Saturday, December 17, 2011

Occupy Bethlehem?

 Luke 1:46b-55

The Occupy Movement was born in September. Rather quietly it entered into our news. No one expected it to amount to much. It was just an interesting news story about a bunch of people camped out in a small park between Wall Street and the World Trade Center site.

It had no manifesto, no creed, just signs about economic justice that appealed to the poor and oppressed. And they had a slogan that caught on, “We are the 99%”.
. . .
Only a few people expected Jesus to amount to much after he quietly entered into a simple family that had overcome the scandal of a pregnancy before the wedding. He ended up being born in very simple circumstances, camping out in a stable. The slogan that surrounded his birth gave hope to the poor and oppressed too. “Peace on earth, good will to all.”
We’d have to strain to find any more similarities between the birth of the Occupy movement and the birth of the Savior and still I wonder, “If Jesus occupied Bethlehem?”

In both cases the news traveled unexpectedly fast. Carried by Twitter posts or Angel song. Simple people felt compelled to go see for themselves what kind of new thing was being born.
The crowd at Zuccotti Park in NY swelled as people, frustrated with jobs or the lack of one went down to the park. Some drove into the city because they were fed-up with the 1% holding the wealth and strings of power. They wanted to make a statement. The middle class of all ages, the young and the curious came to ‘occupy’ Wall Street.

In Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph were probably glad for a bit of privacy as her time drew near. But they didn’t stay alone for long. Certainly the word of a new baby spread through the guests staying nearby and some came to welcome new life or because they were curious. The shepherds swelled the crowd in the stable still hearing angel song in their ears and strangely already knowing that a baby had been born and what he would look like. Soon the little place of solace became a center of rejoicing; a new baby was occupying a manger.

All this would come months after Mary’s poetic prophetic outburst. The words of her ‘song’ have a political edge, but are not quite a manifesto for a movement.[i] Did she somehow foresee that her son would occupy her town, and others throughout Israel and because of the Spirit’s Movement he would occupy and save the world?

….Perhaps in Mary’s special moment, connected to Elizabeth and feeling the presence of the HS touching her cousin and the babes in their wombs, Mary got a glimpse beyond her circumstance. Maybe, just for a minute, she could zoom out and see the larger picture of the protest God was inaugurating in their troubled world. .

The occupy movement has been criticized for not having a vision or demands. But if we zoom out for a moment we see the picture that Time magazine so eloquently paints this week. Protest is the movement of the moment in the world!

Beginning last January, Time magazine details 27 different flash points of protest around the world. What began in frustration is resulting in dramatic change. In Tunisia, the president ended 23 years in power following protest that began with a young man setting himself on fire in frustration. In Egypt President Mubarak resigned. In Yemen the President made a deal to end his 33 year reign.
            Mary’s words echoed in my head as I read the article and wondered if the lofty are being brought low?

There are a diversity of settings and a multitude of reasons that spark protest. Some places have seen great violence. In Syria crackdowns persist while in Jordan and Burma, peaceful protests ruled the day.

There’s been civil war in Libya and camping-in protestors across Spain that helped inspire the occupiers in the US. From Iraq to Greece to Tibet, people are rising up against corruption, rebelling against oppression, reaching out for democracy, and risking their lives and lively-hoods to stand up for positive change.

Time Mag, named the ‘protestor’ the person of the year. Saying, “All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries’ political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt—sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change.” And [people] pine for some third way, a new social contract.”[ii]

Anderson wrote in Time, “Rising expectations that go unfulfilled are sociology’s classic explanation for protest.” Just this week, CBS News reported “Nearly 1 in 2 in the US have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.” The latest census data depict a middle class (here) that is shrinking as unemployment stays high and the government’s safety net frays”[iii] 

 One recent protestor, Mr. Anna Hazare, who protested corruption in India with hunger strikes, said, “When God wants to bring in change, he needs a vehicle of change, and I became that vehicle.”

Mary was a vehicle for change. She carried the One who would effect God’s salvation in her body. And even before she knew any thing about her son, a part of her could rejoice at what was coming to be in God’s own way of protesting the ways of the world.

Stirring within Mary was a future vision. She understood the blessing that was hers and that would be for all people.
She spoke of what SHOULD be, that
Respect and honor are rewarded
That God’s strength is active and recognized in the world.
She names reversals, great reversals where
The proud are scattered
The powerful brought down off their thrones
Even the lowly are lifted up, (perhaps she was including herself?) She names the disgrace of inequity and says wrong will be turned – right-side-up when
The hungry are filled with good things
And the are rich sent away empty – I wonder if Jesus was echoing his mother’s words in the “Beatitudes” when he said “Blessed are the Poor. . .for the rich have already received their rewards.”

Most of all Mary affirms that God keeps God’s covenant promises toward God’s people.
In this special moment Mary is given the gift of perspective – she can see what God is doing for the troubled world.

But she uses the language of what has already been done.
Mary speaks the promise of what will be done, in the language of what has already been accomplished.

Only she can speak about the new thing already taking place, because it is taking place in her. In the very moment of her song all the promises of God are coming to pass.
. .
Maybe Mary could see what God was about, but we struggle with 2,000 years of history since Jesus was born.
Has life changed since Mary’s day?
            Empires change; they rise and fall.  And democracies come into being, but
have the proud been scattered? Aren’t we talking about the 1%?

Are not the ‘Powers That Be’ still firmly in place?- - -controlling govt. with their influence,
markets with their money, and commanding those who wield pepper spray on the crowds that protest oppression?  In what way are any of Mary's statements are true?

Mary’s song of reversals has a political edge. What is Good news for the poor, if enacted- might be bad news for those currently wielding power.[iv] 
I was reminded that Mary's statement about God's righteousness and action on behalf of oppressed keeps us from inappropriately spiritualizing the gospel msg.[v]

Michael Kinnamon of the NCC spoke in DC recently,
“If we look for God only in spiritual things,
  if we speak about God’s presence as something that is only in our hearts,
  if we teach that God’s promise has only to do with heaven, then we may overlook God altogether.
Because the God we know and worship was born in a cave where animals were kept—the child of poor, Jewish peasants—threatened by a king who saw in him the seed of political revolution (Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 2:1-18).
“Christmas,” writes one theologian (Shirley Guthrie), “is the story of the radical invasion of God into the kind of real world where we live all year long—a world where there is political unrest and injustice, poverty, hatred, jealousy, and both the fear and longing that things could be different.”[vi]

God cares about injustice, oppression, and hunger ravaging his people. When righting these wrongs means overturning the ‘Powers That Be,’ God may work among the protestors to occupy places of change.
But no protest movement alone can bring God’s Kingdom to reality.
No movement however well purposed...”no matter how noble, [can] inaugurate the reign of God.”[vii]
Only Jesus brings the Reign of God. (because God occupies Jesus)

Jesus proclaimed a loving, caring God whose Reign is now, was then, and will be tomorrow.
In God’s time justice has already happened.
We are the ones living in a time warp, where we can’t see it yet.
We are the ones who need the spirit-touched vision of Mary, so we can occupy what God has already made possible.

Confused about my verb tenses?
It’s because we live a linear time line where cause and effect rule the day, while God is not limited by time or human definitions of what is ‘right’ (& possible).

- In God's world you can give everything you have away and secure the brightest possible future for yourself.
- In God's reign, transgressions are forgiven, and sinners welcomed to dine with Jesus.
- In this kingdom we can satisfy the hungry with good things and trust that we won’t go without. We can relinquish all power, rejoicing in what doesn’t make a profit.

Because of the Jesus movement, we can LIVE in what has already begun, even when we can’t always see it.
It all begins right here – with us.

Once WE have been occupied, we can speak of the one
who WAS, who IS, and who IS TO COME.
When Jesus occupies us, then all the joy of Christmas is ours, and the gift of God's reversals can be embraced, not feared.

When we are occupied, we see like Mary that justice is possible,-- in fact already begun... No One gets left behind.

We are ALL God's - 100%!

....What began then in MARY - begins again right now when Jesus Occupies US and enters in – again - to our world.

[i] Andrew Purves Feasting On The Word, Yr A Theological Bartlett and Taylor, eds. (Louisville: WJK, 2008) 82
[ii] Kurt Anderson The Protestor Time Magazine Dec. 26, 2011
[iii] CBS News Dec. 15, 2011Wash. DC based on census data
[iv] Purves ibid 82
[v] Purves ibid 84
[vi] Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon on Why Christians Should Be Particularly Aware of Poverty and Justice Issues at Christmastime. (Delivered at the Faithful Budget Prayer Vigil on Capitol Hill - December 13, 2011)
[vii] Purves, Feasting p 82

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Silent Years by Alan Green

I am reading "The Silent Years" by Alan Green and it's perfect for this time of year. I would love to see our youth and middle school youth read it just because it would set them on a good path for understanding Jesus' life. Green writes about the unknown early years of Jesus' days. He takes what we do know and instead of trying to combine gospel stories, he takes a single point of view and explores what might have been.
While some of his detailed descriptions seem like he's trying too hard to cover all the exegetical work behind a certain time, in other places I appreciate the detail and the reminder of the time in which Jesus lived. Green uses conversations between Jesus and his uncle to explore Jesus' growing awareness and sensitivity to God's ways. I especially enjoy the places where Jesus' calls into question the way 'it has always been done' or interpreted.
It is a short book and most of the time I just keep turning pages. Once in a while I hit a slow spot and am learning to skim more quickly through those sections.
It would make a great stocking stuffer for someone who enjoys fiction and wonders about what's missing from Bible stories. Just don't try to read it after a page-turner mystery. It's not that kind of book.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

7 minutes

7 minutes spent checking email. 7 minutes that included a quick read of recent twitter posts. 7 that does not include my post here. How many 7 minute segments like this are in my day? Hmmm I wonder.

Monday, December 12, 2011


It's a morning for reading and journaling. Hard to believe I must shower and get to work. These Mondays after very full Sundays are tough, but it's what the rest of the world does. I'm really not ready to take on next week's lectionary texts yet. That's my usual Monday routine. I'm still basking in the 'glory' of yesterday's sermon that took so much energy to write AND was well received.

The twitter posts and morning blogs are also good today- couldn't I just stay here and drink coffee a while longer?

Today, Advent's waiting seems like a good idea. I'm in no hurry to go anywhere.
But the office awaits, and who knows what or whom will be there wanting to talk about . . Yesterday.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Letting Scripture Speak Through Us

Did you see the NASA video this week showing a real UFO? The object was near Mercury and was hidden from view, or in Sci-Fi lingo, it was “cloaked.” Until a solar eruption sent a burst near Mercury, then it appeared in the telescope’s view and was recorded and broadcast. It caused quite a stir - from You-Tube quotes describing it as a ship, to tabloids calling it a ‘death-star’ after a Star Wars’ Movie spaceship.
It is certainly a week to speculate that ‘We are not alone’.

What an appropriate theme for Christmas, don’t you think? The bottom line  of all our favorite scriptures tells us that we are not alone, God is with us, Immanuel.

While you may be waiting to hear some of those favorite stories on Sunday, it turns out we have John again this week. (don’t moan)
John from John’s gospel is a little different than he was last week. This brief passage follows John’s celestial birth story. John’s gospel has a very unique way of describing Jesus as yet Unidentified- but ‘soon-to-be-identified’ object. . . .who is a WITNESS to God’s love.

    In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life,a and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light. . . .9 The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.       CEB John 1:1-9

All these words about the light coming into the world. Do you wonder what is the connection to John?
He is a witness to Jesus. and he is most like us and we should be like him. (we will be passing out animals skins and leather belts  to wear as you leave, and I’m told there may be a special dish of locusts at tonight’s meal.) But seriously,
Today’s message is a simple one, we, like John, have a mission to POINT TO JESUS. . we too are witnesses, and . . .
        the scriptures can only speak thru us.
Humans today are more likely to identify with a UFO than with the Christ we worship. They don’t know his story and they don’t know who he is. We have to point to Jesus and say "Look! Look at HIM!” (stop looking at the news where Christians are identified as narrow-minded, single-focused bigots.) Instead, “Look at Jesus, the man I’m pointing to, then you will know of God's desire for peace on earth.”
“When you know him, we will be able to work together for justice and goodwill for all.”

But it begins with our pointing to Jesus.

I know it’s not that we don’t want to do it. We want to be witnesses. We love the Lord. We are here because we have experienced something special. God’s Spirit touches us and we feel it inside and we feel it when we work together in service and in fellowship.
It always sounds like a good idea to share Jesus - when we are sitting here, doesn’t it? But what will you think this time tomorrow?
What would it mean to tell the good news to those around you at 11 a.m. Monday morning?

How do we do it?

I want you to come on a mental journey with me. We are going to visit a place where our guides are always saying, “Look!”.
We are going to visit the island of Assateague on the Eastern Shore. Our first stop is the visitor’s center. My friend, Nancy volunteers there and so does Suzanne’s father, so we know we’ll be greeted by friends. (It’s comforting to be guided by someone you know.)
Assateague Tours

Assateague Tours
If you are at all familiar with the island you are probably already wondering if we’ll see any wild ponies. I am sure we will, they wander everywhere. But there’s some other things our guides want us to notice.
    There is a distinct lack of buildings instead we See
    scrub pines, that are weather beaten and thick in places. Sometimes they are standing in water.
    Can you Smell the ocean air, mixed with the evergreen?
(our senses love this kind of journey)
    Feel the Crunch of sand as we walk towards the beach.
(& going this time of year, we don’t even need to worry about the dreaded mosquitos the area is famous for.)
-- and as we get closer, we can hear the sound of waves, not real big, but still rolling into the shore.

This beautiful and protected piece of God’s creation is a gift to visit. And walking with us are guides who POINT (the way).
    They show us where to look for spectacular views,
    They answer any question we ask.
    They even ask us questions to get to know us better and point us in directions that will interest us.

Because of these guides, we get pointed to places where we can really experience the island. We get to see, hear, smell, feel and maybe even taste a bit of Assateague.
We may leave this place with more questions than we came with.
We will certainly have seen more than someone who wandered around without a guide.
and we will most likely return to experience it more deeply -
all because of our friends, guides who ‘pointed the way’.

Freeman Tilden created a guide for guides. His work is pivotal for those who point they way in our national parks and nature refuges. He says the goals of a guide are
to inspire provocation, and to make park resources meaningful and relevant for audiences
His words point the way for everyone who witnesses to something beyond themselves. We who would point the way to Jesus find our goals are the same; (slowly)
    to provoke interest, to convey the message of God’s love so it is
        meaningful and relevant for our friends - and for the world.

In order to do any pointing beyond ourselves, we have to understand and voice our love. Whether it’s for a place like Assateague Island or for the person of Jesus, the Christ. We must know what it is we feel. We must learn to articulate what we have experienced as Christians.

Tilden calls this core understanding -an interpretive theme. Simply, these are the words that articulate a reason or reasons for caring about the natural habitat.
or In our case, we can name WHY we care about Jesus. . .- Can you? Have you ever put words to what you feel?
    I’m looking for Something beyond, “Jesus died for my sins”. Those are someone else’s words and unless you can explain them, I doubt it will point the way for someone else.

Our personal theme is an ‘artistic creation’ (our very own) based upon the Christ’s significance in our own life. It is the expression of what we know to be meaningful about our faith. And we use language that others can connect to with their own experiences in life.1

Coming up with this theme statement may be the hardest thing we do, but we must if we are to be a witness. It is easy to say, “I love Jesus”, “my church means a lot to me,” but explaining it means work. The process can be a struggle that requires repeated adjustment, focussed effort, and time.2

But our statement ties our tangible experiences of faith to scripture stories about Jesus and describes Christian living in a way that can help someone else relate faith in Jesus to their own life. Isn’t that what we are trying to do when we point?
. .
I’m guessing you have experienced those guides in parks who merely gave you factual statements about the place you were visiting. They told you the history of the area, or what battles happened at this site, or how many sheep used to live on the island. These guides are like Christians who quote scripture without any explanation that relates to their own lives. It’s fine for audiences who are only interested in information but it doesn’t ‘grab’ a person’s heart.

A guide who really POINTS, give us a way to connect ourselves to the place we visit. The link may be an emotional connection that we feel for wild animals. The link may be an intellectual curiosity we have regarding the habitat or personal memories of vacations at the shore. But without some link to our personal interest and life experience, we just hear words. And we walk away with little curiosity for learning more.

As people who are in love with Jesus and are tasked with the mission of pointing others to him, we need to share our own ‘links’ to Christ.
    - what is it that touches your heart, why do you return here week after week?
    -What meaning does our relationship with God give to our lives?
If we can’t say what we feel and why we are here, we are probably not sure about the place the Christ holds in our lives.
. . .Pointing and commitment go hand in hand.
First we love, then we commit, then we point to show others the way.

We are called by God in the same way that John and Jesus were. 
And just as they both found ways to relate scripture to people’s everyday lives, we need to connect our experience to the enduring themes of God’s love for ALL God’s people. We must ask ourselves, how are we pointing to the Word made flesh?

If we want to make scripture relevant to our friends, we need to shine the light of God's presence into the shadows of human brokenness.

Then we, like Jesus will be
bringing good news to the oppressed,
binding up the brokenhearted,
proclaiming liberty to the captives, and release those imprisoned.3
These are the needs that capture people’s hearts and lives.
. . .
My friend Nancy Ferg shows a lot of people Assateague Island. She says,     "when they say, 'this place is incredible', I know they've been looking where I’m pointing. You can see the spark in their eyes when Assateague’s special beauty captivates them.” 

When have you been captured by Jesus?
What is it about the man who walked the earth with the conscious of God that makes your life meaningful?

I invite you to answer these questions this week.
Write out your own theme of faith. Consider it your gift to Jesus for his birthday.
Put your values, your relationships within this congregation, your needs and your emotions, into words.
Tell me why you care that Christ lived, died and rose again. What does his life mean for yours?
    and what difference do your relationships here make in your life?
What commitments have you made that convey your values and priorities for living?

Many people have answered God’s call over the history of humanity. The gospels hold stories of the themes articulated by people in Jesus’ life.
Mary said her core value in Luke 1:46,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” or in plainer language, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! 47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.”
John’s lived his answer with his life, ‘to point beyond himself to the LIGHT of the WORLD’. He said, “ This is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.’ ”.
Jesus own answer to the call of God, was to go to John to be baptized. He committed his life to pointing us to God - so that even after his death, we could know the One he called ‘Father’.
    (even for Jesus, witness began with baptism.)

When we identify the real meaning of faith in our own lives, we can share it with someone else. We can help a friend in their time of crisis, because we know what Christ means in our life. The effect of our interpretation of faith may not be immediately apparent to anyone with whom we share. But if we are sincere and share from our personal experience, we point our friends their own opportunity to ‘see what we see’. 

In this season of giving...Our answer to God’s call is our gift to the one whose birthday we celebrate.

Because after all, the Scriptures can only speak thru us.
My footnotes didn't print. I owe thanks to Nancy Ferguson and to those who create material for guides to interpreting Assateague Island.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Working At Home

I like working from home. On these study days I can get more reading done with less distractions. I can let the creative juices flow as does the coffee. And if I get frustrated, I can grab a vacuum and vent & think with constructive action. But today there's no flow.

I began with reading. I have several, maybe even too many ideas for one worship. I even have an outline for worship that 'should' lead me into the sermon. I walked the dogs over to church to meet the Music Director. I arranged the poinsettias. I took the long way home hoping the crisp air would inspire me. I have my resources spread out on the table and can brew more coffee whenever I want. But I've got nothing flowing.

I sure could use some help, because all I've got left to try is the vacuum - and I really didn't want to go there.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

John, protagonist or peacemaker?

Mark 1:1-8; Protagonist or Peacemaker; Advent II, Yr. B; 12-4-11; ACoB

We finally arrived in Advent last week and it’s a joy to begin singing carols and return to our favorite Christmas scriptures. The church year that began last week has a gospel which is the New Testament focus all year long. This year it is Mark's gospel and I’ll admit it’s a bit of a disappointment.
Instead of a beloved birth story like Luke's angelic hosts & lowly shepherds or  even Matthew's adoring Wisemen, we get John instead; smelly old cousin John.
He has no sheep to herd, - instead he has locusts and other grubs that he eats - yuk.
There are no angelic choirs in Mark’s gospel, we get only John’s loud, rasping voice yelling at us.
That’s John, the antagonist, John, the baptizer and this is what we have for the opening story in Mark.

There is just No Romance to his story. Mark’s author rushes us along into Jesus’ adult life as if to say, “Yeah, he was a cute kid ‘n all, what baby isn’t? Get over it, Jesus grew up and that’s the important part of his story.”

The urgency in Mark means the story moves quickly. The only background we get to Jesus' life is John, the one who wears the hairy hides of animals, (likely smells like them too) and eats bugs and wild honey while he lives in the wilderness. His place in the story is to prepare the way for Jesus. He does so in a protagonist role, the adversary of his culture. He calls out for people to REPENT, turn around, change their ways, so that they/and us will be ready for Jesus.

John’s call to preparation reminded me that I still have some Prep-work to do for Christmas. And with John’s cries still in my head, I dug out my manger scene and decided that the only way to be ‘true to the context of Mark’ was to put John in front of my nativity scene. You’ll remember that my nativity already has a zebra in it, just to remind me that God’s story is not always what we, I need a little John the Baptist. So I found some rough fabric to make this guy a tunic and I put him in front of the typical manager scene because John prepares the way.

But like a kiwi fruit in a bowl of apples, ‘one thing here is not like the others...’
...John just doesn’t fit the season.

I think My traditional nativity scene is ruined by his presence. He may belong in the wilderness but he doesn’t belong in Bethlehem. John bothers me. I can’t hear the soft sounds of Silent Night over his repeated cry to REPENT. and I can’t quite forget his words. What I want to do, is SWEEP him under the rug.
    (place John under a small rug)

As long as I’m objecting to this year’s gospel, I think I disagree with Mark’s hurried beginning to Jesus’ story, too. The Way of Advent shouldn’t be rushed, (although I often feel that way, myself.) The point of Advent is to slow us down, to give us time to prepare. Our preparations shouldn’t be loud, except when the bells are ringing their rejoicing. (Or I’ve got Christmas Carols playing at high volume in my car.) I don’t want a ‘hairy naturalist’ stirring things up. I want the Peace on Earth that God intends for the Christmas Season without the pushy evangelist. But Mark says, John’s call IS the way to Jesus. Mark story doesn’t have time for lesser details - he can’t wait long enough for a baby to grow up.

Mark goes straight to the important part of Jesus’ life. He wants to get right into the latest episode of God's saving story. So he gives us John.!John is like the insistent voice of a GPS Unit, trying to get us back on the right path, saying, "turn around - NOW!"

I spent some time on the ‘wrong path’ this week. I had a meeting in Maryland on Wednesday. I had planned my way with Google Maps, but ended up following my GPS Unit a different way. I was concerned when I realized I had left my planned route, but it worked out surprisingly well. So, after my meeting, I decided to let the GPS take me home.
It took me on a completely different route, than either of the paths over to MD!

I drove straight downtown. I was on Rhode Island Avenue for awhile, & the GPS directed me through 3 or 4 roundabouts.
I had to turn left on a numbered street,
and right on lettered street.
I got so lost that I had no choice but to stay with my GPS directions and trust that it would lead me the right way out of town. I don’t know my way without a map so it all felt like a maze of confusion. .

My week continue with twists and turns. On Friday, I walked a Labyrinth. A labyrinth is not a maze because it has only one path. (show vinyl) In stead of having to FIND the right way thru it, there is a single path that one follows IN to the center, and then back out It is a carefully twisted path that will keep you turning back and forth in complete u-turns until you can’t see the way ahead beyond a few steps. The Difference between the two is a maze has one right way and many wrong ways, in a labyrinth, there is only one way, you just have to stay on the path.

John the Baptist advocates U-turns, that’s what he means when he cries, "Repent", = literally, ‘turn-around’. While he is correcting our direction, he points beyond himself. He urges us to continue on, we shouldn’t be distracted by his appearance, instead we are compelled to enter the wilderness by being baptized. It is THEN that we will encounter the One To Come. 
John puts himself in a servant’s place by declaring he would stoop & kneel before Jesus and still not be worthy. Even he is merely one directional sign on the road to Jesus. John, the 1st century GPS, wants us on the Road to Jesus; there’s only ONE WAY and it’s the Advent Way.

John’s own commitment is to be the calling one, the guide that gets people on the single path. His own radicalness of wild clothes and subsistence diet remind me that I too have made a commitment - when I was baptized. It’s a commitment with a cost. In order to walk the Jesus’ Way, I have to give up all other paths. And when I get lost or headed the wrong way, I need to ‘turn around’.

Like the rest of our busy world, I don’t really mind the call of this season to stop and visit the Christmas story. I look forward to the quiet of Christmas Eve and some contemplation of the holy moment when Jesus arrived. But John calls me away even from that important connection. He keeps me from falling asleep as I look at the ‘infant lowly’ and instead is the somewhat annoying voice saying “turn here”, “get back to walking the path.”

In all fairness, John didn’t choose his path, he is answering a higher call also. He is given a vision of the road to the kind of peace and justice we all desire. He is actually turning us back to where we belong, not away. It is the world that pulls us into different priorities and dead-end routes. We are on the same side as John. His turn-around call brings us back to the path where hope exists the lowly one. We find our proper place when we kneel before Jesus. And surprisingly we also experience a soul-level peace.

The reason John’s call annoys me so much is that I know he is right. My destination hasn’t changed, I’ve just gotten turned around so much that I can’t see the way ahead. When you walk the path of a Labyrinth, there are times just when you think you are almost to the center destination only to turn back in the opposite direction. Finally, as I turned and walked, I realized that the destination IS the path. It’s not a place we strive to get to, it’s a way of life.
The Jesus’ Way.

When I gave in to the voice of my GPS, & turned on 27th Street, let it led me onto M, & I took a final turn and saw a sign for Rt. 66 ahead. There - just around the curve was the bridge and on the far side a sign for Arlington Blvd.,      I was almost home.

In Advent, by the time we see the sign of Jesus, John has fallen back out of sight. He served his purpose of turning us around. He gets us on the path so that WE ARE ready for Jesus.

(Pick up John.) I guess John belongs in my nativity scene after all, or a least until it’s time for Jesus to appear. By then we’d better ALL be on the way.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


(We will view the beginning of Stephen Hawkins, Universe then listen to the Mark scripture.)

I’ve been spending time in the Clouds lately. Now that may evoke different images for you than what I mean.
The clouds I have visit on a regular basis are
iCloud, Amazon Cloud Music Player, & Dropbox; cloud storage.
The “Cloud” is where I store all my important documents now. This unseen internet-accessible storage means I can get to today’s sermon from any device that has internet access. It’s truly amazing, one might even say, miraculous, …but it’s not the cloud Jesus was referring to.

Jesus’ images of clouds as he speaks to his disciples in Mark’s gospel, are more likely to evoke pictures we have seen of the rapture rather than the words of ancient prophesy to which they actually refer. Hear these words from Daniel, chapter 7 that Jesus was recalling for them,

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (v. 13-14)
Today’s reality on the 1st day of Advent, 2011, is far different than Daniel’s or the context for either author of the texts we heard. In the section of Isaiah read earlier, God’s people had returned to Jerusalem from exile and were looking back thru their history to the time when God did awesome things, including their more recent liberation from Babylonian captivity. Their history of God’s awesome surprises gave them HOPE for the future they would build as they slowly restored the temple and religious life.

Jumping ahead to Mark’s gospel, it was written in another time of calamity during the rebellion, called the “Jewish Wars” of 66-74 CE when the streets were literally burning. Persecution, destruction, and death were the reality for everyone. Again people were looking back to remember God’s faithfulness in order to find HOPE for their future which appeared so bleak.

Some of my life tragedies seem small in comparison, but we have only to look at the news to know the world (as we know it) is often in dire straits. We need the reassurance of God’s action in history in order to find HOPE for OUR future.

Knowing even a little of biblical history, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that God’s surprises can be an apocalypse.
            We are used to apocalypse referring to the ‘total destruction or devastation of something’[i] but it’s other meaning is ‘a revelation concerning the future’.[ii] God’s surprises are always a revelation.
 Today we begin the journey of Advent which is a journey of apocalypse; God’s surprising revelation for humankind.

Christmas surprises are familiar to us.
            I remember the Christmas morning that the most beautiful bicycle in the world was leaning up against the fireplace. It was a miracle in my young world. The way-out-of-our price range, convertible, silver/blue bike that was my heart’s desire was waiting there for me on Christmas morning. It was a surprising revelation for which I hadn’t even dared to hope.

            Christmas surprises can be as wonderful as a Christmas Eve marriage proposal, or a surprise visit from friends, or even the miracle of a baby born on Christmas morning. They are good surprises to recall, because more often the surprises of our life are closer to the other definition of apocalypse – devastation.

Far too often I hear of surprises that result in hospitalizations or sudden loss.
One minute you are trying to plan another full week of work or school and the next there is a crash. . . And life is turned upside down.
When crisis comes and total devastation is our reality, we long for the awesome, creative miracles of God’s surprises that can turn the world – right-side-up.

At such times we echo the words from Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God, . .and make your name known.” At such times we understand and are one with ALL people who HOPE & wait, desperately - for God’s surprises to right the world.

The revelation we need is found in the story at the heart of Advent. It is the crisis & surprise of New Life, called birth.

I was reminded of the two-sided nature of beginning life at the Progressive Brethren Conference two weeks ago. Mary Cline Detrick and Carol Swaggy stood before us -together, giving thanks for all that had happened this summer at Annual Conference. – YES, they gave thanks, not because neither of them got elected as moderator of the Church of the Brethren, in spite of being the only 2 names on the ballot.   -And certainly not for the dismal reality of the shrinking place for women in our broader denomination, -- but they gave thanks for the affirmation that both have received since that day of defeat.

Mary said it was painful, very painful that day in July, not for her to lose, but for both of them to lose (to a man nominated from the floor) because the majority of delegates voted against a woman in leadership. Reaction to such denial of basic personhood, (in the name of biblical authority) was at the heart of the birth of the Progressive Brethren Conference four years ago. Seeing it – no, feeling it-- is an apocalypse, both a sad revelation and a devastation.
I’ve learned that standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted, while a good thing, is nothing compared to feeling the oppression directed at you. (and many people have been feeling such oppression all their lives.)
These women FELT the pain – and yet, standing before us, they spoke of HOPE in this upside-down surprise. Mary called it ‘birth pangs.’ (Paul’s language for the persecution in the early church.) She said these ‘Birth pangs’ are bringing forth new life for the Church of the Brethren and new hope for people of all genders, sexual orientation, and races.

When it’s our future that seems too dismal to face, and changes are causing the destruction of our way of living, we need the HOPE they found. We are a people in need of God’s surprises!

It may seem strange to look back to the ancient prophets to find words of HOPE but these special people were given revelations of what would be - but was not yet. And it is this -‘already/but not yet’- which is the promise of Jesus’ surprising kingdom, -born at Christmas.

Another prophet, Zechariah relates a conversation with God that we need to hear,
“Thus says, the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts?” (Zechariah 8:6)

We may cry out, “How long O God, how long?” yet God answers with these words of promise Zechariah heard, 
“I will save my people from the east and from the west. . . They shall be my people and I will be their God, ------ in faithfulness and in righteousness.” (Zechariah 8:7-8)
And yet we have forgotten how to expect surprise?
This is the promise of Advent; GOD WITH US.
These are words of HOPE revealed in this season.
Why is it such a struggle to hear them?
Have we forgotten how to expect surprise? (like a child who waits for Christmas morning?)
Has our life of busy-ness, buying, and boredom lulled us to sleep?

You would think most of us are more likely to be losing sleep than sleeping too much. . But are we awake to what is really important? . .These Advent scriptures “read us, not the other way around. [because] ..we are indeed asleep to much of what matters.”[iii]

We should be clear, (as one commentator wrote) “while the world’s busyness may seem to be pointed toward Christmas, it is seldom pointed toward the coming Christ child.”[iv] How might we recapture a sense of expectation? the thrill that God will come and surprise us-with . . .-with God's very presence, incarnate in human life.

Perhaps we must first confess to sometimes thinking of God as Santa, there to provide for every little wish on our list. This is where a surprising picture of the breath of the universe can move us from self-centered concern -to the awe-inspiring revelation of the One who Created it all.

We need Mark’s wake up call to remind us that God's surprises are way beyond our imagining.
We need Advent’s unique range of scriptures to help us recall all that we have in common with God’s people thru the centuries who have cried out seeking HOPE for the future.

We even need the apocalyptic vision to tell us again -even tho “the rebellion against God’s reign is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. [and] things will [likely] get worse before they get better, we should hang on just a little longer, God WILL intervene to turn the world right-side-up.!”[v]

“Apocalyptic visions are always available to be recycled and applied to new situations.” Commentator Christopher Hutson reminds, “The point is not to predict specific events in the future. Rather, [we who seek to learn from scripture must] look to understand God’s mighty acts in the past as a framework for understanding how the people of God should respond to the present.”[vi]
It is here, looking back at the stories of Advent that we find HOPE for tomorrow.

“Amid the smoke of battle, or the fog of politics, or the confusion of economic distress”, he says, and in the “babble of would-be leaders wearing God masks and claiming divine authority, [we may not know] which way to turn. [Advent stories remind us that we] should not be surprised [by the world] because Jesus warned us such things would happen.” -- We may have been lulled to sleep by the powers that be as they reassured us that they have our best interests at heart, stirring up our fears, our prejudices, our self-interests.[vii]

The Advent message is to WAKE UP, STAY ALERT, WATCH OUT – we have been warned, -and instead recall God’s faithfulness so we can Wait in HOPE for God’s surprise -to turn the world right-side up, again.

Closing & Sending:
The poet, Cheryl Lawrie, described Advent like this:
Perhaps our mistake is thinking that love will always come in the shape we have known it:
-a happy ending -a new beginning
 -a Christ-child.
In this pregnant pause,
 while the earth holds its breath waiting for what it does not know,

let us have the faith
 that even we,
 with all our wise and cynical

[can] not imagine the shape that love will take and instead
just have faith 
that it will come.

[i] Encarta World English dictionary
[ii] ibid
[iii] Lillian Daniel Feasting on the Word – Year B, Pastoral  (Louisville: WJK 2008) 22
[iv] Lillian Daniel Feasting on the Word – Year B, Pastoral  (Louisville: WJK 2008) 20
[v] Christopher R. Hutson Feasting – Theological ibid p.22
[vi] ibid p.24
[vii] ibid paraphrased for perspective

Monday, November 21, 2011

Rejoice & Give Thanks

11/20/11 (Christ the King Sunday Year A)
Warning this sermon maybe too liberal for some Christians. It speaks of an all-inclusive God. . .

Perhaps the last real - paper & pen - letter you wrote was a thank you card. It takes a strong emotion like gratitude for me to search out a card & envelope (and use a PEN instead of a keyboard) to sit down to write.

This letter of scripture, written psuedographically in Paul’s name, is more than a thank you note, but it starts with gratitude for a whole congregation of people. The Author says,
“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” Then he goes on to write of his desire for the congregation’s growth in the journey of faith. - that God will grant them wisdom and enlightenment so they will hang onto hope - no matter what happens. Wouldn’t you enjoy getting a thank you card like that?

Next, the author gives a brief theological treatise on Christ’s mission and place in God’s realm. This entire letter plays a key role in Christian theology. We won’t deal with it all today, but it is always important to remember there is more than the few verses we pull out to examine at any one time.

I was pleased to see today's verses highlighted on our bulletin because ‘giving thanks’ is what we do this time of year.

We even ask each other what we’re thankful for, and take joy in the answers. Well, ...some of the answers... One of our teachers was relaying a story of asking 5-year-olds what they were thankful for. The budding theologian in her class answered, “I am thankful that Jesus died for my sins." ...from a 5 year old...
You may have heard my gut reaction to this shorthand statement before, in my mind it should never stand alone. (death needs resurrection) But from a 5-year-old it falls short of true thanksgiving because he doesn’t understand what it means.

Unlike the depth we could find later in this letter, the 5-year-old's simple words of thanks do not begin to explain God's saving work in Jesus.
Even if we understand the deeper theological theories, such shorthand ‘pat’ phrases can lead us into the trap of surface-only Christianity. You know - - that lip-service, restrictive ruled, exclusive brand of religion that passes for Christianity in all too many places.

You may know it better by the name, “Prosperity Christianity.” And it is more dangerous this week than any other because this week we do spend time counting our blessings & giving thanks.

Don’t misunderstand - There’s nothing wrong with counting our blessings.
We heard our thanksgiving expressed earlier, we are a blessed people. I Do not make light of it. And it is very good to take time to celebrate and give thanks.
I certainly give thanks for YOU, this congregation! You are a blessing for which I often say, ‘thank you God!”

Prosperity Christianity isn’t about giving thanks, it’s about hedging your bets by giving your money - usually to a high profile minister’s fund and then being promised a fine reward. It often begins with a personal prayer promised by that high-profile individual. Sermons usually promise that if you just pray hard enough and live good enough (and maybe give often enough) your life will be GOOD, really GOOD. You will prosper in all you do. The borders of your ‘territory’ will enlarge and you will never have to worry about money & security again.

The prosperity gospel is not the true ‘good news’ that the word, ‘gospel’ means. (and I’m sure it is not how you would define your faith.) The prosperity Gospel is not the good news that Jesus proclaimed in the beatitudes when he spoke about WHO is blessed.

And blessing - brings us back to this letter and the author’s words of blessing to the congregation.

The prosperity Ephesians promises is this,
that- “you may know what is the hope to which [Christ] has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

That’s just the beginning of the promise. Listen for the universal-inclusiveness of the rest,
“God put this power to work in Christ when he RAISED him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

“And God has put all things under his [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Can we hear these 'all-inclusive' words in a way that gives us the exuberance of the 5-year old who gave thanks that ‘Jesus died 4 my sins?’

Take a deep breath and plunge into a little theology with me- I'm sure we will discover plenty for which to give thanks. A deeper look at what we are promised quickly fills our cup with gratitude for our real blessings, not just the things we have.

Our thanksgiving occurs today partly because it is the last day of the year- -- the church year. On this day we proclaim Christ’s reign over all the cosmos. We take a quick look at the BIG PICTURE before we once again celebrate Jesus’ birth as a tiny human boy.

As Christians we accept that God offers salvation to ALL humanity thru Christ. And yet, “How do we proclaim or even hear such an exclusive claim” of inclusive salvation, in today’s multi-cultural, pluralist society?
Can we CHOOSE Christ as the way, the truth, and the life that is lived for everyone?
"is there a way we can understand this claim of Christ’s reign that is central to Christian faith without devaluing the practitioners of other ways?"

We have to ask, ‘Are we giving thanks today for a personal God, who has saved. ME, or US alone, or
Are we truly blessed by the ‘Master of the universe’ as is declared at the beginning of every Jewish prayer? Baruch atah adoni elohenu malech h’olam’ - blessed are you, Master of the Universe.
Here in Arl- in NoVa, we know we are blessed with a rich diversity that we often take for granted. We are surrounded by people of all kinds & nationalities.

3 of us returned from the Progressive Brethren Conference, held in Elgin last weekend, where God-given diversity was celebrated and thanksgiving was offered. It was a blessing to be there. It was also a safe place to talk about the struggle to open the eyes of the larger church to this NT message of Christ’s inclusion of ALL people.
What I have come to realize is -diversity, for some of our brethren churches- is simply discovering that’s there’s a presbyterian in the congregation. (If you grew up in one of those rural churches, you know exactly what I mean.)

Our experience here in Arlington, is just vastly different than anything many of our sisters and brothers have ever known. We live in a world of different kinds of people that allows us a fuller understanding of the word ‘ALL.’ What we need is to rediscover a bit of ancient theology that connects God's blessing that is for ALL & the way Jesus lived his life on earth, blessing others with his presence.

Theologians have struggled with the definition of ‘ALL’ for centuries. While many of the ancient church fathers gave thanks that “Jesus died for their sins”, “Ireneaus, the 2nd-century bishop of Lyons, emphasized the saving, reconciling, work of the incarnation itself. He stressed the life and obedience of the human Jesus, the Christ. For Ireneaus, Christ is head or Lord [of ALL] because he is the TRUE human, whose life restored humanity to its original intentions.” (almost sounds Brethren, doesn’t it?)

"the life of CHRIST showed us what the REIGN of Christ would be like. And now WE are to live it - just like he did- thru radical acts of solidarity with other human beings.”

We truly are blessed, just as Jesus said in Matthew, when we ‘continue his saving work’ of solidarity with the poor, the mourning, the meek and the merciful.
In order to really be part of the inclusive reign of Christ, we need to do more than open our doors to everyone, we must live a life that blesses everyone else. - the ALL - because Christ lived his life for us ALL.

When we CHOOSE to follow Christ by being baptized into his ‘body’ we choose to include EVERYONE in our circle of blessing. Christianity is meant to be INCLUSIVE, not exclusive - with the prosperity of rich blessing and community offered to ALL. Everyone is invited to participate in life the way God created us to live; helping each other, saving each other, blessing each other, even dying for each other. . . .And when we do. . when we live like Jesus did. .we are blessed to find we are already living in the Kingdom of God.

We really do have much for which to give thanks when we count these blessings. We can THANK GOD,
that WE are included in God's ALL,
that everyone around us is included in God's all,
that we follow One who stands in solidarity, not just with the 99% but with ALL humans - all kinds, all nationalities, in all places, all genders, all sexual orientations, all colors, all beliefs. - NOTHING can separate us from God’s love.

ALL really is the biggest blessing of ALL.
Thank God.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where did the green go?

I 'woke-up' to yellow leaves outside my window. In all fairness, they have been turning colors for some time now. In fact, they are beginning to fall quite rapidly, my husband raked a whole yard-full to the curb last night. Still, I realized that life has been so busy that I've barely stopped to notice the changes. I realized as I drove up to Union Bridge, MD on Sunday that I'd missed most of the fall colors. I don't drive much anymore, thanks to living so close to everything. When I do drive it's short jaunts of a mile or 2. It takes those long drives through the countryside to see the fall colors. Today I paid attention to the colors outside my window. Last time I remember having a few minutes to just enjoy the view, the leaves were mostly green. Now there there is only a hint of green overwhelmed by the yellow against a background of brown. It will soon be time for fires in the fireplace and bowls of soup and chili. (Tonight's supper)

Time is a precious thing. I don't know how this fall got so busy, but I think I will enjoy the last of it as I travel with friends to the Progressive Brethren Conference tomorrow and return on the train Monday. Perhaps this weekend will be good for 'taking stock' in many ways..and for listening to the leaves fall as I watch the last of the green disappear.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Haunted by your own sermon

I have that post-sermon feeling of wondering if it was 'right' or 'ok' or even a good idea. A little technical difficulty occurred, my own fault for not having the plug in completely. Then the WIFI signal dropped as I moved which I knew might happen. It left me without notes in a few places and speaking from memory and the slides alone. (I guess that was ok... just stressful.) I can think of all the, "I should have...." but the real question is, did it accomplish anything, true to the gospel, to share Amos' dire predictions? (If you want to see the show, scroll down to the link in the previous post for the slides, without animations.)
I enjoyed trying the slide-sermon. I learned something new about what you can present with pictures while your words are less severe. But I can't know what was actually heard.
Prophecy comes up again during Advent, this time a good news prophecy. (At least the way Christians interpret it looking back.) I always struggle with that re-interpretation and the traditional meaning that the prophets seemed to be foretelling. How can we know what they really 'fore-saw'? Relating it to Chris's birth seems like the 'same-old'. Even though the Christmas story is the same each year, I'd like to present it in a way that challenges us to commit again to follow the one who was born so long ago.
Oh well, back to Monday morning musings, I guess.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dire warning or Divine Demand?

(Can't remember where I got that title but it's not original. And normally I'm so good about attributing...)
This week I am worried about keeping people awake. We had our huge Soup & Pie Bazaar today and everyone came, worked and is tired. Assuming they make it tomorrow, if I move into the pulpit at sermon time, the eyes will droop and close. Not only that, I decided weeks ago to use the Amos 5 text that is highlighted on our Living Word Bulletin Covers. So I'm hitting a tired group with Amos 'dire' prophecy. Here's what I've decided to do. For the first time, I'm doing a complete sermon with a Keynote (powerpoint in mac) presentation. If I've done this right, here it is, minus my words.
Amos for Today

I hope I can then share the Matthew 25 story of sheep and goats from memory.
This is the plan. Assuming my WIFI connection cooperates, I plan to show the show from the iPad and control it from the iPhone. I even rigged up a hokey signal booster in the office to give me an extra couple of feet at the front of the sanctuary. I think I'd better take my macbook, just in case. This will be an adventure that will at least keep ME awake. Pray for me, or you could just come tomorrow and see how this all comes out...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

“What’s Left to Say?” (All Saints 2011)

1 John 3:1-3, for Sunday, 10/30/11

Tomorrow is Halloween; If we attend a party, we often don’t know who are behind the masks we see until the end of evening. AND, if you have little masked goblins at your door, sometimes you can ask them to reveal themselves AFTER you give them their treats.

Many people are like that; we don’t get the real picture of a person until after their life is over and the truth is revealed.
Tho For some people; we get to see behind their mask as they grow older. Maturity and life decisions reveal the person inside.
 I can think of some presidents that became revered statesmen only after they left the White House.

Our lives are not as much as an unmasking as a maturing or evolving and continual growing. Remember last week when we talked about the gospel according to Paul? One of the things he preached, that is central to our faith, was sanctification.
Sanctification comes after our commitment or our acceptance of God’s generous offer, which we confirm and make public with our baptism.
Sanctification is simply the maturing of our faith.
But it doesn’t happen alone.. We can’t do it w/o the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit. We also can’t do it without the mysterious forming by Christ’s Community, the Church.
Our maturing as faithful, -always-growing-Christians is a mystery – one for which we give thanks. But one aspect of our maturing we DO know about; it is this forming that comes in community.

Our on-going forming involves living life like Jesus did. If we go back a chapter in this letter we read, in v.2.6, “”Whoever says I abide in him(Jesus), ought to walk as he walked.”[i] It takes all of us together to ‘walk as Jesus walked’.
We often want to live like someone else.
Have you ever wanted to be part of another family?
Have you ever wanted to live someone else’s life? Sometimes Halloween is a chance to pretend to be someone we could never be in regular life.
But for us it is more than a masquerade. Because of God’s gift, we get to be more as part of Christ’s Church than we could ever be alone.

Our spiritual inheritance is that we are members of God's family; it is our entitlement, and it includes the “blessings & benefits, privileges & powers that a relationship with Christ implies.
It also includes the “relationship with have with each other.[ii] “We not only bear each others burdens but also claim for those who have died the hope & confidence we have together in the risen Christ.” That’s how scholar Grace JiSun Kim puts it. Our membership in God’s family includes an on-going connection to those who have died who continue to be part of God’s family.
This membership is more than a mask we don on Sundays. We are connected to each other all week long, just as we are connected to Christ. It is a great mystery without a doubt that it is in this church, this congregation that we are transformed into the image of Christ . . . and  it is a great mystery that we also remain connected to those we remember today; our Saints.

Our Saints are a vital part of our maturing in faith; our ‘sanctification’ that comes after baptism.
You might ask, How are we formed by people who are no longer with us? Or even those ‘Saints’ who lived so long ago that we never met them?

"We are blessed by them, by their faith, & their witness. Their strength is for us, supporting us and their strength is for our witness to others.”[iii]
They are a vital part of our sanctification as those who have accepted God’s gift of grace and are members of Christ’s church.

What can we do to honor them today?
We can “remember, that, even tho our loved ones have died, it is thru their love and compassion, their instruction & correction,
their laughter & tears, their honesty & humility,
their sacrifice, & dedication, & most of all their faith,
they are still speaking.”[iv] (To us.)

We can join them in the ‘legacy of love that never ends’[v]. The letter we read part of today stress that ‘as in human relationships, only those who love and are loved can speak of love as an experienced reality rather than an abstraction or an unfulfilled yearning.”[vi] We are loved by God, we are loved by our Saints and because we have experienced that love as a reality in our lives we can speak of this life-changing love to others.

Even as our saints are still speaking, our lives are speaking the truth of our living. We are revealing a legacy that shows who we are even now, as we are still being formed.
From the time of our baptism * all thru our sanctification, our maturing in faith is the core of our life in God’s family. We are revealing WHOSE we are every day.

Today I remind you that you are saints as much as this cloud of witnesses surrounding us.
Have you accepted God’s offer of adoption? And if so,
as a saint, adopted into God's family at your baptism,
what is your life saying?

[i] Grace-Ji-SunKim Feasting on the Word – theological (Louisville: WJK, 2011) 232
[ii] ibid 230
[iii] William N. Jackson Feasting on the Word pastoral (Louisville: WJK, 2011) 232
[iv] ibid 232
[v] ibid
[vi] D. Moody Smith Interpretation 1,2,3 John, J.L. Mays, ed. (Louisville:John Knox, 1992) 80

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Blessing of the Animals

Fun time tonight at the blessing for 2 Guinea Pigs, 3 Dogs, 1 Cat, and 2 Cats by proxy (picture). Good times, good treats, good coffee. Thanks be to God.
See for yourself:

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Vote for me or burn in Hell"

I'm reading the texts for Sunday and read this from 1 Thessalonians,
2:3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery,2:4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.
I read this just after the following article on CNN: Who does God want in the Whitehouse? 
 Some of this might just make it into the sermon. Can I do it without getting "too political" or should I not worry about criticism? My political stripes are usually obvious and that may be more of the problem. (Not Zebra but Donkey...)

We shall see as the week evolves.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Call Your Name

Isaiah 45:1-7, October 16, 2011

Remember the song, “I Call Your Name”? It was written by John Lennon prior to the formation of the Beatles. In 1963, he gave the song to Billy Kramer of The Dakotas, another Liverpool band.
Lennon was reportedly dissatisfied with the Dakotas' arrangement of his song as well as its position on the B-side of their record (if you are old enough to remember records, you know what the 'B' side means).  So the Beatles eventually recorded their own version of “I Call Your Name”, which came out on their 2nd album.
I tend to remember the Mamas & Papas cover of the tune on their 1966 LP because I thought they did such a good job with Lennon’s original creation.

An artist, --a-creator, won't let their creation go to waste. John Lennon wasn't satisfied with the song so he produced it himself. A Creator is willing to take unplanned action, to insure that things come out to his/her satisfaction.

God, in the Isaiah passage, is notifying God's people of the Creator prerogative. God is dissatisfied with the way life is turning out. So God is going to make some changes. The Creator will do what the Creator will do, using whomever the Creator wishes. IN this case, the Almighty calls Cyrus, the ruler of Persia. God will use him to conquer Babylon (where most of the Israelites are living in captivity) and this major change will “set the scene for the journey of the exiles back to their homeland.” Cyrus, a foreign King, with no Jewish blood at all, will even end up decreeing the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple.

Like the early People of God, we should remember that God does call whom God wants. If we ignore the call, God will find others - and with or without their knowledge - God will use them. This is the Creator’s prerogative.

This message quickly puts us in our place as creatures, doesn't it?
It reminds us of our limited power to control. When God calls, who are we to say no, or not right now, or I'd like to think about it. Maybe later God, when I'm more ready.  ?

A passage like this leaves the question of free will unanswered.
How much can God do without our consent? Why does God bother to call people, if God can do what God wants? We turn to the stories of scripture, which tell us that God does call us, and God's preference is for us to respond--- willingly; as individuals and as communities of God's children.

God's message was often to an entire community or nation -or nations.
God's call began with Abram and Sara's story, which was a CALL to become a Nation of God's people. They answered, “Yes” and became a wandering couple who WAITED, many, many years for the 'call' of God to be fulfilled in the promised family of descendents. Eventually their descendents became two nations of God's people; Israel & Judah, consolidated from the 12 tribes of Abraham.

The Bible is full of stories of individuals who were called into God's service.
Moses' story began before he encountered a burning bush. He felt the pull of being a Jew, before he even recognized there was a Divine presence behind his actions.
He didn't want to accept the call, you'll remember. He listed every excuse he could think of and God countered every one. Eventually bringing Moses' brother Aaron into the mix as spokesperson to help Moses' deal with a speech impediment. Moses was special above all others because he got to talk to God directly. He was quite bold as we heard in the passage read from Exodus 33. Basically –saying to God, “if you are not going to go with us, don't even bother to take us any further than this place.” And God promises to stay with the people because God has called Moses' by name.

Many prophets were also called into God's service; this wasn't a prime career position. Isaiah & Jeremiah, have stories of obeying God's call even when it meant saying what no one wanted to hear and suffering for it. You might even remember Jonah who initially disobeyed God's call and ran away on board a ship. That adventure ended rather unpleasantly. If you don't recall the entire story, the book of Jonah is short & exciting read!

All through the scriptures heard today, are messages verifying the fact that God does call. People ARE chosen by God and our answer makes a difference.  Cyrus's call is different than most. His is a unique circumstance where God uses someone who is not aware of his call, and doesn't even know God.

Cyrus is literally named, “God's anointed” – you may remember how that word translates, in Hebrew it is, Messiah and in Greek it is Christ. Cyrus is the ONLY non-Jew named God's anointed.

It certainly sounds strange to us who have come to hear “the anointed” as referring only to Jesus, but “Cyrus's call will bring redemption to the Israelites and enlightenment to his own life.  This is how the story of God's people evolves in the second part of the book of Isaiah. God calls this people back together, back to their land. --we could say God is calling them to return to faithfulness from the place of exile where they have been living.

The call to faithfulness brings life back into the CREATOR’s original design. Faithful response often needs renewing in God’s creation.

Much of our world today lives apart from any dependence on God.  Unlike the universalist perspective in 2nd Isaiah, where all people are not only dependent on God, they will ALL be 'saved' by the God who “is responsible for all aspects of the cosmos, both the origins of the natural world (“I form light and create darkness”) AND the events of human history (“I make weal and create woe”).

Today, We don't all share this perspective on God's intervention in human affairs or of the extent of God's saving grace. Being not of one mind, we struggle to interpret God's call and wonder if and how a particular event can BE part of God's Will?

I find it helps to read these stories of God's call. In stories we learn what others have done and how God acts. In real-life stories we learn the true character of God. We learn to look for themes that resonate with the way God wants the world to be. The stories lift us from our short-term vision and help us see the way God works. In stories we learn what the Creator is dissatisfied with and where we can expect God to makes changes. (Just like the composer who wants his song to come out just right.)

There are a few consistent themes to listen for:
The 1st is Hesed, (I didn't sneeze) this is the Hebrew word every Christian should know. It is the word for the most basic character of God. Hesed is a relational word about faithfulness, steadfastness, kindness and grace. (Exodus 34: God is rab hesed; rich in faithfulness.)            
            Any action - rich in faithfulness, any action that is grace-filled, is compatible with 'God's will' and call. We are always called to join in with God’s grace.

2nd – theme is liberation or salvation.
            Within the big-picture of biblical stories, God acts to liberate and save. God intervenes to save the Israelites from the curse of the 1st born. This is the heart of 'passover'. God liberates the Israelite slaves from Egypt. God saves the Israelites from the Wilderness. (even if the shorter perspective stores also condemn a generation to wander.) God calls Moses' into the job of liberation leader.
            And of course, Jesus liberates all those who are bound by sin and brokenness – and who isn't?
            We can expect to be called to work with the Almighty in the big-picture job of liberating and rescuing people from whatever is holding us or others down. Which leads us to another theme;

  - God's preference for the oppressed. God seeks to save, & God asks US to help. Which means we are called to work for changes to the 'way life is turning out'. Like the prophets, We may not be popular with the world around us, but what an honor to be called to help write a verse in God's song of liberation.

These 3 big themes help us determine God's will and learn to what we are called by God. But it never hurts to remember that some things are beyond our vision. We won't understand everything that God does. We almost never think death is a good thing and yet in God's design, we all die.
Many of the things that happen within a lifetime are beyond our ability to comprehend.

A Friend of mine signs all his emails, AIGW; “All In God's Will”. He has written several books seeking to help short-sighted humans accept that God does what God wants and often calls us to work in unexplainable ways. You've heard the Muslim phrase, "Inshallah" or you heard your grandparents say it in English, “God-willing” - which is almost a quote from the book attributed to Jesus' brother, James. 4:13-15, says,

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, …Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” - or “Inshallah”

One scholar, Fred Gaiser, said, “Isaiah's [story] might be paraphrased this way,
“Whom would you rather have in charge of even the dark realities of the real world: gods created by human hands and human culture? or the God who loves you and who will give Godself to you and for you in whatever way it takes to set you free?”

            Isaiah (& OT world) doesn't yield to a simplistic formula of “IF it happened, God did it.”
 God works thru the forces of creation and thru the agency of human beings (like Cyrus & us) to make the song of life turn out to God’s liking. The fact that we are all VERY HUMAN, means that both the world and human beings might revert to the chaos God seeks to overcome. But liberation and redemption remain God's “purposes”.

We have one more thing to remember as a community of the called, to be careful not to mistake our own purposes for God’s-- just like Israel did again and again.  It ..’wasn't always clear how God would accomplish a future for God's people, Israel.” We are a bit like them, wondering about the future of God's community called the Church.

“We know God has worked in a particular way before and we assume God will work again in the same way. New methods, which include new people [being] called to God's work, are hard to accept. But it is clear that being chosen by God doesn't exclude God choosing and calling others to be included in God's story. --Even when the newly chosen people are from a different tradition or family or have different ideas--– maybe like Cyrus?

As WE look to the future and listen for God's call we need to remember God's priorities and not only ask,How will we share God with others, but  - How is God sharing others with us? “God has a habit of using people who we would not have anticipated. After all, God chooses whomever God wishes to choose. ..

“I Call Your Name” is God's message to us today. What is YOUR answer?
 NIB Study Bible, Isaiah 44:27-28 notes p. 1018
 Ibid p. 1018
 Ibid p. 1019
 Fred Gaiser, Isaiah 45:1-7 commentary
 Jeff Carter Feasting On The Word – Pastoral Taylor & Bartlett eds. (Louisville: WJK, 2011) p. 174
 James Burns Feasting – Homiletical ibid p. 173, 175
 Ibid p. 175