Not One is Missing

The sermon from Sunday, February 4, 2018 on Isaiah 40:21-31 – 

At its best, Christianity is a mix – it raises questions with which we continually grapple, even as it also offers us reassurance and peace through frameworks and answers about how we might live our lives, about what it means to live a good life, and what it means to live in community.

The questions in this passage work in a bit of a different way. The writer is speaking about a community that has lived in exile and that is reaching for the promise of return and the restoration of a better world.

And not only is the writer speaking about such a community in one period of exile, the writer is writing for a later community in another period of exile.

Much of the Hebrew scriptures are written about and for people dealing with exile from land and from culture.

It is a literature of response to dire circumstances. It is a literature of profound faith and commitment to whole and holy life in difficult times. It is a word of faith and hope for a better world for God’s people.

The questions here serve to capture our attention – and perhaps our imagination – Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

I don’t hear them as being posed in a snarky way – like ‘Yo, you’ve missed something’. These are questions of wonder, questions meant to lift the heart and remind us of the great gift of God’s love.

God sits above us and among us and in all the cracks in our days and filling our moments of breath.

Find God in the noise and God in the silence.

It is not shame to be like a grasshopper. We are human beings doing our best to live and to be and ever become good and kind and courageous and wise and Spirit-filled.

So let us dwell in the heart of a God who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads a tent for us to live in – a grand tent of meeting, of common humanity, of enacted justice and mercy for all people and the planet.

That is the home that God offer us. In a bleak and fractious world, characterized all too often by cruelty and greed, God offers us in every moment a home for our spirits, a place of rest for our souls and our minds, and the promise of freedom.

For powers of this world shall pass away. In the sight of God, human privilege and wealth and power mean nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when God blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Think we might do well to try to see the world and its people through the eyes of God?

Not focused on celebrity and ego and flashy accumulation, but striving all the time to immerse ourselves in God’s love and justice and compassion, striving all the time to walk in the ways of Jesus the healer and teacher, who shared food and wisdom and refused to collude with the powers that be.

Celebrity and ego and flashy accumulation are temporary. They appeal to the dregs of our basest instincts.

God appeals to and lives through our better nature.

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? God who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because God is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”?

Do not think for a moment that God has abandoned you. Do not feel alone. In our most difficult moments – and we know those come to us all – God’s love is there for us. We can always rest in God’s love.

Not one is missing.

Look above, around, among you. Look within. The pulse of God permeates this world. No matter how isolated you may feel, you are wholly and truly loved.

We come back to the questions –  Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

You are stronger than you know. And when your own strength gives out, you have the friendship and love of your community. And when that isn’t enough, understand – into the depths of your being – that you are precious to God and loved by God and strengthened by God for every challenge that comes to you – whether it’s about politics or work or family or even yourself.

God offers you love and strength and guidance on a path of goodness and care for yourself, your neighbor, and the world.

This is the heart of God’s love, offered to us to live in this world.

Amen.

 

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The Heart of Authority

The sermon from Sunday, January 28, 2018 on Mark 1:21-28

This early moment in Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ ministry centers on the question of authority, I would argue.

There is healing in it – and  we will have more opportunities to talk about Jesus’ ministry of healing in the weeks ahead. It’s a steady theme in this Gospel.

Right here in the beginning, though, we are asked to look closely at the question of authority.

he taught them as one having authority

Who do we think about as having authority?

I was pondering that question one day this week when I found myself crumpling up several twenty dollar bills I’d gotten from the ATM to pay someone for some repairs.

Anybody ever do that with new money?

My first boss taught me to do that.

I was 15 years old. working as a pharmacy assistant in my home town during summers and winter break when I was home visiting my grandparents.

When fresh bills would come in- and we always had a quite a bit of cash around because we accepted telephone payments for people who’d had their phones cut off – and they had to pay cash – we were supposed to crumple these crisp new bills up and straighten them back out.

It was so they wouldn’t stick together – and you wouldn’t accidentally hand someone $40 in change when you meant to give them $20.

So as I crumpled those bills the other day, I thought about Willie Thomas.  Willie taught me a lot about authority. At first it was because I feared him.

If you didn’t know what you were doing – and our tasks were so varied, it was hard when you were new to master them all – he would look over at you over his half glasses and fix you with an appraising stare, before then exiling you to the front register – which was the dullest Siberia of daily life at the drug store.

But in the time I worked there – and I put in a lot of hours, including 12-hour stretches many Saturdays, my sense of Willie’s authority gradually transformed.  It went from fear and intimidation to mutual respect and appreciation – and even friendship.

Willie was a complicated man until the day he died. But I learned a lot about authority from him.  Watching him, I studied how authority could involve intimidation – but it could also come from love and respect. I came to understand that some people assume authority and some positions assume it. It’s a top-down endeavor.

From above – as your boss, parent, mayor, pastor, I might claim some form of authority because it’s easy to equate the authority  with power. Obviously there are people in our world who have power.

Top-down power.

But is that the only way it works?

I would argue to you that if I have authority among you it is because you grant me authority as the pastor of this church.

And I hope you grant me that authority not because of a title, but because I do my best to live up to the role.

I do my best to practice what I preach. I do my best to at once use my God-given individual gifts and yet empty myself of my culture-bound individual ego, so that God can find room to work through me.

I commit myself to that path –  imperfectly – but I give it my whole heart. That is my witness, here among us all in community.  So that if I have authority, I have it not OVER you but AMONG you.

I think that’s what’s Jesus is up to back in his day, as his example for us.

For it’s not just that I have authority among you, but that each of us has authority within this community, that each of us has authority with one another as earnest students of the Gospel and as committed, inquiring  followers of the path of God’s love and justice and mercy.

Who has authority in your life?

And why and how do they have it?

Hear what is said about Jesus – ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

We know Jesus has been granted authority through God. He performs his work not as a popularity contest, but as the enactment of his calling to live out God’s authority in the world.

But Jesus has authority in the lives of those around him because they grant it to him.

Who deserves to have authority in your life?  

That might be a person or an idea – and if you are here, I hope it’s a commitment to an inclusive vision offered by God.

Who deserves to have authority in your life?  And who has it in reality?

The answer to those questions might be the same thing.

If so, I congratulate you. You’ve been doing your work with due diligence. Keep at it.

If not, you know you’ve got work to do. Keep at it.

How do you exercise authority?

You know God loves you. God works through our hands and our feet to be tangibly present in this world. Jesus is the ultimate, perfect example of divine authority here on this earth – but the call upon our lives as Christians is to understand that we are set free into God’s authority.

That’s not a burden – though it is not always easy – but a great joy. Think about it.  God’s authority frees us to create a better world, not merely consume a bitter one.

Our days are filled with the need for healing – and we are granted the authority of deep compassion, of true kindness, of bold witness, and enduring friendship.

It can be a challenge in our lives not to grant authority to the chaos of violence and the cold shroud of fear, the empty hedonism of consumerism, and the enticing shell of ambition.

There is healing in the authority of God, witnessed in Jesus.

There is healing for those people back then and the folks hearing Mark’s Gospel in the first century and for us today, two millennia later.

May we thrive together we dwell in God’s presence and God’s purpose. That is the revealing of God’s authority in our world today.

Amen.

Image of pedestal from Wicktionary

 

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The Time is Now

The sermon from Sunday, January 21, 2018 on Mark 1:14-20 – 

Let us hug this text closely tonight. It is quite familiar, this beginning of the ministry of Jesus.

It’s also tightly packed with things we might wisely pay attention to.

As we find in Mark, there is much of great value immediately given to us.

So let’s look closely at the text –

Now after John was arrested,

We talked about John a couple of weeks ago, right. John the baptizer who baptized Jesus. John who lived humbly and taught truths and heralded the coming of Jesus.

Let us be clear that just as Jesus begins his ministry, there is clear evidence that there may be a price to may for living faithfully.

John the baptizer, the prophet, has been arrested. He will imprisoned and he will die there, executed on a whim and a promise, slaughtered because he preached truth and offended power.

Let us begin this journey under no illusions. The path of faithful witness cannot be a lifeless token commitment.

We live a life of faith because it is the right thing to do. There are easier ways to live. Let there be no question of that.

Kick back, turn on the tv, care about your own only. There are easier ways to live.

But your call is to something greater, dearer than that.

John shows us the courage and discernment – and the cost – of such a life.

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

Here we go – Jesus begins his ministry and teaching.

Proclaiming whose good news?

Let us be clear of our focus. This is the good news of God.

and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

The time is fulfilled. That’s hard for us in our time-obsessed society. Capitalism makes time a commodity. Our Western culture insists that we measure down to the second.

There are lots of ways we could go with this, but in this moment (!), let me suggest to you this interpretation.

The time is now.

The time to orient your life to the good news of God is now.

The time to make Jesus your model and to reject the crass materialism, white supremacy, elitism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and pure greed of our age . . . is now.

The time for each of us to follow the path of Jesus is now.

For the realm of God is here and now as well as anything that might come in the hereafter.

God calls us to act in this moment, which is our moment in this world.  

Repent, and believe in the good news

This life of faith calls for continual humility. It calls upon us to be aware of our own power – for indeed each of us in this room has some form of power.

Repent of the harm you have caused.

Repent of the harm we have caused.

Repent of our complicity with the poisons of the world.

Believe that there is another way and that we can all choose to live that way.

Believe in the good news that God wants for us all love and justice and mercy and the whole-hearted manifestation of compassion for all living beings and the body of the earth.

Believe in the good news.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—

As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

I’m skipping around a bit here for a point that’s really important, y’all.

Jesus finds Simon and Andrew casting their net into the lake.

Take note. This is 2 men and a net. Simon and Andrew and their net. These are poor men who get by.

He stops there first.

Jesus brings them on first.

That’s all they have.

He keeps going and he finds James and John. Here they are on their boat with their father and the hired men and their assorted nets.

He calls them as well.

Look at this radical act. It’s right here. The men with nothing but a net, standing by the lakeshore. And those who have a boat and the means to hire others.

Jesus starts out radical.

Jesus calls the poor men and the comfortable ones.

He stops first among the lowly.

He don’t start in Mountain Brook.

He starts in North Birmingham.

And he invites everyone to the opportunity to follow the path set before us by God.

And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

This ain’t about waiting for the right moment.

The time to begin following this path is right now.

This is about how we are oriented.

What are you turned to face?

The pursuit of pleasure and leisure and safety will always lure you.

But the call is to immediate discipleship.

What are you waiting for?

What’s stopping you from walking that path right now?

How are you called, in this moment, in this very moment, to participate and share in the mission of Jesus, the living out of the Gospel?

The urgency is not a matter of anxiety. It is a matter of continually – in every moment – enacted promise.

Let us live into that promise.

Amen

 

 

 

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Craving the Sensation, Ignoring the Cause

The sermon from Sunday. January 7, 2018 on Mark 1:4-11

We have a number of things going on right in this moment, so let’s see if we can weave them together.

The season of Christmas is behind us. Whether you celebrate Christmas just on Christmas – or Christmas Eve – or whether you observe the 12 days of Christmas – either which way, the season is done.

Yesterday was January 6, which marks the Feast of the Epiphany. It is on that day that we remember the wise men followed the star and found an infant messiah.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that these people from the east stopped first to consult with King Herod. As the powers that be will do, he was quick to size up and threat and hope to destroy it.

The wise find the manger and the child – and after all that time traveling on faith, they worship and offer their gifts. And they listen to God and go home by another path, avoiding the peril of the moment.

With Epiphany we celebrate the commitment of faith, the triumph of wisdom, the importance of generosity, the inclusion of all in the great promise of Jesus, and the understanding that we must wander, we must listen, and we must heed the Spirit’s call on our paths.

Yet as Christmas ends, it’s easy to let the excitement of the days past, the eager anticipation of the birth of Jesus, slip into the malaise of January, the sense of time unfolding with bitter cold edges and few high points.

We known the hope and participated in the holy mystery, but we’ve let it slip away from us – as Auden says “Once again/As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed/To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility, once again we have sent Him away.”

When you make your way upstairs you will see indeed that the tree is dismantled and the decorations are back in their boxes . . .

Craving the sensation but ignoring the cause.

It’s all too easy to come back to the life that we already live, where we make resolutions and promises to ourselves and others – and those last a minute or a day or a week.

We want the excitement, but it’s all too easy in our busy, noisy, angry world to forget the source of the meaning, the deeper lure of Spirit and hope and justice. It’s all to easy to forget the ways in which we are invited to participate not just at Christmas, but all year long.

We are invited to participate in the promise of Jesus and a ministry of healing, of shared food, of learning, and of relentless truth in a world that sits perpetually in the shadow of Empire’s deception and hard-sell exploitation of human life and the planet.

Moving into today’s Scripture, this passage from the book of Mark, gives us some ideas.

First of all, we begin here a year-long engagement with Mark’s Gospel. Our lectionary, the selection of readings that our church and many others follow, goes in a 3-year cycle. One year each that features Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with passages from John woven through each year.

So this year, we’ll be deep in Mark – and that’s a wonderful gift to us as we grapple with the bleakness of this season – its weather, its politics, its perpetual habits of oppression, its bills, its illnesses – ain’t just everybody you know sick?

Mark is an intense Gospel. The first written, the fastest paced.

One of my seminary professors used to say that this is the Gospel that was passed hand to hand in a smoky bar deep in the heart of the Roman Empire, to be read with urgency by people urgently seeking knowledge and answers and a better way to live.

There are no frills in Mark. It punches clean and it pulls no punches in its quest to challenge the corrupt, power-seeking culture and governance of the world of its time.

It will be most fitting to work our way through these 16 chapters that focus less on sermons and structures and more on describing the work of Jesus.

In our own lives, let us strip away all that keeps us from understanding the true nature of our own lives and of reality. Let us see clearly and act accordingly.

And we begin with this story here in the very beginning of Mark. Mark isn’t concerned like Matthew with setting up Jesus pedigree and lineage. Unlike the texts of Luke, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t dwell on the early signs of Jesus’ greatness.

Nope. We start right in the middle of the action

The passage tonight begins in the 1st chapter, the 4th verse – let’s take a look back at the first 3 verses –

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

From there we have the appearance of John, the messenger, and of Jesus, poised to begin his ministry.

The people have emptied their hearts of their burdens, their regrets, their mistakes, their pain through the symbols of repentance offered by John.

Having emptied their hearts, they are ready for the Holy Spirit to fill them.

This has to be a regular process for us these days. We empty our hearts of our pain and our regrets and our burdens and of all of the harm of the world – its callous disregard for ecosystems, the pricetag it puts on human life, the ways in which it relies on age-old forces to raise some people up and drag others down.

All that gets poured into our hearts with a funnel of misery.

Yet we have the opportunity to continually empty ourselves of that and fill our hearts with the hope and promise of the Holy Spirit – and the love, compassion, justice, and prophetic challenge embodied in the life of Jesus.

We do that daily, weekly, continuously. It is the active work of faith and the active hope of our calling as Jesus followers.

And there’s a particularly important clue here in this last verse – you are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

Over the history of this church, we’ve had a tendency to refer to one another as Beloveds. There is nothing wrong with that – it’s a beautiful salutation that reflects love and care.

But while individuals put themselves – or their children – to be baptized, we are baptized into community. It is not a solitary endeavor, even if it’s just you and the person baptizing you.

As a beloved soul you are baptized and invited – constantly – into beloved community.

It is a reflection and an instruction for how we carry ourselves in the world – knowing that we are beloved by God and that together we daily strive to create beloved community, not only here but in every aspect of our lives.

There are days when that will wear you out. But you’re not just doing it for yourself or by yourself. When you empty your heart out of its pain and its transgressions and of all the world’s harms and you fill yourself with the great love of God, you are a part of something greater than yourself.

You are not alone.

That’s some kind of gift, y’all. That’s the gift that keeps on giving, long after we’ve packed up the stockings and the tree and the ornaments. Long after the company goes home and we go back to work and school and daily routines. Long after we’ve paid the bills (no longer how long that takes). Long after the days have grown longer and the weather milder.

Long after we’ve run out of answers and are left with just questions.

You are not alone.

Amen

 

 

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What is To Come

The sermon from Sunday, December 31, 2017 on Isaiah 61:10-62:3

So what is a Watch Night Service? It has its roots in a couple of important, but different traditions –

 

Beginning in the mid-1700s, the Moravians, who were a sect of the Czech European Protestant Church, began a tradition of Watch Night Services as a time  to examine one’s covenant relationship with God.

It was intended as a moment of renewal, of cleansing of the soul, of renewed commitment.

Then English theologian John Wesley picked up on that tradition and incorporated it into the liturgy of the Methodist movement as an opportunity to reflect on the state of one’s soul in covenant with God – although relatively few Methodist churches carry on that tradition today.

From Wesley’s service we hear these words –

    the Christian life is redeemed from sin and consecrated to God.
Through baptism, we have entered this life
     and have been admitted into the new covenant
        of which Jesus Christ is the Mediator.

He sealed it with his own blood, that it might last for ever.
On the one side, God promises to give us new life in Christ,
     the Source and Perfecter of our faith.

On the other side, we are pledged
to live no more for ourselves but only for Jesus Christ,
who loved us and gave himself for us.

From time to time we renew our covenant with God,
     especially when we reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant
        and gather at the Lord’s table.

Today, however, we meet, as the generations before us have met,
     to renew the covenant that binds us to God.
Let us make this covenant of God our own.

Let us make this covenant of God our own.

Then in September of 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued a warning – that if the Confederate states did not end their rebellion – on January 1, 1863, he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all of the enslaved people in the 10 southern states of the Confederacy, some 3 MILLION people all told.

The faithful – enslaved people and their abolitionist supporters – are said to have gathered on the night of December 31, 1862 – waiting, praying, hoping, and believing in freedom, in the dream of a better life and a better world.

It ain’t like everything miraculously got fixed overnight. But that date and that act represent the solid hope of our transformation, the concrete enactment of the promise that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, even if that arc is mighty, mighty long.

Today many churches, particularly black and multicultural congregations like this one, celebrate that promise, that hope, that strength, and that unquenchable faith. The witness and the resilience of a people who refused to be broken even in the most horrific circumstances imaginable – that witness and that resilience gives life to our world today.

Rev. Kimberleigh Jordan, an African American UCC pastor, writes that for her, Watch Night is a place for my hopes and anxieties about the future, as well as my regrets, gratitude and forgiveness about the past. For me, Watchnight is also a sign of relationship with God who is beyond ~ time and circumstances. . . .  in which past and future mingle in the hearts of the people gathered before God “who was, and is, and is to come.”

It is a celebration of the very act of survival in a world of brutal dehumanization.

Let’s add to these stories – that of the  the early Moravian commitment to renewal of one’s covenant with God and the fierce hope, joy, faith, and courage of slaves about to be free – let’s mix in the witness of Simeon and of Anna.

Here the author of the Gospel of Luke tells us of these two faithful elders who maintained a vigil in the Temple, convinced and convicted that they would yet see the Messiah in their time on Earth.

Sure enough, they encounter the child who was born in a manger and who was destined to change the world through his truth-telling and love.

Can you imagine the patience with which they must have waited?

We all have many gifts, right? Humor, courage, wisdom, dependability, honesty, kindness, discernment, discipline – and more. Some mix of all of those things.

But patience. Patience has not historically been one of my greater gifts. Anybody there with me?

For all the gifts that many of us have, patience is often a struggle. I have been deliberately trying to cultivate it in myself, but I’ve got a ways to go.

Yet we have here the urgent patience of Simeon and of Anna, these elders, and their blessing and praise – signals of the promise embodied in this child, the humble, vulnerable baby Jesus – models for us of how we might continue to live in hope, how we might be resolute in the face of uncertainty, how we might be a steady presence until the end of our age.

We do not know what is to come.

We cannot know what is to come.

But we can take these stories and the examples of our elders and our ancestors and all of the gifts that God has given us and we can use them to do holy work in our world.

Whatever else is going on around us, we can bear witness to the light of Christ in our everyday lives.

We can acknowledge the sacred as it surrounds us and lives within us – we can nurture that and be nourished by it as we do the work of following Jesus in today’s world.

We are watching and we are waiting.

While we are doing so. we are leaving behind those obstacles that prevent us from living full and authentic and compassionate lives.

We are jettisoning the fear, the jealousy, the wounded egos, the disappointment, the hurt and damage and pain and sorrow.

We are leaving that behind in the year gone by.

That doesn’t mean we are unrealistic – we see the world and its inequities and its greed and maldistribution of power.

We acknowledge the meanness and the despair and all the ways that we as human beings get it wrong – on an individual level and a collective level.

We also examine our own covenant with God.  

How is it with your soul? That was John Wesley’s question.

Whatever is going on in the world around us and in your life, you can face that question – how is it with your soul?

And in your soul’s relationship with the God who pours love constantly upon us all?

There is work to be done there if you choose it.

What are our lessons of this night – reflection, commitment, courage, resilience, faith, faith, faith.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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An Uncloudy Day

The sermon from Sunday, December 24, 2017 on Luke 1:46b-55

I was watching a video the other day that talked about the violence that we do to one another on this planet.

One part of this documentary featured an interview with prisoners in Rwanda.

These were ordinary men who had been swept up in extraordinary brutality – and who had indeed committed horrific, very immediate acts of violence during the 100 days of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

One man, who admitted his own small but deadly part in the events was describing what he did and trying to explain how he got to that place – and he said – “it was like a cloud came over my heart.”

Now as it turns out, I happen to like clouds and cloudy days and rain and night time and darkness and all that.

But I got what he meant. It is a really powerful image.

If you’ve been alive for a while, you’ve probably seen it happen. The sun is out and all is bright and then a cloud passes – and it covers the sun.

Now imagine our hearts that way. We – all – who are created in God’s image, created by love, through love, and for love.

But our world sends cloud after cloud. While we don’t all take it to such extremes as the genocidaire of Rwanda, we struggle on daily terms with the clouds on our hearts – all the things that allow us to dehumanize others and to despoil the Earth.

And it happens in the same way that a cloud blocks out the sun. The sun is all-powerful. But the clouds are closer.

Tonight. Tomorrow. The season of anticipation. The season of Christmas. The path of being a Jesus-follower. The commitment to life whose energy comes from God’s love, whose orientation is toward the star of Christ’s embodied witness in the world.

That’s our reminder.

Let us pay attention.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Your heart is not meant to be covered by clouds.

Amen

 

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Deep in Joy

The sermon for Sunday, December 17, 2017 on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Let’s talk about joy for a moment.

We all – I hope – know what simple happiness feels like, right?

It happens for whatever reason.

It passes for whatever reason.  

This evening I invite you to reflect on the deeper meanings of deeper joys.

It’s not just about feeling good and satisfied and content in the moment, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Joy is to be found in holding close in your heart that God has sent you to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the goodness of God and to comfort all who mourn.

We can find happiness in all sorts of simple moments, but here is your joy – if you choose it – if you grasp that the task is to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

There is joy in fashioning yourself as an oak of righteousness – and now we know what righteousness isn’t, eh?

Together we shall build up the ancient ruins, we shall raise up the former devastations; we shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

We do this work. We do it together. We do it daily and lifelong. It is our joy.

Together we greatly rejoice in the LORD, our  whole beings we shall exult in our God; for God has clothed us with the garments of salvation.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

This is our joy. And we live it out daily. Even when we can’t see it, even when the world seems bleak around us. Even when our victories are fleeting and hope seems elusive, we can carry the joy of God and God’s love for us with us.

Amen

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True Peace

The sermon from Sunday, December 10, 2017 on Mark 1:1-8 – 

Some of y’all have seen my old jeep that I drive sometimes.

It’s a ’92 Wrangler that I bought cheap off an old friend who could know longer climb in and out of it. He had owned it more than a decade and had several good progressive bumpers stickers on it.

Over the couple of years that I’ve had it, I’ve added others. And that recently left me staring at the back of the jeep one day and realizing that I had one that said

No Farms No Food – that makes sense, right? If we don’t have farms, we don’t have food.

And then there is one that says No Ban No Wall – that makes sense too, right. I oppose the Muslim ban and the building of a border wall.

They both make sense, but they don’t exactly make sense right next to each other. The meaning gets clouded.

It is easy in today’s world to get confused about meaning. We use words in different ways and we have to reach for clarity.

This is important as we pause for just a moment this evening to talk about peace here on this second Sunday of Advent. 

Some people think that peace just represents the absence of armed conflict – so that if we are not at war, we are at peace.

So by this way of thinking peace is the absence of actual armed conflict. That may be the way the politicians and diplomats define it.

But on an evening when we invoke John the Baptist, that radical prophet of realm of God and the blessings of Jesus, it’s appropriate to suggest that God has a higher standard for the concept of peace.

Peace is about more than just people not shooting each other.

Peace is a condition in the world where we meet one another as neighbors and friends.

It is a world where no one goes hungry, where no one is homeless,where no one lacks access to quality medical care,where no goes without a fine education, where no one is forced to live on contaminated soils and breath contaminated air.

Where no one is subject to violence of word or deed, intimidation, or exploitation because they are black or Muslim or physically disabled or transgender or Spanish-speaking or queer or poor or mentally ill or too old or too young.  

A world where no one is an outcast and no one is a stranger.

Where the earth is not viewed as a commodity to be exploited and the health of ecosystems callously disregarded in the unrelenting pursuit of greater profit.      

That, my friends, is a state of true peace.

Next time you hear somebody chant – No justice, no peace, realize that that is not a threat.

It’s a description of reality. If we do not achieve the conditions of justice, then we do not have true peace.

God wants true peace for us all.

For each of us in our own lives. For us as a global community.

God wants for each us peace in our hearts and for all of us peace in our world.

God calls each of us to do the work to make it so.

We walk in that promise every day.

May we do that work every day.

For the Advent season, for the Christmas season.

For the whole of the year and the whole of our lives.

Amen

 

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We are Not Lacking

The sermon from Sunday, December 3, 2017 on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

I’m just going to speak for a moment because I believe that we often most effectively find hope in prayer, in sacrament, and in song. We’ve had the prayer. We’re about to celebrate Holy Communion. And we most certainly will have song.

These are troubled times and perhaps more than ever to be a feeling caring person means to feel and care about these troubled deeply.

In this letter to the church at Corinth, Paul too is writing in troubled times – and he’s writing to a divided community, one rife with factions, discrimination, and defections.

There are 2 key pieces I’m going to pull out from this and they are both in this phrase – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end.

My friends, we are not lacking in spiritual gifts. We may be tired. We may be frustrated. We may at times even feel hopeless. But we are gifted people.

We are capable of knowing and sharing the gifts of love and mercy and justice and compassion and prayer and relationship.

We possess those gifts and we can share them.

That is a deeply hopeful act – hopeful for those who receive them and for us in the sharing.

Furthermore, the other element here suggests that we wisely see hope in a somewhat untraditional way.

We are strengthened, my friends, by the ways in which we allow to live within us, to guide, and use us for the good. There is hope in that strength – and strength in that hope.

They are woven together like strands of fine thread, hope and strength.

The Brazillian educator Paulo Friere wrote “The struggle for hope means the denunciation, in no uncertain terms of all abuses . . . As we denounce them, we awaken in others and ourselves, the need, and also the taste, for hope.”

We need hope to live – and it has to be a radical form of hope. You can’t buy it.

You can’t steal it. You live it. You live in such a way that you use your gifts and acknowledge your strengths and you keep going.

We do the practical work of daily living, striving after the example of Jesus for the good of all.

Amen

Image – “St. Paul Preaching to the Jews in the Synagogue at Damascus,” from Scenes from the Life of St. Paul (mosaic), Byzantine School, 12th century. Duomo, Monreale, Sicily, Italy.)  from the  Bridgeman Art Library.

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The Connection of Creation

The sermon from Sunday, November 26, 2017 on Matthew 25:31-46 – 

This Sunday marks the end of the Christian year, the bridge from Ordinary Time to the anticipation of Advent, leading us to the joy of Christmas.

It’s known on the Christian calendar as Christ the King Sunday, a tradition that traces back to 1925. At that time, the pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Pius XI, hoped that people might take a look at what was going on in Europe – in countries struggling with political transition, dictatorships, and the decline of the Church and of religious influence in society.

The Pope was trying to give people an alternative to the ways of the world, a way of envisioning that things could be quite different.

The people of that time were accustomed to authoritarian structures, as were the Jews to whom Matthew was writing.

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

We as a people love a fuss, don’t we? We want heroes. We want to be able to name our saviors – whether it’s a politician or a football coach or our favorite musician or scholar or actor.

We want to be able to name the villains too.

We think evil can be made plain, so that if we can just vanquish the bad guys – the Charles Mansons or the Roy Moores or the Saddam Husseins – then everything will be all better.

Has that ever worked?

Have we ever brought about justice and mercy in the world by putting anyone on a pedestal?

Have we brought an end to evil by bringing down the bad guys?

We want to make it about personalities – and for sure we can learn lessons of good and evil from individual people – but to rely so heavily on that is to keep us from seeing all of the interconnections, all the patterns of problems.

If we want to heal the world, then we need to look not just at Dylann Roof, who slaughtered 9 black people at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, but at the patriarchal white supremacist culture that produced him.

If we want to heal the world, then we need to look not just at Bashir Assad in Syria, but at the structures of colonialism and militarism and greed and religious oppression that produced him.

If we want to heal the world, then we need to look not just at Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, but at the money being made by the gun industry and other weapons manufacturers in their exploitation of the public.

If we want to heal the world, then we need to look not just at Roy Moore, but at the homophobia and transphobia, the deeply ingrained racism, and the religious fundamentalism that elevated him to leadership in our state.

Fundamentalists love kings. They love concentrated power. “Strong leadership.” “A firm hand.”

We remain conditioned to worldly structures of hierarchy.

We make Gods of men, forgetting about God-made-man in the form of Jesus.

Christ the King makes sense to the ears of people attuned to news of emperors, kings, popes, and chancellors.

It makes sense to us in a world that glories celebrity, that understands events in terms of personalities rather than patterns, where we act as if one person will save us or one person will destroy us.

Some folks will even put a pastor on a pedestal. Not everybody, for sure.

We’ve even made Christianity out to be about some notion of personal salvation where our belief in Jesus somehow makes us better and more holy than everyone else.

In a world where Christ is King, maybe we belong on a pedestal, eh?

Know a holier than thou church-goer out there?

Anybody come to mind?

So that’s where we are – I’m not a big fan of Christ-the-King, even when people use the day to explain how the reign of God will look different than the current world – and that’s a more typical way of talking about this day.

So be it – I just happen to think that we can push it further.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever been here to hear me suggest that the clue to the true realm of God can be found in the other part of this passage, this set of verses that are one of the defining elements of our life together at Beloved –

 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  

This passage reflects the essence of who we try to be here at Beloved in our communal walk of faith.

It is a powerful statement about the Incarnation.

We don’t find Jesus in just one place, sitting up on some throne looking down on us.

We are in relationship with Jesus over and over and over again – and most especially in our relationships to the marginalized.

A lot of folks in this room count among the marginalized in one way or another. We know the complexities and the struggle and the harm that’s been caused and the struggle not to cause further harm in our own brokenness.

I will argue to you as we close out this year, as we begin to prepare our hearts for the promise of hope and the hope of promise embodied in the Christmas season, that the message here focuses not on the Kings of this world but on our connectedness as a Whole.

That’s a consistent part of my interpretation to you here – and on no occasion does it feel more relevant than this day.

In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr famously wrote these words – “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…

This is the inter-related structure of reality.

In the Eastern religions, particularly in Buddhism, there is the metaphor of Indra’s Net, which offers us an image of an endless web of reality, knit all throughout with jewels. And if each jewel, the image of all others are reflected. Life is at once infinite and entirely interconnected.

Contemporary science offers us the concept of Chaos Theory and the butterfly effect. For our purposes here we have to reduce it to its simplest elements – but the heart of the matter is that even small things can have substantial effects – and this is true because everything, everything, everything is connected.

We do not function in isolation, even as our world tries mightily to isolate us, to hide our bonds of interdependence.

But we are always woven into the fabric of the greater reality – and that means that we don’t have to look up to see Jesus sitting on some shining throne. Instead it means that we find the face of Jesus and hear the call of Jesus on our lives all around us. 

If we look for Jesus, if we aim to put Jesus in the center of our priorities, we become able to see how we each and every one are woven into the fabric of the universe.

The practice of Christianity has long reproduced earthly hierarchies of power. I suggest to you that in our walk together we would do well to find an entirely different way of being.

We don’t substitute one king for another. Instead we come to understand how starting with Jesus we come to face one another.

This is not arrogance. It is the opposite. It is deep humility and deep concern and deep love.

It allows for no abuse, by anyone of anyone.

It reminds us that we strive for a world where no one is an outcast and no one a stranger.

These verses remind that those who fail to see themselves as a part of this web of connection are indeed alienated. They in fact live  in a state of alienation from the reality of being.

That’s hell on earth – and sadly they tend to carry that hell with them.

And all too often other folks get burned by it.

But the promise of grace is that there is always hope for redemption.

May we all continue to center ourselves in God’s love, seeing with clarity the web of life in which we exist, knowing Jesus as our greatest teacher and our deeply holy hope for a better life for ourselves and a better world for all.

Amen.

 

 

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