to attain. So, what do we do if that’s the case? What do we do if the way ahead it obstructed?

Well perhaps, it’s in our struggles, perhaps it’s in our wrestling with doubt, that we find these defining moments. Do you see what I’m getting at here?  A defining moment doesn’t always come to us as a voice from heaven, sometimes our defining moments are born out of the challenges we face in life. And it’s one’s response to these challenges that finally defines one’s character.  When we face our struggles with faith and grace we are changed.  We are changed, transformed, from the “inside/out.”

That’s what I think John was driving at as he spoke to the folks on the riverbank. He was saying that this baptism was about transformation.  It was and still is about changing the trajectory of our lives when needed.  It’s about putting aside the hurtful words and attitudes that may haunt our being or cross our tongue. Jesus’ baptism was, and is, about getting rid of those things in our lives, that do harm to others or ourselves. In other words, it boils down to loving God and others.

You know, Julian of Norwich, the 14th century Christian mystic once said, “…and thus I understood that any man or woman who deliberately chooses God in this life, out of love, may be sure that he or she is loved without end”[ii]

And that’s finally the crux of the matter.  As we reaffirm our covenant with God today, by remembering our baptism and by partaking in the Lord’s Supper, we do so with the understanding that we are all loved by God.  Because through these sacraments, these sacred acts, we are symbolically demonstrating that we “choose” God; that we choose to live, as best we are able, lives in service of God by reaching out to and loving all of God’s people.  May it be so this day and as we progress forward into a new year.

Amen

[i] Rev. Dr. Tim Boggess.  In the Hole He Goes.  (www.Day1.org) 2009

[ii] Quote found on www.ucc.org/samuel. 2018

From Darkness to Light (Part II)

Isaiah 60:1-6

What do you be think heaven will be like? White clouds? Angels with harps? St. Peter holding a set of keys? An old man sitting on the throne of judgment with a long white beard? Or do you think of it as something completely different? As a pastor I’ve heard many people articulate their beliefs about heaven. And the range of understandings is staggering. Heaven can be viewed very literally as the city of gold and precious stones as espoused by the Book of Revelation. Others have said, “heaven is what you make of it” whatever that means. I don’t know, I think there must be some middle ground here. There must be some balance between the rigid dogmatic view and the wishy-washy, it’s what you want it to be version of heaven. There must be something more.

Our passage of Scripture for today, Isaiah 60, I think holds one of many keys as we think about the nature of heaven. The third author in the Book of Isaiah, after his nation had returned from exile enjoyed a brief period of happiness. They were home. But as we all know, happiness is fleeting. And they began to experience some difficult times. And it’s within this context that Isaiah wrote these words of encouragement and inspiration:

Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the LORD’s glory has shone upon you.
Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the LORD will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.

Now, sometimes people identify a passage like this with a pop culture concept of heaven. We’ve all seen the billboards, right? “You cannot enter the Kingdom of God until you’re born again” or we read the words “Where will you spend eternity? The choice is yours” set on a background of flames and smoke. And there are passages in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that support this simplistic, hellfire and brimstone, billboard type of theology if they are taken very literally and out of context.

But here’s the thing. Heaven is finally beyond our understanding. No one knows what it will look like. So, developing a theology or belief system around the notion of heaven, or an afterlife, is a complex task. So, I can understand the desire to create a simple, straightforward path to heaven. Do A, B, & C, and you’ll get in. The problem that arises, however, is one of exclusionism and pride. An unsophisticated understanding of heaven excludes a diversity of thought or belief. It says, “if you don’t toe the line, if you don’t believe the “right” things, worship the “right” way; if you don’t hold the same set of beliefs that my church affirms are true, then sorry, you’re out.” And even worse, being certain about the nature of heaven leads to the sin of pride. Pride says, “I know what heaven looks like and all other notions, all other religions, and all other Christian views are wrong.” No, I think heaven and “salvation,” the path we take to get to heaven, are far more complex.

One theologian who had a wonderful grasp on the nature of heaven was John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Wesley believed that heaven was more than the place where God is enthroned, Jesus abides, or where children of God spend eternity. Heaven in his mind was also for the here and now. In his own words, “It is called the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ because it is heaven opened in the soul.” For Wesley, heaven had more to do with finding love in this life, expressing that love, sharing that love, than hoping to someday float around in the clouds with wings and a harp. Wesley believed that the result of finding, expressing, and sharing love will, in the end, “find heaven for us.”

“Love will find heaven for us.” I like that. I like it because I can see two important themes emerging from Wesley’s line of thought here. And these two themes are consistent and coherent with the core of Christ’s message.

First, that love it key. When I think about the centrality of love and how it can be “lived out” in the life of the church, I can’t help but think of Jim. Jim was a member of my home church in Dubuque Iowa. Summit Congregational UCC. But I wasn’t always a member of that church. You see, Becky and I were engaged at the time and since I had made the decision to leave my denomination and thus the congregation I was serving, we suddenly lost our venue only months before our wedding. We were, for all intents and purposes, “homeless” when it came to church.

Now, I had gone to work in a local hardware store in Dubuque and was sharing our wedding venue dilemma with a co-worker. He said that his little UCC church would be happy to let us use their building. So, the following Sunday, I said to my kids, “let’s go to Summit today so I can show you where Becky and I are going to get married.” And this is where Jim comes into the story. You see, without really realizing it, I was more than just “church homeless,” I was “religiously homeless.” I still had a strong faith in God, but I had become disillusioned with the institution of the church. Both the bickering and backstabbing of the local church and bureaucracy and hypocrisy of the wider church.

So, on a sunny spring morning, with a little fear in my heart and carrying a fair amount of negative baggage toward the institution of church, we walked through the doors of Summit United Church of Christ. Jim was the greeter that day. Now, at this point I should give you an image of Jim. He was a big man, 6-3/6-4, maybe 250, he reminded me of a big old bear. But it was Jim’s smile that defined him best. It was a huge smile, genuine, often intertwined with a hearty laugh. And it was that smile that greeted us as we crossed the threshold of that church for the first time. And I remember feeling like I had come home. You see, Jim had recognized that we were visitors, ushered us into the sanctuary, and introduced us to his wife, Joyce. And then he said, “Sit with us, we have communion today and everyone is welcome to the table here. After worship make sure you come to fellowship because I want to get to know you.” Now, Jim had no way of knowing that I was in the middle of a spiritual desert, but his attitude, his sense of inclusion and welcome, his genuine interest in us, “loved me” back into a congregation that I would come to call home. A congregation, by the way, that I became pastor of exactly one year later.

So, love is the first key and second is this: Salvation, or the path to heaven as it were, is primarily a this-worldly phenomenon. It happens here. Now, the root of the English word might be helpful. The word salvation comes to us from the Latin word that means “wholeness” or “healing.” This is the same root, by the way, from which we get the word “salve” which is a healing agent. So, in it’s broadest sense, heaven has to do with becoming whole and being healed. And the language of wholeness suggests movement beyond fragmentation, and the language of healing, suggests being healed of the wounds inflicted simply by being alive in this world; our “wounds of existence” if you will.

Jesus was all about healing and restoring people to wholeness. Time and again in the gospel accounts, Jesus healed people who were suffering, on the margins of society; people who needed forgiveness and restoration. When asked by his followers how to pray, he said, “kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And when asked, “what’s the most important parts of the law?” He didn’t answer with, “try your best to get to heaven.” He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

And again, no one, in this life anyway, finally knows what heaven will look like. But we can surmise from the teachings of Jesus himself, that salvation is an on-going process; a process that begins with love. A love that seeks us and finds us in this life. Heaven on earth begins with healing and restoration but it doesn’t stop here. The path of salvation leads us across space and time, into an eternal existence within the Divine Presence of God.

My friends, in this coming season of Epiphany, my prayer is that the Light of Christ will arise before you and that heaven on earth will become a part of your reality. And finally, that Love of God will clear for you a path of salvation; a mysterious, wonderful, path to God!

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Wesley Study Bible. (CEB) (Joel B. Green and William H Wilimon gen. eds. / et.al. 2012)  pg. 934

[1] Ibid.

[1] Marcus Borg. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (Harper San Francisco, 2003) pg. 175

From Darkness to Light (Part I)

Advent 4 & Christmas Eve 2017

I love the Christmas story. The whole thing.  The timid young Mary, the gracious and loving Joseph, the mysterious angels, the star struck Magi, the donkey ride, the camel trek, sheep and shepherds and the humble stable birth.  I love it all. And as we gather this evening, on this Christmas Eve, I hope you will fall in love with this story too. Because tonight, we’re all welcome to close our eyes and become immersed in narrative; we’re invited to use our imaginations. And we’re encouraged, as we once again read and sing our way through the story of Christ’s birth, we are encouraged to see and taste and smell and feel what it might have been like to be in that place, in that moment.  And finally, as we dim the lights this evening, and allow the words of Silent Night to seep into our souls, we’re all welcome to once again recognize that the Christ-child dwells within and around all of us.  And that the spark of the Divine; the very presence of God through the Spirit, is longing to co-journey with us as we attempt to negotiate this world.

So, bearing all of this in mind, I chose the most Christmas-ey text I could think of this evening: Psalm 96.  Psalm 96? Wouldn’t, I don’t know, um, Luke 2 or even Matthew 1 be more appropriate? Well, yes, and we’ll get to those later in the program. But this Psalm, along with several others, holds some very important background information as we think about the birth of Jesus tonight.

So, Psalm 96.  This beautiful poem begins by describing a “new song.” But by “new song” the author doesn’t mean we’re going to sing a tune that has never been heard before, but rather that the hearer’s world is about to change.  The Psalmist’s “new song” is the beginning of a new era in history; specifically, the Reign of God and what that Reign might look like.[i] You see, rather than an earthly king as sovereign over Israel, the Psalmist looks to God to fill that role.  And this might seem obvious to us, but in the Ancient Near East, people gained their protection, their livelihood, prosperity, and any sense of justice by giving total allegiance to the king who ruled over their city or district. Being subject to the ruler guaranteed their safety and their way of life. But if you traveled outside your own city or district, you were immediately at the mercy of a different ruler, one who may or may not look favorably upon you. Such was life for the people of Old Testament times.[ii]

Okay, bear with me here, I’m getting to Christmas.  I promise.

Now, the contracts that insured this way of life have, over time, become known as Suzerainty treaties. You see, each of these kings, or Suzerains, a fancy name for the king, had a twofold contract or agreement with the Emperor who ruled over all the lands.  And the contract was really very simple.  First, each king was expected to give full allegiance to the Emperor, and second, they were not allowed to declare war on another kingdom under the rule of the Empire.  Complete loyalty to the sovereign and no fighting with your neighbors.  This became the formula for all contracts, or covenants.  So, when Psalm 96 was penned, it had this implicant understanding of covenant looming in the background.

But what did that covenant between God and humanity look like in real time? Well, using some beautiful imagery the author paints for us a picture of how this covenant might be lived-out.  First, complete loyalty to the ruler, i.e., God. “Declare God’s glory among the nations;” the Psalmist writes, “declare God’s wondrous works among all people because the Lord is great and worthy of praise. Tell the nations, ‘the Lord rules!’”

And second part of the covenant, the part that leads us back to Christmas, is a desire for peace and justice among nations; this is the getting along with our neighbors’ part. Again, the words of the Psalmist, “God,” he says, “is coming to establish justice on the earth, establish justice in the world rightly, and establish justice among all people fairly.”

And that, my friends, is the essence of the incarnation. God chose to come into this world, humbly, as Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” And God came with a mission. God’s mission, Jesus’ ministry, was all about establishing justice on earth, rightly, and seeing that is was administered fairly.

But, on a more nuts and bolts level, how would this justice live-on after it was established? Well, Jesus’ answer harkens back to that suzerainty understanding of covenant. Loyalty to the ruler, God, and peaceful coexistence with our neighbor. In Jesus’ words: Love God with your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the essence of God’s justice.  That’s finally the meaning of Christmas.

And that’s our calling tonight, in the coming year, and beyond. We are called to become co-establishers of this reign of justice.  We are challenged as a community of faith to be the hands and feet, the heart and voice of God in this world.  How? By standing up to injustice, by becoming a voice for those who have been silenced, by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the lonely, and by remembering the forgotten.

This Christmas Eve, my friends, here in this service, as the cherished words of Silent Night seep into the very depths of your being, and these candles turn darkness into light; my prayer for all of us is that we will take our love for this story, and translate the love into a “new song.” A new song hope, and healing, and faith.  A new song that ushers in a new era of justice and truly establishes that “peace on earth and goodwill to all” that we so desperately desire and need in the world today.  A new song, my friends, that bends us toward justice; toward God. May it be so. Amen and Merry Christmas!

 

[i] Samuel Terrien. in The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary

(Grand Rapids: Eerdman. 2004) pg. 924

[ii] Nancy DeClaissé-Walford. Commentary on Psalm 96 (http://www.workingpreacher.org)

 

A Shared Experience of Joy

Psalm 126

We’ve started a new holiday tradition in our house this year; we’re observing Chanukah.  Every evening, for the eight days of Chanukah, also known as “the Festival of Lights” we’ve been lighting candles in our menorah. Now, if you’re not familiar with the background of Chanukah, or lest you think your pastor has converted to Judaism, let me put your mind as ease. I haven’t converted and as Christians, we have a shared history with our Jewish sisters and brothers. Chanukah finds it roots in the Old Testament and specifically the Psalms.

So, what is Chanukah then? Well, tradition holds that a miracle occurred after the Maccabee family of took back the Temple in Jerusalem following a long war with Greeks. But because of the war oil was in short supply.  There was only one vial left.  And that vial contained only a single day’s supply to keep the menorah lit in the Temple. But miraculously, the oil from the vial burned for eight days. Thus, the eight days of Chanukah.

Now, I lift this tradition up this morning because on the first night, when I recited the Psalm, I did so in Hebrew. After which, Becky rolled her eyes, and said, “Now in English.” And guys, you men, you all know that the wifely “eye roll” says a whole lot more than any words could convey.  I took her eye roll to mean, “Really, what good is a prayer if we can’t understand the meaning?” In other words, “How can we share in the joy of this festival of lights if the experience, in this case the prayer, is not shared?”

And it’s this concept of shared experience that looms behind our Psalm for today as well.  Even with its “shouts of joy,” Psalm 126 is actually a lament; a cry for help amid terrible circumstances. The psalmist remembers what God had done for Israel in the past. And even more, what it felt like when God fulfilled God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah and later, when God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the promised land. And, not long before this Psalm was written, the homecoming of those freed from exile in Babylon.

The psalmist remembered how they shouted with joy and laughter on their way home. Years later, however, when that first rush of joy came to an end, they found themselves struggling. The rebuilt Temple, the centerpiece of their worship, was not as magnificent as the one built by Solomon. But there were even greater problems facing them. Return was not the same thing as restoration, as anyone knows who has tried to heal a relationship, or to rebuild a community after a natural disaster. Simply returning doesn’t make it all better.  It might be a step in the right direction, but return is not the end all/be all of healing.

Think, for example, of the long-term and perhaps overwhelming work of rebuilding and restoration faced by the people of Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands, or Texas, or many parts of Florida, after being hit by powerful hurricanes in recent months. Their work goes on even as our attention is drawn toward wildfires destroying homes in California, just as they devastated other western states this summer. Whether a natural disaster or an act of human destruction, the leveling of a city or town is demoralizing for a people. Just returning to their homes, or the pieces of their homes, is not the same thing as having their lives restored. That will require a much deeper transformation, first as an individual and then, as a communal effort.”[i] A communal effort that reaches beyond just that community to include all of us.  The crisis’ that have hit our nation are, in the end, a shared experience.

And there are so many examples of this.  One that sticks in my mind, however, is the image of a man in California, with a raging wild fire in the background, saving a frightened little rabbit.  Now, I can feel those wifely eye rolls again; it’s just one bunny, right? What’s the difference? Well, bear with me here.  I think this video went viral not because one rabbit got saved or even because it was a kind act on the part of this man.  Instead, I think it struck a cord with so many people because they, in that moment, felt helpless in the face of the raging fires.  And this small act of kindness gave the viewer, if even for a moment, a shared experience of hope with that man and bunny; perhaps even a share experience of joy. And perhaps that’s something we are all seeking in this Advent Season.

So, Psalm 126 speaks to the shared experience of the natural disasters that we’ve encountered this past year. That makes sense. But this beautiful poem also speaks to us on a more personal level. While the church observes Advent, the secular world around us tells us to be joyful as we shop and clean, as we decorate our houses and fill up our calendars. But all around us are also those who carrying heavy burdens. And the holidays make these burdens even more pressing.

As I think about these things, I can’t help but think of the Christmas song, I’ll be home for Christmas. Homecomings, whether they are physical or simply in one’s memory can be filled with joy, with expectation and perhaps even warm one’s heart.  But homecomings can also be met with disappointment. Cynthia Jarvis touches on this reality for some, when she spoke about conditions being made acute by what she called “culture’s merriment.” And that these conditions can lead to sadness because of severed relationships, hidden addictions, the domestication of violence, depression that is denied, or, and I quote, “…the self-loathing cut deep into the flesh.”[ii]

The point here is that Christmas isn’t merry of everyone. So, this Advent, let us think of our neighbors and friends who are grieving, widows or widowers who mourn the loss of their spouse, those struggling with illness, or loneliness, or depression; and what about those who are homeless, or refugees displaced by war, or those with little to call their own; the hopeless?

So, by now, you must be saying, “Pastor, isn’t the third Sunday of Advent supposed to be about joy? Where’s the joy? But before you roll your eyes again, remember the promise of the psalm: “Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts.  Let those who go out, crying and carrying their seed, come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain!”

Talitha Arnold reflects on the mystery of suffering turned to joy in this text: “The natural power of God to turn seeds into grain would be miracle enough,” she writes, “but Psalm 126 makes an even greater statement. The seeds are not ordinary, but seeds of sorrow. The fruit they bear is not grain or wheat, but shouts of joy.”[iii]

My friends, we seek joy in this season, and we are right to do so. But perhaps we have been looking in the wrong places and in the wrong ways, because the seeds of joy are often planted in sadness and watered with tears. This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping in the night.[iv]

Look, no one is immune to suffering.  We all have struggles, we’ve all faced adversity, and we’ve survived.  Perhaps even a little stronger or wiser for the experience. So, there’s no reason, even as we celebrate the coming of the Christ into the world once again this year, that we cannot find ways to bring a little comfort to others around us who are struggling.

Now, you might say, “my heart is full of the joy of the season and I don’t want to lose that feeling.” Good point. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to lose it.  As a matter of fact, I would bet that if you were to reach out to someone whose down and out this Christmas Season and share the love of God through a simple act of kindness, you would find that you and the person you’re reaching out to, would share an experience of joy.

And that’s finally the crux of Christmas itself.  God, incarnate in the Christ-child came to this earth so that we might have a shared experience.  A shared experience of justice and peace and faith.  And when things go array, Jesus offers us more than just a mere return, he offers us restoration.  He walked this earth so that all people might have the opportunity to be reconciled, healed, and restored to God, and this often happens through a faith community. And it’s in our faith community, our congregation, that we invite all people to  share inn this, our experience of Joy.

So, as we continue this journey we call Advent, may the joy of this season, the shared experience of being in the presence of the Living God through the Spirit, reach deep into your being, and then, radiate forth, warming the hearts of all whom you encounter. May it be so. Amen.

[i] Kathern Matthews Shout with Joy (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

[ii] Cynthia Jarvis (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1) 2010

[iii] Talitha Arnold (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1) 2010

[iv] Ibid.

The Potter’s Hand

Jeremiah 18:1-6

I took my shot at becoming a potter.  When I was in high school art class, we spent an entire quarter working with clay.  And I thought I was pretty good at it. I took my clay and with a little practice I was able to form it into a bowl.  Not a perfect bowl, but good enough build my confidence.  The next step, of course, was to glaze it.  Easy enough.  I painted several coats of glaze on my bowl and let it dry.  And then, the final step; firing. So, into the kiln it went.  But when it came time to remove the finished bowl from the kiln, to my dismay, my bowl had shattered. Apparently, I hadn’t gotten all the air bubbles out of the clay.

I share this story with you today, on this the second Sunday of Advent, a day when we both celebrate and long for peace, because like my adventure in art class, peace can be tricky.  Just when we think we might be making progress, just when we get a little confidence, something shatters our bowl. Maybe my health takes a left turn, or maybe my child makes a bad decision, or my spouse decides the grass-is-greener somewhere else; and whatever peace I think I may have fashioned, shatters in a moment.

Or on an even larger scale, when the world seems like it may be moving just a little closer to finding a way to peace, when we begin to at least have the conversation about protecting the environment, or feeding the hungry, or housing displaced refugees, someone’s agenda gets in the way.  And it’s then that the shouts of hate and divisiveness, and the echo of bombs and bullets overcome these whispers of peace.

And when these things happen, when our individual or collective bowls are shattered, we are tempted to throw up our hands and shout to the heavens, “Where’s God in all this?”  “Isn’t God supposed to be about love?”  “Where’s the cotton-picken love?” And on first blush, Jeremiah doesn’t seem to provide much comfort, does he? He writes,

So, I went down to the potter’s house; he was working on the potter’s wheel. But the piece he was making was flawed while still in his hands, So, the potter started on another, as seemed best to him

Now, this is a familiar passage, isn’t it?  But this illustration about “The Potter and the Clay” seems to reinforce our consternation and turn the idea of a loving God on its head. I read an interpretation this week that claimed this text, “…is a vivid reminder that, depending on human response, God is capable not only of intending good and evil toward humanity, but also of changing the divine mind about pending doom and blessings.”[i] One might read this passage and once again ask, “Where’s the love?”

Now, while I would agree that there are times when tough love is necessary to bring healing and reverse the effects of poor and selfish decisions; poor and selfish decisions we have made personally and as a nation.  But the idea that God’s wills evil and doom for humanity doesn’t square with the God we know through Christ.  Instead, I contend that there’s two distinct things going on here.

First, Jeremiah was reflecting on an event that had already happened or at the very least was in the process of happening.  And that event was the exile. The exile was a point in the history when the peace and security of Jeremiah’s people had been shattered like my bowl. And what’s even worse, they felt that they had fallen out of favor with God.  And for a nation that saw itself as God’s chosen ones, nothing could be more upsetting than to lose God’s favor. R. E. Clements puts the matter succinctly, “Can it be thought that God would permit, let alone ordain, the destruction of Israel when they are [God’s chosen] people?”[ii]

So, there’s a real crisis of faith looming behind this text.  Jeremiah’s community held to what has become known as a “temple theology.” A temple theology says that bad things could not, would not happen to Israel because they were under the protection of God and the temple.[iii] And when that theology failed them, and as they were being marched from their homes into captivity, when the peace and security of the temple was no more, they must have wondered, “Where’s God in all this?”

But here’s the thing.  God’s love was there, expressed, in the refashioning of the clay in the hand of God the potter. How do I know this? Well, it’s important for us to consider that the Hebrew word translated as “potter” in this text is based on the more general verb, yatsar, which literally means “to fashion” or “to form.” So, “the fashioner” could be a literal translation of the image of God here.  But why is this important? It’s important because it’s no accident that “yatsar” is the same verb used in Genesis 2:7 when the author gave us the image of God, kneeling in the dust of the earth and grabbing a piece of moistened clay, from which God fashioned the first human being.[iv]

So, it stands to reason then, that this image of God as Potter, Fashioner, must have paralleled with God the Creator in the mind of Jeremiah. Which leads us into the second thing going on here; Jeremiah is illustrating for us that God’s creation is an on-going process. He’s saying that God the Potter can take whatever evil humanity can devise; whatever misfortunes come our way, even those that are beyond our control; that God can take whatever we do to destroy peace, and reshape it, refashion it, into something good.  Will that process of refashioning be painful? Perhaps. But ultimately, the reshaping of our mistakes, the shattering of our bowls, leads to more peace, more kindness, more cooperation between human beings and nations.  And we have a term for this refashioning: grace.

And its grace that take us full circle, back into my high school art class.  You see, when my bowl shattered, I should have been given a failing grade.  That’s what I deserved.  But the teacher, Ms. Marquart, was far too gracious to let that happen.  Instead, she took the time to help me create a new bowl, one with no air bubbles, one that withstood the firing process, and which in the end, was far more beautiful than my original one.

And the same it true of God.  God’s grace will take the time to show us a better way.  Is it more than we deserve? Probably.  But through prayer, discernment, reason, and by listening for the Still-Speaking voice of God in the world today, we can and will be refashioned.  And here’s the best part.  Not only is God still at work refashioning us and the world; God, through the Advent of Christ, is inviting us to become co-creators.  When the Christ-child was born in that manger all those years ago, God was saying to us, “come and refashion this world with me.”  The incarnate God chose to become like us, to walk with us, to teach us, and finally to demonstrate unconditional love for us by giving his life on the cross. And all of this so that we might see and emulate God ways of justice, and equality, lovingkindness, and yes, peace.

It’s kind of like the song says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me, let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.” In this Season of Advent, my prayer for all of us, is that we might seek “the peace that meant to be” by following the example of the Prince of Peace himself and by letting the peace of God reshape and refashion our hearts as seems good to God. And with these refashioned hearts, may we all go out in the name of Christ, sharing the grace and love of our Risen and Living “Fashioner” May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Alphonetta Wines, Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy (PhD diss., TCU, 2011) pg. 58

[ii] R. E. Clements, Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988) pgs. 112-113.

[iii] Ibid. Wines. 58

[iv] John Holbert Cracked Pots I Have Known. (www.patheos.com) 2013

The Need to be Known

First Sunday of Advent

1 John 4:11-16

I would like to begin this morning by sharing a story with you called “The Shop Teacher and the Princess.”  Once upon a time… that’s how every good story begins, right? Once upon a time there was a shop teacher who decided his calling was to lead the youth of his church on a mission trip to Mississippi. He figured his carpentry experience could be put to good use helping others and if he took the youth group with him, he could share his expertise with them. And in many ways, that’s what happened.  They were assigned the task of hanging drywall in a house for a family that was struggling to make ends meet. And four of the five young people really took to it.  But not the fifth.  The princess. She wanted nothing to do with drywall or dirt or hammers or the mess of construction.  Instead, she filled her day by playing with the young children of the family they were helping. Now, the shop teacher was beside himself. No matter what he did or said the princess would not participate in the rehab project.  And finally, in total frustration, he packed the group up and they came home a day early. The next Sunday, however, when it came time for him to report on the trip, he surprised everyone.  “ I was wrong,” he said, “I was so focused on the task; on fixing the house, that I missed the real ministry that was taking place.  When I took the time to reflect on what happened, I realized that the princess was really the one who shared the love of God.”

Now, our lesson from I John for today suggests that we are known and loved by God.  John the Elder calls us to love one another because God is love and is the source of love.  But even more than that, he points to the ultimate demonstration of God’s love in Jesus.  And there’s a significant body of theology behind this.  We call it the incarnation.  The incarnation is the belief that in Jesus, God came to walk in our shoes, to experience the fullness of our suffering and triumphs, the depth our struggles and the pentacle of our joys. God has come to earth, in human form, to meet us where we’re at. And it’s through this amazing demonstration of love that we come to know, to believe in, the love God has for us.  And on an even deeper level, the incarnation of Jesus, the Advent of Christ in the world, tells us that we are known by God.

But, while I think the theology of the incarnation is an important basis for understanding God’s love for us,[i] I also think of it as “hanging the drywall.” Hanging the drywall was an expression of love, but it wasn’t the only expression.  I say this because I seriously doubt that most of us came to know God’s love through dogma.  It seems to me that most of us have experienced God because somebody, at some point in our lives, served as a “living example” of God’s love,[ii]  like the princess.  And like the princess, we have the opportunity, in every interaction to be the one who says, through both our actions and words, that they too are loved by God.[iii] And again, both are important.  We must have a theological grounding for our faith and a practical application of that faith.

The great theologian Paul Tillich says that if we accept this love, come to understand it, it’s then, that we are invited to take the opportunity to choose compassion, to choose to become living expressions of God’s love for another person.[iv] You know, in church, we talk a lot about God’s love; we sing songs about God’s love; God’s love and grace and mercy are at the center of our whole approach to the Christian faith.  But the real question is whether we show that love toward the real-life people, with whom we relate to everyday.

[v]And it’s no coincidence that John affirms the importance of cultivating loving relationships in this letter, when he says that if any of us acknowledge that Jesus is God, “God remains in us and we remain in God. In other words, God isn’t some distant being, somewhere out there, looking down on us. God is within us and remains within us if we remain in God. And that “remaining” is demonstrated by loving God with our whole-selves and by loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Now, of course, there’s the other side of the coin. By not showing love to God and others, by denying the Spark of the Divine within us, we separate ourselves from God presence.  And that’s problematic.  It’s problematic because the source of our being, to once again borrow a phrase from Tillich, the grounding of our faith is based in the fact that God, who created and is still creating, has come among us, incarnate, as the Christ-child and that God, through the Spirit, continues to dwell within us.  And, as John so clearly points out, this God who dwells among and within us, is, in reality, love itself.

Let me give you a concrete example of why this is problematic.  This past Sunday, a pastor, from the pulpit, called for the extermination of all gay, lesbian, and transgendered people by Christmas Day.[vi] Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Arizona claimed that the only way to rid ourselves of the AIDS virus is for the government to kill all gay people.

Now, when I read this, and as I reflected on John’s words about remaining in the love of God, my first thought was, “could a man, a pastor of all people, get any further from ‘remaining’ in God?” and yes, as I said last week, we are not to judge others, but where’s the line? When is it our obligation to speak out against hateful speech; when is it our duty as followers of Christ to call out a false teacher; when is it our responsibility to name evil for what it is, evil?

Now, I know, this might seem like an absurd and extreme example, and it is, but this is what we must contend with in popular culture today. I wonder how many unchurched people, as we enter the season of Advent might have felt a little bit of that spark, a twinge of the Spirit within their soul, and maybe, just maybe, might have thought about coming to a Christmas Eve service with their family. But then, read this article and had all their presuppositions about Christianity affirmed. I wonder how many LGBTQ people might have begun to wonder if there might be a place for them at God’s table, read this, and ran in the other direction. Or even worse, I wonder how many suffering or lonely people, people who desperately need community, fellowship, and love, people who might have found their way to our door, heard these words of hate and retreated back into their shell.  As I wonder about these people today, and what might have been, my heart breaks!

But, my friends, that’s the challenge we have before us. The dominate narrative about the Church, of those outside our doors, is one of exclusion and hate.  They see Christianity as hypocritical when some churches make proclamations about the love and blessings of God and then, out of the other side of their mouths, curse some of God’s children.

But, you might say, that’s not us. We are a church that welcomes all people. And you’re right! But if we want to overcome these stereotypes, and proclaim that we are an inclusive church, a church with a wide welcome to all, then, we can’t just talk the talk, we must also walk the walk.  And we can begin this walk by being crystal clear in our conversations and interactions with those beyond our walls, that we are different. We are inclusive. We are a church were all people are welcome. Period. End of story. And as we engage the future of our church and begin to reimagine what our church could look like in the future, it’s important for us to remember, foundationally, that Christ’s invitation, Christ’s incarnation, Christ’s promise that we are known and loved by God, extends to all people. All people.

My friends, God is love, and you are God’s beloved.  God is love, and you are God’s beloved.  That the heart of the Advent message.  That’s the heart of the message that Christ calls us to share today. May it be so. Amen & Amen.

 

[i] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:275: “The love of God, or God as love, is therefore interpreted in 1 Jn. 4 as the completed act of divine loving in sending Jesus Christ.”  See further, Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 83.

[ii] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 127: “All human relationships, …, are meant to be signs of God’s love for humanity as a whole and each person in particular. … Jesus reveals that we are called by God to be living witnesses of God’s love.”

[iii] Alan Brehm. Living Witnesses (thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2012

[iv] Paul Tillich, “The Golden Rule,” in The New Being, 30: “For the other one and I and we together in this moment in this place are a unique, unrepeatable occasion, calling for a unique unrepeatable act of uniting love.”

[v] Ibid. Brehm

[vi] Christian Pastor Calls for Executing All Gay People by Christmas Day(http://churchandstate.org.uk) 2017

Compassionate Reign

Matthew 25:31-35

Today, as we gather on this final Sunday of the Church year, we find ourselves in kind of an “in-between” time. We’re in between Thanksgiving Sunday and the first Sunday of Advent. Between being grateful for all our blessings and anticipating, once again, the coming of the Christ into the world. And I can think of no better way to make this transition from gratitude to hope, from thankfulness to longing, from turkey to tinsel, than to consider the present Reign of Christ. And in that same light, I think it’s important, on this final Sunday of the Church year, to look at the very essence of this Reign.

Now, the text we have before is one that might cause us squirm in our seats. We might squirm because the reading we just heard is the second part of a larger whole.  But it’s important, as we consider the Reign of Christ today, to include the whole progression of Matthew’s thought here.  And that thought begins with Judgement. Matthew writes, “Now, when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.” And, of course, the judgement part comes when he indicates that those on his right will receive eternal bliss, while those on his left get eternally punished. Getting squirmy yet?

The topic of judgement makes us so uneasy because the meaning of judgement as a Biblical and theological concept has been misunderstood and misused across the years.  I mean, the word “judgment” itself conjures up images of hellfire and brimstone preachers, of self-righteous church ladies, or even worse, the fear of standing before a wrathful God, trembling in our boots, as we attempt to answer for every sin. But how did we get to this point? How did our concept of judgement get so far off track?

I don’t know, “perhaps it’s because religion and judgment have been so unhappily married for so long; in fact, Jesus has a lot to say about not judging one another, and not excluding some people because they’re sinners, or at least a certain ‘kind’ of sinner?”[i] Some of our uneasiness exists because the modern church found all kinds of ways to judge each other. It became the norm to judge other denominations, the LGBTQ community, and those who were differently abled, just to name a few. But in addition to Jesus’s words, Paul holds judging others up as one of the worst of our human sins. He says, “So every single one of you who judge others is without any excuse. You condemn yourself when you judge another person because the one who is judging is doing the same things. We know that God’s judgment agrees with the truth, and [God’s] judgment is against those who do these kinds of things. If you judge those who do these kinds of things while you do the same things yourself, think about this: Do you believe that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the riches of God’s generosity, tolerance, and patience? Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life?”[ii]

And there’s the crux of the matter.  Judgement, God’s judgment, according to Paul, is a very real thing.  But somehow, we missed the point.  Judgement is finally a “kindness” from God, a kindness that leads to transformation, a transformation of our hearts which leads us to change our lives.  And these virtues of kindness and generosity, of tolerance and patience, can be summed up by a single word: compassion.  But, you may ask, how can we lift compassion up as the most important virtue here? Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book The Preaching Life, shares our concern, for “the Bible,” as she says, “is not a book with the answers in the back.”[iii] In other words, it’s important for us to look at the deeper meaning of Scripture. It’s vital that we consider the full breadth and depth and width of the gospel message. A message of inclusion, equality, and love of God and neighbor. In that light, Matthew 25, challenges us to wrestle with the issues of our emerging post-modern context rather than judge the sin of others. But how do we “live-into” this challenge? Well, it’s important to remember that “In this teaching, …salvation belongs not automatically to those who have faith, but rather to those who do faith.”[iv] Matthew consistently calls us to BE the church.  This is evident in the verses that follow this bit about the sheep and the goats. Jesus says that when we serve the least of his people, we serve him. And, with a nod to a contemporary understanding of this message, I would add, “when we love all of God’s people, we love God. When we defend and preserve God’s beautiful creation, we live out our covenant with God, and when we understand judgement as a tool of grace rather than a weapon of condemnation, we demonstrate our love of God.

I read a story this past week that speaks to this idea of living into the compassionate Reign of Christ.  It was about a man who was involved in a local homeless ministry. He said, in an interview, that his motivation for helping the homeless started because of his brother’s story. You see, his brother suffered from a psychological illness, which sometimes lead him to paranoid delusions. The man also shared that he knew his brother, who lived in a faraway city, traveled from one homeless shelter to another. “When I serve a homeless man at the mission,” he said in the interview, “I imagine that one of them is my brother. And I ask myself, ‘when did I see you hungry, and give you food? When did I see a stranger, and welcome you?’”[v]

This parable is finally meant to stir our imaginations; our imaginations as compassionate human beings and as Christians.  The two are not mutually exclusive. Teilhard de Chardin affirms this when he says, “I think that the world will not be converted to the heavenly hope of Christianity if first Christianity does not convert itself to the hope of the world.”[vi] But how do we do that? How do we, as people of faith, as compassionate human beings, become a part of this conversion?  How can we become a part of connecting the hope of Christianity with the hope of the world? I don’t know.  I think each of us must look at the places in our lives where we have ordained ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner.  And then advocate that throne in favor of a more compassionate, more just way of being.  And it’s when we do that, when we choose serving the least of God’s beloved over judging them, it’s then, that we find our salvation. My friends, I would like to leave you today with these words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama. He once said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”[vii]  “…without them, humanity cannot survive.”

May it be so. Amen.

[i] Katheryn Matthews. Christ is Among Us. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

[ii] See Romans 2:1-4 CEB

[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor. The Preaching Life (Cowley Publications) 1993

[iv] Katheryn Matthews quoting David Mosser. Christ is Among Us. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

[v] The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Carter. Our Spiritual Bottom Line. (day1.org) 2005

[vi] Quote from Teilhard de Chardin found on (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

[vii] Quote from The Dalai Lama XIV found on (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

That Word: Judgement

Newsletter devotional for Cable UCC and St. Paul UCC –  Delta, December 2017

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” Matthew 25:31-32 (NRSV)

This text is one that might cause us squirm in our seats. Judgement is something we don’t like to focus on in church today and perhaps with good reason.  The word “judgment” might conjure up images of hellfire and brimstone preachers, self-righteous church ladies, or standing before a wrathful God, trembling in fear as we attempt to answer for every sin. But how did we get to this point?

Katheryn Matthews reflects on this question when she writes, “perhaps it’s because religion and judgment have been so unhappily married for so long; in fact, doesn’t Jesus have a lot to say about our judging one another, our excluding some people because they are sinners, or at least a certain ‘kind’ of sinner?” The modern church found all kinds of way to judge each other. It became the norm to judge other denominations, the LGBTQ community, and those who were differently abled, just to name a few. So, with these false understandings of judgement in our past, how do we change and move forward? Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book The Preaching Life, shares our concern, for “the Bible,” as she says, “is not a book with the answers in the back.” In other words, it’s important for us to look at the deeper meaning of Scripture. It’s vital that we consider the full breadth and depth and width of the gospel message. A message of inclusion, equality, and love of God and neighbor. In that light, Matthew 25, challenges us to wrestle with the issues of our emerging post-modern context rather than judge the sin of others. But how do we “live-into” this challenge?

David Mosser sums up this thought well when he says, “In this teaching, …salvation belongs not automatically to those who have faith, but rather to those who do faith.” Matthew consistently calls us to BE the church.  This is evident in the verses that follow this bit about the sheep and the goats. Jesus says that when we serve the least of his people, we serve him. And, with a nod to a contemporary understanding of this message, I would add, “when we love all of God’s people, we love God. When we defend and preserve God’s beautiful creation, we live out our covenant with God, and when we understand judgement as a tool of grace and not a weapon of condemnation, we demonstrate our love of God.

May the coming season of Advent lead us into the Light of Christ.

Blessings, Pastor Phil