Sermon Matthew 2:1-12 “Three Men and a Baby” January 4, 2015

It could be said, and should be admitted, I’ve preached on this scripture text every year since I first took on the role of pastor in a church. Counting back, we’re talking five churches and some 27 Epiphany Sunday services. On a few of those occasions, the service actually fell on the traditional 12th day after Christ was born but, this year we’re two days short. No matter. The journey and visit of the wise men is certainly worth repeating.

There’s a lot to be said here and lots has been said, some of which rests on tradition and legend rather than fact and a truth based on actual events. We take liberties with the story, don’t we? For example, there’s never a mention of three wise men just three gifts – Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. We assume the ones carrying those gifts equal the number of gifts offered. And there’s no meeting up of wise men and baby Jesus in a stable; just a brief word, which lets us know the place where the wise men do find Jesus…now described as a child and not an infant takes place in a house and not a stable. Herod is still very much in the picture, still trying to terrorize and control a situation in which the true power lies in a divinity and faith Herod has long since abandoned.

So, in our reading, we find clues about these wise ones, described more appropriately as Magi…not makers of magic but Babylonian astrologers…learned students of the stars. They are, at least in regard to their own knowledge and expertise wise but decidedly clueless over the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and its implications for a major power struggle between Herod, a corrupt puppet power and wanna-be king and the true power of the divine One, the very one who placed those glorious stars in the sky at the very beginning of creation. Initially, they become players in Herod’s scheme to destroy Jesus. They make a promise to return to Herod with news of their journey to find for the Christ child. Fortunately, the return to Herod is derailed. They are warned of Herod’s intentions and urged to return home by another way.

We get caught up a bit when we hear of the extravagant gifts brought to Jesus…gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. They are indeed priceless gifts and yet gifts far less valuable than the true gift offered by the wise men…their very presence. They came from a long distance to pay homage to an unknown child of a foreign nation and faith following the urging of a divine whisper hidden the movements of the stars and planets. What they found in their hearts was of far more value than what they carried in their hands. As it should be.

There’s a wonderful story entitled A Camel on the Roof.[1] It concerns a king of what would now be northern Afghanistan whose name was Ebrahim ibn Adam. Now Ebrahim was wealthy in material goods but what he wanted was to be spiritually wealthy too. “One night the king was roused from sleep by a fearful stumping on the roof above his bed. Alarmed, he shouted: ‘Who’s there?’

‘A friend,’ came the reply from the roof. ‘I’ve lost my camel.’ Perturbed by such stupidity, Ebrahim screamed: ‘You fool! Are you looking for a camel on the roof?’

‘You fool!’ the voice from the roof answered. ‘Are you looking for God in silk clothing, and lying on a golden bed?’”

Well, these words filled the king with such terror that he arose from his sleep to become a most remarkable saint. So here’s a story, which reminds us to that the magi didn’t idly read their stars and wonder about the possibilities. That took action. They planned their trip, loaded their camels with supplies, packed what food and needs they might have to make their journey and they stepped out…in faith…to follow a distant star and an ancient promise.

As we too must do. Following the promise of faith and hope, seeking a relationship with divine reality and carrying more than what we can hold in our hands but most importantly, what we have in our hearts – a desire to make a connection and see God incarnate. Emmanuel…God with us. Amen.

 

[1] Homiletics, January 6, 1991 a commentary on the scripture Matthew 2:1-12, p. 1

Sermon Matthew 2:13-23 “Fleeing to Egypt” December 28, 2014

this morning’s reading from the gospel of Matthew, Joseph is warned of Herod’s wrath in a dream and flees, with his young family, to Egypt. Now, there is no doubt that Egypt has played a significant part throughout Biblical history. It was in Egypt that the Israelites were enslaved and from Egypt that God called them to embark on the great Exodus, the pivotal moment in Jewish history. It was also in Egypt that Moses, whom God would use to deliver the nation Israel from Pharaoh’s rule, was as a babe himself rescued from the river Nile. The significance for Matthew, therefore, can’t be minimized.

Matthew, unlike the other gospel writers, wants his audience to understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecy. As he builds the story of Jesus’ early days, Matthew expends great effort to make and remake the connection between Hebrew scripture and the new covenant reality. Christ is the Messiah – the One whom prophets of old predicted would come and rescue the people Israel. Jesus Christ is the Savior. Christ is “Emmanuel” “God with us”, the Son of David, the one that predicted in Isaiah and described as “Wonderful, Counselor, the Prince of Peace.” Matthew makes all these connections.

Herod, on the other hand, was what many of us might call a traitor. He was Jewish by birth yet through extortion and oppression managed to profit, and rather nicely, at the expense of his fellow countrymen. He had managed to weasel a powerful position out of the Roman government. Of course, in reality he was but a puppet king. He did the dirty bidding of the Romans. He was held in low esteem by his countrymen, hardly, a Jew at all, just a Roman dupe selling out his people to feather his own nest. Frankly, Herod had a pretty good deal going.

So, it is no wonder that Herod took the news of a Jewish king born in a backwater corner of the kingdom as less than good news. And his reaction is swift and nasty. When the three wise men did not return with the location of the birth of Jesus, Herod called for a great holocaust. He demanded the life of every baby boy under the age of two born to mothers in and around Bethlehem. In a dream, we are told; Joseph is led to flee with his family to Egypt and not to return until Herod is dead and gone. All this happens, as Matthew interprets it, to fulfill the prophecies of old and to ensure that those hearing the story will understand that Jesus is the one who is to come, their Messiah, the savior of the nation Israel.

When we hear the Christmas story we are usually so intrigued with the bliss of a baby, a mother, a father, shepherds, kings, angels all the elements of Christmas that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, that we miss the not so pleasant parts of the tale. We miss the pain of all those other mothers and fathers whose children were ripped from their arms and killed to protect the power and greed of an evil Herod. It isn’t a nice piece of the story. It isn’t really what we want to hear in this season. In order to protect one infant, many died. One day this rescued child will, by his life, be life to untold numbers of men, women and children.

Out of all that pain, something good happened, but the cost is immense. Though we don’t want to admit it Christmas, our Christmases can be somewhat bittersweet and costly too. Christmas isn’t always gingerbread and twinkling lights, at least not for every one, and for most of us, not all the time. Christmas has the power to bring out the best in us but it also brings out some of the worst in us. Memories we push down all year long come tumbling out like overstuffed presents when the box cover is lifted. All those family disagreements we try to ignore or deny the rest of the year seem to have a life of their own during the holiday season. We remember those we love and have lost, those memories roar back with a vengeance no matter how long that person has been gone from us. Arguments that broke the family into pieces, in years past, well, they come back to haunt us. The divorces that took place many years ago have ways of seeming so fresh and newly painful as though we were just now experiencing them. We all feel like Christmas should be a vision of sugar plums and sweet dreams, family gatherings and warm, good wishes and those things do happen, but not to everyone and, for most of us, not necessarily every year.

Every one of us, every individual, every family has memories that are triggered by Christmas good wishes. They are our memories that run like tapes in our heads to the strains of “Silent Night” reminding us of what this Christmas is and what it’s not. Human beings live real lives and sometimes life is just plain painful. Just because everything around us tells us that we should be experiencing great joy doesn’t mean that we can put our very real lives on hold and make that joy happen. Joy is usually more illusive than that and a true gift when we experience it. The Christmas story is a story of joy but it is also a story of sorrow. It does hold expectation for those who hear it and live it but there is a measure of anxiety. Hope and despair mingle indiscriminately and much like our stories, there is a bit of everything that defines us as human. Christ’s story is very human too.

Whether we like it or not, this morning’s story of flight and fear, of the death of innocent babies is part of Christmas too. Just like our stories – a bit of pain and loss, life and death, gains and pains, strained family relationships and a desire for healing, those who are with us and those who have left us, all our difficulties with past relationships and events, it all shoulders its way into our present circumstances — this is a story that is our story too. Mary and Joseph fleeing, Herod ordering the baby boys under two killed, the mothers and fathers of those children wondering how and why this huge calamity had struck them, all this is part of the story we remember today and hopefully throughout the year, because there is a word of hope here that we can not afford to lose. Christ came into this word to experience, share and ultimately shoulder our pain. That is the Christmas story – the life of one individual who lifted the pain of human existence up with him on a cross and assumed the brokenness in his own body out of love for God’s creation, out of love for us. We are human as Christ was human and it is into this mix of joy and sorrow that Christ comes as one of us to share our need, our hope, our fear, our desire, and our broken-ness. Christ came to experience it all, just as we experience it all and to offer us hope that even in the midst of our need, God is present, real, and available to us.

If Christmas were just a Hallmark card, all sweetness and light, we wouldn’t need the fulfillment of God in the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. We wouldn’t need a Savior. Because Christmas and all the life it encompasses is not just merry or misery but some of both, we do need Christ the Savior to deliver us from ourselves to the best part of who we are called to be. If that were not so, if we couldn’t believe in our need for Christ the Savior, then life would be without meaning or message. Christ is our good news, the good news that though we may not always be happy in this world we can always find joy. Christ came to us to give us abundant life with all the wonderful, complex mix of relationships and feelings that make life worth living. Christ is the ultimate gift – a gift for every season, for every circumstance, for every one of us. Amen.

 

Sermon Isaiah 40:1-11 “Peace Amidst the Stress” December 7, 2014

Growing up in the fifties was exciting. Christmas may have been a frenzied time of shopping for gifts and putting on family dinners for my Mom, Dad and Grandparents but as kids, my brother and I had only one job to do. Be good so Santa would come and give us our gifts. We achieved this one task with varying degrees of success.

The Fifties were an exciting time. The country was fresh from a successful war, poverty was on the decline, industry and technology were rapidly changing the way we saw and did things. New products were hitting the marketplace, creating both the means to ease our labors and, at the same time, producing more jobs, better pay, and new problems requiring new solutions.

Having assumed the task of the world’s savior, the United States was moving ahead in all areas of life. We were taking our role seriously, setting up military bases worldwide, strengthening our military arsenal, always on alert in the event of another conflict. But we were also helping to create new markets around the world, producing products that everyone wanted and that we were busily making. Patriotism was at an all time high. Even with the shadow of Communism and the Cold War hovering close, it was still a good time to be an American.

During these glory days, the American culture formed a sort of informal and somewhat, understated alliance with the Jewish-Christian tradition. The culture supported many of the practices and values of the church, and the church, in turn, reciprocated. For most of our families being a church member was a significant part of being an American citizen. Attending church weekly, as a family, was as American as Mom and apple pie, flag waving and the Fourth of July, or John Philip Sousa and baseball. In a variety of ways, our government supported churches in this production of good citizens, by giving them tax-exempt status, codifying laws that eliminated or reduced the purchase and consumption of certain products, namely beer, wine and liquor, and holding firm on Sunday as the day of rest, in which no business was to be conducted. Good Christians were good citizens and good citizens created a strong, vital and productive country.

But this alliance between the church and the culture caused unseen and often unrecognized problems for the church. The church identified so closely with the values of American society, it was not able to effectively point out the disparity between those secular values that were counter to its own basic, genuine Christian beliefs and values. So, as a result the church often fell short of its role in redefining the culture from a Christian position. Therefore it undersold itself, weakening its own message of hope and good news. What was to be a voice crying out in this wilderness of secular attitudes and thought became instead a voice, which mingled far too cozily with the voices of the society around it. Because it often accommodated its message and life to the culture, the church lost its distinctive identity. It failed to be a strong prophetic witness to the world and Christians were guilty of perpetuating injustice rather than condemning it. The possibility of peace became instead an avenue leading to distress and unrest.

It’s clear now that the church in America, those mainline denominations, such as ours, have lost favored status. We no longer have the protection of the government in the same way as we once had. The so-called blue laws that kept some products off the shelves and kept most stores closed on Sundays have largely been lifted. Even our tax-exempt status is being threatened and may, in some future year, be eliminated. Church membership is down. Church attendance in so many churches runs at about 1/3 or less of the total numbers of people reported as members. Numerous new churches that have literally sprung up from nowhere threaten us both by their increasing number of members and their theology and worship style.

We live in a very diverse culture, with many ethnic groups and religious backgrounds. It’s now a fact, that in the United States, there are as many Muslims as there are Episcopalians, perhaps more. Those of us in established churches, churches that can trace their life and history back hundreds of years, as we who are United Methodist can, may feel like we are exiles in our own country, estranged from this new cultural setting. We are finding it difficult to accept our less favored status. So we try to recapture what once was. We complain to the schools that schedule football, hockey, baseball or basketball games on Sundays telling them their Sunday games are disrupting family life, preventing families from attending church together and pulling the fiber of our very national identity into shreds. We complained to our politicians or just grumbled under our breath when stores were allowed to open on Sundays. And we long for the days when the church was allowed to have an impact in the schools, when the pledge to allegiance and prayer began each day. Those were the days, we think, when peace reigned and right was not determined by the culture but by the Universal Church.

So, today, we read this scripture passage from Isaiah and we are soothed by the words, “Comfort, Comfort my People says the Lord” because we pray it will be so. We cling to a remembered past or to the one we wish we had lived, a past we remember now, whether it is true or not as one of reassurance where peace reigned in our hearts and in our daily lives. In the midst of our stressful times, we embrace these hope-filled words. We are a people who once again feel exiled from this longed for idyllic image of life as it should be. The world has changed and the frenzy we experience daily is multiplied a thousand-fold as we push through the crowd in the mall or race along the over trafficked roads lost in a haze of shopping needs but having truly lost the meaning behind it all.

But, as in Isaiah’s time, there is hope we will remember what we as followers of Christ should remember. We can start by praying for ourselves

and others and for our church to remember what this glorious season of Advent is preparing us for…the holy day of Christmas when the real meaning behind the birth of Christ in our lives is revealed and honored. Though the world around us may have lost the meaning behind the season, we can reclaim what rightfully belongs to us, by showing others how to live this season in such a way that peace and joy, comfort and hope, love and good will are realities to us. They are not just words we sing or say, but realities that we are eager to share. In this wilderness, this world that is hurting and sits in its own darkness, a voice, our many voices will be heard when we dare to ring out as a herald of good tidings, the Word that offers light and life, “Here is your God!” Of whom or what should we fear? As you find a place for your ribbon this week, make sure it is prominent and visible. Let the ribbons of Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, and Christ be constant reminders of beauty and holiness of this season. Then, having claimed the truth, dare to share it and may peace fill your hearts and your homes. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon Luke 21:5-19 “Glimpses of Hope” November 30, 2014

 

The season of Advent seems to always begin in darkness. Our days grow shorter with seemingly less and less light from our sun. Our weather forecasters grimly report two less minutes of daylight each day as the winter solstice approaches. And our worship services include equally grim scripture passages, like this one; yes there is an advent of something new and expectant about to happen…”the arrival of something important or awaited”[1]…the coming of Christ. But, while we hope for the infant Jesus, these recorded words of Jesus Christ, our proclaimed Savior, in Luke’s gospel seem to point to an end rather than to the kind of a new beginning a baby’s birth signals.

Somehow, the holidays…those holy days of Thanksgiving and Christmas raise up within us feelings of conflicting emotions. Happiness and joy trying to push past the losses we’ve experienced through the year; the conflicts in our personal lives with family members erupting over one incident or another all of which can make a dinner table feel more like a battleground. The expectations surrounding the holidays are all around us as we hear them filtered to us through media, store advertisements and our own childish memories of a real or wished for experience of joy. All this comes up against the anguishes of a broken world and the inner brokenness in our own lives.

Luke’s gospel with its words of warning, cautionary expectation and hope move us to see our needs most clearly. We are a country filled with anguish over the ways people treat one another. We are a nation torn apart by fear and unfortunately, lingering and perhaps even increasing prejudice against people of a different color, life style, or faith affiliation. We live in a world battered by endless wars, which seem pointless and petty. We struggle with our anxiety about health threats and the possibility of a pandemic outbreak that can’t be contained by our known medical miracles.

We are a world of the haves and have nots – too often ruled by politicians out for their own gain and self-interest and profit, church leaders who fail us and fail God. And, of course, we struggle with our concerns, concerns we may share but, than again, we might not. Perhaps right now, in this congregation there are some among you facing a loss, battling an illness, warring with a spouse over money, the kids, jobs, and the condition of your marriage. Some may be considering divorce; some have already decided there is no way to repair the relationship, no way to take back the words thrown at one another in anger. An outside these walls, we know there are children and their parents, grandparents, and whole families who are living in extreme conditions without necessary food, clean water, shelter or sanitation. So, where might we find hope?

The New Testament, especially the Gospel narratives promise hope. And they are there in the words we read in Luke’s gospel reading this morning. Christ offers words of hope as he prepares his disciples for the advent of a new age. He begins by describing the many, many new changes, which will come into the world. And, he tells them and thus we, who overhear, there is a promise fulfilled by his life, one that assures them and us that “not a hair of your head will perish.” Certainly, it’s a hard sell for any that live in fear, so Christ tries to help the disciples push past their fear and embrace the hope his very life and ministry has given the world.

From these words and others, we know there are ways to use the suffering we experience to reach a courageous place where hope can survive and live. We have witnessed such courage and such hopeful assurances in our own lives and in the lives of others. When we place our hope in Christ, the gain is our very souls. Heidi Neumark who is a Lutheran pastor writes about her own ministry experiences in the tough Bronx neighborhood in which she served. She says:

“Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent, I am always in sync with the season.

Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my realty. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word anhelo or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha – [Ma-ra-na-tha]! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel![2]

This morning a coin and a card were given to each of you, a reminder of yet another Luke passage. Christ used the image of a lost coin as a way to help us recognize or lost condition. He describes in this wonderful parable the persistent efforts of the owner of the lost coin sweeping up her home, searching in every corner, lighting a lamp to illumine the darkness, all in pursuit of a coin, which in and of itself is small and not worth much except for the value placed upon it by the woman. Very much like God, our lives have value because God has assigned us a value far beyond what we, in and of ourselves, could expect. Yet, God has given us value, has placed in our hearts an unfailing hope in our Savior God. We are found because God never gives up on us. And just as the woman lit her lamp to search for her lost coin, we light a candle…the candle of Hope remembering our very lives are made worthy and of value in God’s ever-present love for us. Through Christ, we are set free. Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! Amen.

[1] Dictionary definition, Word:mac.

[2] Feasting on the Word, Advent Companion, Heidi Neumark, 14.

Sermon Matthew 6:25-33 “Putting Our Worries Away” November 23,2014

At this time of year, we are acutely aware of the need to be grateful, though what we’re grateful about may be as different as we are from one another. We may be grateful for family, for friends, for health, for our homes. We may be grateful for food on the table and people with which to share what we have. Still others may be grateful for nature’s beauty and the wonderful pleasures of life. We may also be grateful for those kindnesses we receive from others, for words spoken with compassion, for opportunities to work together and play together, for caring voices and calming hands.

As Christians, in the area of gratitude what we have learned to be grateful for is due in part to our awareness we might not have all these wonderful blessings without God’s grace and love. Gratitude is closely linked to adversity. We’re grateful to God for the gifts God provides because we recognize that without God’s goodness those gifts would likely be lacking in our lives. So a time to celebrate gratitude like Thanksgiving reminds us of God’s grace in the midst of day-to-day difficulties and life’s uncertainties.

When we think about the story of the early pilgrims we get a fairly good picture of what a challenge life can be. It certainly was for them. Thanksgiving reminds us of them, of their journey and their struggles and how they endured all to settle in a new country so they could restart their lives. The pilgrims understood what it meant to be grateful. They understood that gratitude is closely linked with adversity and with daily difficulties. Here were a people who had survived many hardships: they crossed an ocean to arrive in this very unfamiliar land. They met up with strange and unfamiliar native people who didn’t speak their language and whose patterns of behavior, worship, and work ethic were very different from their own. They saw animals and vegetation not known to them before this journey. In fact, though some were probably accomplished farmers back in England, none of them knew how to grow edible food here. It was all new and it made for a very difficult first year. Many of them died from a lack of food, from disease and from exposure to a climate that was harsh and unfriendly and equally unfamiliar.

Though that first year was a hard one, and they had to struggle constantly just to stay alive, the pilgrims took the time to pause and give thanks to God. God had protected and sustained them on their journey across the ocean. God had watched over them and cared for them throughout those early days in their strange new home.

Sometimes, I think, those who have little give the most and statistics bear this out. Percentage-wise, those who have less in the way of income are often the very ones who give the most to charities. Why would that be? Well, I have a theory and it goes something like this. Those who have less know how it feels to have little but they also know they have something and sharing what they have increases their own sense of self. When we have a little and give some of it away, we simply feel good because we’ve been able to help someone else. I experienced that kind of generosity in Nicaragua and the lessons of giving, gratitude and blessing, which I learned in this very poor country have never left me. I recognized then and, even now, how much growing in the area of giving thanks I needed to do to be more fully what God is asking of me. Like the Pilgrims, everyone needs some help some time and everyone, rich and poor has the capacity to extend such help. Giving and gratitude are equal opportunity blessings. They flow indiscriminately and in both directions.

The words from Matthew could have been written about these early settlers when they arrived in this land, a land they believed God had given them to possess and settle, they trusted in their Heavenly Father to provide for all their needs. God didn’t fail them. Yes, some had died, but many among them lived. They survived the journey and they would survive living in this unfamiliar land. Among those who first arrived, there were more who didn’t have a religion as such but, even these I suspect, saw something in the ones who did hold to a faith that would be inspiring and give them hope for a future blessed by a larger reality than they could imagine. Thanksgiving celebrates the courage and strength of faith, of community. And the strength and faith of those who believed in God helped to ease the worry of an unknown future. Banding together, that same strength and faith in God by some would prove to be a gift to all as it helped the community to face any trial, any difficulty, or any distress.

Matthew recorded Christ’s words so we wouldn’t forget that in every trouble or difficulty in our lives God is present. Many among the first settlers to this land knew these words. They held them in the core of their being. They trusted in the One who had said them. Because they believed and trusted in God, they were able to let go of their fear, their discouragement, even the loss of their loved ones, never an easy thing to do, and to move into their future as they built a nation. And through it all, they took time out to share a meal and to give thanks to their maker. To them, tomorrow was another day with its own set of problems but today, today they would celebrate and praise God. Today and especially on Thursday as we join our families in offering thanks, as we ask God’s blessing on our lives, and as we offer to give what we can to those with little or none, we give thanks and praise to our God, Giver of all that is and all that will be. Amen.

Sermon Matthew 25:14-30 November 16, 2014 “The God We Face is the One We Imagine”

I have to admit when I read what the scripture from Matthew’s gospel was this week, I cringed. Wasn’t it just last Sunday we focused on stewardship and giving? Traditionally, this parable, the parable of the talents is almost exclusively used to bolster giving in a church and to define the use of our gifts, the gifts we’ve received from God. That’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because this scripture isn’t about giving or at least, not in the traditional sense and certainly, though modern church liturgy calls on this scripture for this purpose, its real meaning is much deeper than the narrowly specific topics of stewardship, money, the accumulation of wealth and its use. Simply put, Jesus told this parable for quite another reason, a reason, which centers on another theme entirely.

We have to put the parable in its context. Doing so will help to better define its purpose. So, here it is. Jesus is coming to the end of both his ministry and his life on earth. He’s moving toward Jerusalem fully aware he might pay the penalty of his decision to go to the holy city with his very life. He is very aware his time is short and he has to make these final days with his followers count. When he’s gone, they will be the ones who will carry on in his place, sharing his message and God’s plan and purpose for the world. The stakes are high but Christ is willing to give all he has in order to insure his life’s work will not die with him. So, this parable is the third in a series of four, all pointing to the end time, what Christian theologians have daubed, the Eschaton.

Now, when we hear words like eschaton or eschatology, the study or thought pertaining to the end of time and all creation, as we know it, there may be a variety of emotions or thinking most of which can be quite uncomfortable for us. This would be especially true of churches categorized as mainline, like ours, churches sitting in a fairly liberal area of the country, like New England. That’s not to say we don’t like a good, old fashion movie with a kind of doomsday story line. We must. There’s been a lot of them…Armegeddon, Independence Day, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Matrix, all of the Planet of the Ape movies, Left Behind, Legion and even a few from Disney like Wall-E and Ice Age. In fact, the prospect of the world ending in some explosive, violent and through some unhealthy act or acts on the part of mankind has so peaked the interest of the moviegoer that there are, at present, over 234 and counting films listed on Wikipedia and each film carries the ultimate threat of alienation.

But, for Jesus, “the uncalendared eschaton” as one commentator put it[1] is necessary and inevitable. It completes Christ’s action on earth and our response to those actions in our own lives. The end of time as we know it leads to everlasting time…a time when God’s plan will prove fruitful and fulfilled. So Christ uses this parable to point to a time of both reckoning and reconciliation, a time when we, as God’s servants, will face our master and account for the gifts we have received. How have we used God’s bounty? Have we invested our earthly lives and doubled the gift or have we buried our gain with only one hope in mind…to give back exactly what we have received? This last scenario is the one for which Christ holds the most concern. A life lived without risk, without adventure, or without challenge would be a life without much impact. Christ’s disciples, both then and now, are encouraged to multiply what has been received, to share God’s abundance and to spread God’s word of hope profusely, generously, taking whatever risks are necessary to insure God’s truth and hope will not die or be senselessly buried in the ground of our fears.

And, I think, we would agree: the people we admire the most have lived lives of risk and challenge. We’re inspired by the lives around us of those who take what they receive – the good and the not so good – and make something worthwhile out of it all. They multiply the little they receive and theyproduce great results. I’m reading Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography. Sotomayor is the first Hispanic and third woman appointed to sit on the Supreme Court. What makes her story even more inspiring is the difficulties she faced growing up. Diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes at age 8, having an alcoholic father who died when she was 9 years old, raised in a single parent home, Sotomayor overcame numerous economic and cultural biases to achieve her seat in our nation’s highest court. She tells her story with candor, intimacy, and humor. It’s in the opening pages of her story I found a rather inspiring anecdote when a student asks Sotomayor a question pertaining to the goal of achieving what she has achieved on a court with limited seats. The student asks:

“Given that there are only nine Supreme Court Justices, each with life tenure, can anyone realistically aspire to such a goal? How do we hold on to dreams that, statistically, are almost impossible?” Sotomayor’s response has much to say to us about taking risks, meeting challenges and living a life fully invested in multiplying our impact in our world and for the sake of our faith in Christ. This is what she says referring to her memoir:

“As I tell in these pages, the dream I first followed was to become a judge, which itself seemed far-fetched until it actually happened. The idea of my becoming a Supreme Court Justice – which, indeed, as a goal would inevitably elude the vast majority of aspirants – never occurred to me except as the remotest of fantasies. But experience has taught me that you can not value dreams according to the odds of their coming true. Their real value is in stirring within us the will to aspire. That will, wherever it finally leads, does at least move you forward. And after a time you may recognize that the proper measure of success is not how much you’ve closed the distance to some far-off goal but the quality of what you’ve done today.[2]

Like Sotomayor’s inspiring story, the odds for the success of a shared gospel in the anti-Christian world of Roman power must have felt to the disciples a task well beyond their ability to accomplish. And, it wouldn’t get any easier nor initially inspire confidence in them when in a very short while Christ would be crucified on a cross. The time was short and this parable, like the others Christ told, was Christ’s last efforts before his impending death to challenge and inspire his small band of followers. It would be the quality of their effort, which would secure the success of God’s hope for the world. In their hands and through their efforts…and in our hands and through our efforts…Christ’s ministry and life would come to alter everything that had been. It would color a world very differently than the world in the present age and that is still happening but we now wield the brush. It would point to a new era, a renewed hope, and an everlasting life for those who believe and who creatively and without fear share their faith with others.

So the challenge is there for us. Burying our hopes in the dirt or giving into our fears is not God’s plan for us. If the God we imagine is one who engenders fear in us rather than hope, than likely, our lives will be lived cautiously and without much risk. Like the third servant in our parable this morning, we will be inclined to hide what we have received returning it without interest or growth. Our fears will have guided our actions. The God we face will be for us the one we imagine and it can go either way…leading us to embrace risk and live our lives in joy, truly giving our dreams a chance to take root. This is the only prescription for a life God might judge with generosity rather than a life of emptiness and loss. It is the quality of our efforts by which we will be judged, not the quantity. As we live our lives fully and in the light of God’s divine love for us in Christ, we will have lived out the hope, the purpose, and the promise God has for each of us. Amen.

 

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Mark Douglas, 308.

[2] Sonia Sotomayor, “My Beloved World”, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013 viii.

Sermon 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 “Make a Joyful Noise” Stewardship2014 November 9, 2014

Our November newsletter has a perfect quote by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, which really speaks to our stewardship theme today. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live them.” I suspect Kennedy would have been a fan of St. Francis of Assisi whose own sentiment:  “Preach the gospel; use words when necessary” is a precursor of this belief in a lived faith where our actions do speak louder and more honestly about what we hold to be true and right.

Today we celebrate the gifts we’ve received from God. We celebrate the ways in which we are called to use these gifts and to give thanks for the way in which we express our God-given gifts out in the world. We celebrate all this in order to fully, in Kennedy’s words, “express our gratitude” for this amazing, complicated, engaging, extraordinary, challenging and expressive life with which God has blessed each one of us.

It seems redundant to say “stewardship is not about money”. We’ve heard it before. It’s not about giving away our riches; we’ve heard this before too. Rather stewardship is about giving away our lives and not simply at the proscribed 10% tithing level. Yes, though it may go against the grain, God wants much more than just 10% of what we’ve been blessed to receive. God wants us to give our whole lives, 100% of lives but not measured out in dollars. The measure is more challenging than tucking a dollar into a basket on a Sunday morning or dropping a can of food in our “for the hungry” food pantry box. God measures the level of our giving through the tears of compassion we shed, through the words we speak and the actions we take to the needs around us. God measure our level of giving in our acts of gratitude, in the ways we express love for ourselves and for others. God measures the level of our giving in tender moments of mercy and through strong actions, which express our desire to seek justice for those who are hurt, lost, alone, or in need. God wants all of what we have and why not? What we are in this world, what we own, what we receive in status or power is ours only because we have a gracious, loving God who gives from a heart which loves us and then encourages us to do the same for others.

Paul experienced this level of giving from the Corinthian Church; they gave generously from their means and then, went beyond their means to provide for Paul and his fellow travelers. This generosity so inspired him, he was quick to offer his gratitude and to emulate their efforts in his actions, through his preaching, and by his faith as he traveled to other churches. What they had done for him became both a word of encouragement to his disciples and a word of grateful thanksgiving.

We began this year with some financial struggles and we could have let those deficits define us and our ministry through the year but, we didn’t. Instead, we chose to give not only from our means but, beyond our means. During this year, thus far, our ministries have included two for which we should feel proud. As a church we gathered our resources, gave of our time, energy and finances, invited others to join us and held one of the most successful and worthwhile missions to date. The “Stop Hunger Now” ministry provided 14,000 meals packaged and sent out to the hungry both within and beyond our country. And, now, we follow this success with our Operation You project, paying an act of kindness forward to influence and affect many lives in beneficially ways. We do this as an act of ministry based in the gifts we’ve received and as a living reminder of our quote from Kennedy, the words of  St. Francis and, most importantly, as a way to celebrate gratefully the life and ministry of Christ Jesus. As Christ told his disciples, “When you do this for the least of these, you do it unto me” we are to fully offer our lives in response to the needs of others. Our lives than have meaning and we give them away with the same kind of abandonment and freedom Christ gave his for us.

Each of us has access to God’s grace in our lives. Through such grace we can be supplied all our needs but we must also have faith in the giver. God seeks us out and through example teaches us what it means to be generous. In Christ we recognize God’s love and generosity. We know that Christ was willing to let go of everything, including life itself, for our sakes. It is a powerful example to follow but one, which God gives us by providing us with the necessary means to attain a strong faith. Within each one of us a miracle is waiting to happen.

Many years ago, I received a newsletter from one of our Conference churches in Northern Maine. In the pastor’s column there was an interesting anecdote which seems relevant today as we celebrate and rejoice in the lives and ministries God has given us. So here it is: “At the 1994 North Texas Annual Conference, Bishop Bruce Blake noted the difference between the church as a tunnel and as a cave. A cave is an underground area where one goes in and comes out at the same place. A tunnel, on the other hand, is where one goes in and comes out in a different place.

Bishop Blake then went on to argue that it is important that the church see itself as a tunnel, and not as a cave. If we come out of church at the same place we went in, then something is wrong. The church leads us in the direction of the light; knowing that the light at the end of every tunnel is the light of Christ.” [i]

So here we are. Many of you may believe that you are being invited to make a
commitment, an estimate of giving, to the Rockville United Methodist Church but actually, you are being invited to do much, much more. The invitation being extended to you this morning comes not from the Stewardship and Finance Committee of this church. It does not come from me, your pastor. Rather, the invitation we are being offered today comes solely from God – your God and my God.  God is the only one with the right to ask us to give back what we have received because God is the one who makes it possible for such a gift to be made. God provides the raw materials…the inspiration…the example of generosity and the expectation of like effort from us. We all have choices: we can live our lives as though we are in a cave, going in one opening and out the same opening, never touched or changed or moved to be anything other than what we are right now. Or we can live our lives as though we are moving through a tunnel, always seeking brilliance of Christ’s light and love in our lives. We can be expectant, hopeful, filled with faith, and as generous in our poverty with a generosity reflecting the same generosity Christ shared in his life. No matter what we could give in the way of money it could never fully express our gratitude for the gift of life God
has given us through Christ. But our gifts do make a good faith effort to express the gratitude we feel for the one who loves us into living miracles.

Paul affirmed and encouraged the people in the Corinthian church by reminding them that God welcomes joyful giving. As he points out to them they are excelling in much. He says to them, “Now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we
want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” Those same words encourage us today…to excel in everything for the sake of the one who calls us into life and who claims us throughout life as God’s own beloved children. How could be anything but grateful? How can we do anything less than joyfully sing a new song? How could we live less than a 100%, fully engaged, and forever faithful life of thanksgiving? Amen.

 

 

[i] Bishop Bruce Blake, North Texas Annual Conference, Keynote

address to the 1994 session.

Sermon I John 3:1-3 “A Time to Remember” All SaintsA November 2, 2014

Back in 2005, my cousin Chris and I were touring Italy hitting all the major cities, which, up to this point, had been merely places on a map and scenes from our grandparents’ stories about their homeland. We loved Italy, the grandeur of the churches, the stone paved roads, the olive groves and vineyards. It was all so beautiful.

Though we stayed in rather luxurious accommodations for most of the trip, the place, which held the greatest interest for me was our small, rather quaint room in the town of Assisi with its keyhole window looking out at a roughly paved road in the center of the small town. It had the qualities of a monk’s quarters…very simple with no frills and well suited to the life of the man we know as St. Francis. Assisi is the hometown of this famous and beloved saint. At the end of the long road through the quiet little town is a church dedicated to his life and ministry. He was a simple man, who was known as a patron saint of animals and nature but he was much more.

St. Francis touched many lives both in his own time and he continues to do so in ours. After a tumultuous childhood and youth, having been jailed during a war between Assisi and the neighboring town Perugia, Francis had an awakening. He believed God was calling him to a simpler life and so he gave away all he had, which was considerable since he had been born into wealth. Answering God’s call, Francis began to preach a gospel of peace and compassion. Perhaps one of his most famous quotes is this one: “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.”

The various books purported to be the words of John, a disciple of Jesus talk frequently about the attribute of love and they also remind us, as the scripture this morning from I John, we are children of God. There is more than a hint in these few words we’ve read as today’s scripture indicating we are both God’s children in the here and now and yet, there is more to be revealed to those of us who live the preached word of God. As St. Francis noted, our lives should be a lived response to the love and compassion God has showered on us as his beloved children. We speak words, which express God’s love and compassion but for St. Francis and for John also, words alone are not satisfactory. Our lives should be reflections of what God has done within us. They should reflect what God calls us to do for others while we are here on earth and always in God’s name, for God’s purposes and by God’s grace.

In many ways, I see this reading today as a perfect reminder to us that we are called to be saints in the here and now but more than this, we are assured of our place with God in the hereafter…the life, which follows this one and is eternal and everlasting. One of the key verses in John points directly to this understanding. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (Verse 2) It is an appropriate and pertinent verse to remind us of our place in God’s kingdom and to assure us our loved ones are already reaping the blessings of the resurrection and eternal life. As we come together, a community of faith gathered to worship our loving and compassionate God, we name those important persons in our lives aloud and in our hearts that have by their lives touched us in significant ways. These saints have given us, through their lives and in their passing, a glimpse into the future, our future. Like them, we are called to remember our place as God’s children and with them we give thanks for God’s promise eternal, everlasting and fulfilled. Amen.

 

Sermon Matthew 21:33-46 October 5, 2014 “The In Crowd”

Throughout the year, we have been exploring the gospel of Matthew. Matthew often used Christ’s words to address his audiences – the Jews of the day. At times, we’ve heard very strong words of condemnation and criticism in Matthew, those words often directed at the religious elite – primarily the scribes and the Pharisees. Occasionally, such as now, Matthew’s use of Christ’s words was a strong indictment of the behavior and attitudes of the temple chief priests, the so-called “in crowd”. These were the ones who exhibited highly and overly righteous attitudes whose purpose was directed more toward prestige and status than it was intended to exhibit an attitude of integrity and faith; more show than for substance.

Matthew has an agenda, as do most writers. His is intended to use Christ’s words to convict, conflict, and ultimately, and hopefully, transform the people God had called to be “a light to the nations.” He tells the stories of history but he puts them into a context that is very much contemporary to his day and to the circumstances in which he finds himself.  Now remember! Matthew wrote his gospel some 40 years after Christ died and was resurrected. Speaking, so to speak, after the fact, he wants his listeners to understand what they had rejected so he borrows Christ’s parable of the wicked tenants.

Each of the characters in the parable represents something or someone else. The symbolism isn’t lost on Matthew’s listeners. They get it and when they get it, they get angry. The landowner, of course, is God. The slaves are the prophets of old who bore God’s message to the nation of Israel. The tenants are the Pharisees and chief priests of Matthew’s day. Guess who comes out looking bad in this tale?

A number of years ago, a friend gave me a gift. Rummaging in her purse, she pulled out a piece of concrete and handed it to me. I was a bit confused and said so. She said, “I thought you might like to have a piece of the Berlin Wall.” In 1989, that wall had finally come down as freed East Berliners claimed their independence. With sledgehammers and raw will power they pulled the hated wall to the ground. The piece of concrete I held in my hand was small in size, rough and misshapen on one side, but very smooth on the other side. On the smooth side there were the remnants of some painted images in dull blues and reds.

So, as I held this little piece of history, I was struck by the pain, terror, hope and joy it represented. I didn’t have the whole wall in front of me, but I could see the wall and more importantly, I could feel what the wall meant before it had been broken into pieces, some as small as the one I held in my hand. Because, in my hand, I held 25 years of repression, hatred and evil; the wall had divided a country, a people, and the world. I imagined, as I gazed down on my tiny piece of stone, that mixed with the paint were the drops of blood shed by a people straining to be free. This piece of stone symbolized all the worst humanity had to offer and yet broken, it symbolized all the best in us too and the last word had proved to be stronger than the first.

Christ is the last word. Matthew uses Old Testament language when he puts the words “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” on the lips of Christ. Christ describes himself as that cornerstone, perhaps rejected by the builders but by the Lord’s hand, by God’s determination, this very stone will be the first stone in the foundation of a new faith. In so doing, Christ is described as the one who will and does triumph over evil, over sin and, ultimately, over death.

And so the cornerstone has been laid and today, we sit in this sanctuary worshiping together knowing full well that around the world millions of Christians join us in our worship. With those millions of Christians, we take in the Bread of Life, the Bread of Hope and Freedom and together consume the food that transforms us from broken to whole. Together, with millions of Christians throughout the world, we lift the cup and offer to God the best we have and yes, the worst of what we are, trusting that God can and will take all that we offer and make from it something new, something worthy of God’s reign.

But, as in any human story, there are tragedies. The one we are also aware of today, as we observe World Communion Sunday, is the story of those who cannot worship freely in their countries; stories of those who are persecuted and put to death for their faith. They, too, are with us today.

As we share Communion together today, let our prayer connect us with all the prayers that will be spoken by all the people who will gather together for the sole purpose of worshiping a common Lord. Let our prayers rest on the lives of the many who must speak theirs silently and in fear. Worldwide Communion Day reminds us that Christ is the cornerstone upon which God has laid the great foundation of faith. May God take our brokenness, as God took the broken pieces of a wall in Germany, as God took the broken body of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and transform us into a people, who in God’s sight are redeemed, whole and are forgiven. Then with Christ, for both those who have the freedom to do so and for those who do not, let us together breathe our thanks and speak our joy with the words, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” Amen.

 

 

Sermon Matthew 21:23-32 “The Blame Game” September 28, 2014

I’m an avid fan of the show Seinfeld. The inside joke, of course shared with all of us, is that Seinfeld is a show about nothing. Actually, it’s a show about everything! I always seem to find a Seinfeld illustration in almost every human situation. The one I want to share with you today I think speaks to our gospel lesson from Matthew where Jesus turns the tables on his inquisitors. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  Where do they point a finger without getting into a bit of trouble for their effort?

So, let me set up the scene for you. In this episode of Seinfeld, Kramer has left New York and headed to California. He’s decided he wants to act and so he auditions everywhere for everything. At one audition, he meets an attractive blond; they connect and shortly after, the girl is found dead. “On her person” the detectives assigned to the case find a “head shot”…Hollywood lingo for photo…of Kramer. So, now they believe they have a suspect for the murder and start tracking down the lead. The local news channel picks up the story, shows the viewing audience the photo of Kramer, which is seen by Jerry and George. They too are in California trying to find their friend Kramer. They see the newscast and immediately decide they need to alert the police to the fact that their friend Kramer isn’t capable of murder or at least, they think he isn’t capable. In this scene, they try and find a phone booth so they can call the police.  Let’s watch. [Show clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X11gC_IHJQk ]

So, what does this have to do with our morning’s gospel reading? Just prior to this reading, Matthew records the scene in the temple. Jesus comes into town, goes straight to the sacred temple and angrily flips the tables of the greedy money changers. Now having entered the temple a second time, Jesus is confronted by the alarmed and indignant religious authority…the chief priests and elders. This isn’t a private scene. The townsfolk are around; they are listening and watching. For them, this is a showdown between those who have claimed authority as God’s chosen representatives and Jesus, this outrageous interloper. When asked by what authority Jesus did what he did in the temple, Jesus flips the tables again but this time figuratively, tossing the question back at them. By whose authority did John the Baptist offer his redemptive anointing of water…by heaven’s or through human authority?

It’s a brilliant strategy, which redirects the pointing finger back on to the chief priests and elders. The accusers become the accused. Wanting to put Jesus on the spot; they find it is they who are on the spot. How can they answer without incurring the wrath of the common people who admire and respect John and his authority to baptize?

Life and its circumstances never seem as straight up and simple as we might hope. And given the option to accept our responsibility or to lay blame elsewhere, we may find we are, at least, tempted to slide past and let the other guy take the hit.

Jesus because he was human fully understood this very natural tendency. He played the blame card with the authorities so they couldn’t easily display their self-proclaimed authority without facing up to their own uncertainties before God. Just like Jerry and George, faced with the authority of the police, neither wanted to fess up to who made the call and who now would have to explain why the call was made in the first place. Truth, God’s truth isn’t always the easiest to lay claim to especially when our own sense of self protection and place, status, and rights shadow our belief in a higher power. Charles Campbell, Homiletics Professor at Duke University School of Theology puts it this way: “They [that is, the temple religious authorities] are not primarily interested in Jesus’ true identity or in discovering how God would have them respond to Jesus. Rather, they are concerned about maintaining their own privilege and power. They are concerned with keeping the current order intact…[i]

This might ring true for us too. It’s difficult to imagine we might be holding a bit too tightly to past practices and resting comfortably in the kind of sameness that doesn’t seek out change or embrace newness. We shut down the creative energy of the Holy Spirit because it might make us think, act or respond differently than we do now.

At a recent meeting, I heard someone loudly proclaim, “I hate change.” Well, you know, at times, so do I. At that same meeting, I confessed to this flaw in my personality and leadership style. I hear a new idea and rather than immediately see the possibilities I tend to make a quick mental list of all the reasons it can’t work. Now, fortunately, God doesn’t let me stay there. Before very long, I’m revising my list and changing the problems into hopeful and exciting possibilities and that’s fine, but why can’t I go there first?

I have to agree with Campbell again when he says: “As the chief priests and elders in this Sunday’s lection discover, conversations with Jesus are dangerous. The world rarely remains the same at the end of the conversation. The twists and turns and challenges and interruptions come so fast that we are left with our heads spinning and our lives on the line; we end up both confounded and claimed, all at the same time. It is like trying to engage with a jester who is always ‘melting the solidity of the world,’ disrupting all the things that are ‘written in stone,’ so that people, particularly the powerful, may see and live in the world in new ways.[ii]

Yes! That’s what we are called to do…to live in the world in new ways. As Christians, people of faith, this is our new DNA. When we say, ‘Yes Lord, I will follow’ we are called to embrace the new and to let go of the old. The symbolic cleansing of John’s baptism in the river Jordan followed by the cleansing act of redemption on the cross brings us in line with God’s plan and hope. We now have the freedom to let go and let God. When our world doesn’t seem to make much sense, when we don’t really know where we are or how to get where we’re going, there is room for grace. God points the way; God sent us Jesus to walk with us; and God continues to nurture us through the Holy Spirit. Gratefully we worship a God who welcomes sinners and prostitutes, the Jerry’s, Kramer’s, and Georges of the world. God welcomes even the temple priests and elders when they open their hearts and live into the plan God has for them. And, yes, thank God, God welcomes us to with all our issues, flaws and fears opening a way for us to move into a life of hope rather than run from it. What a gift! Amen.

 

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Homiletical Perspective, 119.

[ii] Ibid., 118-119.