Friday, December 23, 2016

New Year's Day

Almost every culture and country around the world celebrates some form of New Year's Day. Of course the time of the year and the date of the celebration vary. Some celebrate it at the harvest, others at the time of planting, some at the summer solstice, and others like ourselves near the longest night of winter – as we celebrate that the light and the warmth will be returning soon. So you might get the impression that the sole purpose of celebrating New Years is for seasonal reasons.

But I think that people celebrate New Years for more than just seasonal reasons. I think that people also celebrate for psychological and spiritual reasons. The fact is that as human beings we need opportunities from time to time to let go of the past, and look forward to the future with a renewed hope. I have heard many people say, “That was a bad year, I am glad to see it go. Maybe next year will be better!” We need the opportunity to let go of the sorrows and the pains of what was, and then to dream about all the good and wonderful things that might lie ahead for us. New Years gives the permission to emotionally restart our lives and to grab onto hope for our future.

Yet, I would take it even deeper than that. There is a reason that the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is followed very closely by a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)– a day in which people ask for forgiveness of sin and seek reconciliation with God.  As human beings we need to take time to look back on our lives and see where we have made mistakes, and then let those things go, we need to have the chance to start again. Too many of us lie awake at night rehashing all of our past mistakes, feeling guilty about our sins, and we absolutely need to give ourselves the permission to move on, letting the past be in the past. As we move ahead we need to know that God also has forgiven our sins and that God is calling us into a new and vibrant future. By the grace of God, New Year’s allows us to truly strive to be more perfect in our love for God and love for neighbor.

So my prayer for all of you this New Year is that you can let go of the burdens of the last year, lay them at the feet of Christ, and claim the strength and power of God’s transforming love so that you grow in all godliness as you seek to serve Christ. As we look forward to the growth of light and warmth in the warm, may you also look forward to the growth of the light of Christ and the warmth of the Spirit’s presence.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sermon: Saying Yes to God

Matthew 1:18-25

There are a lot of little moments in our lives,

when we know that God is calling us to do something. It might be God telling us to do our errands today in a certain way because it is honest and fair, or it might be God telling us to speak a word of encouragement to a friend. I think our days are filled with those little moments.

But there are also big moments when God is calling us to do something. Perhaps God is calling you into a new profession maybe even pastoral ministry, or God is calling you to take a bigger role in a ministry with the homeless, or you hear God leading you to work with youth or children in the community. Saying yes to these types of callings involves significant life changes, and so it isn’t easy to decide what to do.

On one side you could probably summarize

most of the biblical stories with the simple question, “did they say yes or no to God?” Think about it. Noah says yes to God, saved from flood. Abraham and Sarah say yes to God and have a child they really wanted. Pharaoh says no to God, and plagues strike all over the place. Moses says yes to God, leads people out of slavery in Egypt. Jonah says no to God, gets swallowed by a whale. David says yes to God, kills Goliath. David then says no to God and ends up in a civil war with his own son.

But each of the yeses also comes at a cost. Noah spends a lot of time and money building that ark, collecting animals, and wondering if it really is going to rain. Abraham and Sarah say yes to having a child, but it causes conflict with Abraham’s older son and the family ends up breaking apart. Moses says yes to God, but for 40 years leads this group of whining and complaining people around in the desert. Saying yes to God doesn’t mean life will be easy.

The Christmas story is no different really.

Mary says yes to God and a great miracle begins to take place, the messiah begins to grow and develop in her womb. But she faces the scorn of others, in particular her betrothed, Joseph. It took courage for her to say yes to God. So we often praise Mary for her willingness to go along with God’s plan as well we should.

But Joseph also is confronted with choosing to participate or not. And sometimes we ignore his side of the story. You see, when Mary announced her pregnancy, Joseph probably felt a lot of emotions and had a lot of questions. Who did she do this with? Why? Could he ever trust her? He had to be angry, maybe be ashamed. With all of that going on in his head and heart, it would not have been unusual at that time for him to make a public spectacle of her – perhaps even have her stoned to death.

“As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The angel then explains God’s plan, and invites Joseph to take his part in it. And now Joseph has to decide. Is he going to say yes to God, or not? [pause] if this were a movie, there would be a huge dramatic moment with flashbacks and tearstained faces as Joseph contemplated the decision, and I would try to keep you in tension for several minutes without telling you his decision. But you already know the story, so that won’t work.

We know that Joseph then does say yes, and in our bible passage for the day he even does the fatherly job of naming Jesus. So we know he not only accepted Mary, and decided to stay married to her, but he also took on the role and duties of being Jesus’ father.

However, you know people still looked at him and judged him for it. There were those who said, “He’s got to be the father. Who on earth would believe this story these two came up with. Nudge, nudge.” Then there were others who wondered, “If he’s not the father, he’s an idiot for believing her story. He should have walked away.” He faced scorn from others for being either a liar or a fool simply by saying yes to God.

For Joseph, although the end result is incredible and wonderful, the Messiah coming on earth; the process is difficult along the way.

This is true for us in our lives too.

God often calls us to wonderful and incredible things, but to get there we have to go through places filled with questions and painful emotions. The call may come at awkward times, when we are unprepared and life has hurt us. We may find ourselves angry, ashamed, not able to trust others, and untrusted by others. And God says, follow me. When we do, people may judge us harshly, all because God asks us to go to a place that is unpopular, or where people get the wrong impression.

“There was a true story of a new pastor who went to visit a prospective church member who lived next door to a bar. The apartment that the man lived in shared a hallway and entrance to a bar. One day the new pastor went into the apartment through the bar entrance and visited the man in the upstairs apartment. A couple of ladies who were home were watching outside their apartment window and saw the pastor go inside.’

“An hour or so later, they saw him come out of the bar and apartment door entrance, but he was having a hard time walking. The women thought that the new pastor had just gone into the bar and was drunk when he came out and told others about this. When the story got back to the pastor, who was asked to explain himself, he said that he had just visited a prospective new church member in his apartment, but when he came downstairs, he turned his ankle and couldn’t walk very well. No one had given the new pastor the benefit of the doubt and thought the worst when that was not the case at all. In fact, he was doing what he was called to do.”[1]

Jesus tells us that in following him, we will be taking up our cross – what he means by that is that in following God there are costs, ways that we will suffer, we may even end up putting our lives on the line. But that is what it means to be a follower of God. Saying yes to God involves difficulties. We have to understand that.

But here is the thing.

When we choose to say yes to God – although we face those difficulties, we also get to participate in the very life of Christ in the world – just as Joseph did. Joseph may have had people say all sorts of things about him, but he got to hold the son of God. He got to name him. He got to enjoy those childhood moments like wrestling, and playing chase. He got to watch with pride as Jesus grew in wisdom and began to teach others.

When we say yes to God we also get to witness Christ coming to life in the world. You see in those moments, Christ lives in us, God works through us, we become agents of the sacred and saving work of God. We may be unpopular, we may be misunderstood or judged.

I can’t say what the challenges for you may be, or where God is calling you, and what difficulties that may lead to. But I can tell you that when you say yes to God, the treasures you gain far surpass the troubles you face. You become part of the story of God, where God’s salvation becomes reality. Even if you sacrifice your very life, you become a part of the eternal yes, the heavenly host who continually cheer as those on earth strive to build the kingdom of God on earth. And you get to see Christ.

That’s what Joseph knew, and it is how he stands to encourage us today to say yes. Face peril or prison, insult or assault, and courageously serve the God of hope. It is worth it.

[1] story from Jack Wellman, Pastor of Mulvane Brethren Church

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sermon: Repainting Mary

Luke 1:46-55

I know that you have just had a wonderful teaching and learning

program from our kids as they presented to us the Christmas story again. I want to share just a short reflection with you about Mary, Jesus mother.

In the season of Christmas, we paint pictures in our minds of Mary and Joseph in the stable and the baby Jesus being born. We imagine Mary, young, innocent, but willing to do what God asked. She is a model of trust and surrender – so it is easy to picture her as a submissive, calm, and inoffensive person. We may think of her as meek and mild, a mother, a nurturer, and many other things. But perhaps we are wrong. You see, we only have a very few quotes from Mary in the Bible, and the longest one is the Luke scripture for the day.

Let me read it:

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

    In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.

He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.

    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored

        because the mighty one has done great things for me.

Holy is his name.

    He shows mercy to everyone,

        from one generation to the next,

        who honors him as God.

He has shown strength with his arm.

    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

    He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones

        and lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things

    and sent the rich away empty-handed.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,

        remembering his mercy,

    just as he promised to our ancestors,

        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Her words here start out like we would expect as she reflects on her low status and the might of God, but then her next words are almost “revolutionary.” In fact they have “a long history of being banned by various church or political bodies. As recently as the 1980s, the government of Guatemala forbade public reading of it, as did the government of Argentina in the 1970s.”[1]

Saying that the powerful will be pulled off their thrones,

And the rich will go away empty handed just doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. These are the words of a prophet who wants to see the world change. She sounds more like a Malcom X than a milquetoast.

Of course she isn’t simply raving about ruining the powerful, what she really wants, what she honestly expects is for God to bring justice and mercy, to lift up those who are low, and bring hope to the hopeless.

So I think that Mary does not submit to God’s will and become the mother of the savior because she is meek and submissive, but because she is strong enough to share God’s vision for a new world. This is a different picture of Mary, than many of us are used to. Yet it makes sense. This is the woman who raises Jesus, who himself is executed as a rebel and a blasphemer because he challenged the powerful. He pronounces judgment on the way they do things, and then he talks about the kingdom of God being at hand. Jesus sounds very much like the son of this more radical Mary than the sweet and meek one we often imagine.

So as we look around the world, where does Mary’s song need to be sung? – probably in the places it would be most likely to be banned. How can we continue to sing this song even in the midst of resistance? (and the resistance may even be our own, knowing that this song calls for immense change).  It might help to look and see where we see signs of it coming to reality. Where is hope rising? Where are the low being lifted up, and where are the hungry being fed? Where is justice being done and mercy shown? Where is the kingdom of God at hand?

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2016

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Sermon: Just for the Messiah

Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:5, 7
I suppose that there is one thing that is obvious from our recent
Presidential election. People have a deep desire for a political leader who will bring us a better life. We differ strongly on what that means to each of us. But the fact remains that within us there is this longing for someone to step forward and lead us into a more perfect future.
Isaiah has captured that deep human longing in his writing that we read earlier. But he is not talking about just any political leader. He is talking about the perfect one, the one who is from God, the messiah, the culmination of God’s work in the world to bring justice, righteousness, peace and prosperity.
What makes the passage particularly powerful is that Isaiah describes the messiah. He looks deep into the human heart and says what we really want and need from our savior are these characteristics. We want someone who is truly wise and understanding, we want someone who is able to plan and who is strong, we want someone who has a knowledge and awe of God. We want a person who doesn’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay, who judges the needy with righteousness, and decides things with equity. We want to see evil punished, and we want to be led into a new world where miracles happen in creation and our relationships within it. We want see an end of people treating each other like predator and prey, we want all to be in peace.
We want, no we need, all of that from our messiah.
Because we live in a world that often isn’t like this. “In our world, wolves eat lambs and bears spit out straw to devour goats. What sort of sentimental clap-trap is this” picture of Isaiah’s with animals at peace.[1] Our world is more dog eat dog than leopard grazing on grace. We see that in the natural world every day. We see it in human interactions: society treats some people like they don’t matter and then people kill police officers or go on shooting sprees because they are mad at society. If people can’t get it, certainly wolves and bears won’t. And yet, perhaps what Isaiah is envisioning isn’t meant to be natural, maybe it is meant to be supernatural, beyond natural. A vision of interaction in which the fundamental rules of life are changed.
Recently my daughter Hannah received a number of angry e-mails from parents which she summarized as saying: "The world is cold and cruel. It is shameful and pathetic that you are treating students so gently in the aftermath of the election. These students need to learn how to cope with the real world, which is disrespectful, harsh, and generally unkind. By coddling them, you are leaving them unprepared for life. I'm embarrassed and horrified that you are treating students like small children and not like adults who need to grow up and learn to deal with the fact that people are going to mistreat them."[2]
Hannah’s response: “But why does the world have to be so intrinsically cold and cruel?” You see, she has a glimpse of Isaiah’s vision, where there is hope for something totally different.
I think each of us has a deep longing for that. A longing for a messiah who changes the rules. Who teaches us not to harm or destroy any more. We want that hope, we want to know that the kingdom of God cannot be overcome, it will not be overcome. God will prevail. We want to be reminded Christ has come. The messiah is real. His realm and reign is real.
But then the big question hit me:
is it enough to just expect our messiah to be different from the world? In other words, if this is the deepest desire of our hearts, if this is how we want the world to work, shouldn’t we start living like that now! Again, as I read the passage I am struck by how this is in many ways an ideal for all of us to strive for.
Now you may be saying to yourself. No, this is just a vision for how our leader will live. The rest of us can go on living in whatever manner we want. But that simply isn’t very biblical.
As followers of Christ, the one that we proclaim the messiah, we should also be striving to be like him in our character. Romans 15:5, 7 says, “May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. . . . So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory.” Here’s the thing, if it is our deepest human desire for our messiah to have these traits, it also ought to be our deepest human desire to have them ourselves – and we ought to be striving to live them in our lives.
So Hannah’s response to the letters was: “If we all treated each other with respect and understanding instead of shouting insults at people and then telling them to suck it up because that's "real life", the world would be a better place. If we all spent less time showing young people how harsh the world is and more time teaching young people how to be kind and understanding to people who are different, "real life" wouldn't have to be full of disrespect and inequality. If instead of leaving hateful messages on the bulletin boards and sidewalks, we all participated in open conversations, support groups, and, yes, even self-care coloring book sessions, we wouldn't have to learn to "cope" with the cruelty of the real world, because the real world wouldn't have to be cruel.”
What she is saying, without being directly religious about it, is that when we begin to take on the characteristics of Christ, we bring Isaiah’s vision to reality. So we need to be people of wisdom and understanding, we need to be people of planning and strength, we need to be people who have a spirit of knowledge and awe of God. We need to learn to stop judging by appearances, or deciding by hearsay, but judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land. We need to be willing to punish evil, and put righteousness and faithfulness first.
As we do that, the ideal world that we desire, begins to unfold before us, just a little at a time.

Robert Frazier as an engineer, scientist, and a student of history,

studied every shred of data and evidence he could find on big-picture trends – trends spanning multiple centuries and geographies. In his book Kingdom Horizon: 8 Reasons Why Earth’s Greatest Days Are Unfolding he explains that the data show that every measurable socio-economic factor with data spanning geographies and multiple centuries shows improvement. The share of people living in poverty, deaths from natural disasters, homicides, and epidemics; all of these are down. Life expectancy is up. Too often as Christians he reminds us that we get caught up in doom and gloom when we should know that God’s kingdom will not be overcome.
By living out these messianic values, we have changed the world. And we can keep changing it. But it is up to us to be people who live out the dream, who stick to the vision of what true goodness looks like. We must draw upon that deep human desire which God has implanted within us, and become like Christ, as much as we can.
On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples, not just because of who he is, but also because what he has done through us. The nations will then seek him out, and his dwelling will truly be glorious.
People there is hope. Great hope. Our messiah is everything that we want and need. And he dwells within us. Here, in our hearts. Never leaving us, never deserting us. I believe that through his presence in our lives, through his unending love, we are being reshaped, our world is being changed, and a day will come where we will not harm or destroy anymore, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, just as the water covers the sea.

[1] The Hope of Peace, John C. Holbert,
[2] Hannah McPherson facebook message, November 15, 2016

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sermon: Peace, Just A Word?

Peace. It is a word that we use a lot.

We look for peace and quiet. When we are relaxed we are at peace. We hope for peace of mind. Want our dead relatives to rest in peace. We even have a hand signal for peace. But I wonder sometimes if we forget the power of what we are really talking about. I wonder if we use the word so much that we take the idea for granted and never plunge ourselves into the depth of its meaning. Listen to how the bible describes it.

Isaiah 2:1-5  This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be the highest of the mountains. It will be lifted above the hills; peoples will stream to it. Many nations will go and say,

“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain to the house of Jacob’s God so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths.”

Instruction will come from Zion; the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. Come, house of Jacob, let’s walk by the Lord’s light.

Isaiah talks about what the world could be. He lives in a country which has throughout history – even into our own time – a country in which there is either war, or the people are preparing for war. There never is really true peace. And Isaiah proclaims that what God wants is true peace. Peace that results in a total change in the way people live and relate to one another. It even changes how nations live and relate to one another.

Too often in this season,

peace is just a word we hear in Christmas songs, it is just a phrase that we print on Christmas cards. It is a nice thought. We treat it like it means living without stress. But it is so much more than that, it is a deep longing for life without injustice. It is God’s dream for the nations that one day wars will no longer be necessary. It is a longing for wholeness in our relationships – not an absence of conflict or a lack of disagreement. But a way of handling that conflict and those disagreements in ways that truly build up community. 

So when Isaiah talks about taking swords and spears and turning them into plows and pruning hooks. What Isaiah reminds us is that there may be changes we need to make, we might need to unlearn some old habits.

I read a story that is both a little disturbing and entertaining.

In the late 1930s Max Schneider, a tenant farmer, was having a tough time of it on the land he farmed in North Dakota. The great depression still had a tight grip on the nation, and farmers were victims perhaps as much as anyone in the country. Prices for cash crops had hit rock bottom, and for Max and other farmers, it cost as much to raise the crops as the money they received for the harvest. Max couldn't continue to feed his wife and seven kids on the money he wasn't making on his crops.

Max heard from other farmers when he was in town that he could sell old farm machinery to scrap dealers. That it was being sold to Japan so that they could make bombs and guns for their war with China. He and his wife were torn, they didn’t like the idea of seeing their old machinery turned into weapons, but they needed money for food and clothes. So they did it.

Years later, after the war ended. Max and his wife Evelyn were doing much better. They actually saved enough money to visit Arizona during the winter and escape from North Dakota. On their trip they noticed the silhouettes of discarded airplanes that had been used in World War II. Acres of worn out places were sitting in their lonely final resting place in the desert. And you know what Max thought?

He turned to Evelyn and said, “I wonder what I’d have to go through to get those old planes and sell them to scrap dealers.”

She looked at him and said, “Are you back to selling scrap metal? The war’s over, you know; what do you think they would want with the scrap this time?”

Max thought for a moment, “I don’t know. Maybe they’ll make farm machinery out of it.”[1]

Isaiah is telling us that we need to change old habits, and then he says there are new habits we need to learn. Whole systems will have to shift so that there is no need for war, as we learn new ways of relating and working together.

But in the end we need God’s help to do this.

You see, peace is not just about our physical state. It goes much further. There is a deep spiritual dimension to this peace, one we have to work to cultivate – it doesn’t just happen. If it did, every peace treaty that got signed would actually guarantee true peace. But they don’t because the spiritual dimension, the seeking of God’s deeper path too often is left out.

Isaiah specifically mentions three things that we have to do: he calls us to “go up to the Lord’s mountain”, he calls us to teach God’s ways and give instruction, and then he says we must walk in God’s paths.

These three actions connect our spiritual growth with true peace. As if, as we work to grow closer to God, when we look at just what God wants from us, when we learn to see what it means to do right in relationship with others, when we actually walk the ideals and teachings of Christ, then peace becomes a reality.

This is true for us as individuals as well as nations. If we want a more peaceful life, if we want less conflict, we have to work on growing closer to God, seeing what God wants, changing how we relate to others, and actually putting into practice Christ’s ways.

So let me give an example: For years we have had a metal hanging outside our house that said “peace” on it as we dream of a world where wars are no longer necessary, and people get along. But is that enough for it to happen? No of course not. It isn’t even enough to guarantee that my life will be peaceful. I have to do more than just put the word on my house.

But I have also used peace as a prayer word. Sitting in quiet when my mind is stressed and my heart is out of sorts, I have tried to settle myself and said “Peace” each time I breathed in, hoping and praying that God would fill me with that peace that I knew I needed in that moment. And this helps bring me calm. It certainly is that first step of seeking to grow closer to God. But is it enough to guarantee that my life will be peaceful? Of course not. I have to do more than just say the word and pray the word.

Next I have to learn the best ways for me to handle conflict.

I have to learn how to relate to people better. I have to learn how to correct problems and disagreements in ways that are healthier. Not so that the other person will be happy, but so that the end result is the best one for all involved. For that to happen, I actually have to change how I act.

And I wish, I wish I could give you the secret in a couple of sentences. But the closest I can come is this: love your neighbor as yourself. That is, love them enough to tell them when they’ve crossed the line, love them enough to forgive them when they do, and keep on loving them. But even that is oversimplifying it. The fact is, it takes a lot of work to learn the ways of peace. And I have been working on that. But I haven’t perfected it yet. I am still learning. God is still teaching me.

Isaiah understood that peace isn’t easy.

He lived in a place that drastically needed to learn from God a new way of life, so he encouraged all of us, to walk by the Lord’s light. He didn’t give up hope of peace, but he also knew that it wouldn’t come by superficially by hanging the word peace on our advent wreath, but true peace requires taking peace into the very depth of our souls, and making it ours. Going up the Lord’ mountain, teaching God’s ways, and then walking God’s paths. Drawing near to God, unlearning old habits and learning new, and then actually living it out.

If you want peace to be more than a word on your Christmas Cards this year, that is what it will take. I pray that you will work to make it happen.

[1] CSS Publishing Company, Inc, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit, Cycle A, by Merle G. Franke

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sermon: With Me In Paradise

Luke 23:33-43

It may seem strange to read a story of the crucifixion right before thanksgiving, and as part of our celebration of those who have died. But here is the thing. In this passage we have criminals who are suffering with Christ. We have people who were not perfect, people who were so bad at least in the eyes of the government that they were given a public, humiliating and awful death. And yet, despite that, they come to have a deep conversation about Christ and with Christ – as they suffer.

It begins with the crowd. They mock Jesus, “He saved others, let him save himself if he really is the Christ, sent from God, the chosen one.”

Then the soldiers join in, as they start mocking him. “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

And these two fellow victims who hang on the crosses next to Jesus, join in the conversation. The first has been listening, and I think, as he does so, he has the smallest glimmer of hope. He realizes that if Jesus is who he says, that perhaps there is escape from this awful punishment. So he asks, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Almost every interpreter I have read judges this criminal and makes it sound like he is joining the soldiers and the crowd, making fun of Jesus. But I don’t think so, I think he is grabbing at the faintest of hopes. He is begging – save yourself and save us. It comes across self-serving, but when you are hanging on a cross dying, being self-serving is okay. So I don’t really think he is mocking Jesus. I think he is grasping for hope, like most of us do when life is at its worst.

The second criminal is far more reflective. He thinks about what he has done to earn his punishment, and then he looks at Jesus and humbly says that Christ has done nothing wrong. Then in faith he adds, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Perhaps he had heard the story of King Frederick the Great who was visiting the jails of Potsdam and speaking to the inmates. Surprisingly, every single one of the inmates expressed to the King that they were totally innocent of the charges against them. Near the end of the King's visit, one of the inmates shared with him, "My King, I am guilty and deserve the punishment I am receiving." The King ordered the man to be released. With a smile, the King said, "After all, I don't want him to corrupt all the innocent people in here."[1]

Maybe this criminal was hoping by confession to be let go, but I doubt it. More likely he understood that Jesus was an innocent man, condemned by politics. More likely he understood that Jesus was a good religious man, who truly helped others. It appears he even understood that Jesus’ kingdom was real, maybe not on earth, maybe in our hearts, maybe in heaven, but that God had a plan for this suffering messiah beyond the cross. So he simply asks to be remembered.

Christ then replies, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

To me, there is this amazing thing here. A criminal expressing only the very simplest faith, making only the most simple plea – to be remembered by Christ is told that on that very day he will be with Christ in paradise.

You know, that should be a huge comfort to us as we think about our loved ones. Some of them deserve to be called saints.

“A little boy attended Church with his Grandfather one Sunday. Grandpa's church had beautiful stained-glass windows. Grandpa told his grandson that the windows contained pictures of Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke, Saint John, Saint Paul, and whole lot of other saints.”

“When he got home, the boy told Mom and Dad all about it. Dad, wanting to be funny and curious about what his son had learned, asked, "What is a saint?" The boy thought for a minute and then replied, "A saint is somebody the light shines through."

That’s “a pretty good definition of a Saint. Who are your saints? Who are the people in your life who let the light of God shine through them for you to see?”[2]

They were truly people that pointed us to Christ, they were one’s whose lives were light and hope and inspiration. And it is easy to imagine them with Christ.

But this passage goes beyond that, it includes others who may have been sort of ordinary, they may not have been perfect. They may have had a simple faith, but said little or did little to express it. Or in fact, they may have been deeply flawed – they may have been thieves and even condemned to death for awful acts.

But, but Christ remembers all of them as he sits in his kingdom, he receives them with only the simplest statement of faith, and calls them his own. Do you realize how amazing that is? Saints, ordinary folk, sinners of the worst type, all are welcomed into paradise simply by asking Christ to remember them.

It doesn’t take a degree in theology. It doesn’t take the sort of life that inspires feel-good miniseries on television. These aren’t what get the criminal into paradise. It is a realization that we are guilty, and Christ is innocent. It is a realization that Jesus is the Christ, from God, and he does have a kingdom, and we want to be part of it. That’s really about it. For all those rather ordinary people, who probably aren’t going to make the “who’s who” of sainthood, and all those deeply flawed, even deeply sinful people, even the type that condemned to death for their crimes, for all of us Christ’s words are pretty amazing, “You will be in paradise with me.”

What a hope-filled message!

So as we reflect on those who have died, whether they are the shining saints or the unpolished ones; when we consider these people without whom our lives would never be the same, we can know that they are in paradise today. Christ remembers each and every one of them. Isn’t that nice to know? Isn’t that comforting? I think it is!

Plus, we can also come to the point of making a simple statement of faith for ourselves: starting with confession of our sins and then simply asking: “Christ remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In doing this we can hear him respond to us that we also can be with him in paradise (maybe not today – I hope not today), but when that day comes and our eyes close in final rest – we will be with him.

Once we come to know that message of hope, then we can begin to change our lives, to work toward a different lifestyle, but at the very least we know, that Christ will remember us; he will not forsake us, but he will welcome us into the eternal kingdom.

So it may seem strange to read a passage from the crucifixion as we think back on our loved ones who have died, but I think it is very fitting – it is a word of hope, a reminder of forgiveness – from people who were facing imminent death themselves. And it tells us there is a future beyond the grave.

[1] Christianglobe Networks, Inc. , The Ritz Collection, by Eric Ritz
[2] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., RSVP: Stewardship through Service, by Billy D. Strayhorn

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Is Christmas Boring?

“During his tenure as head football coach at the University of Arkansas, Lou Holtz once had his team play a bowl game on Christmas Day. When a reporter asked him how he felt about playing football on this day, rather than being at home with his family, Coach Holtz was honest and to the point. “Frankly, I’d rather be doing this,” he said. “Once you’ve been to church, had dinner and opened the gifts, Christmas is the most boring day of the year.” (from A More Urgent Season, Erskine White, 1993)
 Hmm. I ask myself, has Christmas become boring? It certainly wasn’t when I was a kid. Then Christmas was about getting together with all of my cousins and absolutely enjoying life. We did some of the craziest stuff. Sometimes we got so wild that our aunts would come upstairs and yell at us to be quiet. It didn’t work. Some of my favorite memories are writing plays and acting them out for our aunts and uncles, playing with our new Cabbage Patch dolls with such vigor than mine’s arm nearly came off, jumping on the beds (sure to get us in trouble), recording fake radio interviews with people like “the garbage man”, climbing the ladders in the barn, playing football in the yard, trying to make the world’s largest snowman, playing hearts or euchre (or if we were really adventurous – spoons, but you risked losing a finger to my Uncle Bill). I think those days were some of the best in my life.

 There was something about Grandma and Grandpa’s house that made Christmas worthwhile. And it wasn’t really the gifts. Quite honestly, we did very little gift giving. In a large family you couldn’t give gifts to everyone, so we exchanged names. Each person got one gift, that’s it. What made Christmas was the atmosphere. It was aunts and uncles who really cared about us, cousins who didn’t always get along – but were best friends anyway, it was knowing that no matter how far away we moved we could still call this place home.
 As I think about it, I’d like our church to be a place like that for all of you this Christmas season. A place where we care about one another and really ask how it is going, a place where we may not always get along but we love each other anyway, a place where no matter how far away you move or no matter how long it has been since you came – you still can call your spiritual home. I want you to say there is something about God’s house that makes Christmas worthwhile – that it brings me a sense of peace and joy, of love and hope that I just don’t get anywhere else. I want you to encounter the Christ-child here in such a deep and meaningful way, that you would never call Christmas boring.
 So throw yourself into the adventure. Return home to church, laugh so hard that the person in the next pew says “Be quiet” at the same time you discover that people here care about you, sing “Joy to the World” extra loud and “Silent Night” especially quietly, and most of all find a deeper meaning for the season than just giving gifts as you reencounter the one true gift of God in Christ.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sermon: Celebrating Our Work

What would the perfect future look like for you? Where would you be personally and professionally? Go ahead, dream big! Would you be rich? Famous? What about happy? Now extend this dream to your friends and family. What would the perfect future look like for all of you together? What about the world? What would the perfect future for humankind and for Earth look like? (From Seasons of the Spirit, 2016)

Read Isaiah 65:17-25

I’m curious: What did you think about when you imagined a perfect future for our world? On the screen is one view from France in the 1890’s. But what did you imagine? Anyone want to share briefly something they thought about? [open time of sharing]

If only all those things were true! When we look around our world it isn’t hard to find things that are wrong, that are devastating to lives, that are unfair or unjust. And in many ways when we envision our perfect world, what we envision is those things vanishing. That’s what Isaiah does: No longer do children die at a few days old, no longer do people build houses and not get to live in them. We won’t labor in vain, or bear children into a world of horrors, because we will be people blessed by the Lord.

When Isaiah says that, he clearly speaks to us to remind us that God is doing new things. He does not deny that the world is a place of failed dreams. He doesn’t ignore that our lives are sometimes chaotic. “There is no denial of the struggle, the weeping, cries of distress, lives lost too early, homelessness, economic injustice, and turmoil in which they live.”[1] But in spite of all that, Isaiah has chutzpah. That is such a fun word chutzpah. You get to clear your throat as you say it. It actually is a Hebrew word that means having a lot of courage. In fact, the Miriam-Webster dictionary says that Chutzpah means “courage that allows someone to do or say things that may seem shocking to others.”[2] Isaiah has the chutzpah to say, “Rejoice. God is doing amazing things.” He doesn’t care if it is shocking to us, as we look around the world and see all of the ugliness – he is going to remind us that God is doing amazing things even if we don’t see it. He has the Chutzpah to look toward the future that God has planned and show us that it is in construction even now!

Now most of you know, that while things are under construction They are a bit messy. When you remodel, dust gets everywhere, even the places you cover get dust in them. And when you build new, the first thing you have to do is tear up the ground, dig a hole, and make a mess. We have a house going up just down the road from us, and when the excavators came and dug the hole, these two immense piles of dirt appeared. Monty, our dog, does not like the piles of dirt. He barks at them. He wants them to leave. His territory has been made messy and he doesn’t like it. So he barks at the piles of dirt to try to get them to leave.

All Monty sees is the mess. Even when we try to explain the end result --  He doesn’t see that one day those piles of dirt will be a house, a house where another dog may live who will be his best friend (Monty is the type of dog who thinks every dog is his best friend).

Isaiah is trying to tell us, that the mess we see isn’t permanent, he is trying to show us the end result, to explain to us the beauty that will come from the dirt-piles around us.

For just a moment, I want to focus on one part of that vision that Isaiah has for us. One of the things Isaiah mentions is that God is working so that those who build houses will live in them, those that plant vineyards, those that do work, will benefit from it. Our work, our labors will not be in vain. We will get to see the fruit, the results, of our hard work.

Too often we never get to see that. Think about all the people who built new homes only to see them destroyed by the winds or floods caused by Hurricane Matthew. The people in Haiti worked so hard to rebuild after the earthquake, now homeless again.

Or I heard a radio interview with a man who had fled Mosul because of ISIS. He had spent his life there, making a home, being part of the community, and now he says, even if it is liberated he won’t go back. Everything he worked for there is gone. He has lost it all already, it is time to start over somewhere else.

Or it could be that we work hard for our company, we put in extra hours, we give our all. But we never really benefit. When we found a great way to cut costs, our boss took the credit. When the company made record profits, we didn’t get a raise.

What Isaiah envisions is that we will enjoy the results of our work, our toil, our labor. The homes we build, the communities we create, will be things that we get to enjoy. That is quite a dream, when you think about it. We will get to see the results of what we have done, we will understand the purpose, the final product will be revealed, and we will know how it is part of God’s holy work.

For example, Some of you, for the last month have taken on the challenge of making $20 grow. The church gave you $20 and challenged you to do something with it. You put thought into how you could do it. Perhaps you put hours of work into it. Perhaps, you simply decided to add something too it, as a gift from your own income and the hard work you do there. Perhaps you bought lemons and had a lemonade stand. Or perhaps you took the time to research a stock and invested it. Each of these took work from you, time from your day.

Whatever you did, God says here that your labors had a purpose, they have a result – they do good in the world. They are part of God’s holy work. Maybe you didn’t think of it that way as you were doing it, but your efforts were part of the new thing that God is doing. Bringing gladness and rejoicing, bringing an end to weeping and crying, helping babies to live through childhood diseases. That’s what your giving to the church enables, the hours you work to earn the money you give to church, are hours worked to help realize Isaiah’s dream. You probably didn’t think that as you were teaching rowdy children, or cleaning a bathroom, or staring at a computer screen trying to get numbers to balance. But your work, your labor, in those hours, was for a child to get fresh water from a well for the first time.

In fact, Isaiah says that what God is doing will go to miraculous lengths, beyond the things we could ever really imagine – the wolf and lamb will graze together, the lion will eat straw like the ox, the snake will eat dust (which sounds a little bad for the snake, but I suppose is better than it biting my leg), and most of all: people will no longer hurt or destroy at any place. Your work, your giving is part of this. And Isaiah says one day we will get to see it – we will witness the results of the work of our hands. Can you imagine, what it will be like to see God’s world, the new earth, and realize that your hands helped create that? Sit at work tomorrow, and think about that one! That is something to celebrate even as a customer complains. Our labor has value.

And because of that, our giving is no small thing. This isn’t just about paying the heating bills for a hundred year old building, or paying a pastor’s salary, it is about creating God’s kingdom on earth, board by board, nail by nail, dirtpile by dirtpile, until all is complete. Isaiah has the  chutzpah to tell us that, we need to have the chutzpah to see it! It is a dream of a new heaven and a new earth, God’s dream.

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2016

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Sermon: Bringing Jesus Home

Luke 19:1-10

Who lives with you in your house?

You can start by answering that literally: roommate, spouse, partner, brother, sister, mother, father, slipper-chewing dog, a herd of elephants . . .

Then you could think about the people that spend a lot of time there, but don’t technically live there: the kid next door, your best friend, mother-in-law, and so on.

But if you start to get a little philosophical about the question of who lives with you, you could add all those that you bring home with you mentally and emotionally. Perhaps you bring your work home with you every day – so maybe a co-worker or an employee or a boss hovers about in your mind even while you are home. Or perhaps there is a boy or girl in your class that you have a crush on, or that you are dating, and you spend half your day texting them. Or perhaps you have a picture of grandma on your wall, that you walk by all the time, and you know that she is watching over you.

So I ask again, who lives with you in your house? Whose presence is there, indisputably influencing your home-life?

The question for today is: is Christ there?

Is he one of them that you have invited in? Listen to this example from scripture: Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”

Whenever I am looking at a Bible text, I like to read some other people’s opinions on the text. Often I gain insights from them that I would never have on my own. The commentary I use most often is called Seasons of the Spirit. As I was reading this, there were several phrases of theirs that really jumped out at me.

Number one: If there was anyone that people did not expect to respond to Jesus, it was Zacchaeus. But he does. -- In other words, Zacchaeus was not the kind of guy you’d expect to walk into church. But on this day, he shows up. What kind of guy was he? Well . . .

A funny story:

A man on vacation was strolling along outside his hotel in Tampa, enjoying the sunny Florida weather. He heard the screams of a woman kneeling in front of a child, after a moment he determined that the boy had swallowed a coin. Seizing the child by the heels, the man held him up, gave him a few shakes, and a quarter dropped to the sidewalk. "Oh, thank you sir!" cried the woman. "You seemed to know just how to get it out of him. Are you a doctor?" "No, ma'am," replied the man. "I'm with the IRS."

This was Zacchaeus. A tax-collector. A shake down artist. A man who could get the last quarter out of you. He is not the person you’d expect to walk into church, but on this day he shows up.

A second observation that the commentary makes is that: Perhaps Zacchaeus was not dishonest, like we generally judge him to be, but he suffered what many of us today suffer from – failing to put his faith into action. But on this day he does it. – In other words, most of the time we pastors paint Zacchaeus as something near to a thief, who skimmed from the taxes he collected. But what if he wasn’t dishonest, he was just doing an unpopular job, and he suffered a much simpler and more common problem – his faith didn’t really influence his life. His faith didn’t impact what he did or how he lived. Which can be something anyone can struggle with: even you or I.

Yet on this day: Zacchaeus goes to see Jesus, and he finds a seat. [pause] Then when Jesus sees him and calls to him, he invites Jesus to his house, both figuratively and literally. [pause] So when he invites Jesus to his house not only does Zacchaeus welcome him with hospitality, but he also opens his heart to change everything in his life. Zacchaeus decides that his faith is going to make a difference in his life from now on. And I would say, in response to my question earlier: for Zacchaeus, he’s bringing Jesus to his home.

We also need to bring Jesus home with us.

There are places in our lives, every one of us, where we could be doing better. Perhaps we are not as generous as we should be. Perhaps we are like the crowd and we look at people like Zacchaeus and judge them. Perhaps behind closed doors we abuse our spouse, or we struggle with addiction. Perhaps we lie and cheat and steal at work and have never thought twice about it.

And that is why I asked you, who lives in your house? Is Christ there?

Because we need to bring Jesus home with us, if the only time and place you see him is here at church, and when you walk out that door you leave him here, then guess what – those things in our lives won’t change (of course maybe we don’t want them to change), maybe we are quite comfortable not putting our faith into action. But eventually something may happen, and we will look around, see those places where we really need to change, and decide today is the day. Perhaps we will even get as excited as Zacchaeus about it, and we throw ourselves into a new attitude with commitment to change.

Eric S. Ritz in his book Why Change is Possible reminds us that: “A famous preacher once said, "When people tell me that human nature cannot be changed, I am moved to reply that in light of my experience, human nature may well be the only thing that CAN BE CHANGED!" We cannot change the course of the moon or the sun. We cannot change the laws of the physical world. We cannot change the movement and flow of the ocean. We cannot change the stars in the skies and the course they move in. However, the Bible pulsates with pages of testimonies of the lives, purposes, events, and habits which have been changed and can be changed.”

That is the opportunity that Christ gives each and every one of us. To bring salvation not only to us when we are in church, but to bring it to our homes, our daily lives.

So how do you make sure that Christ lives in your home?

It starts quite simply by inviting him in, admitting that you want him there, making room for him. But then be a good host, making time for him, talking with him. Make sure that your faith is alive, affecting your relationships, your daily choices. If you realize that you have failed, do everything you can to repair it (Zacchaeus offered to repay anyone he cheated four times as much) that had to help him change how he operated. Being willing to accept the cost of your mistakes as you seek forgiveness.

We are not talking about being made religious for a few moments once a week, we are talking about being rescued from a sort of spiritual brokenness where what we believe and how we live are disconnected – we are talking about true deep, lasting change that connects our faith to our lives, and makes a difference. It happened for Zacchaeus, even though no one expected it; and it can happen for us.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sermon: Humble and Grateful

Luke 18:9-14

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is simple.

There are only two characters. The Pharisee who thinks he is better than others, and the tax collector who thinks he is worse than others.  They are both praying, and we get to see into their hearts for just a moment.

The Pharisee thanks God that he is glad he is not like other people, who are crooks and evildoers. He then brags about his religious practices. So it is easy to dislike the Pharisee. Anyone that treats us like we are dirt, and at the same time believes that they are super-religious isn’t very likable. It is easy to say to ourselves, I don’t want to be like that. Even though he is showing gratitude to God, he is doing it in a way that simply sounds like overgrown pride.

On the other hand, the tax collector acts like he has just committed the worst sin in history. He can’t even look up to heaven, but simply begs for mercy for himself, believing that he is nothing more than a sinner. This man is easier to like because he is humble, and most of us have had times in our lives when we have made a mistake and we feel like dirt. But here is the thing, I don’t really want to be like him either – because I don’t want to go through life beating myself up. He doesn’t seem to see the good in life that God has gifted him with, which is what we have talked about the last couple of weeks.

Now, you probably know, that this month we are focusing on the theme of gratitude. In this parable the Pharisee is actually more grateful than the tax collector. But this highlights one of the challenges of gratitude -- that it can become an attitude of pride. For example, it is one thing to say: “God, I am thankful that I have a roof over my head and shelter from the storms.” It is another to say, “God, I am thankful that my house is nicer than my neighbors. They don’t have stainless steel appliances or new landscaping like I do.”

Now that may sound ridiculous, but it is a pretty small step to move from simply being thankful, to being thankful that we are not like others: Which is why the example of the tax collector is important in this parable. He serves as a reminder that our religious practices, even our gratitude, can become misguided. What was once good, actually becomes twisted and wrong. It is a warning to us, that as we serve God, as we strive to be religious, we can get off track, and become self-serving.

There is an Irish legend about St. Eloi, that before he became religious, he was a smith. He was very proud of his skill and often boasted that the never saw anything that another man could do that he could not match. One day a mounted traveler stopped at his forge and asked simply to be allowed to use the forge and fasten a loosened shoe on his horse. Eloi was then surprised as the man twisted the front leg of the horse out of joint, placed it into the forge and refastened the shoe. Once done, he twisted the leg back, patted the horse on the shoulder and all was done.

Eloi not to be outdone called for one of his horses to be brought, and twisted the fore leg out – unfortunately there was tearing of muscle and skin. He then beautifully shoed the horse; however, when finished the horse was lame, lied down and was near expiring. Eloi then realized that his pride and vanity had probably killed the horse. The stranger seeing that Eloi was cured of pride, explained that he had come from God to cure him of the vice, touched the horse on the shoulder healing it, and then vanished.[1] After this Eloi becomes the patron saint of horses and farriers.

Eloi’s skill was a good thing, but he allowed his pride in himself to twisted into that which caused harm to his horse.  In a similar way, it isn’t hard for our thankfulness to lose track of humility. So Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector serves as a reminder.

As I thought about it, I asked myself: What if we could be the best of both of these men? What if we can be humble, like the tax collector, and grateful like the Pharisee? What if we know that we depend upon God’s mercy, and are grateful for it?

Let me share with you the story of Rob Stephens in A Life of Gratitude Day 21. Rob shares that from early elementary school he was in trouble with the law. At age 21 he was living his life in and out of prison. He describes himself as a thief with an anger problem. He actually had come to see himself as a bad person with a bad future.

But a family stepped into his life that began to change him. What happened is that he stole a car phone from them (remember those things with the antenna on your roof?) – sorry youngsters, you will have no clue! Anyway, a police officer saw him carrying the antenna in his hand and was pretty sure he had stolen it, but couldn’t prove it. So Rob decided that he would go to the house where he had stolen it, and convince them to lie for him. Have them say he was fixing it or something innocent like that, and beg his way out of going to jail.

When he knocked on the door, Sandy answered with her hair in curlers and a big smile on her face. She invited him in. Her husband walks down the stairs, it is obvious he is blind, and they sit and talk. After a while, it is clear the couple he met had no intention of lying for him, and Rob ends up telling them his life story.

Here is where grace comes in. The couple still press charges for the theft, but at court, Paul speaks and convinces the judge and prosecutor that there was still hope for this man and had his sentence reduced to 30 days in jail. Paul then offered to let Rob live with them, helped Rob find a job, and invited him to attend church with them.

Unfortunately Rob fell into temptation again, and his relationship with them was broken. He was so disappointed with himself that he considered suicide, but God wouldn’t allow him to take his life. I quote “The fact that I have not stolen anything since that time and that Christ has continued bringing me ever so close to Him gives me a heart so full of thanks and gratitude. And the blessings continue to flow since this was only the beginning of my path towards our awesome God whom we serve. This is my personal thanks to God … my gratitude for what he has done for me.”[2] You see, Rob knows he is not perfected yet, but he is grateful for what God has been doing for him.

I think this is a good balance between gratitude and humility.

And in many ways we need to see ourselves like this all the time. We need to be humbled to the point of change, and grateful for the opportunity to change. We need to be humbled by the goodness of God, grateful for it, and mindful of the fact that we sin. We have to be willing to lay aside our pride and accept the help that God offers to us.

That was what the Pharisee lacked. He no longer saw himself as a person in need of change, he no longer saw the sin he committed, no longer saw opportunities for bettering himself or bringing himself closer to God. He had forgotten his need for God’s grace, for God’s goodness, for God’s help.

On the other hand, the tax collector was desperately aware of his need of God’s mercy, and his need for God’s grace. He knew that he needed to change, and that he needed God’s help in doing just that.

And Jesus says, “I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

Christ wants to lift us up. His goal is not to beat us up with the things we have done, but rather to take us from the places in our life where we know we are not doing what we should, and lift that part of our soul beyond its the dusty imperfections. He wants to pick us up, clean us off, and restore to us the image of God that has been planted deep within us from the dawn of creation.

Our response to that should be one of humble thanks, thanks for the transformational love and power of God’s grace, humility in knowing that without God’s grace we would not be able to change. Humility in knowing that there is still much more that we need to change – that we are not yet perfected, and thanks that God walks along side us as we strive to make those changes.

As I said earlier: We need to be humbled to the point of change, and grateful for the opportunity to change. We need to be humbled by the goodness of God, grateful for it, and mindful of the fact that we sin. We have to be willing to lay aside our pride and accept the help that God offers to us.

[1] Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, Patrick Kennedy
[2] A Life of Gratitude: 21 Days to Overcoming Self-Pity and Negativity. Shelley Hitz.