Affirmed by Love

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 –  Baptism of Jesus Sunday

In April of 2007 an article appeared in the Washington Post, which earned its author, Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize. The story went like this. “By most measures,” Weingarten wrote, “he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money and began to play. It was about 8 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 45 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 people passed by.

Now, the scene that Weingarten has painted thus far is one that might be seen in any urban train station. But the twist in the story is this. The man playing that morning wasn’t just some random street performer nor was he a homeless person trying to survive. The majority of the people walking past that morning didn’t know it, but the fiddler was actually Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written, on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

So, what happened? Well, several people stopped and paid quite a bit of attention; one child managed to delay his mother for only 3 seconds; Joshua Bell was recognized by a woman who couldn’t believe her good fortune and waited around until Bell’s magnificent performance was over to introduce herself. And for his virtuoso performance Joshua Bell earned a grand total of $52.17 that day. But the thing that strikes me about this experiment in human behavior, is how many people just passed on by, never even noticing some of the greatest music they would even have the chance to hear. [i]

And I get the impression that something similar has happens when we think about baptism; especially the baptism of Jesus. The details, as they are shared by the gospel-story-teller Luke, are pretty incredible, but sometimes I think we miss the depth of their meaning for our lives and our faith. So, with this in mind, let’s look a little deeper into this important text. Let’s stop in the metaphorical metro station for a moment and absorb the beautiful music that is Jesus’ baptism.

After living in total obscurity his entire life, in his late twenties or early thirties Jesus left his family in Nazareth and burst onto the public scene by joining the movement of his eccentric cousin John. Some scholars have suggested that John was part of the Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes were separatists, part of a movement who lived in the wilderness, away from everyone else, to keep themselves pure. And it was the pursuit of this purity that lead them to opposed the religious authorities of the day and the temple in Jerusalem. So, it’s important to understand that John the Baptist was most definitely an outsider.[ii]  And by joining John’s fringe movement, what Marcus Borg called a movement of “protest and renewal,” Jesus found himself also outside the mainstream of the Jewish Temple structure.[iii]

And this is the first of two points of connection that we have with this text; Jesus’s baptism by John identified him with what Luke describes as “all the people.” You see, the Temple system worked really well for the wealthy and the connected. Jesus however saw his ministry as being with and for all the people; especially the poor, the vulnerable, the outsider. So, Jesus was baptized not because he wanted his sins to be washed away, but so he could be with all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan River. And this is key for us today. By wading into the water with them Jesus took his place beside us and among us. With his baptism, Jesus openly and decisively declared that he stands shoulder to shoulder with me in my fears and anxieties.

That’s the first movement of this beautiful Aria we’re listening to today, and the second is this: Jesus’s baptismal compassion for and solidarity with all of humanity was vividly and Divinely confirmed. Luke writes, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’”

And, my friends, our Still Speaking God continues to say the same thing to us. Think about that for a minute. Think about the life-changing power contained within these words. God’s loving affirmation to Jesus, to us, has the potential to transform the way we think about and live-out our baptism. “You are my child,” God says, “whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Perhaps we if we view our baptism as an affirmation of love, then we will begin to view our relationships with others through that same lens. Perhaps if we not only hear but indwell God’s affirmation we will begin to say and demonstrate these same words in our lives. Victor Hugo once said, “What a grand thing it is to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!”

My friends, Baptism finally doesn’t end at the font, it’s only a beginning; a beginning of our covenant with God and each other. A covenant that meant to be lived out within the church community and beyond; it’s meant to be shared with people who think and act and believe as we do, and with those who do not; and finally, baptism, this affirmation of God’s love, is a precursor to peace.

One final thought this morning. The second author in the book of Isaiah writes that God says to each of us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; the rivers shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

As we consider the waters of baptism today, as we endure the fires of life, as we feel the wind of the Spirit, and as we pause, if just for a moment, to listen to the beautiful music of our baptisms, we can be assured that God is near. Just as God was near Jesus as he stood there in the River Jordan, with so much ministry and mission, healing and teaching still ahead of him. And as Jesus moved ahead through it all, step by step, he knew that he was God’s Beloved Child.

My friends, as you go from this place today, and continue to be God’s child, loved and loving, cared for and compassionate to others; God’s words to Jesus echo across time and space, falling upon our ears today: “You are my child,” God says, “My child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness”![iv]

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

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[i] Dawn Hutchings Recognizing the Sacred in and Beyond the Stories We Tell: The Baptism of Jesus (www.progressivechristianity.org) 2016

[ii] The Baptism of Jesus: A Vision and a Voice (www.journeywithjesus.net) 2007

[iii] Cf. Marcus Borg in several books and articles.

[iv] Katheryn Matthews Remembering God’s Promises (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

The Light

Isaiah 60:1-6 – Epiphany of the Lord

When my three oldest children were much younger, we took them to the Cave of the Mounds in the Southwestern part of the state. And while it was fascinating to look at all the cave structures, the stalactites and stalagmites, and the rivers of sediment that had collected from centuries of dripping water; the really memorable part for me, was when the tour guide turned off the lights. You see, when you turn off the lights in a cave, you experience absolute darkness; the total and complete absence of light. And I remember that it was a bit unnerving. Not that I’m scared of the dark, but because I had three kids in raincoats squeezing the life out of me until the light came back on.

Absolute Darkness. That’s where the discovery of Light must begin; in complete and utter darkness. So, if the complete absence of light is the first step, what’s the second? Shadows.

The Greek philosopher Plato, in The Republic, offers us a glimpse into the shadow world by taking us on a mental journey deep into the earth; into a cave. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave written in 517 BCE and it’s probably his best-known story. Remember now, Platonic philosophy is chiefly concerned with how people acquire knowledge about beauty, justice, and morality, something Plato called “the good.” So, bearing this in mind, let’ look at the story.

The allegory comes to us as a dialogue, a conversation between Socrates and his student. Socrates tells his student to imagine people living in a great underground cave, which is only open to the outside at the end of a steep and difficult ascent. Most of the people in the cave are prisoners chained facing the back wall of the cave so that they can neither move nor turn their heads. A great fire burns behind them, and all the prisoners can see are the shadows playing on the wall in front of them: They have been chained in that position all their lives. There are others in the cave, carrying objects, but all the prisoners can see of them is their shadows. Socrates then describes the difficulties a prisoner might have adapting to being freed. When he sees that there are solid objects in the cave, not just shadows, he is confused. Instructors can tell him that what he saw before was an illusion, but at first, he’ll assume his shadow life was reality.[I]

But does all this have to do with Isaiah and the Light of Epiphany?

Well, today, in our context, I believe we can look at the Allegory of the Cave and the absolute darkness of my experience in the Cave of the Mounds with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can combine these two stories and create a metaphor for we might come to understand the nature of God.

What do I mean? Well, as humanity evolved and began to become self-aware, and as we started move beyond just surviving another day, we started asking ourselves the big questions. Big questions like: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Why do bad things happen? Where do we go when we die? Metaphorically, this was the move from absolute darkness to watching shadows dance on a wall. And this is where incarnation comes into play. I mean, God couldn’t let us keep believing that the shadows were reality. So, God, in human form, came to lead us symbolically into the light of day; to glimpse or grasp, if just a little bit, the nature of the Divine. And the life and teachings, the healing and miracles, the compassion and the grace that Jesus displayed over and over again in the gospels, this is Light that we are invited to enter and to share.

Maybe think of it like this. We often say that Jesus is the Light of the World, right?  Do you remember the blessing and commission on Christmas Eve? I said, “Let us go forth bearing the Light of Christ in our hearts and let is shine in the world.” I used that commission because Scripture challenges each of us not only to see the Light, but to be light.  My friends, we are invited to be a light in the darkness and shadows of this world. That’s the meaning behind Epiphany, and perhaps Isaiah’s words. Maybe they provide us with an opportunity to explore this invitation. An exploration that’s affirmed by Isaiah’s first words in this passage: “Arise. Shine. Your light has come!”

But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. There’s a second, implied imperative here. Let’s look at the next lines of this text again. “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.”

My friends, as we move from the darkness that covers the earth and emerge from the shadowy gloom that covers the nations; as we move into the Light of Christ, I’m interested in this concept of “nations.” Perhaps Isaiah’s “nations” serve as a second invitation to us from this ancient text. It’s a calling that transcends time. It’s inviting us to look beyond ourselves, our borders, our faith tradition, and reach out to all people with the Light of Christ?

And this is important. It’s important because this is how we are called to “live-out” our bit of light in a pluralistic world. You see, it’s through sharing the Light of Christ with all nations and all people that we can, someday, obtain Peace. Peace is the frist objective here. Not the darkness of isolationism nor the shadows of rhetoric, but actual peace; peace around and with us. But here’s the rub.  Peace cannot be only for a few, or those who perceive themselves as “chosen.” Peace, a real and lasting peace can only be enjoyed if everyone is included.

One final thought this morning. In 1969 Jim Strathdee, a songwriter and theologian, wrote a hymn in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman. I would like to leave you today with the words of the refrain from that hymn because they illustrate so poignantly the meaning of Epiphany.

“I am the light of the world. You people come and follow me. If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be”

My friends, as we leave this place today and as we continue our collective journey from darkness into the Light, may we too discover the mystery of what we were meant to do and be; and along the way, may we encounter the peace that God intends for all the earth.

This is my prayer.

This is my hope.

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] There are multiple sources found at www.thoughtco.com from a post by N.S. Gill

Buckle S. 2007. Descartes, Plato and the Cave. Philosophy 82(320):301-337.

Juge C. 2009. The Road to the Sun They Cannot See: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Oblivion, and Guidance in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. The Cormac McCarthy Journal 7(1):16-30.

Ursic M, and Louth A. 1998. The Allegory of the Cave: Transcendence in Platonism and Christianity. Hermathena 165:85-107.

 

Putting on the Love of Christ

Colossians 3:12-17

All the snow we had this past week reminds me of a story about our first big snowfall seven years ago. Manny was a toddler and Becky had bought him an orange snowsuit to keep him warm as we ventured out, in this, his first winter. Winter actually came late that year, so when it finally snowed, we were anxious to put him in his new outfit and play outside. So, with all the care and tenderness of new parents we “stuffed” him into it. And I do mean “stuffed!” Stuffed to the point that he couldn’t move his arms or legs.orange snowsuit starfish

But the really funny part of this story comes when we put him down outside. You see when we set him down, he fell over backward into a snowbank and was unable to move. He looked like an unhappy orange starfish. Needless to say, we weren’t outside very long.

Paul, in today’s text, also talks about putting on clothes. He lists five qualities or characteristics that are Christ-like: He says, “put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”  But as we think about putting on these virtues, I wonder if we might feel a little bit like an over-stuffed toddler. I sometimes wonder if he’s inviting us to put on a tee shirt or a snow suit, or a straight-jacket? What do I mean? Well, I think we’re tempted to read these ancient texts and try to “stuff” ourselves into a preconceived message. We might even feel the weight of what it means to let the “word of Christ live in us richly;” a weight that can lead good church folks to live in judgement of others.

And this is a dangerous thing. It’s dangerous because judgementalism can permeate and divide a congregation and lead a church to adopt a position that there’s only one way to live, or to worship, or to interact with the Divine. And ironically, this type of thinking leads people, good well-intentioned people, away from compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience rather than toward it.

Now, this is a challenge for all of us. Sometimes I think we’re tempted to point the finger at others or other churches, but in reality, it’s a challenge for all of us. It’s a challenge because in our humanness we want to be right and we want others to see that we are right, right? But the problem with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t allow for the full richness of Biblical thought to develop and shine forth. In a word, it’s limiting and if we consider only a limited interpretation of the Bible, we may find ourselves “stuffed” into the snowsuit of literalism and we, like the toddler Manny, may find that we’re stuck, like an orange starfish.

But why is this important? Why is a limited perspective of Scripture problematic? What’s wrong, you might ask, with expecting others to believe or behave in ways that conform to what many consider, “the right way.” Well, consider the first line of today’s passage. Paul says, “Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. …And over all these things [over all these things] put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”

My friends, when we sit in judgement of others or exclude anyone because of their lifestyle, or religious understanding, or nationality or race, or orientation or gender identity, or for whatever reason; when we exclude anyone, we run the risk of letting our sensitivities overshadow love; the love that Paul says is over all things.

Now, on the other hand, does that mean everything goes? Well, to quote Paul again, “By no means.” In the verses just previous to this one, and all throughout his writings, Paul emphasizes the immoralities and the negative actions we need to “shed” before we can “put-on” love. And that makes perfect sense to me. If I want to be more compassionate in how I think or speak about, …say refugees, for example, perhaps I need to “shed” some of my preconceived ideas about people from south of the border. Maybe I need to turn off or tune out all the harsh and frankly dishonest voices about these refugees and open myself to their humanity and “put-on” the compassion of Christ by putting myself in their shoes and in the shoes of Jesus.

Remember, Jesus was a refugee himself. As a young child he and his parents fled in the dark of the night to Egypt with nothing but the clothes on their backs. So, Jesus had first-hand knowledge of the plight of those who are fleeing from the violence and death of their homeland in Central America. Jesus could identify with the uncertainty and fear that comes as one embarks on a long and dangerous journey, with few provisions, in an attempt to start over again in a strange and foreign land. And Jesus understood, through the experience of his immigrant parents, the courage that it takes for these refuge parents to create a new life for their families and their children here in our nation. Perhaps that’s why we see Jesus welcome the foreigner, love the marginalized and the outcast, and affirm those from other religions over and over again in the gospels.

My friends, Paul’s focus, Christ’s focus, and therefore our focus, should be on creating and maintaining right and loving relationships with the entire human family. Perhaps that’s why our faith calls us to love beyond our borders and to seek solutions to immigration based on these Pauline virtues rather than on fear of the other. Perhaps, if we can overcome fear with love, no more children will have to die on the border.

And this all makes perfect sense as we look at Paul’s writing with a broad understanding.  You see, the negatives or the lists of things we should “shed” are not the focus here – that’s a focus that leads to judgementalism – but rather these lists of “don’ts” are intended to lead us to enact his list of “do’s”; these virtues that he has so carefully laid out for the Church in Colossi.

And this is important. It’s important because in calling for a new way of living, Paul does not emphasize a new set of rules or even a new philosophy of life, but rather Paul understands that we need to change our actions, how we relate to others, in order to effectively change on the inside. This is the transformation that the incarnation of Christ represents. This is the Light that has symbolically come into the world at Christmas. And this is the compassion and kindness, and humility, and gentleness, and patience, and love that we are invited to put-on as we boldly step into a new year.

And while 2019 will most likely be a very challenging year, it also has the potential to be a great one. It can be great if we choose to put on the love of Christ and then share it by loving our neighbors, all our neighbors, those who are like us and those who are very different from us.

My friends, my prayer for each of us in 2019, is that when we find ourselves unable to move, like an orange starfish, that we will “shed” the all the things that keep us from sharing the Love that God intends for all people and that we will instead, “put-on” all the things that lead us in the way of Christ, the way of grace, the way …of love.

My friends, have a happy and blessed New Year.

Amen & Amen.

 

A Walk Through The Garden of Good and Evil

A Devotion for January 2019

“With many other words Peter warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”    – Acts 2:40

In Season three of the Coen Brothers’ series Fargo, the chief villain says that the problem is not that there is evil in the world, rather the problem is the existence of good. “Because,” he says, “otherwise, who would care? United Church of Christ pastor and author Kaji Douša responds to the villain by stating, “That goodness exists is inconvenient to evil which is bent on making no one care. But the existence of good in the world makes us care. And caring is what will save us ‘from this corrupt generation.’”

Welcome to 2019. Ours is a “generation” of single news cycle attention spans, unashamed public bigotry, and a dysfunctional government, bogged down by corruption and scandal; all played out in real time for all to watch. Sometimes it’s almost too much to bear. And if that’s all we see, if that’s all we’re watching, it could easily seem like good has been vanquished from the world. And if that’s true, if good is absent, then we’re in chorus with the villain in saying, “who cares?”

But, here’s the thing. We do care, don’t we? And as long as we care and because we act upon that caring by giving hope to the hopeless, by giving voice to the voiceless, and by loving those whom society considers unlovable; because we care, good is alive and well. We, as people of faith, are called by God to continue to watch and wait, to continue to strive for equality, to continue to bend toward justice; social justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. Perhaps, in 2019, God is challenging our generation to continue to be the church in all these ways and more.

My friends, every journey begins with a single step. Perhaps our first step, or our next step, could be one that sets us on a pathway that will lead us to a time and place where evil is overcome by good, where hate yields to love, and where caring for one’s neighbor become the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps, with God’s help, we will find our way in 2019 and beyond.

I wish you grace and peace in the coming year.

Shalom, Pastor Phil

There’s Always Room for One More

Luke 1:39-55, Third Sunday of Advent

A six-year-old boy named Franklin captured the hearts of an entire church community because he listened to his mother. The story goes like this. Franklin, Franky to his mother and friends, had moved to a new town and began to attend the local UCC congregation. And as a member of the Sunday School Franky was invited to participate in the annual Christmas Program. He was given the part of the Innkeeper. Now, previous to moving to this town and joining this church, Franky had not been a part of any congregation, so the story of the nativity was new to him. Well, the big day arrived, and Franky and the other children were all dressed in their costumes and seated on the floor behind the pulpit awaiting their turn. But when Franky got up to say his one and only line, he paused. “there’s no room in the inn” came an adult voice from off-stage. But still, Franky was silent.  “there’s no room in the inn” this time a little louder. But still nothing from Franky. Now, becoming frantic and growing with frustration, the voice sounded out again, this time very loudly “THERE’S-NO-ROOM-IN-THE-INN” Seconds, which seemed like minutes, passed and still nothing.  But just as the director had decide to move on, Franky spoke. A broad smile had suddenly adorned Franky’s face and in his loudest six-year-old voice he proudly said, “Come on in, there’s always room for one more!” Of course, a roar of laughter came from the congregation and things really went off the rails when Mary and Joseph actually went into the inn, along with the innkeeper and the sheep and the angels and the wise men. Apparently, Christ was born in a warm bed that year. After the program was over however, the director asked Franky why he changed his line. “Because,” was the answer, “Because my mother taught me to share.”

I wonder if Jesus listened to his mother? I wonder if she taught him to share. I ask these questions because there’s a striking similarity between Mary’s song and Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus begins his ministry with these words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Now, it seems to me, like Jesus’ understanding of the purpose for his entire ministry is a restatement his mother’s understanding of God’s work in her life. The very essence of his ministry seems to come from Mary. I mean, think about it. Jesus isn’t just making stuff up. He’s giving voice to how he grew up. He’s articulating what he’d been taught; what he’d known this from the beginning. It’s what his mother preached and what she taught him to be. It’s how his mother interpreted Scripture and taught Jesus to interpret Scripture.[I] And this is important. It’s important because this theme of Good News for the poor, of release, recovery, and liberation to those on the outside looking in, serves as a hallmark of this Gospel. Above all else, Luke is concerned about social justice.

But while Mary’s song is a song of justice and liberation, there’s just no way to avoid the fact that there’s a barb in this good news for us here in this room today. And the barb is this. Most of us fall into the category of the “full” and the “rich” who will be sent away hungry and empty-handed, don’t we?[ii]  We’re comfortable, well fed, we have a warm bed in the inn. But Luke presents Mary’s song as a joyful one for those who are lowly, humble and humiliated, the least and the last.  And yet, even here there’s good news; the future Mary looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family.  She saw in the birth of her son the establishment of the justice that makes it possible for all people to thrive, to reach their God-given potential, to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for us all.

But take heart. Don’t be discouraged and give away all your stuff just yet. Because what this text means for those of us who are “full” and “rich” is this… the only way for us to sing Mary’s song with the same kind of joy, the joy of the “lowly” being lifted up, is if we actually engage in God’s work of restoration.[iii]  The only way for us to sing Mary’s song with joy and hope is for us to work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised.[iv] That’s what Jesus came to do; to begin God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we carry.

That’s why we celebrate Advent and Christmas.  It’s a time for us to focus our attention on God’s work in this broken world. It’s time for us to listen to our mothers and share the blessing we have been given. It’s a time for us to celebrate the work of restoration and healing and salvation that God is carrying out, right now, in the human family; the whole human family.  And it’s a time for us to live-into our faith by joining that work.[v]

My friends, it’s this joyful faith, this Advent faith, that gives us the energy to sustain our love as we join in God’s work of transforming all of creation by making a difference in our corner of the world.[vi]  And it’s a faith, that calls us to open our hearts, and our minds, and perhaps even our homes, and say, to those who have little, “Come on in, there’s always room for one more.”

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Karoline Lewis A Merciful Advent (www.workingpreacher.org) 2015

[ii] Cf. Foster, “Mary’s Hymn,” 458: “even though Mary has been often ‘regarded as the comforter of the disturbed, she [or at least her song] is far more accurately the disturber of the comfortable’” (quoting Doris Donnelly).

[iii] Cf. Stephen Shoemaker, God Stories, 217-18: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”

[iv] Cf. Letty M. Russell, “God’s Great Reversal,” The Christian Century (Nov. 20, 1991): 1089.  She says, “God’s great reversal may come too close to home as we hear that Christmas is about lifting up the ‘lowly,’ filling ‘the hungry with good things’ and ‘sending the rich away empty.’ Yet it is by joining in their desire and work for deliverance that we find out the meaning of the good news of great joy.”

[v] Allen Bream (www.thewakingdreamer.org) 2015

[vi] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, …, because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.

 

Made Ready

Luke 3:1-6, Second Sunday of Advent, Peace.

The world around us is decorated for Christmas. Stores, communities and individual homes are beautifully covered with lights and tinsel and colors of all sort. And many of us have begun to prepare our homes and the church for the approaching holiday by adding touches of seasonal beauty; candles and greens, and nativity scenes.

But sometimes I fear we spend so much time on these preparations that we might miss the enjoyment or even the deeper meaning behind them. And before we know it, Christmas is over leaving us both tired and relieved. But at the same time, we might also wonder, “What was this all about, anyway?”

Well, all I can say to that is thank God for Advent. Advent is about preparing the way for the Christ Child to come into our homes, our community; indeed, into the whole world to, hopefully, change our hearts and lives.

And this is an important point to remember in this season; Jesus didn’t come for just you and me, but for the whole world. Luke makes that universal reach of the gospel quite clear: the good news isn’t the church’s little secret and it isn’t my private possession or privilege: it’s for all of God’s children. Not just one people or one kind of people, or one nation, or one time in history, but for all of us, every nation, and every age. And it’s not just good news; it’s really big news for all of us, today, just as it was two thousand years ago.

So, bearing this in mind, how do we, as a community of faith, prepare for the Advent of the Christ-child for all the world once again? Well, I would say by immersing ourselves in a different kind of beauty: a quieter, more reflective time, a time of shadows and light, one more candle on the wreath lit each week…the haunting melody of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” running beneath our reflections, and stories of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, of Mary and Elizabeth, Zechariah, all of whom speak passionately, eloquently, of God’s salvation breaking into the world, delivering “the whole world” making us a whole and holy people.

And yet. There are no beautiful canticles from Mary or Zechariah in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, no visit from the angel Gabriel promising the birth of a Savior, not even the child leaping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

No, in this second week of Advent we actually hear from Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, much later on, now a grown man bursting onto the scene from out of the wilderness, a man on a mission from God. But this time, instead of leaping for joy, John announces the time of God’s reign on earth by proclaiming a preparational message of a different sort: one that says we all had better get ready for what’s coming.[i]

In today’s text, John calledfor people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives.” Change our hearts and lives. The more traditional theological word is repentance. We are called upon by John to repent, which literally means “to turn and move in another direction,” by asking God for forgiveness for our transgressions. But that’s not all. John continues, later in this passage, to challenge us to “bear the fruit” of our changed of hearts and lives.

But what might that look like?

Well, the crowds that were with him wondered about that too. Later in Chapter 3 they ask him, “What should we do?” And John gave them this answer: “Whoever has two shirts must share one of them with someone who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. They asked, “Teacher, what should we do? John replied, “Collect no more than you’re authorized to collect.” Some soldiers were also there, and they asked, “What about us? What should we do?” The Baptist answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, be satisfied with your pay.”

So, what’s really going on here. Well, this passage is finally concerned about Justice. John is saying in essence, if you want to bear the fruit of your baptism you must engage in just practices. Share your stuff, make sure your neighbor has clothing and food. And if you want to bear good fruit as a society, don’t take more than your own share. Don’t extort money or bully someone who’s weaker. So, what John is offering us here goes much deeper than we might have first imagined.

The author of this passage, Luke, is primarily concerned about the poor, the marginalized, those on the outside looking in.  In Bible Study, we call this an insider/outsider theme. And I suspect that this might be the dominate theme, the thread that connects all of Luke’s Gospel. And these early chapters and verses seem to bear out my suspicion as Luke sets the stage for what’s to come.

What do I mean? Well, consider the progression of the text. Everything moves outward like a ripple effect. You know, when you throw a stone in calm pool of water producing ripples that expand in all directions. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think about the progression of this passage. John says, first change your heart, clean up what’s on the inside and then begin to look outward, changing your life, changing the way in which you interact with the world. In other words, drop the first stone in here and from here, the ripple effect of your changed heart will expand outward changing the lives of others.

How do we do that? Well again, John says, if your neighbor is without a shirt, if your neighbor is hungry, take care of them.  But to bear the fruit of change doesn’t stop there.  You must also challenge the systems that caused your neighbor to be hungry and shirtless.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said it this way, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Maybe that’s why Luke ties John’s message in the wilderness to historical events. Remember in the beginning of this passage Luke says, “In the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilot was governor” …and so on. He’s making these connections so that we will view the Baptist’s teachings as history, as real-life events and words. And thus, our response to the story should also be “real-life;” a real-life transformation of our hearts and lives, right here, in this world. Luke wants us to do a little bit of good where ever we are; because, as the Archbishop says, “it’s those little bits of good – when put together – that overwhelm the world.”

My friends, as we continue to live into this Season of Beauty and Light, may we too take the time to look for and then do those little bits of good for our neighbor; the neighbor across the road and the one across the globe. And if we do that, if we begin to change our hearts and lives, as the Baptist suggests, perhaps the world will begin to move, if just a little bit, closer to peace.

In this Season of Advent, on this Sunday of Peace, my hope and prayer is that it will be so. Amen & amen.

[i] Katheryn Matthews Sound of a Promise Kept (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

 

Sign of Things to Come

 Jeremiah 33:14-16

One of my favorite part of Advent is the lighting of candles. The prayers, the symbolism, the ceremony and tradition; I love it all.  As a matter of fact, in our family we like lighting candles so much, that, a couple of years ago we added Chanukah candles to our lighting tradition. (A Jewish friend of ours) Mimi and her daughter came over one evening during Chanukah and shared this sacred Jewish rite with us. We learned a great deal and through that experience of Judaism, our Christian faith was strengthened. This year I think we’re going to add Kwanzaa candles!

Well, on this first Sunday of Advent, we’re once again invited to celebrate the tradition of lighting the Advent candles. And each candle, as you probably already know, has a unique significance. Today’s candle, the first candle, symbolizes Hope.

I was reminded of the Hope Candle when I read the following words from the pen of Anne Lamont. She says that light, candles, and full moons actually magnify the spirit. “That is a neat trick,” she writes, “to magnify the invisible, and it raises the question: Is there another room, stage left, one we cannot see?”[i]

Doesn’t Anne Lamott sound a bit like the Prophet Jeremiah here? Isn’t he also speaking of something akin to “magnifying the invisible?” Jeremiah is speaking about a promise that we cannot see right now, in this moment; but this invisible promise will be magnified, realized someday through the righteousness and justice of a Messiah.  Jeremiah said that God “…will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land.”

This passage has come to be called the “hope” of Jeremiah. And it’s interesting. It’s interesting to me that amid all the warnings and condemnation we hear from the prophet, these words of hope stand out. Why? Well, I think Jeremiah understood that even in the midst of struggle, even when God seems distant, even when conquers are marshalling on the border; even when justice and peace and equality seem invisible; there’s still a glimmer of hope. Even in the invisibility of death, hope magnified, breathes new life.

There’s a wonderful scene in the story of The Secret Garden, when a boy named Dickon and his friend Mary explore a wonderful hidden garden. It appears that many branches of the trees and the rose bushes are dead–the word “gray” is repeated again and again. But Dickon takes out a knife and cuts into a branch, where he finds “a shoot which looked brownish green instead of hard, dry gray,” and he assures Mary that, deep inside, the tree is a “wick,” full of life and promise and hope.[ii]

Jesus, our “wick” life and promise and hope, our righteous Branch, the one who preached justice and embodied righteousness teaches us, above all else, to embrace the diversity that is humanity. This is our hope. Why? Because Jesus wanted his followers, back then and still today, to see that all humanity evolved from a common root. A common root that branched out becoming many races and nations and religions. But in the end, when it’s all said and done, that we’re all leaves of a single tree.

Righteousness then, Justice, comes in recognizing this commonality. The goal of Christianity finally isn’t to make everyone else believe as we believe or behave as we behave, rather it’s to coexist within this diversity that is humanity. When we’re instructed to spread the Good News “to all the ends of the earth,” it’s an invitation to share the grace and love and compassion of Christ by respecting the culture of others, not try to eradicate it. If we’re ever going to make progress toward peace, toward a more just society, this is where we must begin. This, I think, is the hope of Advent.

Diana Butler Bass, in her most recent book, Grateful, shares a common thought about the nature of hope.  Her story takes place outside the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, just a few months after a white supremacist had shot and killed nine people there. “As I stared at the flowers and letters on the makeshift memorial wall,” she wrote, “marking this sad and lonely place, and contemplating the legacy of slavery and the evil of racism, I caught sight of two African American men at the periphery. With flowers in hand, they were waiting to approach the wall. I stepped aside to make way for them. After a few minutes of quiet reflection, the men attempted to take a selfie in front of the church. They were not very good at it. ‘Would you like me to take your picture?’ I asked. ‘Yes, please,’ one responded as he handed me his I Phone. I snapped their picture and held out the phone to give it back to its owner as he remarked, ‘We came a long way to be here. Thank you so much.’ I replied, ‘I’m so sorry. It’s the least I can do. It was awful, just, I’m so sorry.’ My voice broke a little bit,” she said. But instead of reaching for the phone, the man reached toward me and gave me a hug.”[iii]

What a wonderful example of hope. There they stood, together, a random black man hugging a tiny Caucasian author next to a wall that was created by hate, by racism; a wall created because of human division. But I think a crack began to form in that wall that day, even if it was just a tiny one, and a little grace, a little hope, began to trickle through.

I don’t know. What cracks might we created today? Where might we shine a little hope into the darkness of today’s world? Perhaps, in this Season of Advent, on this Sunday of Hope, we might, like the prophet of old, recognize that even in the most difficult times, even when the branch seems gray and dead, even when it seems like all hope has faded; might we too recognize the Righteous Branch in our midst. My friends, in Christ, and through Christ, and because of Christ, the candle of hope is still burning. Oh, it may flicker from time to time, but the flame of justice, the branch of righteousness, the hope that propagates faith: that endures.

I would like to leave you with one final thought today. One of my favorite poets, Maya Angelou, penned the following words and I thought this might be a fitting commission for our time together today.

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” And with all humility I would add: Let the hope of Advent be the olive branch of peace you extend to all humanity and all of creation.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

————————————————————-

[i] Anne Lamont Almost Everything: Notes on Hope.

[ii] Katheryn Matthews Sprouting Leaves (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Diana Butler Bass Grateful. (San Francisco: Harper One, 2018) pgs. 99-100

Praise to the Holy One (Stuff & Things)

Thanksgiving 2018, Matthew 6:25-33

Do you know which November holiday is the fourth most important? Let’s see, there’s Thanksgiving, All Saints Day, Veterans Day, and finally, #4 …Black Friday.  Perhaps followed by cyber Monday or small business Saturday.  I can hardly keep um all straight. But I’m old enough to remember when Black Friday became a thing. I was working in a small Ace Hardware store in Dubuque Iowa.  And Ace ran a flyer for Black Friday which contained what we called “freebees.” The customer would buy a certain item, let’s say a set of drill bits, for $3 and then they could send in for a $3 rebate. So, essentially, they were getting it for free.  A “freebee.”

Well, there we were, the Turkey was gone, football games were in the books, and it was now 5AM on black Friday; time to go to work.  Now, let me try to paint a picture of the scene for you. As I said before, this was a small store; if we had 10 customers in this store at one time, we were busy. Okay. When I unlocked the front door at 5AM there were at least 100 people in line. We had only two registers, so the lines went all the way to the back of the store all day long.

But that wasn’t even the most memorable part. At one point in time, I remember being in the middle of a pallet, cutting open cases of drill bits, with people grabbing them as fast I could hand them out. It was both surreal and, I have to admit, a bit frightening.

But here’s the kicker. When we sat down and ran the numbers, we discovered that we didn’t make dine one that day.  As matter of fact, we probably lost money because our regular customers, wanting to avoid the chaos, went elsewhere for their hardware needs.

Now, as we come to our gospel passage for this morning, I think my “Black Friday” experience is applicable. Jesus says, “Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” My friends, worry is like that Black Friday sale. Worry causes us to scramble, to live-into the chaos; it strands us in the middle of a pallet trying desperately to make it end, to overcome the stress and the fear. But in the end, like the bottom-line of our store, we gain nothing. “Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” Worry, in the end, leads us nowhere.

So, what do we do? I mean, worry is a part of life. Oh, you can offer platitudes to someone who gets caught-up in a cycle of worry; platitudes like “Let go a Let God,” or “just give it over to God” or “God never gives you more than you can handle.” But in the end these platitudes aren’t very helpful.  They fall short because we are creatures that worry; it’s in our nature. And to say, “just give it to God” creates nothing but shame and guilt when we attempt to “give-over our excessive worry” and fail.

Notice that I said “excessive” worry.  Some worry is a part of life, but excessive worry is what Jesus was addressing in this passage. He wasn’t saying don’t worry about your sick child, for example. Of course, we’re going to worry about our sick child, that’s part of being a parent. But Jesus is saying don’t worry yourself sick all day because you burned the toast at breakfast. Do you see the difference? The former example, my child is sick, is natural worry while the later, burnt toast, is excessive.

Maybe think about the rule of “stuff & things.” What’s the rule of stuff & things? Well, it’s something I made up to further illustrate the difference between natural worry and excessive worry. Excessive worry is the “stuff.” When we worry about having more stuff, more gadgets and devices, more money or more power; these worries deplete our souls and distance us from God.

But worry about “things” is a horse of a different color. Things are the circumstances of everyday life. And yes, there are things, like a sick child, that cause us to worry; it’s natural to worry about things like that. But there are also things, circumstances, that lead to excessive worry. Just watch the evening news. But worrying ourselves sick over the state of our nation or the world is finally excessive.  Yes, these things are concerning, but to worry ourselves into a state of rage or apathy finally isn’t helpful.

So, what do we do? How should we respond to a worrisome nation and a violent world? What do I do if find myself consumed by excessive worry? What do I do when platitudes prove insufficient, where do I turn?

Well, I think there’s a better approach to overcoming excessive worry; an approach that’s found right here in this text. My friends, we have enough self-knowledge to realize that we cannot command or wish our worries to disappear. We have no hope, none at all, of alleviating excessive worry unless we take a step back and choose to embrace a radically altered perception and understanding of life. And that’s what Christ gives us when he invites us to consider the lilies of the field. He isn’t romanticizing nature. Instead, he’s pointing to the processes of creation that function independently of our worldly wisdom and that produce astonishing beauty. And it’s a beauty that has the capacity, if we would only look with receptive eyes and hearts, to startle us, to awake us from the dredges of worry, elevating us, into a state of wonder and faith. When we realize that existence itself is an act of God’s grace, we can then receive the grace that makes it possible for us to overcome excessive worry.[I]

That’s why the platitudes finally fall short.  They all depend upon us doing all the heavy lifting instead of letting God’s grace flow in, around, and through the situation at hand. So, healing comes, a release of excessive worry comes, not in a one-and-done platitude, but rather when we allow ourselves to enter into the process of connecting with a God who is interconnected with all things; when we accept the realization of something larger than ourselves.

And this is where we encounter our theme for today: Visible Gratefulness grounded in Service.  My Theology and Doctrine professor in Seminary, Dr. Elmer Coyler, addressed this issue in class one day. He said that good works should not be an attempt to somehow earn our way to heaven.  Instead, he said, they’re a “grateful response to God’s grace” in our lives and in our world. What an interesting concept. Instead of worrying about the little things that have happened, we’re invited by God to turn out attention outward, and live-out our gratefulness, our gratitude, even under difficult circumstances, by serving others.

And really, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about? Living out our grateful response to God’s grace in a visible way though service to our fellow human beings?  Paul seemed to think so.  In his letter to the Galatians he said, “…serve each other through love. All of the Law has been fulfilled in a single commandment; Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:13b-14 CEB) Emilie Townes expounds on Paul’s words when she wrote, “As a people of faith we must live our lives not always comforted by the holy but haunted by God’s call to live a prophetic life.”[ii]

My friends, the prophetic life is a call to look outward; outward beyond ourselves, beyond our own worries, and engage with the world, serving each other with love. Do you want to help someone to begin the process of moving past excessive worry? Then don’t quote them a glib platitude, instead, take them to a soup kitchen, take them to visit someone who’s lonely, invite them to become involved in a Habitat for Humanity project, or whatever. Because finally, it’s in giving that we receive, it’s in loving that we truly find love, and it’s in faith, acts of faith, that we finally encounter the faithfulness of God.

So, as we come to the Thanksgiving table this Thursday, my prayer is that each of us be truly Grateful for the blessings God has given us, and even when the worries of life creep in, may they be overcome by a visible gratefulness grounded in our service to others.

May it be so and Happy Thanksgiving.

(and happy Black Friday)

Amen.

————————————————————————–

[i] Thomas H. Troeger The Possibility of Obeying Impossible Commandments. Found in Sermon Sparks (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011) pgs. 86-87

[ii] David M. Felton and Jeff Proctor-Murphy Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity (New York: Harper One, 2012) Quote from Emilie Townes on pg. 171.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Mark 12:38-44

Like many of you, I love the woods. Whether I’m hiking on the North Country Trail, snowshoeing on my property, or sitting in my deer stand; I think, no, I know, there’s something spiritual about being in the woods. So, when I came across a poem last Tuesday titled When I Am Among the Trees by Mary Oliver I was intrigued. Let me share her words with you…

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”

When I first read this poem, I was struck by its pace; its call to consider the busyness of life. “The trees stir in their leaves and call out, ‘stay awhile’” And I thought that while this was a wonderful poem about slowing down and observing God’s handiwork, it finally didn’t have anything to do with the theme of my message for tonight. So, I moved on.

But Tuesday morning suddenly became Wednesday evening, and Thursday afternoon melted into Friday morning and no clear message had emerged. I think I was struggling because my mind kept coming back to this poem. But what in the world does a poem about trees have to do with this narrative about a poor widow’s offering?

So, I read it again and this time everything made sense. The final stanza says, “And they call again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say, ‘and you, too, have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.’” You have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.

The text we have before us is a comparison between the thought-less-ness of the scribes and the thought-full-ness of the widow. Imagine the scene. The Religious mucky-mucks, the most important men of the synagogue were parading around in long robes, looking as important as they could. But Jesus pointed out to his followers that their religious show as nothing but a sham. Why? Because while they claimed to be righteous, their actions told a different story. Jesus said, “they devour widows’ houses.” In other words, a thoughtless religion, one devoid of justice, is not pleasing to God.

But compare their thought-less-ness with the actions of the poor widow. Jesus said that she, “out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” And this is where Mary Oliver’s words connect with the image of the widow. We are supposed to see ourselves, our faith, in the action of the widow. We are called to put in, from our poverty, whatever that poverty may be, we are called to devote our entire being, our complete selves, warts and all, to God, to justice, to loving our neighbor. We have come into this world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.

Which brings us back to our theme for today: Embodied Generosity; an Embodied Generosity grounded in Hope. The widow’s generosity, her thought-full-ness, lead her to give all that she had for the sake of others. The box into which she deposited those two small coins was intended to help the poor. Think about that for a minute. This woman, who knew the pain of hunger, of rejection, of being-on-the-outside looking in; this woman out of her physical poverty gave all that she had.

Now, we may not know physical poverty in the same way as the widow. But make no mistake, we’ve all known rejection, we’ve all, at one time are another, been the one on the out-side-looking in.
We’ve known the poverty of grief, of uncertainty, and of fear. And it’s from this poverty that Jesus calls us give of ourselves. It’s from these places of poverty that we are challenged to act; to take a deep breath and go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.

But how do we begin? How do we move from those dark places of poverty and realize that God has filled us with light? And maybe most importantly, how do we share that light; how do we shine?

Well, perhaps it’s important to begin by affirming the central message of Jesus; a message of inclusion, a message of faith and hope, a message of social justice. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing just that. I think we shine brightly. When we affirm that all people are children of God, we shine. When we honor and warmly welcome everyone, we shine. When we commit ourselves to being a uniting church that embraces the rich diversity of God’s creation, we shine. When we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for the many gifts of all of God’s children, we shine. When we encourage those of every race, and of every gender, and of every age, and of every nationality and ethnicity and faith background to join us on this journey we call faith, we shine. When we shatter the stereotypes and cast off the long robes of exclusion by welcoming those of every sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, we shine. When we invite and include those from every economic circumstance or marital status or physical or developmental ability to worship with us here in this place, we shine. When we welcome everyone, no matter where they are on their journey of life and faith to join in full participation and leadership of this church, we shine. My friends, when we shout from the rooftops “You are welcome here!” we shine.

And, when we embody a generosity, a generosity grounded in hope; when we overcome any sense of poverty we may feel in our souls and give our whole selves in an effort to alienate the physical poverty of others, we shine. And, when we come to realize, that like the trees of the forest, we are all interconnected, all humanity and all of creation; when we embody this interconnection and begin to feel the breath of God in all things, my friends, we shine.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”

May it be so. Amen.

——————————

[1] from the Open and Affirming Statement of Cable United Church of Christ, 2018

[1] Ibid. Oliver

 

Take Heart

Mark 10:46-52

The story of the blind beggar, that we have before us today, begins in darkness. It begins in emptiness. It begins with raw need.

The text tells us that Jesus and his followers had been on the move and as they entered the city of Jericho, they encountered a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Now, this “son of honor,” which is what the name Bartimaeus literally means, is a metaphor for the suffering of humanity. Bartimaeus is the poster child for those who have been excluded from society; chased out of the synagogue in Jesus’ day or the Church in ours; Bartimaeus represents those who are on the outside-looking-in.

So, bearing this in mind, the first thing we need to consider as we begin to imagine what the emerging church of the next 500 years might look like is this: How might we interact with those who are outside our walls, looking in? Or, to put it another way: How can we offer an “extravagant welcome” to all people.

You know, for some time now, all across the United Church of Christ, we’ve been hanging banners that read, “no matter who, no matter what, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” It’s a message of extravagant welcome. But why do we do this? Why is “welcome” important? Well, it’s important because in the past those in society who found themselves on the outside-looking-in, like blind Bartimaeus, have felt extravagantly UN-welcome in the church, empty, left out in the darkness.

Sally was one such person. You see, Sally was a miserable human being. She had run away from home at the age of fifteen, went through a series of bad relationships, the last one ending with a hospital stay and a restraining order. Sally gave birth to four children by four different fathers and for years they were in and out of foster care. Sally had trouble caring for her children because she would often dull the pain of her life with drugs and alcohol. And this downward spiral hit rock bottom one day when her 2-year-old child drown in a backyard swimming pool while Sally slept off her latest bender.

But it was then that something amazing happened. Sally found herself in the basement of the local UCC church every week for an AA meeting. AA gave her the space and the freedom, for the first time in her life, to open up about the abuse she had underwent as a child. It was an opportunity to acknowledge and take responsibility for the bad choices she had made and to attempt to come to terms with the loss of her child. And for the first time in her life Sally began to think about things like faith and God; she even thought about going to church.

Let’s pause here for a moment and think once again about extravagant welcome. AA is a part of that welcome. It provides a confidential and sacred space for people who have common struggles. Other examples of this kind of welcome might include working at the food pantry, opening up our buildings for community events and groups, funerals and weddings and such. In Cable we have the Farmer’s Market and the Second Chance garage sale, and in Delta we have a number of special services and community dinners. All of these things are a part of our out-reach into the community. Perhaps we sometimes forget how something as simple as allowing a group to meet here can build goodwill with our neighbors.

But the story can’t end there. The challenge of providing an extravagant welcome must find a way to bridge the gap between people being welcomed into the buildings and inviting them to become involved in our faith communities. Now, I’m not trying to be overly Pollyannic here. I’m a realist. I know that not all the people who use our buildings or attend our events will join our churches. But that doesn’t mean we can’t extend the invitation.

Sally was leaving AA one afternoon when she happened upon someone in the parking lot that she vaguely recognized. It was Fran. Let me tell you about Fran. Fran was a member of that UCC congregation, she taught Sunday school and was on the church board; Fran was also the investigating officer when Sally’s child had drowned several years before.

Sally suddenly made the connection and quickly turned to avoid Fran. But Fran stepped into her path and after an intense twenty-minute conversation, a few tears, and some uncomfortable laughter on the part of Sally, she agreed to come to church the next Sunday.

Now, if you think the story ends there, think again. This story took place in a small town and everyone knew Sally and her story. But for most of the people there, including Fran, the past didn’t matter. Yes, there were a few sideways-glances, and one overt attempt to shame Sally which Fran immediately squashed. But for the most part Sally was accepted, her past and all, her mistakes and all, and she became a member of that congregation.

No matter who, no matter what, you’re welcome here.

Now, Sally’s story began in darkness. It began in emptiness. It began with raw need. Like Bartimaeus, she was on the outside-looking-in, the circumstances of her life and the poor choices that she made had separated her from God. But also, like the blind beggar, by making the decision to attend AA and taking a risk by walking into that church one Sunday morning, Sally threw off the cloak of her despair and shouted for Jesus to heal her. And when she encountered resistance, with the help of Fran, she shouted even louder.

And that’s the crux of the Bartimaeus story. Faith! Faith in its infancy might be needy, it might feel empty at times; it might even begin in darkness. But it doesn’t stay there. Because faith is also eager. It’s assertive and hopeful. Faith is impetuous and persistent and risky. It’s both personal and relational; it’s individual and communal. And finally, faith isn’t stagnate; it’s always progressing; always in the process of moving us toward the light; the Light that is Jesus Christ.

And that’s where I gonna leave you today. The extravagant welcome of the emerging church, of our church, must be grounded in faith. One of the most power voices in the emerging church movement, Brian McLaren, affirms this when he says that, “Jesus was short on sermons, but long on conversations; short on answers, but long on questions; short on abstraction and propositions, but long on stories and parables; short on telling you what to think, but long on challenging you to think for yourself.”

My friends, as the journey continues, my prayer for our church is that we will be grounded in faith, open to the movement of the Spirit; that we will be extravagant in our welcome to all and steadfast in our service to others. And that as we begin the next 500 years of our shared ministry, that we too will be long on conversation and intent in our listening; that we will ask more questions realizing that we don’t have all the answers; that we will be long on stories and share the parables of our collective journey; and finally, that will accept the challenge, Christ’s challenge, to think of new and innovative ways to engage the future.

My friends, take heart.

We can do this.

Amen.