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