Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sermon: The Best Call Story is Yours

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Twice a year I and a great team of others from around the state lead a two day seminar for people who are considering going into professional ministry. It is the first step of a journey toward becoming a pastor. One of the important parts of that seminar is sharing stories of call – kind of like Samuel’s. We bring in pastors from around the state who share how they felt God’s call.

When we use the phrase God’s call, what we mean by that is how they struggled to know what God wanted them to do with their lives. How did they know that God was leading them into pastoral ministry? What had God done to draw them or to push them that direction?

The story of Samuel is a perfect example of a call from God. But most people’s stories are more complex than this one. Usually they don’t hear a voice in the night, but there is clearly a leading from God and the involvement of other important people. So I invite pastors from around the state to share their call stories with these people who are considering ministry. The idea is that by hearing how other people knew and understood God’s leading, it might help these new folks who are trying to figure out God’s call in their lives.

So for example, during these presentations I might tell how I ended up in pastoral ministry.

My grandmother was one of the most amazing women that I have ever known. She had 8 kids, and she prepared every one of them to be very successful. One of her dreams was that one of her children would be a pastor, but that dream did not come true. My dad thought about it, he met with the supervising committee to talk with them about it, took a some classes in preparation, but the meeting didn’t go well, and he didn’t do very well in the classes, so he went into engineering. My dad had told me all of this as I was growing up – so perhaps God was planting a seed early on. My grandmother died my freshman year of college.

That was a very difficult time for me, I had a lot of suicidal thoughts. But across the hall from me lived a wonderful friend, and he invited me to become involved in a Christian group on campus. It was a great place of friendship and fellowship, and it taught me just how deeply God loved me, even if I didn’t deserve it. Through that group during the summer between my sophomore and junior year I went to a three week leadership camp, where I learned an incredible amount, but I also had a moment during one of our meetings where I knew that God wanted me to be a pastor, so I said to God, “Yes, I will do that.”

About an hour later I changed my mind, I remember praying, “God, I don’t think I need to be a pastor, I can serve you just as well as a teacher or a professor.” You see, I planned to get a doctorate in English Literature and work at a university. So I followed my plan. In my senior year in college I sent out applications to all sorts of graduate schools to pursue my doctorate in English Literature. I even got a full ride offer.

Before going to graduate school I decided to take a year off and earn some money to pay for this further schooling. And that is where the weird started to happen. The school that had offered me a full-ride lost my application, and the opportunity vanished. I sent out other applications and was not accepted at any of the other schools. I began to wonder what was happening while I remembered in the back of my mind that commitment at camp.

So again I prayed, “God just to humor you, I will send out one seminary application. Just one. And we’ll see what happens.” What happened was that as soon as they received it, they personally called me, and asked me to come and visit. I did, and before I knew what was really happening I was enrolled and attending United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH.

During my second year of seminary, I started working at a church for the first time, and I knew that this was what God wanted me to do, and it was what I needed to do. And my grandmother’s dream was fulfilled, and from heaven I know she was proud of me. That’s my call story.

So during this seminar that I lead, we have the attenders gather in small groups and share how they got to this point. What is it in their lives that has made them think God is calling them to a professional ministry?

They share, like I shared. It is a deeply personal and powerful time of reflection. There is laughter and tears. What I’ve learned from this is that although Samuel’s call story is pretty amazing – the best call story is yours.

I mean, it is pretty cool that God calls Samuel in the night four times, that Samuel actually hears the voice of God, that Samuel mistakes the voice of God for that of his master. And it is a little creepy and frightening that his first job is to tell his master, Eli, that God is angry with his family and will punish him, so that their family will no longer be priests in the temple. From that moment Samuel is a prophet of God, bringing messages of hope and messages of condemnation. That is a cool call story.

But yours is still better. Because your call story is the one that God has for your life. Sharing that story is more powerful than sharing Samuel’s because it is real to you – you have lived it.

Now, I know that not everyone is called to professional ministry. But everyone is called. That calling may be to be the best Christian business executive you can be, it might be to be the teacher that demonstrates God’s love to the kids, it might be to help serve at every potluck the church has, it might be to volunteer at RAM, it might be speak a prophetic word to leadership; but we are all called by God, every day. Sometimes it is easy to hear that call (like a voice calling to Samuel) – and other times it can be very hard to tell if God is speaking to us or not (like mistaking that voice for the voice of the master). Sometimes we accept that call (like saying “God, I will do that”), sometimes we refuse it (like saying “God, I don’t think I need to be a pastor”). But you are called whether you hear it easily or not, whether you accept it or not.

Think about that for a moment, how did you get to where you are? Where has God led you? When have you felt God nudging you?

Perhaps you had not thought of this before. Perhaps God is calling you someplace new today – and you are fighting it like I did. But you are called. And it may be time for you to answer, “Here I am, Lord, Speak for your servant is listening.”

Or perhaps your call has developed over your life, and the path has taken you many places you never would have guessed, through valleys, over mountaintops, and God still has plans for you.

Or perhaps you have a clear moment in your past like Samuel’s, or like mine where you knew what God was leading your toward, and you can say, this is the day it happened.

Whatever the case, I recommend that you spend some time thinking about your call story, about where God has led you, and how God has been involved in your life, because it is in sharing this story that you will touch other people’s lives. I mean, you can share Samuel’s story, but it is just a story in a book. But if you share your story, with your passion, with your heart, with your flesh and blood presence in front of another person – that has power. It is a witness to God’s activity in your life. And it will bring laughter and tears.

So as much as I love Samuel’s story, the one I hope that you leave church today with, is yours. Think about putting it into words. Who in your past helped you to know what God wants you to do with your life? How did God your attention? What roadblocks and opportunities have cropped up along the way? Where has God spoken to you, and how have you responded? When did you realize (or maybe you haven’t yet) that you were on the right path?

Oh, and remember that your story is not done yet. God is still calling you. There may be something new tomorrow that God calls you to. Never put “The End” on your call story, until God brings you into the eternal home in heaven, because until that day, God still may have more surprises in store for you!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sermon: Watermarks

Baptism is so simple.  Find one of the most common things on earth, water.  Then get wet.  But it is so much more than that.  Bishop Judith Craig had an excellent visual example several years ago at Annual Conference.  She took a piece of paper, held it up to the light, and said yes there it is.  A watermark.

You can see them on stamps, checks, extra fine letterhead or typing paper.  All sorts of things have watermarks.  Usually the marks tell us who made it, and what grade of paper it is.  These marks are there to assure us of the document’s authenticity, they are also there to assure us of their quality. According to Wikipedia, watermarks were first introduced in 1282, in Italy!

The term is also used for those marks on online photos so you don’t use copyrighted materials. In a sense, these say, “These images belong to me and are not for use without permission.” Like watermarks on paper they are there to prove the authenticity of the final product.

Bishop Craig said that, those of us who are baptized have watermarks.  If you hold us up to the light of God you can see them. [grab eraser]  And once we are baptized no one else can erase it, though we ourselves might ignore it.  It is an indelible claim that God has made on our lives, which says you are special.  An authentic handmade creation of God’s, you are the highest quality.  God doesn’t want us to forget it.

A story is told of Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, who sparked the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

It is said that he would from time to time find himself in great anxiety, doubt, depression, and felt like he was being tempted and taunted by the devil. In those moments he would repeat to himself, “Baptizatus Sum” and no that is not some Harry Potter incantation. It means “I am baptized!” In those moments of despair he was remembering that he was watermarked by God, and that nothing could remove that. He was God’s and that gave him strength to go on.

Bishop Craig’s sermon stands as the best explanation of baptism I have ever heard. It takes what might seem like a weird ancient practice, and gives it meaning. If you have ever had a hard time expressing what baptism means to you, if you have ever been puzzled about how to explain why you would want a child baptized, here is a visual example! There is upon you a watermark a of God’s grace.  Not something that we earn, not something that we put there ourselves.  But a mark on our spirit left there by the touch of God’s finger, which expresses that we belong to God and it conveys God’s grace and love.

This is an act commanded by Christ, which bears years of tradition and speaks beyond what words can express.  “Over the centuries Christians have debated what baptism accomplishes, to whom it should be administered, and how much water should be used.”[1]

But let’s be honest that is like arguing about the best way to make a watermark. Should you use the Dandy roll process which uses a wet stamp or rollers to press an image into the paper making a thinner spot in the paper where the light comes through, or should you use the cylinder mold process which is much more complicated, requires rerolling the paper multiple times so that the thickness of the paper is the same throughout, but the paper is less dense in the area of the watermark and that lets the light through? This makes a clearer image and is what is usually used on money, passports, and so on.

What really matters is not the method, but what is happening in the process. As we are baptized we are immersed in the grace of God anew, and now we can shout, as Luther did, “I am baptized!”

Baptism, as the rite of initiation in Christ’s holy church, reminds us that we are forever ‘watermarked’ with God’s love.  So, even though baptism is a once in a lifetime event, we can remember our baptism as often as we like.  To remind ourselves that the mark is still there, it can’t be washed away.  Whether a person received this gift as an infant or an adult, God’s grace entered into that person’s life more fully.

Can those sitting around you see yours?  Can you see them on the people around you? Can they see that you are an authentic creation of God’s of the highest quality? Perhaps when the situation is just right, yes. But perhaps at other times the mark is invisible.

Phyllis Faaborg Wolk tells this story that helps explain that: Mrs. Detweiler worked at Murray Elementary as the special education teacher. It didn't take her students long to see her watermark which made them feel special and loved. Even though she was a special education teacher, the students of Murray Elementary considered it a privilege to be invited to Mrs. Detweiler's room. The walls of her small classroom were covered with stars made out of bright yellow construction paper. Neatly written in black permanent marker on the star at the top of each row was the name of one of her students. As soon as a student finished reading a book, the title of that book was placed on another star that soon appeared directly beneath the star bearing the student's name. The more books a person read, the more stars accumulated under the name. Whenever her students finished a book, Mrs. Detweiler made them feel like stars, themselves. Her ability to make her students feel special and important was the light of God shining through her.

But even as one created in the image of God, Mrs. Detweiler would be the first to say that she had her faults. There were times when she let her students down; times when she lost her patience; times when her mood affected her ability to respond to her students enthusiastically. Mrs. Detweiler wasn't perfect, there were times when the light did not shine through the watermark so clearly, and yet still she was claimed as God's child through her baptism and renewed each day with the gift of forgiveness. As she gave God what belonged to God by giving of herself to her students, Jesus worked through her. Through Mrs. Detweiler, God's love, acceptance and encouragement was shown to many students as they grew and matured into the people God had created them to be. As she gave God what belonged to God, God continued to give himself to her, revealing his love again and again through the sparkle in her students' eyes.[2]

So sometimes the watermark is easily visible, on our good days; and other times it is hard to see, on our bad days, but it is always there, whether people see it or not.

Baptism is so simple.  Find water.  Then get wet.  But it is so much more than that.  Because God willingly touches ordinary water and then willingly touches ordinary persons, watermarking them for life. 

In baptism, we are touching God and God is touching us.  God says you are mine, special to me, and I will never let my love for you be washed off.  When trouble comes, shout, “I am baptized!” In your daily lives, let my light shine through you, show that you are my authentic child.

[1] Christian Theology in Plain Language, p. 158.
[2] INVITATIONS TO THE LIGHT, by Phyllis Faaborg Wolk

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sermon: Hold the Baby

Luke 2:22-40

Every once in a while we have a new baby in the church. And it never fails that when I go to see the parent or grandparent who is holding the child that they will say to me, “Would you like to hold the baby?” And of course the answer is always, “Yes.” Holding a newborn is such a special experience. They are so tiny, so fragile, and hold so much hope for the future. What wonders will this child do? What will they be? How will they bless the world? Each child, every child brings that hope.

So imagine Simeon, imagine Anna, in our scripture today. People who had been waiting for the Messiah for so long. People who had been told that they would see the salvation of God come into the world. And then comes the moment when they get to take Jesus into their arms. Not only is this like holding every other newborn, not only are the questions of what wonders and blessings will come from his hands. But this child is so much more, and they know it.

Simeon prays as he takes the child into his arms, “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

Then he tells Mary, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”

So Simeon knows that the child in his arms is the source of salvation, that he will reach out to the whole world, that his very existence will cause us to examine our hearts and innermost thoughts, and that tragedy will break Mary’s heart.

“The great renaissance artist Giotto captures the essence of this scene in his "Presentation at the Temple." Simeon holds the baby Jesus, his lips moving beneath his hoary beard, carefully reciting the lines of his nunc dimittis: "now may your servant depart in peace." Giotto knows his Simeon, and he knows his babies too. The infant Jesus, far from resting contentedly in his arms through this holy aria, is responding as all babies do when held by weird strangers. His eyes are narrowed and fixed in frozen alarm on Simeon. He reaches desperately for his mother, every muscle arched away from the old man toward Mary. But looking carefully at the background, we see the artist's true genius. The child seems suspended above the temple altar, that place of sacrifice. As art historian John W. Dixon puts it, "This very human baby is known, from the very beginning, to be the eternal sacrifice for the redemption of the mankind."”[1] That’s Simeon holding the child.

And then there is Anna. Anna’s exact words aren’t recorded (leave that to a bunch of male disciples) instead her speech is summarized as “She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Like Simeon, Anna also knew that the child would bring about the redemption of the people and she praised God for Jesus.

Imagine what she must have been thinking as she held this child in her hands! Imagine what Simeon was feeling with the future of God’s kingdom held in his arms!

And I am a bit jealous, aren’t you? Can’t you imagine Joseph and Mary coming up to you and saying, “Would you like to hold the baby?” What a joy that would be! Once in a while I have led meditations where we imagine ourselves approaching the manger in the night after Jesus has been born, and Mary asks us if we would like to hold the child. It is a way of placing ourselves in that intimate moment where God’s grace is still so new, so helpless, and the hope of what he will do is just beginning to be revealed.

Cara Callbeck tells the story of the first time she tried this type of spiritual exercise.

“Sadly lacking in imagination, I found myself struggling greatly with contemplation, and I was dragging our poor director along with me to the point that I thought he was going to “excuse” me from the Exercises altogether. Nearing Christmas, he had me discard all previous attempts and follow this one simple instruction instead: “Just spend some time holding baby Jesus.” That was supposed to be easier? I expected the experience to be as fruitless and frustrating as my prior attempts at contemplation to that point. But I trudged on, and I am so glad I did.”

“By the grace of God, I did manage to hold baby Jesus in my next attempt at contemplation. In holding that sweet, sleeping babe in my arms that night, I started to appreciate the humanity of Jesus. Babies have a way of making us feel peaceful, protective, and completely in love. There Jesus lay in my arms fully divine, but fully human, too. Just like any other baby, I could smell that lovely baby smell, marvel at his tiny hands, and count his tiny baby toes. This baby in my arms was completely dependent; he got hungry, tired, or just needed to be held. Dependent, needing, tiny—those are not qualities I had ever really associated with the divine and thus never appreciated in Jesus.”

She closes her reflection by saying, “I encourage you to do as my director instructed and spend some time just holding baby Jesus. You can’t help but fall completely in love when you hold him in your arms.”[2] [pause] I would add, try it for a week. See what you notice. What does God reveal to you as you hold Christ in your arms every day? Is it something deep and prophetic like Simeon expressed? Is it a simple joy that Cara experienced? Or is it something else?

You see, part of the joy in that meditation and in the scripture today is that, we can hold the baby. We can take Christ into our arms. Not only in our imagination, but also in other profound and mysterious ways. Christ asks to dwell in our hearts, he asks to be part of our lives, he wants us to hold him within us each and every day. All we have to do is say, “Yes. I want to hold the baby. I want to have the Salvation of God, the child of hope, the prince of peace, the light of the Gentiles, the glory of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem, the Son of God in my arms.” You can have that.

Paul says it in Ephesians 3:16-19 as he prays for us:

“I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.”

Paul suggests that through faith we can have Christ in our hearts, that his love can fill us with the fullness of God. It is as though we are holding the very Christ-child not only in our arms, but allowing him to touch our hearts. Now I know, this sounds kind of sappy. Clearly there is more to religion that just holding a baby. But at the same time I can think of no greater delight than holding that child. That hope. That very real representation of the love of God, in my arms today.

There is something miraculously transforming in the knowledge that God’s son is not a distant memory, not a historical event, but a continuing revelation born anew into our world in every age. Born anew into our lives, our hearts. So we can set the past behind us, and move into a new year with new blessings and new life. So we can re-experience the power and wonder of all that God is doing today.

So I ask you today – would you like to hold the baby? In your arms, in your heart?

[1] Christian Glove Networks, Inc. Illustrations by King Duncan
[2] Cara Callbeck, Reflections on Ignatian Spirituality,

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Sermon: Each Light A Prayer

Isaiah 9:2-7

I was reading a sermon by Timothy Cargal, (yes, pastors listen to and read other pastor’s sermons, how else would we be spiritually fed?) and in it he talks rather humorously about how, “One of the great cultural traditions of modern American Christmas observances is the use of lights. Everything that doesn’t move is decorated with lights. Christmas trees are recognizable by their lights, and indeed as more and more types of trees are used as Christmas trees, the more it is the presence of the lights that identifies them as such. Lights are put around lampposts. We hang lights from the eaves and awnings of our homes, and around windows and doorframes. Lighted fixtures and images are arrayed in front yards, and those that are not self-lighted are bathed in spotlights. Without a moment’s embarrassment at the brazen self-interest, electrical power companies promote contests for the best and most elaborate seasonal displays.” He then goes on to talk about the psychological reasons that we do this during the darkest time of year, when the days are short and the nights are long.

I remember a powerful story told by Roger Robbenolt about his father who feared the darkness in the years before electric lights. It was a symptom of his manic-depression.

During the gloom of December, as long as the kerosene lamps were ablaze he could endure the long nights. But if there was no kerosene his father would become violent and angry from his fear. The year when Roger was nine particularly stands out in his memory. 37 inches of snow had fallen in three weeks, and more was coming. They hadn’t been able to get into town to buy oil or candles and on Christmas Eve – both ran out. Roger’s mother called a mile distant neighbor on the phone, pleading for any extra kerosene they might have.

On those blizzard shrouded days there was little to do. One pastime was rubbernecking (some of you will know what that is, it is when there are 18 families on a party telephone line, each with its own distinguishable ring. Well, even if the call wasn’t for you, you could very carefully lift the phone, cover the mouthpiece and listen in on your neighbor’s conversation.) The neighbor said she didn’t have any extra oil, and the phone call ended.

What happened a while later was a miracle due to people being nosy. As Roger stood by the window, he saw lights like fireflies in the distance, lanterns, seventeen lanterns growing larger as the bearers came nearer. Roger’s father saw the light and cried out, “The lights – look at the lights.”

Roger says, “They came on that Christmas Eve, the light bearers. But they bore more than light. Though jobs were scarce and gardens had dried up and the snow was too deep to care for trap lines, everybody brought something to share. Tilllie Mauldin had come up with the makings of mincemeat pie. Bill Cooley had some ground venison. Gyp Matthews brought corn to pop. Thirty people or more crowded into the tiny living room and kitchen . . . ”

“We sang and laughed and shared far into the night. Ted rolled in our kerosene barrel, and everyone poured half a lantern-full into it. We would not be without light.”[1]

You see there is more to Christmas and lights than just psychology. It is about hope, deepest hope, that reaches beyond our mind into the depths of our souls. Light is spiritual. Isaiah captures it in his writing.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.

It isn’t until after he has told us about light that he says:

A child is born to us, a son is given to us.

He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

In the darkest night, Isaiah says, there will be light, spiritual hope, and that hope comes in the form of a child, the Christ.

It isn’t just Isaiah, that realizes that light and Christ are connected. You also hear it in our Christmas carols, this connection between light and the newborn child and the hope he brings into a dark world.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing says, “Hail! the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail! the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.”

Do you hear what I hear says, “Pray for peace, people everywhere! listen to what I say The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night: He will bring us goodness and light, He will bring us goodness and light.”

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by; Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.”

As humans, we crave hope. We want to see dark times vanish, we want the shadows of evil lifted, we want the lonely midnight hours of the soul to be lightened by the company of angels.  We want to be standing out in the fields by night and see the glory of the Lord shining upon us. We crave hope. And the lights that cover our houses, the lights that cover our trees, the lights that drape our sanctuary represent prayers from the depths of our spirit, prayers to God to bring light, hope-filled light, into our world.

Imagine as you drive home that each light on the houses and trees you pass is a prayer, and some of us really like to pray. But still it is a voice crying out. The owners of the homes, the people putting out the lights may not realize it, they may not be aware that they are praying. But deep in their spirits it is there. The desire for the light to overcome the darkness.

As we light the candles tonight, we are joining those perhaps unknown and unwitting prayers. But we are doing so consciously.

We are aware of the spiritual quest of humanity. We speak quite openly about our hope that comes from this child of God born many years ago. We believe that what the angels sang is possible, that there can be peace on earth, and goodwill among all people, and that this child is part of making that happen. And we lift our lights to heaven praying that it would be so.

Each candle is a prayer. We are bearers of the lanterns of hope, messengers of the everlasting light, who come to bear homage to the child in the manger, who is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace.

[1] Tales of Gletha the Goatlady, Roger Robbenolt (Ave Maria Press, 1993)

Sermon: 12 Hour Pregnancy

Luke 1:26-38

I remember my seminary professor of worship commenting that one of the strangest things about Christmas, is that we don’t read the scripture about the angel appearing to Mary until the last Sunday before Christmas. This year, that timing is particularly strange because -- with today being Christmas Eve, this morning we read about Mary being told by an angel that she is pregnant, and then tonight we will read about her giving birth to Jesus. So in less than 12 hours we will go from Mary hearing about God’s plan, to her being in the very fulfilment of it.

So the timing of the scriptures this year is relatively entertaining. She barely has time to buy maternity clothes before giving birth! Amazingly it is estimated that 1 in 2500 women doesn’t know she’s pregnant until she goes into labor! There are some wild stories out there. So much so that TLC has a television show called I didn’t know I was pregnant.

Of course, we know Mary’s pregnancy didn’t really happen like that. And that is what my seminary professor was trying to remind us.

We really ought to read the passage of the angelic visit 9 months before Christmas – so that we can be part of the slow build up to the birth. Then we can experience the agonizing decision of Joseph as he planned to disband his engagement to Mary, and then changed his mind with the help of a dream. We can enjoy the days, perhaps weeks and months that Mary spent living with her aunt Elizabeth who was also pregnant. We can wonder with all of them, and ponder with them what God’s intentions are for this child who is developing and growing in Mary.

Then as the day nears, and we are in the last month, we can experience the frustration they must have felt in knowing that they would have to travel for a census. Yes, it would take longer than our time between services for  Mary and Joseph to travel by foot or by slow footed donkey (if you believe tradition) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It’s a trip that takes 2 hours and 10 minutes by car according to Google maps, but for a pregnant woman walking or riding would take 4 to 7 days. And all of that not knowing if the baby would be born along the way, or wait until they had reached Bethlehem.

My professor was trying to remind us, that this was no easy one day pregnancy. It was an emotional roller coaster, with ups and downs, struggles and difficulties. And we don’t take enough time to consider all that went into the preparations for the birth of Christ. We make it sudden, as if it only took a few days. Imagine if we started reading the angel’s announcement in March, if we agonized with Joseph in April and May, if we visited with Elizabeth and read about the joy of their meeting in June. If we heard about the upcoming census in August, and made travel plans in September and October. And then last week, we had left with them by foot. For some of us, this would be too much Christmas! But the power of it would be a reminder that God’s ways are often slow and deliberate. And that what we read in a few sentences in the bible is God’s work over months, and sometimes years.

Reading this passage so close to Christmas can give us the illusion that God’s answers to the world’s problems are quick, like an order on with delivery by Fed-Ex, absolutely guaranteed to be there the overnight. But God often takes the slow, grow a messiah in a mother’s womb, let him be a helpless babe, grow into a child, mature through being a teenager, wait until he is 30 years old before he goes public, path to salvation.

But, as I was preparing for today, and knowing that we would go from the announcement to the birth in the space of 8 hours, I thought, perhaps there is something for us to learn from hearing the two stories in such a short time, also.

Perhaps there is power in thinking of the birth of Jesus into our world as a sudden and surprising event that we didn’t really have time to prepare for.

Because honestly, that is how it was for most of the world. Mary had time to prepare, but the shepherds in the fields didn’t. Suddenly there were angels singing in a heavenly host around them. And they had to decide right then and there if they were going to go to Bethlehem and see this child who had been born.

Joseph had time to change his mind, but the innkeeper didn’t. He had to decide when the couple came to his door, right then and there if he had space for them.

And sometimes the same thing is very true for each of us. Although we have time to get our decorations out and ready for Christmas, and although we have time to consider and reconsider what gifts we are going to give each of our family members, when it comes to God erupting into our lives it is often a sudden and unexpected thing that we are not ready for.

For example, this has literally happened to me. I have been driving past someone’s house, and I have been nagged by God to stop and go in and see them. As though God is shouting at me, “Now, right now.” Twice I have had that happen and the person has been on their death-bed with family around. They hadn’t called me to tell me. But God had.

Or an accident occurs and you are the car right behind it. So you are the witness, and the first on the scene to try to provide help. You don’t have time to prepare for that. And yet God is calling you to serve in that moment and to use your gifts and talents at that moment to help in any way you can. To be an agent of calm, to summon help, to pray for those involved, to give first aid. Whatever it is, God is calling you to be present.

Or perhaps you are in prayer, and suddenly God is saying to you, “Hey I have a job for you to do. A project for you to give birth to that will bless the word.” God has never put that idea into your mind before, you had never considered it. A change of profession, a move to a new area, starting of an outreach to homeless, or opening a pre-school in the church. But there it is – a calling from God. Suddenly later that day a door opens in your life and the very opportunity that God shared with you in prayer is available, and you simply are not ready. It is too sudden! But you know that you have to decide now, whether you are ready or not.

That’s where Mary becomes a role model for us. She stands there in shock and surprise with an angel standing before her and she says, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

She is a role model of listening to God’s surprising news, listening to God’s sudden and unexpected announcement and saying, “Yes.” So for all those moments when God throws us into ministry, into service, when God calls us without warning – she reminds us as unready as we are, we can enter into the whirlwind of God’s call upon our lives. Oh, yes we will wonder what is going to happen next. But before we know it, time whirls by and the next thing we know God’s promises are coming true for us. It is the sudden and surprising that leads to the long range and the life changing.

Yes, there is something for us to learn from this amazing 12 hour pregnancy, it is that when God bursts into your world, say, “Yes” and be prepared for the blessings that follow. What unfolds may take weeks, months or years to come to fruition, but it is the suddenness of God’s call that begins the process. So this morning we celebrate the surprising nature of God’s call – which can come out of nowhere like an angel appearing to us – and we contemplate what it means for us to say, “Yes.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Another Year Is Dawning

Frances Ridley Havergal was an English poet and hymn writer – her best known hymns from our hymn book are Take My Life and Let It Be and Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak. She showed signs of being very intelligent very young, began writing verse at age seven, but was discouraged from rigorous study by delicate health. Yet she still took a year to study music in Germany, was able to speak several modern languages along with biblical Greek and Hebrew, and published many books of hymns. She died too young at 42. (Thanks to the for links to a number of biographies on her!)

In one of her letters to a friend she said this about writing hymns: 'Writing is praying with me, for I never seem to write even a verse by myself, and I feel like a little child writing. You know, a child would look up after every sentence and say, "What am I to say next?" That is just what I do. I ask that at every line He would give me not merely thought and power, but also every word even the very rhyme. Very often I have a most distinct and happy consciousness of direct answers.' (Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Normal Mable, 1951).

All of that is background for what follows – one of her verses written specifically for New Year’s.

Another year is dawning,
Dear Master, let it be,
In working, or in waiting,
Another year with Thee.

Another year of mercies,
Of faithfulness and grace;
Another year of gladness
In the shining of Thy face.

Another year of progress,
Another year of praise,
Another year of proving
Thy presence all the days.

Another year of service,
Of witness of Thy love,
Another year of training
For holier work above.

Another year is dawning,
Dear Master, let it be
On earth, or else in heaven
Another year for Thee.

--Frances Ridley Havergal (1874)

There is much that I like about that hymn, and I pray that you will reflect upon it, and use it in prayer and preparation at the beginning of this new year! By the way she also has a wonderful reflection called “Twelve reasons for attending church on a wet Sunday”, which is worth looking into and reading, but I will save that for next month!

Sermon: Sowing Tears

Psalm 126

I have been listening to Christmas Carols on the radio while driving. I joked with Kristi that every time I get in the car I hear at least one of these three songs: White Christmas, Silver Bells, and Blue Christmas they are so overplayed. So then we took a 10 minute drive to Arby’s for lunch together and what happened – they played White Christmas, and Blue Christmas – but no Silver Bells.

Well, if I were going to play one of those three songs today as part of my sermon, it would be Blue Christmas. You see, one of the realities of Christmas is that it comes with tears. Every Christmas as we gather in the church for Christmas Eve it is a different gathering. There are those who are no longer part of our lives, those that we are separated from by changes in relationship, by moves, or by death – and we deeply miss them. But there are also those that are new in our midst that remind us that there are new joys, new lives, and new relationships and these bring hope and gifts for tomorrow.

This interplay of joy and sorrow is captured well by Psalm 126.

Psalm 126
When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,
    it was like we had been dreaming.
Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;
    our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.
It was even said, at that time, among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them!”
Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are overjoyed.
Lord, change our circumstances for the better,
    like dry streams in the desert waste!
Let those who plant with tears
    reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
Let those who go out,
    crying and carrying their seed,
    come home with joyful shouts,
    carrying bales of grain!

As I read the psalm I was captured by one of its lines. “Lord, let those who plant with tears, reap the harvest of joyful shouts.” And I began to reflect on the image that that created in my mind.

I imagined a person going out to their garden and weeping, with the tears running down their cheeks. And then that person takes those tears and carefully plants them in the ground. Over time the tears sprout into plants and they grow. What they grow into, I am not sure. I guess it is just a time of growing and waiting for the expected vegetables to grow. The plants flower, they are pollenated, and then begins to grow what the gardener wanted. Weeks or perhaps months later the vegetable is ready to pick. In this case, the vegetable is joy. Such joy that you want to shout.

As I reflected on that image I began to wonder how our sadness and tears can grow into joy. How are the two emotions related to one another? When have you seen one transform into the other?

Now I know that the writer of the Psalm may not have meant it to be a picture like the one I created in my mind. I realize that they simply may have watched people planting with tears in their eyes because the times were tough – they were being oppressed and under the power of others. And then later when the harvest was happening the situation was changed and the threat to their lifestyles was gone.

But even when you see the image that way, the emotions are connected. People rejoice because what once was heavy upon them is gone. The sorrow and the joy are still bound together, they are related, and one transforms into the other. And so I decided to ask you – for your wisdom as a group. Because you have been through tough times, I know you have shed tears, and I also know that God has sometimes turned those tears to joy.

The sermon today is not just me sharing my words. You see, I knew that you have sat here and listened to the kids, and heard the Christmas story from them with its message of hope and peace, and you might be ready to do something more interactive. So I am changing my approach today, and asking all of us to contribute our life experience as we talk about three questions. Just three, so don’t be afraid to speak up! I won’t keep us going forever with a thousand questions. We can take our time and answer a little more deeply and get several viewpoints in answer to each. Ready?

Question 1. How are sorrow and joy related?Question 2. How do you see God involved in transforming one into the other?Question 3. What advice do you give to someone who is right now planting tearful seeds?

Thank you all for sharing your wisdom. For those of us who are feeling blue this Christmas, there was some great insight and advice there.

I think the greatest joy of this passage is the promise that our tears can be turned into joyful shouts. It can happen. As Isaiah 61:11 says, “As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.” There is water for the desert, and life in Christ. Thanks be to God.