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.

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[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.

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[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.

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

[1] Ibid. Oliver