Infinite Possibilities

Baptism of Christ Sunday

Introduction to the Text

Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday. The Sunday when we officially move from the Christmas story into the life and teachings of Jesus. The time of year when we leave the manger, Magi, and myrrh   behind, at least for the moment, and begin to look at the adult version of Jesus. And every year, this happens through the story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. And today is no exception. But there’s always seems to be a lingering question about his baptism, one that I’ve heard more than any other: “If Jesus was without sin, then why did he need to be baptized?” That’s actually a very perceptive question. A question that leads us to look beyond just forgiveness and into a deeper understanding of baptism. Hear now, once again, the story of the Baptism of Christ.

Scripture Reading                                                          Matthew 3:13-17

Now, I’m going to begin today by giving you some contextual background to the narrative that we just heard. Hear these additional words from the second writer in the Book of Isaiah.

But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public. He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.

I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.

My friends, there are places in our world that are so dark that most of us really don’t want to look at them. Nations where law and order are so broken down that people’s lives are in danger just because they belong to the wrong faith or the wrong political party or the wrong tribe. Cities where crime is so rampant that even murder becomes just another part of life. We hear lies and deception, hate-filled rhetoric and threats to our very being all the time. It’s hard to even watch the news anymore. Sometimes it all seems hopeless.

A number of years ago, I had the pleasure to meet a man we’ll call Dave. Dave suffered from some form of autism perhaps or a mental illness, and as a result, was a person of diminished capacity. He was an adult man, living on his own, with the mind of about a 12-year-old. Dave was often homeless and often confused. Now, I don’t tell you this to cut him down or to diminish him in any way, but to give you an idea of Dave’s struggle. Anyway, I met Dave at free dinner that was served once a month by a large downtown UCC church for those in need and for anyone who wanted to share a meal. Dave was always the first one there and he was always ready to share with you everything one could possibly want to know about lightbulbs. Yes, I said lightbulbs. He was fascinated with lightbulbs. He studied up on them, collected them, working or not. I have no idea where he kept them all, but lightbulbs were his thing. Now, the other fact about Dave is that he was not only the first one there, he was the first one to help set up tables, the first one to help clear plates, the first one to greet newcomers. And it struck me one day that this “collector of lightbulbs” was really being the Light of Christ in the church. In his own and unique way, Dave was being God’s Light to the world.

As I read the passage from Isaiah, the one that I just shared, I thought once again of Dave and the hope that someone like him inspires. Isaiah says that God will appoint someone to bring light into the dark places of this world. He speaks of “a servant of the God” who would come to right the wrongs; who would bring God’s justice. This is of course Isaiah’s vision of what a Messiah might look like, but isn’t this also what we are called to look like? Are we not called to be like Dave and bring God’s light into the world as best as we are able?

Now, I know I’ve said this many times before, but I think our post-modern idea of justice is very different than that of Bible. When we think about justice, most of the secular world envisions something that happens in a courtroom with a judge and a jury. The world sees Justice is as arbitrating disputes and determining guilt or innocence and handing down punishments for crimes.

But justice in the Bible has a very different meaning. God’s justice is about feeding the hungry, setting prisoners free, recovery of sight to the blind; in a biblical understanding of justice, those who have been struck down are lifted up, and the immigrants and the widows and orphans have someone to watch over them.  Simply put—God’s justice is the light that shines into all the dark places of the world and makes it possible for all people to thrive equally.

And It’s important to notice the way in which the “servant” in Isaiah establishes this kind of justice. The prophet says it this way: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”.  In other words, “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant.”[I]

You see, God’s justice doesn’t take place through vengeance but forgiveness.  God’s justice doesn’t take place through violence but compassion.  God’s justice doesn’t take place through hostility but mercy.  It’s a justice that leads to peace.  And in order to achieve this kind of divine justice we have to employ God’s ways instead of ours.

And in our Gospel text it says in essence that “God’s work of putting things right throughout all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”[ii]  In a very real sense, Christ’s baptism was making a public declaration that he was going to take the side of God’s justice.  He was going to set about promoting God’s work of righting the wrongs and lifting the burdens from the oppressed.  He was going to shine the light of God into all the dark places of the world.

And guess what. That’s exactly what he did.  And that’s what we’re called to do as well. My friends, by sharing in Christ’s baptism through our own, we have taken on the same calling, accepted the same challenge, the same risk, the same covenant: a covenant to shine the Light of God; God’s peace and God’s compassion and God’s mercy into all the dark places of this world. [iii]

One final thought this morning. When we celebrate a baptism here in our church, in the liturgy, I ask all of you to “remember your baptism.” Now, I’m not talking about the actual pouring of water over your head, (many of you were infants at that time) But what I am asking you to do is to remember the meaning of your baptism. A meaning that includes the things we’ve talked about here today. A meaning that starts by establishing a covenant, a covenant that continues to grow and to develop into a relationship with a community of faith. And within that community we share in things like forgiveness, like grace, like compassion, but it still doesn’t end there. Our baptismal calling as a community is to participate in the present reign of God by shining the radiant Light of God’s Justice outward, to, as the last chapter in Matthew says, “…to all the ends of the earth.”

My friends, as we continue our journey from Christmas through the Season of Epiphany, may the Light of God’s Grace shine into the very depths of your being and the Light of God’s Justice shine forth through your words, your actions, your life. And may each of us, in our own unique way, be a “Dave.” May it be so.

Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Eugene Peterson The Message from Isaiah 42

[ii] Ibid Peterson

[iii] Alan Brehm.  Shining Light into Darkness. (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2014

 

Another Road

Epiphany Sunday

Christmas has passed, the New Year’s Eve festivities are over, and now we’re left with the glitter, wrapping paper, empty boxes, and perhaps a few empty hearts. For some people, the holidays have been a delightful time of love and giving. Others may look back on the week with a little relief that it’s over. Are we allowed to say that? Can we be honest and admit that sometimes these big days are not as joyful in real life as we want them to be?

But in the passage that you’re about to hear, John reminds us that our big days and calendars are really of little importance to the God who created us. God existed before time itself. So, while we human beings may lift up one day over another, God is consistently present in every day.[I]

Read John 1:1-9 & 14 here.
Now, today’s reading, taken from the prologue to the Gospel According to John, begins with those famous words we all know so well: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This is where John’s gospel begins–in the beginning. This is John’s nativity story. There are no shepherds, or angels, or a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.  In this nativity story, this Christmas story, John takes us back to the beginning.  He echoes the words from the Genesis: In beginning-ness God created; God moved over the chaos and darkness and said, “Let there be light.” And in John’s nativity story, from the very beginning, there was the Logos, the Word.  The God who moved over the face of the deep, over the darkness, who spoke and said, “let there be light,” this same God became flesh and blood and dwelt among us.  John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people, ALL people! And, this Light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not extinguish it.”

Wow. There’s a lot going on here. So, let’s pause here for a moment and unpack some this. First of all, theologically speaking, Christmas is about a transcendent God who comes near, becomes immanent, incarnate, God-with-us, Emmanuel. Now, sometimes we talk about the transcendence of God, a God who’s mysterious and unknowable, beyond comprehension–which is true–but here in this text, God the Creator takes on flesh and becomes one of us and lives among us. And to extend John’s metaphor, in the midst of our darkness, in the midst of the chaos of our lives, Jesus comes announcing life and not death. Later in John’s gospel, we’ll hear Jesus say, “I come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” And it’s through this abundance that God has invited us to allow the light of the Sacred to shine forth in our lives and through our actions.[ii]

In his book, Original Blessing, theologian Matthew Fox writes: “We enter a broken, torn and sinful world–that is for sure.  But we do not enter as blotches on existence; we burst onto the scene as ‘original blessings.'”[iii]  And, oh, how we need to hear that.  The incarnation, God becoming flesh, has shown us a different way of seeing life and living in the world. It has shown us that the creation is good, that the world we live in is good, that our bodies are good, that we are indeed, “original blessings.”  And as original blessings, we are called to live with love and justice with all that is part of the created order; we are called to be fully human, fully alive. Matthew Fox goes on to say, “Being alive is not the same as going shopping or making a nest in which to escape the suffering of others.  Living has something to do with love of life, and the love of other’s lives and the other’s rights to life and dignity.”[iv]

And this is where I believe we find ourselves today. Jesus, the whole concept of a Messiah actually, is intended to show us the nature of God and how we should respond because that nature. Do you see what I’m driving at here? John says, we have received from God’s fullness, grace upon grace. “Grace upon grace.” This phrase, I think, needs to set the tone as we embark upon a new year. A new year when grace will be so desperately needed. We need God’s grace as we continue to struggle with divisions and resentments, controversies and discontent. We need grace as we remain immersed in and surrounded by endless election rhetoric; rhetoric that’s intended to further divide rather than unite. And even as many of us enjoy a stable economy, some of our neighbors stand in need of our commitment to be gracious. Neighbors who still struggle with deep economic troubles. Things like under-employment, the rising cost of housing, and a lack of affordable healthcare have left millions of our fellow citizens behind, still wanting, still caught in a web of poverty.

But perhaps our greatest challenge as people of faith and as a nation, is to understand that this abundance of grace, that this grace upon grace, is not meant just for us. From the very beginning of creation, God intended that grace be shared among all of God’s beloved creation. John says here in our text, that Jesus came as a light to all people. Not just some people, not just religious people, not just people who think and act and believe as I think they should, but ALL people.

My friends, if we as a society could find it within ourselves in 2020 to grasp and then live-into this understanding of grace; a grace that is for all people, a grace that is immanent, a grace that is fully expressed in our acts of faith and kindness and love; if we could begin to practice this kind of grace, if we could become an original blessing to others, might that be a first step on the path to peace; on our quest for justice? Might that finally be the Light of which John speaks? I don’t know the answer to these questions; I don’t even know if we can find this kind of grace within ourselves; but, wouldn’t it be amazing to try?

Amen & amen.

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[i] Lillian Daniel In the Beginning (www.ucc.org/stillspeakingdevotional) 2020

[ii] William McCord Thigpen III. Our Hearts Belong (www.Day1.org) 2009

[iii] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, Santa Fe, Bear & Co., 1983, p. 47.

[iv] Ibid. Fox

A Meditation on Christmas

A Meditation on Christmas by Bishop John Shelby Sprong

 

Katherine from Richmond, Virginia writes:

Question:

What is it about this Jesus that you find so compelling? When I hear the Christmas story from the Bible I believe that I am listening to fairy tales. Stars do not announce the birth of a human being. Angels do not sing to hillside shepherds. Virgins do not conceive and give birth. Is there something behind the old mythology that I am missing? Can you still, with any integrity, refer to Jesus as “the son of God?”

Answer:

Dear Katharine,

Thank you for your questions. Not only are they important ones but they give me the opportunity to articulate my deepest convictions about this Jesus in the column that will go out to my subscribers on Christmas Eve. So I shall frame my answer to you in the form of a Christmas meditation, for this Jesus has always both fascinated and attracted me.

My deepest self-definition is that I am a Christian, by which I mean that in Jesus of Nazareth I believe I see the meaning of God most clearly. This experience of an in-breaking divine presence is what I believe created the Christmas traditions that you refer to in your question. Certainly during this season they are omnipresent.

It was more than two thousand years ago that the historic figure we call Jesus lived. It was a life of relatively short duration, only thirty-three years. At most only three of those years were devoted to a public career. Yet, that life appears to have been a source of wonder and power to those who knew him. Tales of miraculous power surrounded him. Words of insight and wisdom were believed to have flowed from his lips. Love and freedom seemed to be qualities that marked his existence. Men and women found themselves called into being by him. Those laden with guilt discovered, somehow, the joy of forgiveness in him. The alone, the insecure, the warped and twisted found him to be a source of peace. He possessed the courage to be who he was. He is described in terms that portray him as an incredibly free man.

Jesus seems to have had no internal needs that drove him to prove himself – no anxieties that centered his attention on himself. He rather appears to have had an uncanny capacity to give his life away. He gave love, he gave selfhood, he gave freedom, and he gave them abundantly – wastefully, extravagantly.

Lives touched by his life were never the same. Somehow life’s secret, its very purpose, seemed to be revealed in him. When people looked at him they were somehow able to see beyond him, and even through him. They saw in his life the Source of all life that expanded them. They saw in his love the Source of love and the hope of their own fulfillment. This kind of transforming power was something they had not known before.

Freedom is always scary. People seek security in rules that curb freedom. So his enemies conspired to remove him and his threat to them. From one perspective it might be said that they killed him. When one looks more closely at the story, however, it might be more accurate to say that he found in himself the freedom to give his life away and to do so quite deliberately. He died caring for those who took his life from him. In that moment he revealed a love that could embrace all the hostilities of human life without allowing those hostilities to compromise his ability to love. He demonstrated rather dramatically that there is nothing a person can do and nothing a person can be that will finally render any of us either unlovable or unforgivable. Even when a person destroys the giver of life and love, that person does not cease to be loved by the Source of love or called into life by the Source of life. That was his message or at least that is what people believed they had met in this Jesus. Such a life could not help but transcend human limits. For this kind of love can never be overwhelmed by hatred; this life can never finally be destroyed by death.

Is it any wonder that people had to break the barriers of language when they sought to make rational sense out of this Jesus experience? They called him the Son of God. They said that somehow God was in him. So deeply did people believe these things that the way they perceived history was changed by him. To this day we still date the birth of our civilization from the birth of this Jesus.

They believed that he was able to give love and forgiveness, acceptance and courage. They believed that he had the power to fill life full. Since people tended to define God as the Source of life and love, they began to say that in this human Jesus they had engaged the holy God.

When they began to write about this transforming experience they confronted a problem. How could the human mind, which can only think using human vocabulary, stretch far enough to embrace the God presence they had experienced in this life? How could mere words be big enough to capture this divine meaning? Inevitably, as they wrote they lapsed into poetry and imagery. When this life entered human history, they said, even the heavens rejoiced. A star appeared in the sky. A heavenly host of angels sang hosanna. Judean shepherds came to view him. Eastern Magi journeyed from the ends of the earth to worship him. Since they were certain that they had met the presence of God in him, they reasoned that God must have been his father in some unique way. It was certainly a human reference but that is all we human beings have to use.

Life as we know it, they said, could never have produced what we have found in him. That is why they created birth traditions capable of accounting for the adult power that they found in him.

Our modern and much less mysterious world reads these birth narratives and, assuming a literalness of human language that the biblical writers never intended, say “How ridiculous! How unbelievable! Things like that just do not happen. Stars don’t suddenly appear in the night to announce a human birth. Angels do not entertain hillside shepherds with heavenly songs. Virgins do not conceive. These things cannot be true.”

On one level those criticisms are accurate. Things like that do not happen in any literal sense. But does that mean that the experience this ecstatic language was created to communicate was not real. I do not think so.

The time has come for Christians, when we try to talk about God, to face without being defensive, the inadequacy of human language. These stories were never meant to be read literally. They were written by those who had been touched by this Jesus. That is why they challenge our imaginations and sound so fanciful and unreal. Our minds are so earthbound that our imaginations have become impoverished. Literal truth has given way to interpretive images. When life meets God and finds fulfillment one sees sights never before seen, one knows joy never before experienced, and one expects the heavens to sing and dance in celebration.

The story of Christmas, as told by the gospel writers, has a meaning beyond the rational and a truth beyond the scientific. It points to a reality that no life touched by this Jesus could ever deny. The beauty of our Christmas story is bigger than our rational minds can embrace. For when this Jesus is known, when love, acceptance, and forgiveness are experienced, when we become whole, free and affirmed people, the heavens do sing “Glory to God in the Highest,” and on earth there is “Peace and Good Will among Us All.” Hence, we Christians rejoice in the transcendent beauty and wonder of this Christmas story. To those who have never stepped inside this experience we issue an invitation to come stand where we stand and look through our eyes at this babe of Bethlehem. Then perhaps they too will join those of us who read these

Christmas stories year after year for one purpose only: to worship the Lord of life who still sets us free and who calls us to live, to love and to be all that we can be. That is why the Christmas invitation is so simple: Come, come, let us adore him.

How do we adore him? In my mind the answer to that query is clear. I adore him not by becoming religious or by becoming a missionary who seeks to convert the world to my understanding of Jesus. I do it rather by dedicating my energies to the task of building a world where everyone in this world might have an opportunity to live more fully, love more wastefully and have the courage to be all that they were created to be. This is the only way I know how to acknowledge the Source of Life, the Source of Love and the Ground of Being that I believe that I have experienced in this Jesus. How can one adore the Source of Life except by living? How can one adore the Source of Love except by loving? How can one adore the Ground of all Being except by having the courage to be all that one can be. It is not possible to seek these gifts for oneself and then deny them to every other life. So our task as disciples of Jesus is to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that we can be while we seek to enable every other person, in the infinite variety of our humanity, to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that each person can be. That also means that we can brook no prejudice that would hurt or reject another based on any external characteristic, be it race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. It all seems so simple to me. God was in Christ. That is the essence of what I believe about this Jesus.

Have a blessed and holy Christmas.

~ John Shelby Spong

Unabashed Joy

Third Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 35

“Each year, it seems to get worse. The build-up to Christmas becomes more frenetic, more stressful, and more expensive with each passing season, and the observance of “Advent”–even the word itself–seems to get lost in our secularized holiday outburst of consumerism.” These words come to us today from the pen of Kathryn Matthews whose scathing observance of the post-modern Christmas Season seems to challenge the very notion of hope; of joy.

“And yet,” she continues, “each year, the hope is the same. Each year, underneath the fast-paced, media-driven, frantic preparations for ‘the big day’– the shopping, the family gatherings, the arrival of Santa and the opening of gifts; And yet, so many people express a yearning for something else, for something more.”[i]

“A yearning for something more.” Perhaps that’s the greatest hope of this season we call “Advent.” Perhaps Advent isn’t about looking back at the nativity to see a little baby in a manger, so much as it is to remember the incarnate presence of the Divine that the Christ-Child represents. A memory, by the way, which can propagate within us a reason to be moved toward hope. The kind of hope that challenges us to look forward to the healing Reign of God in all its fullness even if we are in the midst of brokenness. A hope not only that things might change, but that they will change.

As people of faith and followers of Jesus, we have come to understand that hope and the beginning of that movement toward Justice and Peace have indeed arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. And as the Body of Christ today, we continue to embody hope even as we look longingly toward a time when there will be a fullness of justice and peace and healing in this world. And not just some pie-in-the-sky, faraway in heaven after death kinda peace, but real peace and genuine transformation, right here, in this time and this place, and for all of God’s people and creation.

Now, we’re not the first to long for this peace, justice, and healing. The prophet in today’s reading looked forward to “signs of healing” within creation itself. He wrote of a parched earth that would be transformed by streams of water breaking forth in the desert and of burning sands in the desert becoming pools of refreshing water. Beautiful imagery to be sure.

Imagery that invites us to recall the Peaceful Reign of last week’s reading. A Peaceful Reign where swords are pounded into plowshares and weapons of war and death are transformed into tools of agriculture, tools of life. A Peaceful Reign where lions and lambs coexist and no one will be held back by weakness of body or spirit, for God, whose power makes all things possible, will hold them up and carry them through.[ii] And again, beautiful imagery.

But then, Isaiah unloads on us with this matter of “vengeance”. Vengeance isn’t something we like to think about at Christmastime, is it? So, what gives? Well, this is a place where the great United Church of Christ theologian Walter Brueggemann helps us out a bit. He expands upon this idea of God’s “vengeance” by transforming it into something “positive.” He says, “..that God will come to right wrong, to order chaos, to heal sickness, to restore life to its rightful order” and all of these things are encapsulated by Brueggemann in a single term: “transformative compassion” And here’s the really awesome part! This compassion can be expected to transform the lives of those who are “overwhelmed” or incapable of “living effectively or joyously.” People we all know. People we love. People like us.

But what did all this mean to Isaiah? Well, it meant that the lame would not just walk but would leap, and perhaps even dance with joy! The speechless would not just find words but music and a song of joy. “People are given back their lives,” Brueggemann notes; and “humanity is restored to its full function”[iii]

Now, you might say, that’s all great but what does it mean for us? Well, when December 26 rolls around, I think we must ask ourselves these questions: Where am I today? Where’s my hope? Where will I continue to find joy? I mean, will we be dreading opening the monthly credit card statement, or will we be let down once again by holiday celebrations that didn’t quite measure up to expectations, or will we be just plain exhausted from the effort of it all? I don’t know what your answers to these questions will be, or mine for that matter. But perhaps Dr. King was on to something when he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” …never lose infinite hope.

And even if the holidays were lovely and did live up to our expectations, is there not more to our hope than just a lovely holiday? Where do we find this “infinite hope”? Where’s that unabashed joy that undergirds our hope in all this? And looking at Advent itself with an even wider lens, how is God still speaking to us today, in the church and in society, about our expectations?

As I see it, this is something we must struggle with right here in the Delta Church. We must challenge ourselves on a personal or micro level about how we move ourselves beyond the societal expectations of the holiday and begin to discover that deeper joy, that unwavering sense of hope that Isaiah so longed for us to indwell? And on a communal or macro level, how will we as a church community begin to reflect this deeper understanding of joy beyond our four walls, out there, in the wider community?

And again, there are no pat answers here. Even within the structure of community we’re all individuals with individual callings and talents and challenges and we’re all on our own journeys of faith. My friends, God is calling each of us to BE the Church in our own unique way; we’re a patchwork of characters if you will. But here’s the thing. It’s from a diverse patchwork of colors and patterns that the most beautiful quilts are created. So, the great hope for us today, the unabashed joy for us as we continue this journey, is that we are engaged in an on-going process of co-creating with God a beautiful quilt that will be marked by the peace and justice that Isaiah speaks of here. Not as individuals, but as a collection of individuals, a chorus of voices, neighbor with neighbor and friend with friend.

This is the deeper vision of Isaiah that we’ve been considering this Advent season, a vision that has the ability to move us beyond the mundane trappings of the holidays, to discover the “transformative compassion” of being in service to others, of welcoming and inviting all people to God’s table, of sharing the unconditional love of God and yes, the Unabashed Joy of Christmas with all whom we encounter in this world.

So, my prayer for all of you, as we approach the manger once again, is that you will open yourselves not only to the presence of the Sacred, but to the deeper joy and relentless hope of the season and that you will be compassionately transformed into instruments of peace and justice and healing as the on-going process of God Reign continues to indwell all of creation.

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

——————————————–

[i] Kathryn Matthews Choose to be Courageous (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

[ii] Ibid Matthews

[iii] Walter Brueggemann Isaiah 1-19, Westminster Bible Companion found at

(www. ucc.org/samuel) 2019

In the Midst of the Present

Advent 1 -Isaiah 2:1-5

Back when Manny was little, Becky and I vowed that we would never buy him a toy gun. He could play with trucks or dolls or whatever he wanted, except guns. We wanted to raise our child in a non-violent environment. But in our passion to raise passive child, we forgot about human nature. You see, when Manny was still a toddler, we were playing with him outside, and in the midst of our game, he picked up a crooked stick, and began to shoot me. And shortly thereafter, he made himself a gun out of Legos. I believe the current phraseology for this is “epic fail.” And I was reminded of this episode again last year as I was building a Nerf gun arsenal in his closet!

Now, as we come to Isaiah’s vision of a non-violent world today, I wonder if he too was hamstrung by human nature. I mean, he offers us a hopeful image of a world where swords are hammered into plowshares; where instruments of war are transformed into tools of agriculture; where the violence of the sword is reconfigured into a life-giving instrument of peace. What a beautiful image.

But here’s my question: If Isaiah was right, how come we still have swords? Why is violence, and hate-filled rhetoric, and the demonization of “the other” …the other race, the other religion, the other national origin; why are these things still present in our world? Was Isaiah over optimistic? Too Pollyannic? Did Isaiah misjudge the power of our human propensity toward violence? Or is there something else going on here?

I don’t know, but there are some clues in this brief text that may help us to see Isaiah’s vision in a different light. I mean, did you notice how he began speaking about this vision? “In the days to come…” Now, it may seem to our post-modern ears like he’s predicting the future, right? “In the days to come…” But the literal translation from Hebrew is a bit more nuanced. The more precise beginning of Isaiah’s vision literally reads, “In the midst of the present.” Think about that for a second. “In the midst of the present.” You see, Isaiah isn’t fortunetelling here, but instead, he’s suggesting that the present moment is ripe, or to use an appropriate Advent term, pregnant with God’s presence. [i]

Yes, we humans have a violent nature, we turn bent stick and Legos into guns, but we also have the capacity overcome our nature; we have the capacity to life non-violently, peacefully. But, Isaiah, and Jesus for that matter, realized that is a long process. Learning the ways of a non-violent existence is an on-going event in the evolution of humanity. And of course, across our history there have been ebbs and tides, sometimes it even seems like we’ve gone backwards. But for every step back, I think, we’ve taken two steps forward. Now, we’re not there yet, but if we consider where humanity, and by extension the Church, have been in the past, perhaps Isaiah’s vision of peace is slowly coming into focus.

Gandhi seemed to affirm this when he said, We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in thought, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress towards it.[ii]

Ya know, it’s not unlike the story of the preschool child who had made a ceramic figure of a camel in Sunday School. The figure was to be taken home as a gift for his parents on the last day of class before Christmas and when the boy saw his parents in the hallway he began to run toward them. However, in his haste, he tripped and fell sending the fragile camel flying through the air, shattering into a hundred tiny pieces as it hit the wall. And of course, the boy was devastated. His father tried to pacify him by saying, “It’s all right, it doesn’t matter.” But the his mother, wiser in such things, quickly corrected the father. “Oh, no,” she said. “It does matter.” And she began to weep with her son. [iii]

On this first Sunday in Advent, the prophet Isaiah is telling those who are listening, including us, that what happens in this world does matter. God has set a beautiful vision peace and tranquility before us even though it’s in our nature to mess it up. Why? Because even in our brokenness, despite our tendency toward violence, God loves us; God cares what happens to us; and God challenges each of us to care about what happens to our neighbor.

Advent is a season when we watch for, prepare for, hope for, work for God’s Reign of Justice, Love and Peace…right here in our time; right here “in the midst of the present.”

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Ted Smith Later Days (Day1.org) 2013

[ii] Phil Milam God Inspired Joy (birchwoodhome.blog.com) 2018

[iii] Stephen Montgomery Closer That You Think (Day1.org) 2010

Joy to the World

As we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”  -Desmond Tutu

“Joy to the World,” the beloved Christmas classic, turns 300 this year. Composer Isaac Watt’s interpretation of Psalm 98 invites us to sing a “new song”–and it is a powerful cosmic performance of all creation being renewed and freed. Rather than “joy” being yet another word for “happiness,” we will discover that the depths of joy can be found especially in the midst of suffering, the work of justice, and the presence of compassion–all part of the coming of Jesus into this world with a message that we still so desperately need.

The movement of our Advent worship services this year will illuminate for us this depth of joy of which Desmond Tutu speaks. You see, if we consider the joy of being in community with God and with others as portal to finding our most authentic, best selves, then the work of justice, the practice of compassion, and the alleviation of suffering will become a part of the depth of our being; the depth of our joy.

I’m so excited as I begin the process of creating these worship experiences in concert with several church members. I’m excited because these Advent services, along with our Memorial Tree Lighting, Christmas Program, and Christmas Eve Service, provide a wonderful opportunity to invite our family, friends and neighbors to join us; to discover this deep sense of joy in their lives and along the way on their journey as well. Please consider inviting someone to church this Advent season.

Have a very Joyous Christmas and a blessed New Year.

Pastor Phil

The Dangerous Memory of Jesus

The Church came into existence as a community that preserved the dangerous memory of Jesus—the memory of his public crucifixion and his subsequent return among his frightened followers in a way that was utterly new and beyond anything that could have been previously imagined. And what emerged was a new concept of community; a community that has held together for over two thousand years. The Church, at its best, is a community based on mutual love and not on fear. The Church’s contemplation of this dangerous memory is what we call ‘theology’, which is actually founded on the marriage of Scripture with philosophy—particularly classical Greek philosophy. This is important. A religion that is without theology quickly becomes fundamentalist as it begins to interpret Scripture in a literal way, full of cultural bias and with little rational underpinning. Fundamentalism is always culture-bound, declaring itself “the only way” excluding all who might see God through a different lens. And although the story of Jesus is historical, set in a particular time, place and culture, his teaching is transcultural. So, too, should be the teaching of the Church.[i]

So, what does all this mean for us? Well, it means that the Church should not minimize the radically different nature of its revelation. Yes, Christian revelation is found in the person of Jesus who invites us into the freedom of God’s love, but revelation can also be found in nature, in relationship, in poetry, music, and art. The revelation of God is not limited to “my experience of God only,” but can be found in a variety experiences and in the diverse patchwork of life and faith found across many cultures. And it’s when we finally come to realize that there are many paths up the preverbal mountain, that we can begin to journey in earnest with our fellow sojourners, as we all seek to experience the Sacred Reality that is within and around us.

Now, as we continue this journey together, my prayer for all of us is that we will experience what the Celts called, “the thin places.” Those places where the veil between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, are thin. And as you experience God in these “thin” transformative ways, may you form a personal theology based in love and demonstrated through compassion; a theology that is ever-developing, ever-expanding to include all of God’s people and all of Creation. Many Blessings on the Journey.

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[i] Drawn from the work of Sebastian Moore, The Contagion of Jesus: Doing Theology as If It Mattered (Orbis Books: 2008), 59-60.

 

The Big Stuff

Luke 20:27-38

“An important discussion was taking place in the mid-priced hotel just five blocks from the church.  It wasn’t so much a deep theological discussion about atonement or predestination or the authority of Scripture, it wasn’t about the level of poverty in the inner-cities or the poor high school graduation rates of at-risk youth. Instead, it was about socks or no socks!  That’s right!  The clothing we wear next to our feet that keeps our skin from touching our shoes,” writes Robert Naylor, UCC pastor and father of two pre-teens. “It was an animated discussion,” he continues. “It was the Sunday of my interview and sermon to what would become my new call as Senior Pastor to a congregation in Connecticut. And, along with the worship leadership I had been asked to attend a coffee–a get-acquainted time, an hour and a half prior to the worship service.  The lively “sock” discussion was over whether our two children would wear socks with their dress clothes. It was all the fad–regardless of the season–to go sockless.  And since I believed good first impressions are made with socks–I was wearing them–therefore I thought it was even more important that my sons, in spite of their charming personalities, should also wear socks.  My wife was the mediator.  There became two options:  wear shocks and not go to the coffee hour before worship or wear no socks and go to both the welcoming coffee and the worship service. They attended both events wearing no socks and, believe it or not, I still got the job. I had raised my blood pressure unnecessarily and made the family less enthusiastic about attending the coffee. The lesson here, as I look back on that day, is this: Don’t sweat the stuff![I]

In our Scripture lesson from Luke it would seem that making all the small stuff into big stuff is part of the human DNA, at least in religious circles.  The Sadducees in an attempt to trap Jesus and brand him as a heretic, asked him a question about marriage and resurrection. That hypothetical sequence of marriages and deaths that we just heard about. But then of course, the real reason for the hypothetical: The trap if you will; the perplexing question.  “Since this woman was married to all seven brothers and had no sons with any of them, when she gets heaven, whose wife would she be?” But Jesus, as was often the case, didn’t answer the question directly. But instead he offered a theological reflection. In his answer to the Sadducees’ question about the nature of resurrection, Jesus proclaims that through his resurrection even death cannot separate the humanity from the sustaining presence of the Divine. In other words, Jesus reminds them that God is the God of the Living.

What a brilliant answer! Brilliant, because it “sterilized” their question.  Jesus took their loaded question, their attempt to undercut his authority, and turned it into a teaching moment. He was basically saying, “We shouldn’t be concerned about what happens after we die, instead, we should care about caring the living.”

Now, this message is just as important for us in our time as it was back then. It’s important because Jesus is calling us to focus our concern on the living. Not on some dusty old dogmatic creed, but on the needs of our fellow human beings. Jesus is in essence saying here that it’s not about getting people saved, worrying about who’s in and who’s out. Rather it’s about making this world a little better place.

Now, I think, the Gospel of Mark, as he described this same encounter, digs even deeper into the core of Jesus’ message here.  After Jesus had silenced the Sadducees with his theological response, Mark offers this additional exchange: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he had answered them well, he asked, “What commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love God and love neighbor!  Love God by loving your neighbor. My friends, that’s the big stuff!  Jesus says to his inquisitors that sharing the love of God, honoring relationships, having compassion and empathy, thinking of the other before self, these things are the big stuff!  And the sub-text here is that the overseers of the Law, the Sadducees in this case, spent too much time on the minutia of the Law by equating the two basic commandments with the other 600 or so laws that were on the books and by misunderstanding the meaning of resurrection.

You see, resurrection finally isn’t about who’s married to who in eternity, it isn’t about continuing the relationships we propagate here on earth, rather, it’s about living in perfect relationship with God, with each other, and with all of creation. I’m convinced that when Jesus talks about resurrection he isn’t talking about resuscitation; he isn’t talking about these bodies of ours popping up out of the ground someday. But rather, it’s more like what he taught us to say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” AND this heaven-like earth is brought about when we love God by loving our neighbor! If you want to usher in the Kingdom of God, you don’t have to cast your eyes toward heaven, instead, look across the street. Look at your neighbor! Look at the homeless veteran living under the bridge, look at the hungry child in the Guatemalan slum, look at the lonely elderly person next door, look at the family being denied asylum at the border, look at all of these neighbors… and then ACT! That’s the crux of Jesus’ teaching here! God is God of the living! God is the God of all humanity… ALL Humanity! And God is God of all of Creation. That’s the big stuff and that is our calling as people of faith.

One final thought this morning. I realize that I’m making it seem like loving one’s neighbor is a pretty simple thing. But I don’t think that’s really the case. If we’re honest with ourselves, loving our neighbor, the with whom we disagree, the neighbor who we suspect might be “playing the system”, loving the neighbor who’s just plain difficult to love; that ain’t easy. But Jesus reminds us, here in this text, that to God, “all are alive.” In other words, we must suspend our judgment of others because it’s finally God who does the judging. And Jesus insists that God is the God of the living, and since all are alive, God is the God of all people, no matter where they are on their journey, no matter what mistakes they, we, you, me… might have made in the past. God is the God of grace and forgiveness, of compassion and mercy. God is the God of me and you. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, an awesome thing; loving God and neighbor, that’s the best thing; that’s the Big Stuff!

So, socks or no socks, let us all come before the God of the Living, as we join in singing…

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[i] Robert Naylor Jesus Says Everything is Small Stuff, Except… (www.Day1.org) 2013

Just Worship

Luke 18:9-14

They say that confession is good for the soul. And do ya know what? They’re right! Confessing ones transgressions, ones misdeeds, confessing the moments when we were weak or lost our temper or sharpened our tongue too quickly; confessing one’s sins releases us from our guilt and shame, it cleanses our spirits, and confession, I believe, is the beginning of restoration; restoration of our relationship with God and other people. Yes, I agree with those who say, “confession, indeed all prayer, is good for the soul.”

Dr. King once said, “…to be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”[i] Prayer has sustained us, shaped us, formed us, and led us to this point on our journey of life and faith. We’re connected with the Sacred from the very core of our being through prayer. “Prayer is an occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity toward others.”[ii] And this honesty flows from openness: an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation.

But, how and what we pray reveals a significant amount about our relationship to God and others. For some, prayer is about bringing our list of needs — a.k.a. wants — to God. But it’s pretty clear through parables like this one that we have before us today, and through our own experience, that prayer is not going to change God or God’s mind, but rather, it’s about changing us, our perspective. Prayer has the potential to bring us closer to God and to one another. It’s a means of restoring the image of God within us. And this is key to understanding our text for today.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like those other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income; in our contemporary vernacular he’s saying, “I’m da bomb.” But was his prayer answered? I would say, in a round-about way… yes. Why? Because when it comes right down to it, what did the Pharisee ask of God? Nothing. So, what was his purpose in going to the Temple and uttering his reflections to God? Who knows? Vanity? Social expectation? Duty? Whatever his purpose, it didn’t seem to include an openness to being transformed or seeking any kind of a right relationship with God or justice for his neighbor.

“But the tax collector,” the parable continues, “standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his chest and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Now, was the tax collector’s prayer answered? Again, I would say yes. Yes, because the tax collector prayed for mercy. While aware of his shortcomings, he understood, or at least hoped for a bit of understanding, of the vastness of God’s mercy and came humbly to the Temple to seek God’s grace.

And this is important to us in our context as well. It’s important because whether we distance ourselves from God or from one another because of an abundance of self, or whether we are distanced from God and God’s creation because of lack of self, our telos, our purpose, is to seek to restore a right relationship with God, by being in right relationship with neighbor and creation.[iii] And this process begins and continues all throughout our journey of life and faith through prayer, through confession, through lessening our dependence on self, …through humility.

And that’s the crux of this parable. Humility. True humility contributes to the dynamic of faith allowing the power of God to work through us.

I was reminded of this once again as I watched the celebration of life in the capitol for Rep. Elijah Cummings this past week. Rep. Cummings demonstrated true humility in this life and in his lifelong struggle for justice. The evidence of this, for me anyway, came in the form of remembrances given as his body lie in state. Republicans and Democrats alike, white and black men, white and black women, all, all, spoke of his dedication to community, and to this nation, and of his humility.

Mark Meadows, a Republican congressman and close friend of Rep. Cummings, said, “Elijah has left his tent to go to a mansion, to a better place. Perhaps this place and the country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships.” Carly Fiorina, a former Republican presidential candidate, encapsulated the mood of the day when she said, “Elijah Cummings was a man known for his decency, humility, character.” And one thing she remembered most about him was his frequent use of the phrase, “What can we agree on?

You see, it doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or liberal or somewhere in-between, humility, true humility comes in seeking unity; in seeking those things we can agree on. Humility doesn’t signify weakness, but rather the strength to look first at our own shortcomings, ask for forgiveness, and then begin the process of restoration, of finding unity.

Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not addition that makes one holy but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking my private self too seriously.”[iv] And finally, it was Emerson who said, “A great man is always willing to be little.”[v]

And this is where we find ourselves today. You see, it’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and talk-up God. God calls us to be agents of divine grace by demonstrating humility instead of arrogance, by offering the love of God to all people instead of just a few, and by working for creation justice. And none of these virtues can be pursued if we stand and beat our own chest, proclaiming our own greatness. But, but if we lower our heads, if we assume a posture of humility, if we are willing to listen rather than yell, then unity, then the process of restoring right relationship will be possible. If we accept Christ’s invitation to humility, we can find those things that, “we can agree on.”

They say that confession is good for the soul. And that’s true! But just as the soul benefits from confession, so relationship, right relationship, benefits from humility.

In the name of the One who humbly went to the cross to challenge the unjust social structures of his day, we offer our prayers.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Quote found in sermon by Laceye Warner Prayers to God (www.faithand leadership.com) 2013

[ii] Charles Cousar Texts for Preaching Year C in Katheryn Matthews Be Satisfied (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

[iii] Laceye Warner Prayers to God (www.faithand leadership.com) 2013

[iv] Richard Rohr in Katheryn Matthews Be Satisfied (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson. Quote found in exegesis by Katheryn Matthews Be Satisfied (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

Ask Boldly, Live Justly

Luke 18:1-8

Several years ago, deep within the news coverage of terrible events in Myanmar, a BBC reporter shared the story of Ma Theda, a writer and doctor who was held in solitary confinement for six years after she wrote against the abuses in the government there. When asked how she survived those long years of waiting and suffering, first she cited books, which were like “vitamins” to the prisoners, and then she described her spiritual life. The reporter said that, as a Buddhist, Ma Theda meditated 18-20 hours a day.[i]

Can you imagine that? Meditating, praying for 18 hours a day?

As I indicated in the introduction to this text, our passage this week from Luke is about that waiting and about not being discouraged, not losing heart. Like Ma Theda, we are being encouraged to be persistent in prayer; persistent in hope.

Now, traditionally, this passage has been viewed as an instruction to “nag” God with our repeated requests, so that God, like a weary and worn-down parent, will eventually give in and give us what we want. But that interpretation falls short of Luke’s intention here. I spoke last week about a thread that’s running though this part of Luke’s Gospel and that thread is grace. And today’s passage is no exception.

Chapter 18 begins by taking that mantel of grace and expanding upon it. What do I mean? Well, consider if you will, the deeper message of this text; a message about sitting quietly in the presence of the Sacred and then taking the fruits of that time spent with God and transforming them into acts of justice. “For goodness’ sake,” Jesus says, “if an unjust, disrespectful judge who’s afraid of nobody and nothing, hears the case of a poor widow just to avoid getting nagged or embarrassed by her constant pleading, well, then, how much more will God–the God of justice and compassion, the God of the ancient prophets, the God on the palm of whose hand our names are carved–how much more will that God hear the prayers of God’s own children who cry out day and night from their suffering and their need?” Jesus is teaching us something important here about the nature of the God to whom we pray. And what does that nature look like? Well, once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers this lesson.

You know, the word for ‘widow’ in Hebrew literally means ‘silent one’ or ‘one unable to speak.’ And that makes perfect sense in this patriarchal context where only male voices were heard. Women weren’t allowed to speak on their own behalf. So, this “silent one” was acting outside the norm, outside the boundaries of what it meant to be a woman, literally, outside the Law, when she found her voice and spoke up for herself. Maybe it’s because she knew that there was a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says. Widows and orphans, refugees and immigrants, strangers who find themselves living in a foreign land, are all very close to the heart of God and the focus of God’s concern. Why? Because these are the “least of these” that Jesus commends us to care for in Matthew 25.

Now, it makes sense at this point to ask ourselves who “the widows” are in our time: the ones without a voice who speak out against injustice. The recent reaction to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, is a good illustration of how the highest and mightiest feel threatened by the persistent and righteous protests of those “little ones” they would like to dismiss.[ii]

Greta is only one example of many when it comes to climate change. Young people all across our nation are raising their voices, organizing marches, and presenting educational events. I mean, look at the amazing turn out in Ashland last month at the climate march; an event primarily organized and led by our young people. I’ve also heard the voices of high school age people outraged to the point of action concerning the events on our southern border. I heard many articulate voice come to the microphone at General Synod and speak to all sorts of justice issues for the perspective of the next generation. And these speeches were moving! “Let the children come,” Jesus said, “and do not stop them, for the realm of God belongs of such as these.”

You know, as I say this, I’m reminded of another story; another story of a young woman’s persistence in the face of injustice. This story takes place during a famine, a man took a wife and together they had two sons. As the years passed, however, the man died leaving his widow in the care of her two sons, who also had married but had not yet had any children. Now, this living arrangement worked for about 10 years until suddenly both sons died, leaving their mother and her two daughters-in-law to fend for themselves. And as you know, women fending for themselves in the ancient mid-east was a bad idea.

So, the mother-in-law, being from another country originally, decided to return to her home, and she urged her daughters-in-law to return to their families and find new husbands. And that’s what one of the daughters-in-laws did, but he other refused. “Where you go I will go;” she insisted, “where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

Now, you’ve probably already you figured out that this is the story of Ruth from the Hebrew Scriptures and her persistence in going with her mother-in-law Naomi into a dangerous foreign land. There as an easier option, a safer way, but Ruth was loyal to her mother-in-law, she loved Naomi, and didn’t want to see any harm come to her. And it was because of that love, that unconditional, put-yourself-out-there kind of love, that the two of them ended up finding their way.

And in a very real way, it’s this same kind of “Ruthian” persistence that God is calling us to demonstrate. Yes, this parable is framed by references to prayer and faith, and these things are important! But the emphasis on justice here is striking as Luke continues to expand our understanding of grace to include justice-seeking. And how this justice-infused grace then figures in the confrontation between the vulnerable justice-seeker and the unjust power-holder. In this parable, the powerful and just God takes the place of the unjust judge, granting justice to the most vulnerable ones, the ones who cry out day and night.[iii]

So, what about us? Can we follow the lead of our young people and be persistent in our pursuit of justice? Can we be like Ruth and be persistent in our love of God and neighbor? And can we, as individuals, begin to create the time and space everyday to be in the presence of God? Maybe not 18 to 20 hours a day, but isn’t there an hour or two in your day to just be, to meditate, to pray …and then from those sacred moments, let the spirit of justice flow? And finally, as a community of faith, might we be persistent, even in the face of resistance, even when the odds seem long, might we continue to be persistent in our goal of creating a “just world for all?”

In the name of the One who calls us and challenges us and continues to love each of us unconditionally no matter where we find ourselves on this journey of life and faith. Amen and Amen

 

 

[i] Katheryn Matthews Faith Persists (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

[ii] Ibid. Matthews

[iii] Meda Stamper Commentary on Luke 18 (www.workingpreacher.org) 2013