February 10, 2013. Transfiguration Sunday. No one stood up to read scripture, so I offered an invitation to the whole congregation “Who will offer our scripture today?” It was silent for a moment, and then [our adult female member with MR/ID – I will call her Betsy] shot her hand up. I welcomed her up to the pulpit. She took several moments to gather her belongings and hobble to the front. I offered to read along with her. Betsy can read, but not very well out loud. She mumbled every word as I read for her from the pulpit. She read from Exodus 34 – Moses brought the tablets of the covenant down from the mountain. The story of Moses played out before us right in church! Recall that Moses could not speak well and when God called him; God empowered him with Aaron who could speak. I was her Aaron in that moment; validating her role in the Body of Christ. She also read form 2 Corinthians 4:1 “it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Betsy was, herself, the scripture she proclaimed that day. And beyond that she showed us at County Line Church that God will not wait up for us. When we are unwilling to say yes to his call (even something as simple as reading scripture); God will go on with or without you and find someone who will – even those who make us uncomfortable. And God calls the unexpected among us- all…the…time.
Our opening hymn on Sunday…perhaps with a slightly different arrangement :)
April 8, 2012
It was still dark. Mary Magdalene was on her way to the tomb to properly care for the body of Jesus her Lord. I imagine her walking briskly to the tomb in the cover of darkness, perhaps it was a cold spring morning like it has been here the last few days for us. But as she got closer, something was wrong. Something didn’t look quite right. Like it may be for anyone of us when coming home late at night and something is a bit out of place. Your heart my skip a few beats, your brain tells that heart of yours that everything is probably alright, but then you realize it is not. Everything is not alright – the front door is open, and none of the lights are on. What would you think? What would you assume without seeing anything else? That you have been robbed. Mary saw that stone rolled away and assumed the worst – someone must have broken into the tomb and stole away my Lord! This is the assumption she made all from the sight of the stone rolled away. She did not look in, she only saw the stone and turned around and ran to share her fears with the other disciples.
In the time it took her to run back to the disciples, tell the bad news, and for them to run back to the tomb, perhaps the sun had started to rise. But these two disciples may not have been able to see any more clearly; sweat dripping down their faces, blurring their vision. They saw the stone rolled away too, and they went a step further and into the tomb to find the funeral linens neatly folded and placed in the tomb, as if Jesus had made his bed before he left. That is certainly an oddity. What grave robber would have gone through the trouble of removing the linens, especially the trouble of neatly rolling up each piece separately. Peter saw and believed – but believed what exactly? It doesn’t say that he saw and believed the good news that He is Risen! Just that he believed. Believed what? Perhaps simply that he believed Mary’s report that Jesus body was gone. Yes, she was right after all, no body here – now I believe her, someone really did steal away our Lord. There is no rush back, there is no more sharing of this fearful news. Just the long journey home with what appeared to be the sad news of this empty tomb and an absent savior.
Mary did not go home. She stayed behind, crying and weeping all day. She had thought that she lost her Lord forever and she was robbed of even offering him a proper burial. She finally worked up the courage to peek in and glimpse inside the tomb. Two angels! Two angels who were puzzled by the tears of Mary – why are you crying they asked. These Angels knew the truth, and yet Mary would not learn this news form them. She turned around, perhaps not even aware that she was speaking with angels right where Jesus lay.
She turned around and Mary saw Jesus – but she didn’t see him. She wasn’t prepared to see him in her emotional state, besides she saw the dead body, and dead men don’t walk. She was not prepared to see him so she mistook Jesus to be a gardener, given the context.
A few years ago a world famous violinist by the name of Joshua Bell tried a social experiment. He would dress up in very modest clothes to look like a homeless man, go down to a metro stop in Washington DC and play his violin. Now, just a few days before this experiment, Joshua played for an audience where even the cheap seats were $100. He insisted on playing on his own familiar violin for this experiment, one worth $3.5 million. He played for about 45 minutes. Some of the best music ever written performed by one of the best musicians in the world, in the subway. In that time about 1,100 people walked by and heard the violinist in the background and 7 people stopped to listen for at least a minute. He received about $32 bucks in his violin case. Sometimes we might be surprised by what we don’t see, or hear right in front of us.
And it wasn’t so much seeing Jesus that confirmed for Mary that he arose. It was what he said. Jesus spoke. He knew she was searching, searching for someone, searching for him. “Who are you looking for?” he asked. And she was still so fixated on the bad news that she replied “Sir, tell me where you put him, I will get him.”
Jesus spoke her name: “Mary.” Just a simple calling of her name. How powerful that is, to be called by name. I remember that my childhood bedroom was in the basement, but I know when I was being called upstairs; and I knew just from the call of my name whether I was in trouble or if dinner was ready. Jesus called Mary in the sweet and tender kind of way “Mary.” She heard him speak her name and now she finally saw. Jesus, teacher, Lord. All of Mary’s assumptions were dashed – he had not been stolen, he was right there in front of her.
She heeds Jesus command to go and tell the disciples this good news. And she does so in such a beautiful way. She doesn’t report like a newscaster stating the evening news: this happened, and this happened. It is not a report she gives so much as it is a testimony. She says “I have seen the Lord.”
How many here can say”I have seen the Lord” here at County Line church? I bet you could if you knew what you’re looking for. Just the other day at our Good Friday service, Sarah, who we will baptize today was a bit fearful to go up and touch the cross. I learned after the service that she thought it was the real cross – the one actually used to crucify our Lord. Mom & Dad reassured her and offered to go up along with her, and so she did. I wouldn’t be so quick to say that Sarah was wrong about seeing “the real cross.” This is Christian worship at its best, when a child, someone who is new to the faith can live out the worship service in such a real way as to confuse those pieces of wood we displayed, that were made by members of this church with their own hands for the specific purpose of better telling the very real story of Jesus’ love on the cross. Well, it worked, we told the story and it was really real for this young one in the faith.
That was Friday, and this is Sunday. Today, Easter Sunday, we tell the story of how Jesus overcame that cross, how he rose from the grave, and how he commissioned his disciples to tell this old old story across the generations. How might we help little Sarah to see the Lord as Mary did at the tomb? She looked at two pieces of wood and saw the cross – the real cross. What might she see when she looks at County Line Church, and the members of the Body of Christ that gather here? She will look at you and just might ask “Are these the really real Disciples?” My hope is that as we nurture here in the ways of Christian discipleship, this day and in the years to come, that she will be able to rightly say “I have seen the Lord” because she has seen you. Today we participate in telling again the old old story of Jesus and his love. Be the Body of Christ for her County Line Church and as she grows to know the Lord more and more, she will also tell this story, truthfully sharing “I have seen the Lord.”
March 4, 2012
2nd Sunday in Lent
I can’t seem to find the balance between good audio in the church and a good audio recording. I’ve had one or the other, but can’t seem to get both. Any A/V geeks out there can help?
What comes to your mind when you think of a savior? Superman comes to my mind. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” It might be a last minute nail-bitter, but at the end of the day Superman always saves the damsel in distress, or the innocent children in peril. He is unstoppable, bulletproof, and he conquers the bad guys – puts them in their place. Sure there kryptonite, but that’s only temporary. Superman, as a savior comes out unscathed, righteous, an example of good triumphs over evil. Is this the kind of savior we have in Jesus Christ?
Jesus began to teach them… Jesus has been doing quite a bit of teaching up to this point in Mark’s Gospel. We don’t have the sermon on the mount in this Gospel, but there is still plenty of parables. On his travels Jesus often made it a point to enter the synagogue and teach. And there were plenty of private teaching opportunities when Jesus was alone with his disciples. He taught about the kingdom of God. But now, he began to teach them something new – that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, and be killed. This time there are no parables, there is no promise to keep this a secret, he spoke plainly. Our Gospel reading today is the first time that Jesus predicts his death, the first time that his disciples heard that Jesus must die, and well Peter doesn’t take it too well.
We read that Peter rebuked Jesus. That’s simple something a disciple ought to do to the Messiah, the son of Man. We do need to give Peter some credit though; it was a rebuke out of love. He heard here for the first time that this Jesus that he loved, that he gave up a job, family, friends, safety, he gave up so much for this man he rightly believed to be The Messiah – and he just heard that his Messiah will die! It was a natural, heartfelt, loving rebuke – Say it isn’t so, you don’t have to die, you shouldn’t die, you are the Messiah!
In fact, the verses immediately before our reading, we discover Peter making the first confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say I am?” And they gave various answers: Elijah, John the Baptist, a prophet. “But who do you say I am?” And Peter was the first to say “You are the Messiah.” Peter was right about who Jesus was, but it would turn out, Peter was wrong about what that meant.
I imagine that Peter had a superman kind of view of what the Messiah should be. The Messiah was going to come in, kick out the treacherous Roman occupiers with a heavy hand and rebuild the nation of Israel to the glory days it once knew all with power, force, and the sword if necessary This kind of savior would need power and might. That kind of savior certainly could not be killed at the hands of the people he was going to save people from! Peter expected a superman kind of savior and he got Clark Kent. He expected warrior and got victim. He expected relief and got sacrifice. Everything Peter believed about his Messiah was dashed by this new teaching of Jesus. So naturally, Peter pulls Jesus aside and double checks – I think you are mistaken about what it means to be savior Messiah can’t possibly mean death, can it? Surely you don’t have to die.
And here is where Jesus stopped Peter short, interrupted him. Rebuked his rebuke. Peter, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact Jesus calls Peter Satan! Awfully harsh, isn’t it? But when you think of it, Peter is offering a temptation to Christ. There are three times when Jesus faces significant temptation in his life – later in the garden of gethsemane when he prays that the cup of suffering can pass him by, and yet he prays for his father’s will and not his will, this episode with the rebuke from Peter, and Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Recall that time in the wilderness – Each of the temptations that Satan offered was a short-cut to Jesus’ goal of kingdom; but it was a short-cut without suffering. Turns these stones into bread, leap from the steeple and show that the angels will save you; bow down to me and this whole world will be yours. The temptation was do these simple things to get your kingdom as Christ, and avoid the cross. Jesus said “be gone Satan!” The cross is essential to the work of Christ. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is harsh, but it is true – Peter suggested a Messiah without suffering, he offered the temptation to avoid the cross just like Satan did in the wilderness; and Jesus rebuked this notion because a death on the cross is the ultimate act that Jesus came to do.
It can be difficult for us to realize the scandal of the cross in our modern day. The symbol is everywhere, it has been domesticated to some extent. How many crosses can you spot in this worship space? On our altar, here on the pulpit, various stained glass scenes. Count the crosses you see this week when you go about your daily life. When you see the cross, does it make you cringe? It was a torture device, the government put people on that wood to kill them – it is absolutely scandalous. We might still have that sense of scandal if that instrument of execution was still used today. Imagine if, instead of a cross on our altar, a noose hung in the chancel. That would be awfully erie, uncomfortable,….just wrong. That is the cross. Total scandal. That the God of the universe, the Messiah, would die in such a way at the hands of the government What kind of savior dies? How many people can he save if he can’t save himself? It would seem that Jesus came not to relieve suffering, he came to endure it.
And…he turns to the crowd along with his disciples and said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Carry your cross. What could that mean? In Jesus’ day, carrying the cross literally meant carrying the piece of wood that served as the cross beam, carrying it to the place of execution. Carrying it through the streets to face the mocking and jeers of the onlookers. If you were not the condemned, carrying the cross meant associating yourself with them and welcoming the insults meant for the one who was facing death. Publicly identifying with the condemned. Certainly, we just simply do not face the same risks here that other Christians do – being a Christian in not a crime where we live (but it is in many parts of the world); and yet, even for us, being religious does come with risk. What will people think of me? Won’t they think I’m some sort of religious nut if I talk about my faith openly? I think of the man on East Market Street in Harrisonburg. Have you seen him? He stands at the traffic light just outside of WalMart. He literally carries his cross. He holds it up, rain or shine, and waves at people as they drive by. By his action he is publicly identifying with Jesus. I wonder what comments he gets, what do people think? He’s crazy; what a waste of time; lazy; weirdo! I bet he faces ridicule to publicly testify about the cross in our modern day; sacrificing an afternoon to do so. What does it mean for you to carry your cross?
What does being a disciple cost us these days? How would you deny yourself, what would you give for the sake of the Gospel? Jesus, our Savior, suffered, was rejected, and died. He called to the crowd and to his disciples – if you want to be my disciple, follow me.
Last year we baptized two young people at a church member’s farm. In the creek, full immersion, on Pentecost! All the right pieces just fell in place last year. The farmers were having a family reunion anyways and said “sure use the place.” Pentecost happened to be the second Sunday of June last year which made the water not so cold. And, not to mention, we had two young people to baptise! It was a blessed event fresh in everyone’s mind.
Wouldn’t you know two more folks want to get baptized this year! They are new to the church, they saw the pictures from last year’s baptism and and sorta just assumed thats the way its done around here. Well, Pentecost is May 27 this year and the farm is not available that day. This dilemma causes me to pause and reflect: Is it more important to baptize on a significant day like Pentecost, or is it more important to baptize in a significant way like full immersion at the creek with a big party? This year it would seem that either one can happen, but we can’t have both.
The Day. It is certainly possible to baptize on Pentecost at the church. Our church has a very small baptistry font; I’d be surprised if it held more than a quart of water. Now, I don’t believe that there is any deficiency in using the small font. Pouring and sprinkling still work for baptisms. But human beings are visual and tactile creatures, and I do believe that the meaning of baptism is more easily declared with more water, much more water. My (Disciples of Christ) roots are showing here. Besides, these are adults we are baptizing and the practical matter of “how do I dunk this baby without drowning it?” is not an issue in this case.
The Way. It is certainly possible to baptize the same way we did last year: Full immersion at the member’s farm. But it would be the second Sunday after Pentecost. Now, I do not believe there is any deficiency in being baptized on a “normal Sunday.” Baptism spans all seasons. But, human beings exist in time and space and I do believe it is easier to see our place in the larger story when something like a personal baptism happens on a date significant for the universal church that extends beyond the gathered community on May 27 this year. Not to mention it will be easier to remember that baptism anniversary as “Pentecost” instead of June 10 (or was it the 17th?…).
The Way & The Day. We could also find an alternate location, but this of course would be outside of the Sunday morning gathered worship community (unless everyone does indeed decide to go to this off-site baptism). We could have a full immersion Pentecost baptism. But I don’t think we could have it all: we risk losing the connection with the local church that these folks are joining. The farm has deep (very deep) roots to the story of how County Line Church came to be, and everyone goes to the farmer’s reunion on the second Sunday of June – the church will definitely be there. I’m not so sure that the church would venture out for an extra service in May- to a disconnected location, and for “outsiders” of the church. Is that pessimistic, or realistic?
No matter how it happens or when it happens the Body of Christ is getting bigger, praise God for that!
What do you think is more important in this situation? The way or the day?
What makes for a good sermon illustration?
I heard a cute story on the radio last week where the $3,000 prize for an ice fishing contest was for a 4.5 oz perch! It won because it was the only fish caught that day. There were more prizes that had to be given away by a random drawing. Here’s the story by a local radio station.
My little sermon-illustration-alarm went off in the back of my head when I heard the story. It’s cute, there is a punch-line, and it’s easy to remember. I filed it away to look up later on the internet and save for the next time a fish story comes up in one of the Sunday morning readings. I immediately thought of the disciples who cast their nets and caught no fish. It fits perfectly, right?
But what is the point of a sermon illustration anyways? Is it supposed to be a cute story that relates to the bible lesson in some tangential way? I don’t get the opportunity to hear very many other preachers, but I sure can picture a preacher telling the story, embellishing with full detail perhaps even describing the weather, the participants, and the tiny little fish, taking 2 or 3 minutes perhaps (that’s a tithe of a 20 minute sermon!) And the point the preacher seems to make is “well I heard this other story about some other folks who also didn’t catch any fish.” But is that what the text is about?
Are sermon illustrations meant to fill time? Maybe to entertain? I think illustrations are meant to uncover the meaning of the text at hand. I tend to write a theme sentence for my sermon – sum up the entire message in a single statement. Then, an illustration only makes it in if it furthers the main idea of the sermon’s theme sentence. My illustrations are often short – sometimes even a single sentence “It’s kinda like…” Often context does need to be added to an illustration in order to make it effective, so it becomes a bit longer. For those disciples in the boat, they had given up and went back to their old unfulfilling careers they had before they were called by Jesus. Kinda like Mr. Incredible (Pixar’s The Incredibles) who gave up super-hero-ing to become an insurance adjustor. See what I mean? Or maybe I am off track and I should have gone with the fish.
So, preachers (and those who receive sermons): What is the purpose of a sermon illustration? And what makes for a good one? What causes an illustration to “flop?”
January 29, 2012
Our Gospel reading this morning is about demon possession, which is a bit difficult for us as modern readers isn’t it? I have met fellow Christians who insist that they have seen first hand demon possession in third-world mission destinations. But, it’s just not something in my own Christian experience – I’ve never been possessed by a demon nor seen anyone possessed either. So it’s a bit difficult for me, and perhaps for you (if you also have not been possessed nor seen possession) to know what to do with this text. So let’s try to take a closer look at what this Gospel says about Jesus – what he does and who he is. What does it mean for us that when Christ announces the coming of the kingdom of God, it comes with the exorcism of a demon and the restoration of a man to the community?
It is interesting to realize that we are still in chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, and this story is Jesus’ first order of business after calling his first disciples, that call story which we read last week. Jesus went to the synagogue, on a sabbath, and began to teach. And Jesus is teaching with authority, something the people haven’t experienced from their religious leaders. And then out of no where comes this man with an unclean spirit; he cried out interrupting Jesus’ teaching. Could you imagine such a person walking in here and interrupting the sermon or another part of the worship service with a loud cry: “What do you want with us Jesus!” And Jesus drives out that unclean spirit and everyone is amazed.
I think that is an important distinction here: unclean versus evil. The NIV translation we use here choses “evil,” but has a footnote that the Greek states “unclean.” What is the difference between evil and unclean? Evil is a bit more easy for me to understand – its something opposed to God, evil spirit, the devil, sin. Something just by its very nature is wicked. But unclean? That is a bit more down to earth. Mud, rodents, garbage; that nasty soup of pureed foods that gets stuck to the bottom of the drain in the kitchen sink. Things that will make you unclean if you come into contact with them, you avoid impurities and uncleanliness to keep yourself pure and clean. But we wouldn’t say those things are evil just because they are unclean, but we still avoid them. So what does it mean for the bible to say a someone has an unclean spirit possessing them, or even to go so far as to say a person is unclean?
We may be able to explain away demon possession with our modern medical understanding – Oh, demon possession was just undiagnosed mental illness, those simple people saw someone mentally ill, couldn’t explain it and so they called it demon possession. That may help us grapple with demon possession, but it doesn’t explain away uncleanness which is still a concern for us in our day. And I do believe that we still have a concept of clean/unclean, pure/impure people in our modern culture – though we are much less willing to admit it. Are there kinds of people we avoid in order to maintain our own purity? Jesus has power over evil, that’s clear and obvious; but Jesus has power of uncleanliness too – and our concept of impurity especially when it comes to people. Perhaps the incredibly remarkable thing here is not that Jesus drove out a spirit but that Jesus welcomed a man into synagogue who was plagued with uncleanliness. Of all people that were unclean enough to be unwelcome at the synagogue (think of tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars, lepers) of all people, a demon possessed man sure doesn’t belong at synagogue! But the man came to seek an encounter with Christ. Isn’t that what church is supposed to be?- The place where the afflicted seek an encounter with Christ? Christians, unfortunately don’t always make this easy, or possible even. Most church sign boards, like ours, say “All are welcome” but I really wonder…
Just what is it that makes us uncomfortable around “unclean” people (literally and figuratively). And these are cultural categories, clean/unclean pure/impure, that may change over time. Who might those impure people be for us today? Who might make us uncomfortable if they were to walk through our synagogue – And just what makes us uncomfortable with these folks? It couldn’t be that we are afraid of “catching it” is it? Those people, who we may readily label “unclean” in our subconscious, I have found sometimes they don’t follow the same cultural rules that we have, they may ask inappropriate questions, over-share, talk a bit too much, stand a bit too close, a bit too ready to trust so much – and that makes us(me?) uncomfortable; perhaps because they expect the same level of openness of us? Something we are not quite ready to be, even with ourselves? How can the church be a place where the afflicted seek an encounter with Christ today?
About two weeks ago we had a church visitor, in the middle of the week – a Tuesday or Wednesday I think. I heard that she came out here on our church lawn, threw out a blanket and sat here for 4 or 5 hours – all day. And then she came out the next day, same thing – laid out a blanket and sat all day. Our neighbors were awfully concerned, and as you can imagine, I received a number of phone calls that week about our odd church visitor. We raised questions, that sounded quite a bit like our Gospel text today “What do you want from us?” What if she is up to no good? Who does that anyway? It is unsafe! It is just plain weird! No body does that! And yes, that situation is a bit unnerving, it is a bit odd, it does give reason to make us uncomfortable. And I would encourage you to pause and reflect, just what about such a situation, a stranger to this place – what about that does indeed makes us uncomfortable? I don’t bring it up to make us feel guilty about our discomfort – it makes a lot of sense to be uneasy; but I do want to reflect on it a bit: What makes us uncomfortable about a stranger who seeks a spiritual retreat here?
I received a phone call from the church visitor herself. She shared with me how she suffered from a medical condition in which she had a very high sensitivity to electronic fields such as cell phone towers, and electric wires so she sought escape from the city and she finds peace out here in the country side. An afflicted woman seeking refuge. Yes, we maybe able to explain it away – her medical condition, or we might think there is some mental illness going on (Who sits outside a church all day in a January!); but that doesn’t explain away our discomfort with her; and what may be her afflicting her.
Besides all that, how exciting that a woman from Harrisonburg, 20 miles away, was led to this church to find a place of peace! Peace in God’s presence at his church on the County Line. Isn’t that why we gather here? Isn’t that what first drew us here in the first place? Aren’t we all seeking the same thing? And now she is the odd one, the one who spends hours on the church lawn seeking peace.
I think that we do believe and want the church to be a place where the afflicted go to seek an encounter with Christ’s healing presence. And Christ offers that encounter even with the socially impure among us. Even when it amazes, and dis-comforts us.
December 24, 2011
I remember being a kid and looking forward to Christmas eve at grandma’s house (yes, for some reason it was grandMA’s house not the grandparents house). She was just across town, less than a 30 minute drive. But the journey was special and we always looked forward to it. Other grandkids, aunts and uncles, and all of their boyfriends and girlfriends, they all made the trip too. My brother and sister, and my folks probably lived the closest; but the others came too even though it took one particular set of cousins nearly two hours to get to grandmas that night. That was the Christmas rule, a holiday tradition – you just went. There was always a buffet dinner of ham sandwiches and grandma always made vanilla cupcakes with white frosting – half with green dusted sprinkles and half with red dusted sprinkles. We sat on the floor and everyone got a gift from the grandparents.
Just why did this Christmas memory and tradition remain with me many years later? At it’s core the meaning of Christmas was not in the presents, the food, and not even in the cupcakes – it was in the togetherness. That’s why folks travel for the holidays, why we endeavor to clean house for relatives and why folks make special efforts to have a family meal. Christmas is togetherness. For Christian believers, Christmas is when we proclaim that even the God of all the universe, who is beyond all time, the Lord of Lords, the king of kings, the savior, Lord, Messiah; that God…God chose to be with us. Christmas is togetherness, and at Christmas, God chose togetherness even with the likes of us!
A very long time ago, in a town many many miles from here called Bethlehem; there was a man and a woman. Their names were Joseph and Mary. They were traveling to Joseph’s home town because Caesar ordered a census. Mary was pregnant and she was due to give birth this very night. There was no room for them in the inn, and so Mary had to give birth in the stable with the animals. She wrapped him in cloths and laid him down. It was the first Christmas, and the holy family gathered together. It was the first Christmas, and God stepped down to enter the world as a baby.
What that night must have been like for the holy family – all of the fear and expectation that comes with welcoming a new child into the world. Mary knew to expect great things of this child – the angel Gabriel gave her the news before she conceived. She was told that Jesus would be great and would be called the Son of the Most high, that he will sit on the throne of David forever. And yet, when that moment came and God entered the world in that stable – in the presence of an exhausted Mary and a breathless Joseph; it was noticeably silent… The angel Gabriel did not come back to encourage Mary through, he did not offer a reminder of the promise, God did not send Gabriel back to welcome the babe. There were no angels heard on high; no great light. This extraordinary miraculous birth of God made man was well…quite ordinary.
At least in the manger. There are of course angels in our Christmas story. But we find them in the fields nearby. The angels and company of heavenly hosts appear to shepherds in the fields, folks who also had no room at the inn. In fact they are lower than that. The shepherds were not very highly regarded in the culture of Jesus’ day. They had a dirty, low-paying, smelly job. They were general, unskilled laborers. The shepherds had little power, people simply would not have taken note of what they had to say. And yet God sent his angels to announce the good news of his birth, first to the shepherds in the field.
The angels announce to the shepherds “A savior has been born to you; Glory to God in the highest heavens!” This heavenly announcement of a new born king was declared not to kings, nor to princes, nor to authorities, nor to powers, nor to armies, nor to rulers. Not to Caesar, but to ordinary men in the field. That is just God’s way. Jesus began his reconciling work between God and us at the manger. The “us” in “God with us” is you and me in all of our ordinariness. In our lowliness, in our emptiness, in our loneliness, in our despair, and even in our sinfulness. God with us.
And this will be the sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Just how many babies were born that same night? Just how many mothers wrapped their young in cloths that night? Probably many. And yet this one, this one born of Mary was God almighty. What an ordinary sign, of the glorious almighty God with us.
The shepherds returned, praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. And that is the task before us in the Christmas season. This is why we gather together this evening. We have been told the good news of the Christmas story that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, even as a baby in a manger: a lowly, vulnerable, dependent infant. God entered this world in this way because he loves you. The Good-news of Christmas is that we worship and adore a God that is near. Our Lord is not distant and far-off, He is not someone who knows nothing of our pains, our fears, and our trials. He has been here, God is with us.
Christmas is togetherness. Christmas is the meeting of the heavenly and divine with the ordinary and human. Christmas is “God with us.” So be with him. Merry Christmas.
December 18, 2011
Fourth Sunday of Advent
[The Beatles "Let It Be"]
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be……
In case anyone did not recognize it (I’m not much of a singer) – that was The Beatles final single “Let It Be” written by Paul McCartney. Did you hear the familiar phrase in our Gospel this morning? Let it be (NIV has “May it be.”) Now, I came to learn that Paul wrote this song as he was agonizing over the impending break up of the band and he had a dream, but not of Mary the Mother of Christ. No, Paul says this was a dream of Mary, his own earthly mother who offered him words of comfort, as if to say everything will be alright. I just can’t help but notice that Mary of our Gospels offers the same phrase, but for her these are not so much words of comfort as they are words of surrender.
Mary was a young woman, probably 13 or 14 and engaged to be married. Well, not just engaged but betrothed – which was just a bit of a bigger deal. In her society the bethrotal was the legally binding part of marriage, even while she still lived with her parents. If Joseph were to die she would have been considered a widow. So the angel Gabriel comes to Mary (after he made a similar announcement to Elizabeth, Mary’s relative) and declares you will have a baby before you are married! You will be an unwed, poor mother of an outcast criminal who will be executed in his 30s. The Good News that the angel Gabriel shared with Mary is that she is about to enter a life of dishonor and shame. And she says “Let it be.” These are words of wisdom. What else is there to say when you receive a call from God?
In the weeks or months leading up to this Sunday, some of you have received a call. Now, I’m not aware of anyone here who received a call quite of the magnitude of Mary’s. But, perhaps the president or another Consistory member called you or pulled you aside and said “I have seen God at work in your life, would you consider serving this church as a deacon or elder?” You have found yourself quoting scripture saying “How can this be!?” How can this be I’m not wise enough, how can this be I’m not old enough, how can this be I’m not a good speaker, how can this be – surely there are more qualified people! Well sure, all those are valid objections – and Mary was a 14 year old, poor unwed mother. Let it be.
I don’t make this comparison to make Mary’s call any less than what it was – she bore God, Jesus the Christ! But a call to serve God’s church is still an important call from God. Current and former deacons and elders; and those newly receiving a call – have you consider how God has been at work in your lives through the prospect of this call? You other members who will confirm the call of our brothers and sisters; raising up deacons and elders – have you considered God’s work in our life as a congregation? This is not just an election to fill slots on a board. These are spiritual calls to servant-leadership, ordered ministry in our church deacon and elder! A fairly important call indeed. Let it be.
Let’s look at how many answered the call. After hearing the news from the angel Gabriel, being deeply troubled at his words, and receiving an answer about how all this was to be accomplished. Mary surrendered and simply said: “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” Let’s dissect that response just a little.
I offer you a bit more of a literal translation than our NIV pew bibles provide here. “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” When Mary says that she is the Lord’s servant. This is not just a simple statement of fact. She says “behold – the servant of the Lord.” It’s an interjection, perhaps she is excited. Perhaps she is a bit loss at what words to use and simply pointed to herself and stated “Behold – this is what a servant of the Lord looks like, right here, its me!” What clarity and exciting in understand her role, not as elevated but as servant of the Lord.
Then she says “let it be done to me.” She uses the same word here that is used for giving birth. That word carries meaning of becoming, something new, transformation, and just the act of being. Perhaps this is a play on words on Mary’s part. Perhaps its an understanding that the nature of her call is something that happens to her and she can either accepted it willfully or gripe about it and have it happen anyways. It is going to happen to her, but she truly does have these words of wisdom – let it be. Here in those words Mary’s will matches God’s will for her; and for the world.
And today we discern and raise up deacons and elders among us to serve this church in these spiritual capacities. Not as simply board members, but as ministers of this church – ordered for the ministry which is given us. Those of you who may be considering such a call may ask “How can this be?” But at the end of the day, if this is truly a call from God you have no words but “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Surrender to the call that God has given you.
December 11, 2011
Third Sunday of Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Sadly there is no recording this week – there is an interesting story about that, which may be the subject of another post.
Jeff, the youth minister at my internship in California, looked exactly like Jay Leno. The resemblance was uncanny. The gray swirly hair, same build, same height, dark eyes, and long boxy chin. He’d catch tourist glancing second looks at him, who were convinced that they had their chance encounter with a celebrity. He even told me that a few years before his current job he worked some general labor gigs at NBC and people there even noticed the resemblance. He loved to tell me the story about how he was asked to stand in for Jay Leno one night – not for the tonight show, but so they could adjust the lighting on the set (its apparently a very long process). Of course if anyone were to walk up to Jeff and ask “Are you Jay Leno.” He would be quick to say “No, I am not.” He just looks like him.
Our Gospel reading today offers another look at John the Baptist. Last Sunday we read from Mark’s Gospel about how John was a prophet; how he stood at the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. How John began to proclaim the Good News that God is Near, by first looking back at God’s work in history. This Sunday we are offered a slightly different image of John. This is a John whose job is witnessing, pointing to another – Jesus; and he is quite clear in his own identity. Repeatedly he declares “I am not, I am not, I am not.”
It is made clear for us the reader in the first part of the reading: “He came as a witness to testify concerning the light…he himself was not the light…he came only as a witness.” And in his own words, we hear his various denials – I am not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not the prophet. How interesting to hear these phrases in John’s Gospel when all so often Jesus describes himself with the many “I am” statements. “I am the gate; I am the way; I am the good shepherd; I am the way; I am the truth; I am the light.” John is not, while Jesus declares “I am.” This is John’s role, to be the pointer, the be the testifier. To humble himself so that Christ may be known. He came so that through him all might believe; Not so that all might be saved – the salvation part is Jesus’ job; the witnessing about the savior, that is John’s job. And I wonder that it is our job as well.
We are witnesses, testifying to the light in whom we rely for our salvation. Now, I know that those words “testify” & “witness,” they have some negative connotations in the modern day, and in particular our faith tradition. We get uneasy with the idea of going door to door, or holding up signs down town, or passing out tracts at the mall. And I would say – you’re right! I’m pretty uncomfortable with this two, because folks call it witnessing, but it is not witnessing in the true sense of the word. I remember on a rather long bus ride, a stranger handed me one such tract, she didn’t speak a word to me the whole time, just hoping I would read it and not bother her. I didn’t read the tract, and I can’t tell you what it said – that’s how effective it was.
No, I think we have forgotten what it means to be a witness. Take that word literally. Have any of you been a witness – perhaps of a crime, or a joyous occasion like the witness at a wedding. I was a witness once, in a formal way. I was walking down the street one day and saw a car pulling out of the driveway ever so cautiously looking both ways, easing out easing out – and then bang! that unmistakeable sound of metal on metal, he hit someone who was flying way too fast down the road. After stoping to make sure everyone was alright, they exchanged information, and they asked for my name and number as a witness. A few days later I received a phone call from the insurance agent asking about what happened that day, and I retold the story; he asked some clarifying questions, and I tried my best to be accurate. I told the story. That is what it means to be a witness. When we talk about Christian witnessing, we are talking about sharing our faith story. Tell me about a time you experienced the presence of God. Tell me about when you were baptized (if you can remember it), or the first time you witnessed a baptism. Tell me about how you have experienced Christ in your life this week. This is what it means to be a witness – telling the story of Christ, of how he is alive and in our midst.
John the Baptist is our example. He is not in it for the followers, for the fame, or for the fortune. He is in it so that others will one day also testify to the light because they know the light of Christ. I find myself a bit hesitant of the popular saying WWJD – What Would Jesus Do, as if to reduce the savior of the world, the very son of God to some sort of wise sage that we should emulate. We will never be able to do what Jesus did – that is, die for sins; that’s already covered. We are only witnesses to that light. We are not that light. At its best, the church is a place were witnesses to the light gather together to continue to tell the story in worship – song, word, and table. Where we are recharged, where we hear the story afresh so that we can take it with us into the world; into our homes, work, and the various spears of our life to tell our faith stories of how Christ is part of our lives, so that others too may testify to that light.
We are not the light, but let us testify to the light of Christ as we await his coming.
December 4, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent
Mark 1:1-8 “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah.” Yes, the beginning is a very good place to start, especially in Advent, and Mark just dives right in there: “The Good News about Jesus Christ, Son of God.” But this isn’t the familiar beginning of the story we remember is it? Where are the wise men, where are the shepherds watching over their flocks by night, the angels we have heard on high, the Star of Bethlehem, The Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, and where is baby Jesus!? Mark begins his Gospel about Jesus with writings from the Prophets Malachi and Isaiah (though Isaiah is the only one named), and of the proclamation of John the Baptist.
Have you ever looked at the beginnings of the other Gospels? Each evangelist has their own way of beginning their Gospel, but there are considerable similarities too. Luke explains the purpose of his writing: Lots of people have been talking about this Jesus, and I want to tell you too. Luke begins with a birth story, John the Baptist’s birth story.
Matthew starts off with a genealogy of Jesus. You may know them as the “begats.” Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat Judah…and so on. You may think to yourself “O! How dreadfully boring.” But there is some deep meaning when you look at it closely. Jesus being traced back to Abraham, through the royal lines of King David, each step along the begats another story; and each one pointing to the work of God even before our moment in the Bethlehem manger 2,000 years ago. And there is the Gospel of John which goes even further back, to the cosmic beginning, echoing the beginning of the book of Genesis: In *the* beginning. What does it mean to declare “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” And then have a look back at the prophets?; the prophets both long ago and John who is in the midst of Christ Jesus?
I believe it is an indication that God has been at work for a very long time. He has been at work in the Prophets Isaiah and Malachi, in John the Baptist, in Abraham through whom he borne his chosen people; in fact he has been at work since the very beginning of time to enact his Gospel in the world. The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah. We continue to proclaim God’s saving work in this day and age. What we read here is the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ.
We hear that word, Good-News or Gospel and may automatically think of the four written books Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the Gospels we call them. We hear the word Good-News and may first think that it means story. That the Good News of Jesus Christ means the stories that tell us about the life of Jesus, particularly this time of year his birth story – manger, mary, angels, shepherd, etc. But Good News is not about the story itself, it is about the proclamation. That word for Good-News shows up in the Old Testament as well. It was often associated with the news of a military victory: Good-News, we have defeated the enemy! Or some event in the royal family like the birth of an heir: Good-News the king had a son. But it is not the news itself that is the good news, it is the proclaiming of it, the act of sharing it; good news means proclamation.
God, with a word, caused all of creation to come into being, and likewise he sent prophets, and his only Son to declare his good news: “The kingdom of God is near.” And the proclamation made it so, the preaching of it, the sharing of it, it is in these acts that the Good-News has it’s power. It is what Jesus does – proclaim the Good-News that God has come near, that he is in our midst. The act of proclaiming it makes it so. The act of receiving that Good-News proclamation is what makes us disciples of Christ.
John the Baptist is our model: Proclaiming the one who is greater than we are; pointing not to ourselves but to Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.
We are both receivers of the Good News and Proclaimers of the Good News, especially in this Adventen season, which is an in between kind of time – of looking back and looking ahead. I want to encourage you, in these weeks leading up Christmas Sunday; I want to encourage you to consider the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah in your life. How did you first receive it? Can you think of a time when you really “got it” when you really understood this Good News proclamation that God is near, and what that means for your life? And then consider how that Good News Proclamation made its way to you. It was shared with you. Perhaps by a friend, a parent, a Sunday school teacher – they proclaimed it to you: God is near! That moment when you received it, that was the beginning of the Good-News for you, but looking back at all those who carried on the story before you – God was at work there; and hearing the Christmas story of old this day we may see that God has been at work for a very long time all for the purpose of proclaiming to us the Christmas message: “I am near.”
He did so through the person of Jesus Christ, and we, his disciples continue to tell the story. We continue to tell the story here at the church on the mountain at the county line, at our dinner tables, and in our lives with those we meet.
Proclaim the Good-News, and receive the Good-News as we prepare for Christmas.