The Rising Star – 2 Peter 1:16-21; Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent officially begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.  The gospel reports that six days after Jesus’ lesson on discipleship (Matthew 16:24-28) or after Peter confessed him to be the Christ (Matthew 16:13-23), Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain.  Jesus’ face is changed, becoming radiant like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white.  Then Moses and Elijah appear and enter into the conversation, quite likely emphasizing the compatibility between Jesus’ gospel and the law given to Moses by God.  Peter marvels that it is good to be present and offers to make shelters for Jesus and his guests.  Maybe he is hoping to prolong this vision or he is trying to tie it to the Hebraic Festival of Booths, a thanksgiving celebration at harvest time (Leviticus 23:33-34).  While Peter is speaking, a bright cloud overshadows them and a voice announcing that Jesus was his beloved Son was heard.  The disciples fall on the ground overcome with fear, but Jesus touches them and reassures them everything will be okay.  As they descend the mountain, Jesus tells his friends to tell no one until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.  What happens when you say to “tell no one?”

It is interesting that we are coming down from the hype and glitz of the Winter Olympics where millions of eyes were turned to televisions to observe the festivities.  The greatest light show featuring Jesus receives very little recognition–except by Christians on Transfiguration Sunday.  My mother informed me that she thought after ice-skating and luge competitions were viewed, nothing else was very exciting on the Olympics telecasts.  I am not usually a betting person, but I would wager that tonight as the Academy Awards are presented, Mom will be watching.  It is one of the most widely watched events on television (over 40 million will tune in) to see the world’s wealthiest, most handsome/beautiful actors/actresses and directors give themselves awards.  Ask anyone who tunes in faithfully why they watch this event and they can give you a list of reasons:  red carpet glamour, taking note of who is wearing (or not) which designer outfit, there is an opening number by a host or hostess, drama of unexpected winners and unpredictable acceptance speeches.  To receive an Oscar is a cultural anointing, to win is to be instantly inducted into the Hollywood elite.  There is no telling who will win, but one thing is certain, onlookers have to cherish the moment because there is no guarantee of perpetual relevance and enduring respect.  At least with the IOC, names are remembered and recited at ensuing events, adding to the list of accomplishments of the athletes. 

Peter in today’s text is writing to Christians who had their doubts about Jesus after his resurrection.  They had pinned their hope on him but his moment of glory seemed to be over and his light and fame were fading.  As time passed from Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, as persecution of Christians intensified and it was becoming increasingly difficult to be a part of the young church, it is understandable that some were beginning to wonder if Jesus was really the biggest star that had ever shone.  Were the stories about his deity and power fact or legends?  Were the details of his imminent return inflated?  Was he a Walmart DVD Bargain Bin figure (Oscar failure films) or was he a Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep kind of star: real, enduring, bright, shining?

Peter’s response is made to assure his audience that Jesus is a lasting star with genuine divinity and is the fulfillment of the Scriptures.  Peter points to the transfiguration on the high mountain when he stood with James and John as witnesses to the bright lights of heaven shining down on Jesus, with even Moses and Elijah making an appearance.  Talk about amazing technical effects, the voice of God was heard saying, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” Peter sees this moment as one set apart from any other divine experience that a run of the mill wannabe messiah or over-achieving rabbi might have.  Jesus was no fly by night star seeking a one-time award for “Best Supporting Actor.”  No, he deserves the lifetime achievement award, the Oscar that bestows the biggest form of recognition.  Jesus’ recognition was given by God, publicly declaring that Jesus was the biggest and brightest of stars!  And standing on the platform with Jesus, were Moses and Elijah, the two men whose lives and words were at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Their presence was a declaration that their work was Christ’s work and that they were merely the preamble to what Jesus would accomplish.  the proclamation of Christ’s divinity and of his emerging kingdom which quickly spread around the world was based on the body of work that God had been doing since the beginning of time.  Imagine, if you will, that Jesus is the co-writer, executive producer and star of the greatest story ever told!  For Peter, the transfiguration experience had set the scene.  Everything was in place for what was yet to come: betrayal, crucifixionand resurrection!  Despite false teachers, a kingdom that is seen in part but still hoped for in full, this Christ is worth hitching your hope for.  Jesus cannot fail us.  His truth captured in the Old Testament and proclaimed by those who knew him as a man on earth in what would become known as the New Testament, is absolutely trustworthy.  Go figure.  When someone tells you they will rise from the dead–and they do, you believe what he tells you!  You trust him!  And when a renown, respected figure in history like Moses or Elijah comes back from the dead to say the same thing, you really trust Jesus and what he has to say.

Peter speaks of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophetic message and as a lamp shining in the darkness.  In John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  (Speaking of eternal life)  The message of Christ is alive and well, trustworthy and divine.  The Word of God is like an opulent gift (the 2013 gift bag for Oscar nominees was valued at $47,000) that keeps on giving.  It speaks  pardon to us in light of our sins.  It proclaims that we are sons and daughters of God despite our rebellious behavior/nature.  It guides our feet on the path and convicts our hearts.  It fills our minds with peace in the face of pain and death.  These are the gifts that Christ’s enduring, divine and prophetic word gives.

Peter’s audience was afraid that their Savior’s time in the spotlight had faded, that Jesus had been played off the stage but Peter was there.  He saw Jesus in the spotlight at the moment of glory, the “Transfiguration.”  Jesus’ body of work is unmatched.  Jesus’ words are still cutting through and shining light in this world.  No one has played him off the stage or snuffed out his star.  Jesus is the real deal!  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Do No Harm – Matthew 5:38-48

I was fortunate to see the mountain where Jesus preached the message often called “The Sermon on the Mount.”  It was a grassy place with a gentle breeze blowing by that would have been appreciated in a warm country with lots of arid desert land.  I am certain that Jesus’ sermon could rub people in today’s culture the wrong way.  If you watch television, a large number of programs deal with growing violence.  Jesus is pretty clear on his teachings, “You have heard that it was said ,’An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv.38-39, NRSV).  Before we look at what Jesus means by this, there is something he is NOT saying.  If you or someone you love, is in an abusive relationship, Jesus is NOT saying that you should just take the abuse!  What Jesus is saying is that when you encounter violence, do not respond with violence.  The word translated as “resist,” as in “Do not resist an evildoer” should conjure up images of armed resistance, not submission.  So, Jesus is not saying that we should continue to put up with violence.  He is not telling us to submit to it.  He is telling us to resist violence, but not with more violence.
If the violent world in which we live is to be different, it has to start with us.  We have to break the cycle.  Whether we are righteous or unrighteous, evil or good, we are all God’s children on whom the sun rises and the rain falls.  All of us.  NO exceptions.  While Jesus is most certainly concerned about justice for the weak, the poor, the marginalized, he is also concerned about justice for the powerful, the rich, and the mighty.  Here is the truth woven throughout the Sermon on the Mount:  there is no justice for one of us unless there is justice for all of us.

Let us consider some Old Testament thinking attributed to “Eye for an eye”:  If you kill my sister, my family will kill your sister.  If you attack my village, my village will attack your village.  We understand that the underlying problems that lead someone to kill or destroy will not be fixed or redeemed with an eye for an eye action.  Jesus does not call us to break that cycle of reciprocal violence to be clever.  He calls us to practice non-violence so that everyone has a chance at redemption.

Earlier in his sermon in vv.17, 19, and 20, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law of the prophets, I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.  Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”  It is not about one side winning or one side losing.  Both sides must realize there is only one side, that we are all children of God and an “eye for an eye” does not allow for that.  So…bottom line…how do we turn the other cheek, give to everyone who begs from us, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, go a second mile with the one who forces you to go the first mile, and to the one who wants to take your sweater, well, give your coat as well?  Really, where is the thrill in doing stuff like that?

When someone bad-mouths you or does you wrong, you have to decide on how you are going to react.  My professor for conflict management at McCormick used to say, “If you remember nothing else about this course, remember, “Respond, do NOT react!”  You can hit back, which may make matters worse, or you can turn the other cheek, refusing to add to the problem.  Most likely, we would agree that doing no harm is a good thing but it does not impact us the same way confrontation and discord do.  In the account of Cain and Abel, most would say that Cain was the evil guy, but from the story angle, he was the more interesting character.  Abel does all the right things and is approved by God, but without Cain there would not have been the conflict necessary for creating a good story.  Not making matters worse may be the right thing but it is hard to generate much enthusiasm about it. 

The Sermon on the Mount is not the only New Testament place where “do-no-harm” teaching shows up.  In Peter’s first letter, the apostle observed Jesus: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten…”(2:23).  Doing no harm is not something Jesus talked about, but something he actually practiced.  Just about every day we are in situations in which we have no idea how to make them better but we are pretty clear on how to make them worse:
·       Interfere in someone’s else’s conversation or activities;
·       Tell tales or spread rumors;
·       Blame others for your own screw-ups;
·       Bore people to death by going on and on about your own problems;
·       Vent your anger on people who are not involved in your situation;
·       Disparage/put down others to make yourself look good;
·       Bear false witness/lie.

Submission is a spiritual discipline with which we view others, and in which we relate to others, and in which we relate to and treat them.  It is the willingness not to get our own way, and the ability to lay down the burden of needing to come out on top.  In some situations, submission is the freedom to drop the matter in order to let the other person have his or her say (not way).

Submission has its limits.  Most of the situations we deal with are due to differences of opinion or somebody’s self-centeredness or hang-ups showing.  Often the way we love that neighbor or relative or spouse with whom we do not see eye to eye is by first doing no harm. Sometimes we have to: say nothing, not pass along gossip; give a person time to work things out; compromise and seek the common good; think about what doing no harm means and try to put it into practice.  Jesus tells us to strive for perfection.

The Pharisees were known for their zealous and fastidious keeping of the Law of Moses.  To exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, Jesus’ hearers needed to actively live the Scriptures.  Jesus’ message for today means that doing no harm means no hitting back, turn the other cheek.  Instead of making a fuss about being forced to go one mile, volunteer to go a second mile.  Instead of seeking to hurt your enemies, pray for them!

Intentionally doing no harm is a vital practice in living a holy life; a way of loving our neighbor.  Jesus returns good for evil–that is the new ethic of God’s world.  “Do no harm” may sound unexciting but it is just one aspect of the ethics of God’s world, and it has the power to change the world in a positive way.  Strive for perfection!

Offer God’s unconditional grace making possible the love of neighbors.  
Categories: Weekly Sermon

Baby Steps to Understanding – I Corinthians 3:1-9

Watching our children (including nieces, nephews, grandchildren) grow up, we notice particular mile-markers: cutting the first tooth, saying the first word, crawling, walking and other activities.  With today’s technology we would probably document those exciting moments, with a digital camera or telephone. It is exciting to observe the development of young children’s experiences.

    The apostle Paul, when writing to the Corinthian church, tried to keep in mind that they were a young and growing church, but he did not want them to develop bad habits or to be misled by the ideologies of those who did not adhere to Jesus’ teachings.  Paul was concerned for their souls and wanted them to be equipped to deal with the temptations prevalent in culture around them.  Does that sound like a familiar challenge for Christians today? 

    What happens when someone brings a baby into our church or fellowship hall?  People gather around to coo and jabber in “baby gobble de gook” to communicate with the baby.  If the parent is not careful, a lively game of “pass the baby” begins and the child gets handed off, hugged, smiled at and jostled until it objects or the parent appears to claim the child.  At one baptism a number of years back, a baby sat in the choir with “Aunt Ethel” until the service was over.  Showing affection and talking to our children is good.  We know that the language little ones hear is key to their development.  Using proper language establishes a healthier vocabulary early in life.  Good words properly pronounced and used lead to mature speech.  The more words and the context in which they are spoken aid a child’s speech development.  The parents’ response to the child’s speech attempts really matters if they want their children to grow up with a mature vocabulary.

    It seems that when Paul was away from Corinth, the church had begun to listen to other kinds of speaking that identified the church with various people who had come to visit.  There was confusion about the church’s leadership vocabulary which resulted in squabbling about the respective qualities of Paul, Peter, or a man named Apollos.  Paul attempted to do some remedial training with them, reminding them that the church, the body of Christ, is not divided.  Paul had come to them to demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit, teaching particular cues to the church so that they could name them on their own while they matured in faith. Paul referred to them as toothless baby believers who were only responding to baby talk and baby food.  New Christians, Paul understood, need the “milk of the Word.”  Paul wanted the congregation to develop beyond the baby stage.  Paul equated the Corinthians as “infants in Christ” to “people of the flesh.”  The people had come to know words about Jesus but they had not assimilated them into practice.  They were struggling with their old ways of being and doing.  They were behaving like selfish children, with “jealousy and quarreling” making them more fit for sitting in the church nursery rather than engaging in the mission of the church.  The church needed to digress; to go back to a very basic faith formula before it could begin to chew on solid food, speak, and act with maturity.
    A church is not defined by who is in charge, but by a group of people gifted to work together for a common purpose (I talked about grace, gifts and a guarantee from God and that we respond in gratitude).  The church is a group of “God’s servants, working together as God’s field, God’s building” —a sign of God’s kingdom.  The church may be planted by one person and watered by another, but it is grown by God.  Some define a church by the conversation of the members; some focus on its mission.  Some admire the facility and others emulate the music.  Some define the church as a place where their needs are met (as if the church dispenses religious goods and services). A church can be associated with things a self-focused infant is concerned with.  They get what they need and want.
    Mature Christians know that a church is founded on the self-serving needs of people.  Their faith rests on the power of God.  Jesus said we must become like little children if we want to enter the kingdom of God–to be open to a different set of definitions and sit at the feet of a parent who will teach a vocabulary that leads to maturity, faith, mission and genuine hope for life with God forever.

    Paul wanted the Corinthian church to grow up, but he began by going back to the basics developing a solid vocabulary around what it means to be the church. It is a mission; it is about being God’s servants, about joining and working together for the harvest of God’s field, and the building of God’s kingdom.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Church–A Work in Progress I Corinthians 1: 1-9

I remember back to my childhood when parents of some of my friends at Sunday school would drop them off for Sunday school and return to pick them up after church…but..they never came in the door. From a child’s understanding I wondered if they had faith in God, and what had happened in their lives that they wanted their kids to have religious training. Hopefully, they would develop faith in God. Unfortunately, that is still happening today but it is opening the gate to young people to meet God at work in their lives–and that is a good thing!

There are a few good reasons to quit the church. Top on some people’s lists are hypocrisy, violence, and intolerance. Other people leave the church because they find it irrelevant to their lifestyle, mediocre or boring. A further comment might be, “If only we could go back to what the church was like thirty, forty, or fifty years ago.” Well, folks, that just cannot happen as the world has been changing all around us and there are changes we need to make. Paul taught at Corinth for eighteen months (Acts 18:11) and he knew the people well. In his letters to the believers at Corinth, Paul addressed numerous ugly issues: sectarian divisions in which each side claimed to be more spiritual than the other, boasting about incest (I Corinthians 5:1), lawsuits between fellow Christians, eating food that had been sacrificed to pagan idols, disarray in worship services and even predatory pseudo-preachers who masqueraded as super-apostles. The most realistic way to deal with the church’s faults and failures is to name them, own up to them, repent of them, and do what we can to correct them. Losing our illusions about the church ( or disillusionment) is necessary and good. It is easy to take incredible things for granted, but after the extraordinary is accepted and expected as the “norm,” what happens next?

Think about flying. The airplane envisioned by the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina has evolved into multiple daily flights–more than 30,000 per day in the United States alone! Some folks love flying and others could produce a long list of complaints about customer services: lack of food services on flights, cancelled flights or my favorite, over ticketing, late arrivals, and on and on. Could it be that flying is less fun and more frustrating than it used to be? Do we need to be reminded that planes fly at 550mph and reduce ground travel time considerably? It is a long swim to Europe and other places we might want to experience. Things could be whole lot worse.

If we surveyed the church in Corinth, we would confirm that people were fighting for power, abusing the sacrament, endorsing false teachers and their marriages were melting down (marriages are still not made in heaven). The church of Jesus Christ is made up of people saved by, and yet still desperately in need of Jesus. The truth is that the church in Corinth is not all that different from every church today. There will be immorality that comes to light, politics at play, messy marriages and a mission that misses the mark. There are definitely rumors generating discouragement.

Before attempting to correct the mistakes being made in the church, Paul made it clear that despite all that was broken in the church he was still deeply and truly satisfied with what God was accomplishing in the church. He said, “I give thanks to my God always for you.” In spite of the immorality, gossip, immaturity and selfishness exhibited by people in the church, Paul was overjoyed at the miracle that is the church.

It would be so much more healthy if folks would pause from lamenting and complaining about God’s people and how much they are missing the mark, and recapture the perspective of being the church. There is a reason to be satisfied with the church. We need to be thankful and satisfied with the church body because we have grace, gifts and a guarantee. John Calvin wrote about guilt, grace and gratitude but I enjoy Paul’s understanding of how God works in our lives.

Grace is what makes a body of believers realize that it is not the great things done by them, but the great mercy shown to them. Paul was elated with the church at Corinth because of their gift of faith and the flood of forgiveness that had washed over them. The promise of the gospel is that no matter how messed up we were prior to meeting Jesus, once we are connected to the work of the cross, through belief and baptism we are adopted as sons and daughters and made heirs of God’s kingdom. We deserve death and destruction but God sentences us to life and love. What a sentence!

Not only did the church at Corinth have grace but it had gifts–it was equipped to be the church by the power of the Spirit. It was not without hope because it was promised a reservoir of gifts and talents that needed to be identified, encouraged and utilized. What gifts do you acknowledge that God has clearly given to this congregation? I would offer to you Spirit filled worship with uplifting music shared by our organist, pianist, choir directors (chancel, youth and handbell) and all the folks who participate in the various choirs. Think about the ministries we share in serving: the Agua Fria Food Bank (some of the poorest people in Maricopa reside in the Avondale/Goodyear area and would go hungry if we did not take hundreds of pounds of food, plus money, school uniforms and school supplies, clothing and other needed items), the Peoria Youth Pantry which provides food to high school kids at risk (who would not eat on the weekends or during holidays) New Life Shelter and Eve’s Place (working in partnership with us to meet the needs of Kellis High School youth, provide jobs for some and offer assistance in other ways). God is meeting the needs of people through our collective family of believers.

Paul found great joy in the Corinthian church because of the bright and glorious future guaranteed to each and every person waiting for the revealing of Jesus Christ, who will sustain us all to the end. Corinthian Christians had imperfections and so do we but our future is secure because Christ has promised that in the end, he will return, resurrected and find us faultless. He will establish his kingdom and until that time, he will keep his church alive. The church will endure. There is reason to rejoice in spite of the struggles, the church has a lot going for her. Not because of what we bring to the church, but because of what God has done to us and through us in Christ. Occasionally, we might experience some turbulence on the ride, but Jesus is still our pilot, keeping us on the correct flight route.


Categories: Weekly Sermon

Does God Show Partiality? Matthew 3:13-17; Acts 10:34-43

Every year the Sunday after Epiphany we remember our Lord Jesus’ baptism. His words to us in Matthew 28:19-20, the “Great Commission,” are “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” What a leap of faith in only three weeks; from the birth of a savior to his words to us to carry on in the mission of winning souls for Christ.

The command seems simple enough when we read it but holds a lot of responsibility for us and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in a culture that focuses on personal needs–what’s in it for me and how can I gain more material possessions to satisfy my longings–instant gratification? Jesus taught us to seek righteousness, to work at being in a right relationship with God and others; to aim to be with God in eternity in everlasting life. In the balance on the scale of life, we have instant gratification versus the long term goal of meeting God face to face and basking in God’s glory forever. It is difficult to battle human nature which leans toward self-interest. Part of our inner working prefers that God be partial to you and me. We want to reap the benefit of being singled out, first in line toward a heavenly reward and we do not want to have to move over and lose our place in line.

The account in Acts recalls a dream that Peter had telling him that he should not call anyone profane, unclean, or unacceptable to God. As he pondered his dream, soldiers came to him as messengers from a Gentile, a centurion in the Roman army named Cornelius. He claimed that God had spoken to him in a dream. The emissaries asked that Peter allow the centurion to come to listen to him. What a challenge for Peter! Peter reminded the men that it was unlawful for Jewish folk to talk to Gentiles, but he had just had a dream from God telling him, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” Could God be telling him that God provides and cares for all people? Could it be that Jesus’ message was not exclusively for the Jewish people, but for all people? Jesus is the Savior of all and now it was time to expand the reach of the message. In the company of Jews, Cornelius, and many other non-Jewish people, Peter professed that “Jesus Christ is Lord of all” (v.36).

Peter boldly expanded the message preaching that “Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (v.38b). Peter’s followers must have been overwhelmed by these words. Peter had been a witness to Jesus’ ministry; he was there when Jesus died and after the resurrection when Jesus came to the disciples and commissioned them to “Make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Peter finally heard the message himself, God is for everyone: hypocrites, pretenders, liars, every day saints–no partiality. Retirees, single parents, traditional families, youths, children, care-center residents, blended families–no partiality. Wheelchair users, cane users, dog guide users, hearing device users, scooter users, motorcyclists, minivan drivers, long distance truckers and e-mail users–no partiality. God wants us to include people from all lands, races, religious persuasions, city streets, mansions and condominiums.

God raises no eyebrows, shows no partiality, favoritism or exclusivity. “In every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God]” (v. 35). The family, the realm of God, is all encompassing. Family are people to whom we matter. From the outside, people might look at the Sacrament of Baptism given to us by Jesus as a rite of inclusion into an exclusive organization. Does baptism say to outsiders, “Welcome to the holy club, the in-group church?” Is the mark of baptism a sign of exclusivity or inclusivity?

Baptism sets us apart for God. At baptism, we acknowledge whose we are. Baptism is an act of sharing one’s child when the child is presented by a parent or guardian, placed into the arms of the minister–a symbolic letting go that is a precursor to future separations. The child becomes more than an extension of parental being. The child belongs to two families: the family of nurture and the family of God. Does the family pedigree passed down genetically take precedence over adoption into the family of God, where all are united in the body of Christ?

To become a Christian requires no surrender of part of one’s given identity but the taking on of a wider identity. When a child is presented for baptism, I ask: “Do you desire (for yourself or your child) to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?” It is your choice to renounce the evil in the world, to profess faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and to commit your life and the life of your child to know Jesus, love Jesus and serve Jesus. We promise to live as best we can according to the way Jesus lived. We promise God, ourselves, and the surrounding witnesses to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and in the way we live our lives to reflect and point to Christ.

We promise the faith community which has welcomed us with open arms, adopting us to share in ministry by faithful attendance, to celebrate Christ’s presence and to further the mission of Christ in all the world as part of a church that draws others toward growth in their own faith. Baptism may be a few drops of water but it is a reminder of God’s presence bringing the holy into the now. A few drops of water here in the midst of things awakens, creates and offers holy encouragement; it is a piece of affirmation that reminds us that God is for all of us. Praise God!

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Is Christmas Really over -Matthew 2:13-23

Now that it is December 29, 2013, people are saying that Christ is over; finished, until next summer when commercial entrepreneurs begin to put out decorations and ads for the “coming season.”  Christmas is over at the malls—after the “After Christmas Sale,” Year-end Clearance and Year-end Inventory sales.  It might be over at local churches that do not celebrate Epiphany, “Kings Day,” when the wise men arrived to see the Baby Jesus–otherwise known as “Twelfth Night” (for which we sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas”).  The white paraments and The First Sunday after Christmas on today’s bulletins are indicators of the Christmas season winding down.
It always seem like the arrival of a late Christmas card.  I still have not sent mine out, yet.  The cre’che is still waiting for the wise men and camels to be added.  We are no longer lighting the Advent Wreath.  We need to emphasize that the place where Mary and Joseph watched over Jesus has been searched by Herod’s secret police, the manger was probably overturned and the animals have scattered.  Throughout the countryside the lament of parents whose children had been slain could be heard as the result of Herod’s attempt to eliminate any baby king to compete with his reign.  Herod was so infuriated when he could not find the baby that he ordered all male children in Bethlehem and in the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger to be killed.
The real Christmas may be over, but the sentimental Christmas of our fantasies is no more.  This violent text will not tolerate it.  The text shows us that Jesus and his family had left Bethlehem.  They became Palestinian refugees in search of safety far away in Egypt.  They crossed a desert region not knowing where they would find shelter each night.  The sentimental Christmas was constructed years ago to compress and retell the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.  The Incarnation makes a radical claim.  We Christians insist that God took on human flesh and appeared in the midst of the world as we know it.  The hymn, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” tells us, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’ incarnate Deity, pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”
The Incarnation means that God has entered every realm of human life, both to bless and even to meddle with it and convert it.  God is in the midst of our finances, our families and our marriages to bless and convert.  God is in the midst of our sufferings as well, and all suffering is to some extent the suffering of Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews proclaimed, “He is able to help those who are being tempted, since he himself experienced suffering when he was tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
How can all of that be good news?  Not an easy question to answer.  We need to read the gospel and to allow it to take root in us.  Everything in Matthew is leading us to Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.  The brutal slaughter of innocent children is but a foreshadowing of what is yet to come.  It is all through the narrative.  Jesus insisted that he would suffer, die and be raised on the third day.  He insisted that his disciples (includes us) would find life in the same way, by taking up the cross.  The gospel message is clear, even on the first Sunday after Christmas.  Clarity can be a relief.  When it is time to flee violence and seek shelter, a battered spouse needs the truth, not the false assurance that the monster kissed will morph into Prince or Princess Charming.  When cancer invades and overturns our tranquil lives, we do not want to be told that everything is okay.  You lament and seek refuge in chemotherapy or maybe palliative care.
In spite of sometimes shocking news, there are echoes in today’s gospel reading.  Christmas in not yet over, nor is the message of the gospel.  Four times we hear “getup” or “got up.”  The angel said, “Get up.  Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt…Joseph got up” (vv. 13-14).  Later, “Get up and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel.  Joseph got up” (vv.20-12).  It is interesting to note that the Greek word for get up and got up is translated from egeiro, the same word that Matthew and others use when they refer to the resurrection of Jesus, to his rising from the dead.  “He is not here because he has been raised from the dead.  He is not here because he has been raised from the dead just as he said” (Matthew 28:6).
God speaks resurrection and God gets the final word.  That is not to minimize tragedy or to say that oppression is insignificant.  But God gets the final word in today’s account, where Jesus and the holy family are preserved.  God will have the final word in our lives as well.  In Jesus Christ, God enters creation and suffers with it.  God is at work redeeming us all, so Christmas is definitely not over yet!  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Future Hope – Isaiah 9:2-7

Christmas Eve is one of the darkest days of the year.  It is only a few days after the shortest day, the winter solstice, December 21.  Today we have had only nine hours and twenty-six minutes of daylight, leaving us more than fourteen hour of darkness.  The world around us seems dark as well.  We have serious climate changes, a nuclear North Korea, Cyber attacks (Millions of Target shoppers’ credit has been compromised), Global terrorism, insecurity about relationships, jobs, healthy and retirement issues are all looming.  We can identify with the words of “The First Noel”…”on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.”  Deep darkness.  Some folks remind us to pray to God to free us from the dark experiences in life.  Others say that if darkness persists, pay the electric bill.  That might help.
People have been facing dark days and troublesome experiences in life a long time.  Seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet, Isaiah, warned the people of Israel that they were walking in darkness.  God seemed silent to them and they were “greatly distressed and hungry.”  We are stressed today by economic insecurity, repeated news of acts of global terrorism which add to our anxiety and concern.  We are fearful of the dark times.  We need illumination.
The people of Israel saw a ray of hope and brightness in the promise of a new king, a descendent of David, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and authority rests upon his shoulders.  He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His kingdom shall be established with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (v.7).  This promised king was the Future Hope of Israel.
We have reason to hope tonight as well.  An eighteen year old named Taylor Wilson designed a new, safer, more efficient nuclear reactor.  A Kenyan teen, fearful that lions would eat his family’s livestock, built an automated security system.  Sixteen year old Jack Andraka was upset after pancreatic cancer killed a family friend, so he developed an affordable protein-based blood test that is faster and more effective than the current option; all while dealing with homework, parents and puberty.  Children are still being born who are succeeding in making the world a safer, more secure and healthier place.  God’s kingdom  of justice and righteousness is advancing one innovation at a time.  The most impressive of God’s innovators was born in Bethlehem seven centuries after the prophet Isaiah.
That would be like us waiting until the twenty-eighth century to find relief from the multiple conflicts in the world.  No doubt they wished their Future Hope would come a little faster.
Eventually, in God’s time, Jesus Christ was born to show us God’s love and to be our Savior to bring light and hope.  Isaiah said that his authority would grow and that endless peace would come for the throne of David and his kingdom.  More than two billion Christians, about 2/3 of the global population adhere to Jesus’ authority.  Jesus continues to offer us his peace in a challenging and contentious world saying, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
Jesus does not offer us escape from life’s challenges but he gives us peace in the midst of the challenges, “Establishing his kingdom with justice and righteousness now and forever.”  Jesus wants justice for all God’s children: rich and poor, conservative or liberal, immigrant and native-born.  Jesus is focused on people being in right-relationships with God and each other (core meaning of righteousness).
Christmas is the time when the light of Christ enters the darkness of the world.  The birth of Jesus reminds us that children can change things for the better.  In every generation there is the possibility that people will act as counselors and peacemakers, following in the footsteps of the Savior.  On this Christmas Eve, pause to receive the light coming into the world.  Jesus enters each of our lives  to show us God’s immense love, to save us from our sins and to lead us in the paths of justice and righteousness.  Receive, accept, embrace and share the light in whatever way you can.  Reflect the light of Christ into the dark places around you.  Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.  You do not have to build a security system for livestock or develop new tests for cancer, but you can visit a lonely relative, invite a neighbor to church, tutor a troubled teenager or even plant a community garden.  Accepting and sharing the light of Christ is the best hope for our future.  Jesus is our Future Hope.  


Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Unexpected Servant Luke 2:1-7

How do you deal with interruptions in your daily routines?  Do you have to go through specific processes systematically to accomplish tasks?  Some people can fly by the seat of their pants and not be alarmed by changes in routines.  I have grown accustomed to expecting the unexpected and rolling right along, even when someone calls or stops by to chat.  I have learned that sometimes interruptions are just fleeting moments and that it is necessary to stay focused–but powerful opportunities arrive from the ministry of interruption.  I think that sometimes God uses accidental encounters even more than intentional ones to give me a glimpse of something sacred along the way.

Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, the story of Christ’s birth, is full of sacred interruptions. Mary and Joseph’s lives were interrupted in a way that they had never imagined or anticipated before.  The shepherds had to have been shocked by the angels who came to call on them.  Zechariah, a temple priest, Elizabeth, his wife (John the Baptist’s parents), Simeon and Anna were all intentionally waiting for the Messiah and they were surprised by their providential encounters.  Zechariah had spent his life and work waiting for the Redeemer.  His initial reaction to the news of a coming savior had left him silenced in disbelief for months.  God has a way of interrupting our ordinary lives with something extraordinary.  Perhaps one of our greatest personal challenges is to allow ourselves to be interrupted.  There is a nameless participant in this account of Jesus’ birth whose very ordinary gesture allowed the sacred a place to enter the world.

Luke speaks of hurried, anxious parents, whose lives have been interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy, who need to make a long journey at the worst time.  The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census was a little less than seventy miles, but it would have been a treacherous journey by donkey or on foot, especially for Mary in the advanced stages of her pregnancy. Have you ever looked for a motel at night on a trip?  Maybe you made a reservation but by the time you arrived, your room had been sold to someone else. The journey was even more complicated when you add the detail that Mary and Joseph would find no lodging when they arrived at their destination. After a lengthy period of searching and probably at the point of near desperation, a nameless innkeeper allowed the young couple to spend the night in his stable with all the animals, since there were no available rooms.  We have no other information about the innkeeper and yet, he has been portrayed many times in Christmas pageants.  Sometimes he is a heartless man, so concerned with the needs of his other guests that he turns the poor couple away.  Most often, he is depicted as a sympathetic businessman who wishes he had available space to make the extra money during the census but is so moved with compassion for the young couple that he allows them to find shelter in his stable.  No cost is ever mentioned.  Really NO one knows who he was or what he was like.  We only know that he allowed himself and his routine during the busy season to be interrupted.  His inn was full. The “no vacancy” sign might have been on display.  That is all that needed to be communicated to Mary and Joseph.  Yet the innkeeper did more.  He found a spot, or I should say, made a spot in order to serve the young couple.  We do not even know if he was aware that a baby was born in his stable that busy night.  Was he alerted to the arrival of a band of excited shepherds who happened to appear?  What about the unusually bright star gleaming in the night sky?

The innkeeper’s part of the story ends abruptly in v.7 after describing that there was no place for the “beyond capacity” guests.  The innkeeper had a small but important part in the Savior’s birth,  which in so many ways foreshadowed the ministry of Jesus.  The innkeeper allowed himself to be interrupted, moved to compassion, to sow love and grace, even when he had no obligation to do so.  Jesus was on a mission.  God had a plan for him.  Jesus was intentional in what he taught and did in his ministry, and constantly allowed himself to be interrupted.  He had compassion for all he encountered, whether grieving fathers, hurting women, hungry crowds, or even his own doubt-filled disciples. On many occasions Jesus could have just thrown up his  arms in frustration at all he was attempting to do for humanity, but he still stopped and helped people in need.

As disciples of Jesus, we too are called to be interrupted, to take time away from our daily routines and to be mindful of the needs of those around us.  We are called to look outside of our own responsibilities and obligations and to serve others unexpectedly.  We are to pause when we feel the needs of someone tugging on our robe in the journey of life.  Even in the moments we feel tired and drained, we are called to respond to the storms of life and the impact they have on those around us.  Jesus calls us to enter those sacred spaces with people, which might result in being unplanned opportunities of life.  As we remember and celebrate Jesus, our Savior’s birth, we celebrate that God allowed for God’s plan to be interrupted, acknowledging our need for a Savior.  We are grateful for the interruption allowed by the innkeeper in the nativity story, and the way that he responded.  God interrupts in our lives, intervening on our behalf even when we do not realize we need intervention.  Expect the unexpected and we will not be disappointed.  We celebrate the Christ who allowed his divinity to be interrupted to experience what it is like to be us and still loved us so much that he gave his life for us on the cross.  I was once asked why I have to ruin the marvelous birth narrative of Jesus by adding the part that he came to die for us.  The whole point of the birth story is to incorporate us into God’s plan to be interrupted by the Savior who loves us so much that he was willing to give his life for us on the cross.  May we take time out of the busyness of life to allow ourselves to be interrupted, to show the same love to others around us this holy season and every day of the year.     


Categories: Weekly Sermon

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Years ago when I was a Brownie Scout, in order to pass my “Tenderfoot” requirements and cross “over the bridge,” I had to learn to tie knots: square knot, sheepshank and others I cannot remember anymore.  I was so afraid I would not do them right and not be able to move up in rank.  Instead of “butterflies” in my stomach, I had “knots” in mine!
Being able to lash (tie down) yourself securely in place is a good way to think about something the apostle Paul said to the Christians in Thessalonica, recorded in his second letter to that faith community: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us…”  The knotted rope image is useful because it suggests that standing firm and holding fast requires us to rely on God, but also to put into place some anchors to keep us from falling off the place God has given us to stand.  If you have ever gone to the circus and viewed the acrobats walking the tight rope (high wire), you realize that they put their life literally on the line and it must be secure, something we need to do in our relationship with God.  Walking the high wire is the walk of faith which is impossible without being “anchored or rooted in faith.”
The shutdown of the federal government by determined legislators and the sluggish economy, along with problems in enrolling in promised insurance plans have Americans feeling glum, like having knots in their stomachs; filled with doubts and insecurity.  Some people will be temporarily distracted if they find temporary holiday work to offset declining spendable income.  It is estimated that 1.5 million recent college graduates will be looking for full-time work in competition with many people laid off their jobs and also seeking employment.  The traditional path of school followed by steady employment has vanished.  The government is embroiled in bi-partisan conflict.  Churches have lost their influence in morality issues like abuse and people are fearful for their lives as more and more stressed folks are committing crimes to diffuse their anger.  Television programs are littered with shows like CSI, Criminal Minds and COPS in which criminal activity of all kinds is displayed on the screen to fuel the devious minds of over stressed folks.
The author of 2 Thessalonians is writing to worried believers.  The times are grim and some believe that Jesus’ return is imminent–the Day of the Lord is upon them.  The events of the world can become a distraction and generate uncertainty about this life.  Their fear was that their faith foundation would be pulled out from underneath them.  They were scared and uncertain about what to believe and how to act.
People today are wondering what to do now.  Today’s Scripture is a note of encouragement to keep doing what we are doing–to press on in faith.  God will let us know when the Day of the Lord arrives.  We are to continue doing mission: good work in the Lord.  In spite of everything that shakes us, we are to stand firm and hold fast.  The response of the faithful is faith, for they had(the Thesssalonians), and we already have, everything we need.  God has called and chosen us, claimed us as God’s own, and that is the foundation we need in such troublesome times.  There is no need to be swayed, moved, twisted and turned about (or tied in knots) looking for more than we already have.
Like the people in the early church we look for more information and wonder who to believe, and where to place our faith.  The big questions today are: will social security survive?  Will we have health insurance and what quality will it be?  Is the stock market at the right place for retirement savings or not?  Should we believe the stuff we read on the internet (face book and tweet)?  What about the things politicians say?  How about clergy, teachers and neighbors?  A number of people today are held captive by their feelings of hopelessness.  We can make ourselves captive to worry, or to the relentless search for more information, or to suspicion of everyone and everything around us.  We can make ourselves captive to success, or position, or sports, or a “house beautiful” decorated room, or focus on raising perfect children.

This letter to the Thessalonians reminds us that we have already been called, chosen and set free from the burden of any captivity we can devise for ourselves.  Our work is to take up our God-given freedom and to use if for God’s purposes in the building up of the Kingdom of God. Our calling is to choose hope in the face of a troubled economy plagued by doubt, mistrust and false information rapidly disseminated via modern technology.  Our gift is “eternal comfort and hope,” so let us not become uprooted, shaken or tied in knots by our lack of faith in what God can do and is doing, for we are in the business of faith.  Christ will come again.  Salvation involves both the work of God’s Spirit and our own belief in the truth.  An old-time evangelist once described salvation as the hand of God reaching down to us and our hand reaching up to grasp God’s hand.  For some, belief in God’s promises come naturally and easily, but many others find they need well-tied guide lines, cross ties and anchor ropes to keep their footing on the high-wire of life–as Paul said, “To enable us to stand firm and hold fast to the Christian faith.”  By embracing faith in God we take the first tentative steps on the wire that is our anchor line.   I would rather be tied in knots to God, because the other end of the wire of faith we walk is anchored in eternity with God.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Up a Tree or Out on a Limb? Luke 19:1-10

When I think of trees, the words of Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees,” comes to mind: “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.
               A tree whose hungry mouth is prest against the sweet earth’s
                flowing breast;
               a tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
               a tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair;
               upon whose bosom snow has lain;
               who intimately lives with rain.
               Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”
Kilmer’s poem has always created a pleasant vision in my mind of a tree as a place of solace; a place to go to make peace with my life and the world around me.  For some, a tree can be used as an observation point or a vantage station.  When you are a kid, a tree with lots of low branches is an invitation to climb up and see the world from great heights.  On the other hand, falling from the tree is often a reason for one of the first trips to the emergency room.  Once healed, the tree beckons again!
Adults have a somewhat more restrained approach to being “up a tree.”  In adult vernacular being “up a tree” implies that one is stressed and at wits end.  Not every adult associates being aloft in the branches with being “out on a limb.”  There is actually an organization called Tree Climbers International based in Atlanta, where the sport of low-impact, high-safety tree climbing for adults using ropes and harnesses are utilized.  I have trouble standing on a ladder and cannot imagine what a deterrent it would be to use ropes and harnesses to assist me while getting down Christmas decorations from the loft in my garage. Supposedly, the tree climbing school helps one to “learn the ropes” and to get climbing for fun and relaxation.  Oh, to be a kid again and minimize the risks!
The account of Zacchaeus in today’s gospel readinghelps to paint a picture of both danger and excitement.  The “wee little man” we sang about in Sunday school is actually described in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as being “short in stature.”  Zacchaeus was a local entrepreneur of sorts, a chief fax collector who employed others to collect tolls, tariffs, and taxes in the region of Jericho.  The tax collectors would charge whatever they wanted as long as their Roman overseers got paid the appropri8ate share.  Whatever was left over was pocketed as profit by the tax collectors.  Zacchaeus was quite well to do.  Tax collectors were despised by first century Judeans for cheating their own kinsmen by imposing heavy taxes on folks with shrinking incomes. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
For some reason Jesus was attracted to tax collectors and was mocked for being a “friend of tax collectors–sinners.”  Maybe that is the reason Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus–the tax collector does not have any friends amongst the townspeople, only enemies.  Zacchaeus was so desperate to see Jesus that he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus as he passed by.,  Running and climbing a tree were both considered undignified and causes for embarrassment for adult men in that culture.  People would have laughed behind their hands, or even more brazenly–out in the open, to ridicule Zacchaeus and push him farther down the social scale.  Being up a tree to see Jesus definitely did not win any extra points for Zacchaeus among his peers.
Jesus saw Zacchaeus in the tree seeking refuge and a place from which to observe Jesus.  Being up and away from the crowd might have been a safe refuge for awhile–at least, until Jesus took notice of Zacchaeus hanging from a sycamore branch and ordered him to come down right away.  How humiliating to be caught up a tree by the Master, but when Jesus called out to him by name and proclaimed that he was going to visit Zacchaeus’ home that very day and prevail upon Zacchaeus’ hospitality, Jesus committed another social “no-no” added to an already growing list:  Jesus called Zacchaeus down from a tree, out on a limb, hanging onto life by his fingernails.  Jesus’ invitation merely added another black mark to the Pharisees’ list of inappropriate conduct: associating with another sinner in yet a new way!  Why would Jesus want to be the guest of a sinner?  Zacchaeus had gone up a tree seeking Jesus, but it was Jesus who came seeking Zacchaeus on his way to Jerusalem.  “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost,” showing up in the house of the tiny tax collector (his size adds to his station in life–he is belittled for his line of work, also making him “small”).
Saving the lost is about conversion to belief in Jesus and aiming for eternal rest in heaven.  What happened to Zacchaeus was a more comprehensive kind of salvation.  His salvation came in the transformative healing of the whole person, even before he died–he did not have to look to the future for salvation!  The salvation Jesus offered Zacchaeus changed him so completely that it benefitted all those around him.  The poor received half of Zacchaeus’ possessions–quite a bonus even by today’s standards.  Those who had been cheated by Zacchaeus’ corrupt actions would receive a four-fold restitution making them solvent and secure.  When Zacchaeus was saved the whole community benefited  When the lost are found, the trees are shaken and everyone enjoys the fruit that comes from repentance.
Jesus was looking for people who were up a tree and he continues to seek out those who are looking for someone or something other than God.  Jesus comes to invite us down from the trees we want to climb and hide in, to offer us new lives that reflect the kind of healing, wholeness and salvation that the Kingdom of God brings. Once we meet Jesus and accept his invitation to participate in the Kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim then it is up to us to invite others to lives that are grounded in the grace of Jesus.  Chances are there are people around you who feel like they are up a tree and need a way, an invitation to come down.  Every one of us has the opportunity to invest ourselves in someone else’s life, to offer him/her the kind of grace and love Jesus has offered to us.  When we invest ourselves with others, the investment can translate to fruit that benefits the whole community.

In Jericho there is a massive sycamore tree that Palestinian guides will tell you is the tree Zacchaeus climbed when Jesus approached.  It does not matter if it is the tree, what is important to know is that Zacchaeus came down and left the tree for a whole new grace-filled life to share with others.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon