“Hide and Seek,” Exodus 33:13-23 and Matthew 11:25-27, July 9, 2017, FPC Holt

“Hide and Seek”
Exodus 33:13-23 and Matthew 11:25-27
July 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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“Peek a boo!” If you’ve spent any time around a young baby, this is a pretty good go-to for entertaining them. Something is there and then it’s not and then it’s there again! Like magic!

Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, tells us that this is because of object permanence, which is a fancy phrase for understanding that objects exist even when we’re not experiencing them. A slightly older exploration of this is hide and seek, the joy coming from the anticipation of when you’ll be found.

Martin Luther and other theologians of his time used their own hide and seek language in relation to God. Deus absconditus, which literally translates to “hidden God.” It’s defined disparagingly to describe God as being so remote that God doesn’t seem to be able to effect any change.

Luther however, couches it in terms of the things that God tells us about God’s own hiddenness in scripture. Luther refers to Exodus 33, which we read today. Moses asks to experience God, but instead sees only God’s backside.

Luther writes, “Like Moses, we are denied a direct knowledge of God. Instead, we see God revealed in the cross, the posteriora Dei (backside of God) revealed in the humility and shame of the cross. What is made visible are the very things that human wisdom regard as the antithesis of deity, such as weakness, foolishness, and humility. To those who are not in faith, this revelation is concealed. God is not empirically discernible to be present in the cross of Christ. Those in faith, however, know that concealed in the humility and shame of the cross are the power and glory of God. His strength is revealed in apparent weakness, His wisdom in apparent folly, and His mercy in apparent wrath.”

While some would define this as God turning away from God’s people, Luther frames it in terms of opposites. Moses, and by extension all of God’s people, experience God in reversed expectations. God who is invisible, becomes visible in Jesus. God who is all powerful shows God’s self in the humility of the cross.

In a similar reversal, our New Testament passage speaks of God being revealed to infants, but not to the wise. While I fully acknowledge the irony of talking about the simplicity of thought in a sermon in which I quote Luther’s use of a Latin phrase, I believe our New Testament passage isn’t calling for ignorance, but for looking for God on the margins, in the unexpected places of humility and meekness.

Where do you expect to see God? God’s glory is indeed revealed in glowing sunsets and rollings hills,  but also in the small dandelion that makes its way through the concrete. God’s omnipresence is revealed in the vast twinkling sky and in the intricacies of a mosquito’s wings.

Might you come to know God better through that person in your life who has hurt you as you are moved from bitterness to empathy? Could God show up not in spite of your pain, but within it, the ways your relationships have been formed in the wake of your greatest loss or deepest suffering?

Columbia Seminary professor, Stanley Saunders wrote, “We are most likely to experience God’s presence and power in the company of the humble and vulnerable, the people who are usually found at the margins… They may be children or strangers, people who are not sure whether or how they fit. They may be poets or artists, who are trained to look at the world differently. Whoever they might be… they will always be people who see what others do not, and thus help the rest of us deal with our blinding arrogance and entitlement. They may be people whose lives challenge the ideals over which we argue and divide.

The empire of heaven, after all, is not an ideal, but a reality made known through real acts and experiences of judgment, repentance, and redemption. The church that banishes the marginal, the vulnerable, and the humiliated does not prevent itself from being subject to the judgment of God; to the contrary, it is precisely through their eyes and voices that we can most clearly discern God’s judgment and mercy, through which our ongoing repentance is made possible. Judgment is a tool God uses to open our eyes and ears, to draw us toward repentance — not to induce brokenness but to uncover and heal what is broken. “

To believe only in God’s philosophical attributes, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, without knowing God’s willingness to enter into our existence, is to know only one side of God. And I’d go so far as to say, not the most compelling aspects of God. God’s love for us as creator and spirit are deepened through God’s love for us as the person of Jesus Christ. God literally put God’s skin in the game of humanity by being born as that helpless baby in Bethlehem.

Can you imagine Mary and Joseph playing peekaboo with their little boy? Even in his infant cries and giggles he was the embodiment of the divine… not very intimidating as deities go! As he grew he played his own game of hide and seek, staying behind his traveling group to remain at the temple. That was a terrifying game of hide and seek for his parents! In a role reversal of those early games of peekaboo, that time they were the ones not sure where he had gone.

But this is how God operates, showing up over and over again, in the most unexpected places. Even when we aren’t directly experiencing God’s presence, God is indeed there, waiting for us to open our eyes again.

How has your sense of God’s permanence been shaped as you’ve grown in faith? Does God disappear from your life, when you aren’t immediately experiencing God?

It’s not unfaithful to feel like God is hidden during a season of our lives. In fact, all throughout scripture God plays hide and seek. Throughout Deuteronomy God hides from the children of Israel in response to their selfish sinfulness. In the book of Job, Job has a whole series of losses and pain that would make anyone question where God had gone. In the Psalms, God’s seeming hiddenness is an undercurrent in all the laments.

It is very human to become frustrated and unsure when we don’t recognize God’s presence in our lives. Recognizing the permanence of God is part of our spiritual development.

One of the tools that helps children in their understanding of object permanence is the use of words. To this end, the accounts of God in scripture are a tremendous resource towards our understanding of God’s permanence.

In the book “Subversive Spirituality,” Eugene Peterson writes, “Words are our primary tools for getting our bearing in a world, most of which we can’t see, most of which we’ll never touch – this large, expanding, mysterious existence that is so much larger, more intricate, more real even, than we are…When I learn the word “God” I am able to deal with a person I cannot see. God uses words to train us in object permanence…. When we discover that God reveals [Godself] by word, we are back in the realm of the sensory again – a word is spoken by a mouth/lips/tongue/throat; it is heard by ears, or n the case of the written word, seen with eyes. But once the word is uttered and hear, or written and read, it enters into us in such a way that it transcends the sensory. A word is (or can be) a revelation from one interior to another. What is inside me can get inside you – the word does it. Which is why language is the major bridge from basic biology to basic spiritually.

And why Christian spirituality insists on listening.

By God’s grace, God’s Word is also written. And that makes Holy Scripture the text for Christian spirituality. Holy Scripture is the listening post for listening to God’s Word.”

As we grow in our faith we are like children learning object permanence, delighting when we sense God once again. After all, God promises never to leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), and that if we search for God, God will be found. (Jeremiah 29:13-14) Thanks be to God. Amen!

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(Un)predictable, Matthew 24:36-44, November 27, 2016, FPC Holt

(Un)predictable
Matthew 24:36-44
November 27, 2016, FPC Holt

2016-11-27-slide-1-calendarThink of some of the most life changing days of your life. So many of these days we can’t see coming: when you were downsized from the job where you’d worked for many years; when you happened to be in just the place at just the right time and met your significant other; when you wake up in the morning to find your beloved pet isn’t acting quite right and then suddenly you have to say goodbye; when you found out that you were expecting a baby;  or the moment you received the call with a frightening medical diagnosis. Times when, for better or for worse, your life is suddenly altered, your daily patterns are askew and you move forward in a different direction than you predicted.

That is the type of occurrence that we read about in our scripture today. It describes how everyone is simply going about their day, eating, drinking, marrying, planting, cooking, and then all of a sudden God incarnate shows up and shakes up everything.

2016-11-27-slide-2-noahFirst Jesus references Noah and the flood. A terrible and frightening occurrence, that has some surprisingly cheery depictions in some children’s curriculums. What about the other animals? What about the other people? It’s a grim tale of God’s creation being swept away in God’s wrath. And yet, in those paired off animals and rainbowed sky, we are given the hope that this is the worst there is and will ever be.

2016-11-27-slide-3-cross The second account in this passage is that of the coming of the messiah, a new way to save the world from the blight of sin. This time God doesn’t erase that which God has created, but rather erases that which separates the people from God: the pain of sin and death. They’d likely heard the story of Noah and knew how frightening that all turned out, but the coming of the Messiah was an unknown.

2016-11-27-slide-4-awaitingBack in this time they had no sort of Advent calendar counting down the days to Christ’s birth and we can be quite certain that Mary wasn’t given a due date. What they do have are instructions to “keep awake.” A call for vigilance was all they received for an itinerary, with what may seem like dismissive direction they are told to go about their business, and to do some knowing that at any moment God’s presence will be among them and the reign of heaven will come to earth.

2016-11-27-slide-5-jesus-preachingThese were a people who’d heard the prophecies of a messiah coming to bring salvation for humankind, so these stories Jesus was telling weren’t news exactly, but more of a clarification of how things were to come about. What they didn’t understand was that God’s own presence was before them: the God, “who is, who was, and who is to come.” And yet, God’s incarnate self in Jesus wasn’t just letting them off the hook because he had arrived. God’s realm continues to be revealed, as God’s people seek for God’s kingdom to come and will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

There’s a huge difference between knowing that something is coming and knowing when. Even many of the anticipated events in our lives don’t come with a known time and date.

2016-11-27-slide-6-pregnancyMany of you know the sort of anticipatory energy I had for an event that happened in my life four months ago to this very day. For nine months previous I had been living in both fearful and joyful anticipation of my dear son Calvin’s birth. At the end there it was truly such a strange season: I felt a bit like a ticking time bomb. I knew that at any moment Calvin would come into the world and shake everything up. It made it tricky, to say the least, to plan our preaching schedule, let alone buy too many groceries for fear that Calvin’s birth would prevent me from preaching or allow our food to spoil. People would tell us, “your life is about to radically change,” and I would respond, “I sure hope so!” I knew he was coming, and that pregnancy wouldn’t last forever, but when he was nine days overdue it did become hard to believe that was the case.

2016-11-27-slide-7-martha-and-kathleenAnother event happened in my life recently that I also knew was coming, but in a much more general sense. Friday, September 16th I received a message from my mother: My beloved Grandma Martha had had a stroke and the prognosis did not look good. I knew on a base level that she would not live forever. No one does. But she was such a presence in my life, and the lives of those around her, that it seemed impossible to imagine her gone. Upon receiving the news we got in the car and drove straight to Toledo to be with her. 2016-11-27-slide-8-martha-handThough she was only occasionally responsive, I held her hand and told her many of my memories with her, family vacations every summer at Higgin’s Lake, the road trips the two of us had, our bi-weekly phone calls on my commutes to or from church. And then just a few days later, she was gone.

2016-11-27-slide-9-no-regretsIn both life and in death, we want to live without regret, doing all we can for the safety and well being of not only ourselves, but those around us. This very desire is what keeps insurance companies and estate lawyers in business.

2016-11-27-slide-10-missionKnowing that something is coming doesn’t mean we’re prepared for it. We prepare for our predictions, what we think will happen, for the direction we anticipate our lives taking, but ultimately we are not the ones in control, God is. But knowing that God is in control and even surrendering our own will and praying for God’s will to be done doesn’t mean we lose agency or responsibility. We are called to work as we wait.

2016-11-27-slide-11-searching There’s a song that came to mind when I read this text, called “True Love Will Find You in the End.” The words go: “True love will find you in the end This is a promise with a catch Only if you’re looking can it find you ‘Cause true love is searching too But how can it recognize you Unless you step out into the light? Don’t be sad I know you will But don’t give up until True love finds you in the end.”

For me this song speaks to the paradox faced when anticipating something, both patiently waiting and anxiously working towards transformative love.

2016-11-27-slide-11-manger We are called to wait for Christ’s coming, but it is not a passive act. While we wait, we work. We eat. We drink. We marry. We plant. We cook. Knowing that God’s reign is coming doesn’t preclude us from seeking to make God’s kingdom manifest while on earth. This Advent Season may we live in this tension: ever waiting for and working towards God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.

“In the Wilderness”; Luke 4:1-13; February 14, 2016, FPC Holt

“In the Wilderness”
Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2016 2 14 SLIDE 1 - LostThink of a time in your life when you felt lost. That will look like different things to everyone of you. Perhaps it was being separated from your parent or from your child in the grocery store, that panic of not knowing where they’d gone. Maybe it was shortly after getting your driver’s license, or coming back to a place you hadn’t been in a long time,  and where you thought you were is not where you are. Maybe it was following the loss of a loved one, when all the dependable patterns of your life seemed to disappear, and you weren’t really sure where to go from there. Perhaps it was in a season of mental or physical illness, when your body or mind were betraying how you were used to looking at the world, redefining what it was you could do, how it was you could go on.

When we are feeling lost, our fear, panic, and isolation transform wherever we are into a wilderness, an unknown place where we are laid bare.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 2 - WildernessPastor and professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.  No food.  No earthly power.  No special protection–just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”

2016 2 14 SLIDE 3 - Jesus WildernessI remember one of the first times I read this passage and I did a bit of a double take when I heard how Jesus got into this wilderness predicament. Did you catch it?

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

He wasn’t there by some accident or some trick, Jesus was in the wilderness because the spirit led him there. But he is not left alone. In both Matthew and Mark’s account of this Jesus’ wilderness time, scripture says that angels waited on Jesus, and were there for him when he emerged from the wilderness.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 4 - Hand UpSo what does this mean for us? It means that God does not leave us in our wildernesses, but that the Holy Spirit accompanies us, strengthening us with the knowledge and the hope to get us through. Perhaps in those times when we thought we were the most alone, we were indeed surrounded by angels.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 5 - Jenny LawsonI recently read Jenny Lawson’s book, “Furiously Happy.” In it she speaks extensively about her struggles with mental illness and how her vulnerability has enabled her to connect with and help so many.  She writes this to the readers of her blog, “When I came out so many years ago about my depression and anxiety disorder I was afraid you’d all run away screaming. But you didn’t. Instead, thousands of you said 2016 2 14 SLIDE 6 - Me too‘Me too,’ and ‘I thought I was the only one,’ and ‘It’s not just me?’ You gave me the strength to be honest about my flaws and the support to realize that I was more than the broken parts that make up me. And you did something else you might not even realize…

In the years since I started writing about mental illness I’ve received so many letters from people who were affected by this community, but there were special ones I kept in a folder that I named 2016 2 14 SLIDE 7 - Folder of 24“‘The Folder of 24.’ – It was called that because it contained 24 letters from people who were actively planning their suicide, but decided to get help instead. And not because of what I said…they did it because of you. Almost every single one explained that what convinced them that depression was lying to them was the amazing response to my posts. They could look at a single person like me and think it was still a rare illness or something to be ashamed about…but when thousands of strangers shout out into the darkness that they are there too, it makes ripples. And those anonymous strangers saved lives without even knowing it. If you ever left a comment or a kind word you may have been the cause of someone’s mother or daughter or son being alive. Being thankful to be alive.

When I was on tour with my last book I’d sometimes talk about the Folder of 24 and how that folder is the best reason I’ll ever have for writing. And then something strange happened.  After a reading people would lean in close and whisper ‘I was 25.’’’

Jenny Lawson’s wilderness of depression and anxiety was wilderness because of how isolated she felt within it and when she allowed herself to be vulnerable enough to let others into the pain she was experiencing, she felt their “me too”s surrounding her, helping to lessen not only her pain, but also their own. In bringing her story to the light she brought others into the light alongside her.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 9 - EmpathyI believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming wilderness into community, vulnerability into hope, through the empathy of others. Being the beloved community together requires us to be a people of vulnerability, honestly allowing others into the fractured part of our lives, but being in community means that’s not the end of it. A gift of vulnerability offered by another requires response, and it is important what that response will be. If our response is one of judgement or discomfort it can widen our wildernesses and increase our isolation. Vulnerability is an invitation to extend our own “me too”s. Not that we should ever pretend to know the complexities of the hurt of another, but that vulnerability should be met with our own vulnerability, extending empathy rather than sympathy, so that we may meet people in their wilderness and journey alongside them.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 10 - God With UsThis empathetic response is part of the very fiber of our Christian story. Our God is a God with us, a God of “me too”s, not keeping at a distance in our wilderness, but walking through the dark valleys with us. When we kept God at a distance through our sin, God sent Jesus to become one of us to truly empathize with the human experience. When he was on earth he didn’t avoid the wildernesses of this world, but entered right into them, extending a hand to lepers, befriending prostitutes, sharing wells with Samaritans, and going toe to toe with the devil itself. He could have rightly claimed his place as a king among kings, but instead chose to be a human among humanity.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 11 - CrucifixionAnd in the ultimate act of vulnerability Jesus met the brokenness and pain of Judas, Pilate, and throngs of the disenchanted with his willing innocence. He met the brokenness and sins of this world with his very life. In the pain of his death our pain is met, matched, and healed.

Through his life Jesus taught us to be a people of “me too”, to meet people in their wilderness, not as one looking from the outside, but from one in the midst. May we be emboldened by this witness to be vulnerable with our lives and empathetic with our love, ever striving to be God’s beloved community. Amen.

Three Wise Women: A Service of Lessons and Carols

This service of lessons and carols is based on the wider narratives surrounding the Christmas story, encompassing the stories of the Three Wise Women[1], Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna. This service was assembled by Rev. Kathleen Henrion for worship at First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI on December 28, 2014.

All poetry, songs, and scripture belong to the attributed authors and publishers.

Three Wise Women: A Service of Lessons and Carols

Call to Worship: “First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle [2]
Leader: God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.
People: God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
Leader: God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
People: God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait till hearts were pure.
Leader: In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
People: To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.
Leader: God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
People: In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
Leader: We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
People: God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Carol: “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout,” Verses 1 &4 [3]

Prayer of Illumination: Emmanuel, ever-present God, open our ears and our hearts to your presence here among us today. May we come to know you better through the scriptures read, the old and new poems shared, and the feelings evoked in own personal reflections. Amen.

Carol: “For All the Faithful Women,” Verse 1[4]

First Lesson: Luke 1:5-20 NRSV

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ 18Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ 19The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

A Reading: “Zechariah” by Craig Joseph[5]

My silence speaks volumes:
Speaks of hollow reverberations in an empty womb,
Of my beloved’s muffled cries, hopeless, late at night,
Of unbroached topics between man and wife,
Isolated in their grief.

Speaks of a mute God
Who would not stoop to answer
The cacophony of impotent noise made by the righteous,
Striving to keep his commandments.

All this – echoes of despair, lost faith, abandonment.

My silence is God’s silence.

The lack of sound then resounds:
With the rustle of angels’ wings,
The gentle roar of a majestic announcement,
The metallic ring of a sword drawn in anger
Upon a fearful gasp
(An inrush of air
That cloaked a more resounding unbelief:
Faith as barren as a womb).

My silence is God’s answer, disbelieved.

But now I, mute and wildly motioning,
Fill the air with your laughter and endless queries,
Hearing what you cannot be aware of –
That to which divinely-imposed silence has bent my ear:

A distant cry from the beginning of time – from Creation –
Declaring that God will make the hearts of his people fertile again.
Yelled through the prophets (though most were deaf to this meaning),
Hollering through my son (hear that, and do not scoff,
Lest you be considered, Like I,
the town clown),
To announce itself shortly in a Bethlehem stable,
Calling to God’s people in stereo-surround sound.

My silence, alas, is God’s provision
That will not be silent for long.

Hymn: “You are Mine,” Verses 1 & 2[6]

Second Lesson: Luke 1:26-38 NRSV

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’* 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

A Reading: “Liturgy” by Irene Zimmerman[7]
All the way to Elizabeth
and in the months afterward
she wove him, pondering,
“This is my body, my blood!”

Beneath the watching eyes
of donkey, ox, and sheep
she rocked him, crooning,
“This is my body, my blood!”

In the moonless desert flight
and the Egypt-days of his growing,
she nourished him, singing,
“This is my body, my blood!”

Under the blood-smeared cross
she rocked his mangled bones,
remembering him, moaning,
“This is my body, my blood!”

When darkness, stones, and tomb
bloomed to Easter morning,
she ran to him, shouting,
“This is my body, my blood!”

And no one thought to tell her:
“Woman, it is not fitting
for you to say those words.
You don’t resemble him.”

Carol: “On Christmas Night, All Christians Sing,” Verse 4[8]

Third Lesson: Luke 1:39-45 NRSV

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Responsive Affirmation of Faith: Luke 1:46-54 NRSV
Leader: And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
People: and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
Leader: for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
People: Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
Leader: for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
People: and holy is his name.
Leader: His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
People: He has shown strength with his arm;
Leader: he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
People: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
Leader: and lifted up the lowly;
People: he has filled the hungry with good things,
Leader: and sent the rich away empty.
People: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
Leader: according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
People: to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

A Reading: “Visitation” by Mary Southhard[9]
Each woman listens
Each speaks:
Ah! the life within you, within me –
a new revelation:
God’s saving love
impregnates the universe
in woman…
in joy…
Magnificat!
Again today
women tell their
stories to each other –
magnificat!
Listen sisters, listen brothers,
A new outpouring.
This time: resurrection!

Carol: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” Verse 1[10]

Fourth Lesson: Luke 1:57-66 NRSV

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Responsive Affirmation of Faith: Luke 1:67-70 NRSV
Leader: Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
People: for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
Leader: He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
People: as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
Leader: that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
People: Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
Leader: might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
People: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
Leader: to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
People: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
Leader: to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
People: The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

A Reading: “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places” by So Elated[11]
Jerusalem and the holy temple filled with smoke
Zechariah shuns the news from the angel of hope
Stuck behind an incense cloud of religion and disappointment

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Prophets and kings and poets can contribute their work
just like eggs in a nest are alive with the promise of birds
But the Lord of Creation will not be subjected to expectation

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Elizabeth, barren, her knees black and dirty like coal
her consistent prayers float to the sky and revive her soul
God we will wait though we don’t understand your redemptive story

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both our eyes.

Carol: “Blest Be the God of Israel,” Verses 1 & 3[12]

Fifth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7 NRSV

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

A Reading: “A Christmas Carol” by G.K. Chesterton[13]

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all alright.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast
His hair was like a star.
O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” [14]

Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:8-19 NRSV

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

A Reading: “Let the Stable Still Astonish” by Leslie Leyland Fields[15]
Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.

Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: “Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
be born here, in this place.” ?

Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
and says, “Yes, let the God
of Heaven and Earth
be born here —-
in this place.”

Carol: “Away in a Manger” [16]

Seventh Lesson: Luke 2:22-24,36-38 NRSV

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

36 There was…a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child* to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

A Reading: Selections from “Anna” by Mary Lou Sleevi[17]
Exuberantly, Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.

Anna of the free Spirit is no solemn ascetic.
She talks to the baby, as well as about him,
She shoulders him closely, absorbing his softness, his heartbeat, his breathing—
experiencing a Benediction of Years between them.

Once upon his time, she welcomed The Promised One.
“She talked about the child…”
And talk Anna did.
She is more than prophet: she is a grandmother!

Because it is the Christ-child she hugs,
Anna, as prophet, is particularly aware
of the vulnerability of less-awaited children
and parents, who also have dreams.

Anna. Dimming eyes, still forward-looking, crinkle with joy.
Anna is Anticipation.
She is an Image of constancy and change…
the progression of peace and purpose at any stage of life.
Hers is the Holy City.

Carol: “Still, Still, Still” [18]

Prayers of the People

Offering: A Reading from Bernard of Clairvaux who lived from 1090-1153; “You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal love. Caress us with your tiny hands, embrace us with your tiny arms, and pierce our hearts with your soft, sweet cries.”[19]

May we respond to this greatest of offering with our own offerings of our times, talents, and tithes.

Response: “What Child Is This,” Verse 3[20]

Charge and Blessing: “Christmas Poem,” by Jim Strathdee[21]
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the magi and the shepherds
have found their way home,
The work of Christmas begins
to find the lost and lonely one,
to heal the broken soul with love,
to feed the hungry children
with warmth and good food,
to feel the earth below,
the sky above!
to free the prisoner from all chains,
to make the powerful care,
to rebuild the nations with strength of good will,
to see God’s children everywhere!
to bring hope to every task you do,
to dance at a baby’s new birth,
to make music in an old person’s heart,
and sing to the colors of the earth!

Carol: “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” Verse 3


[1] Inspired by Dandi Daley Mackall, Three Wise Women of Christmas (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2006).

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, “A First Coming,” in A Cry Like a Bell, Wheaton Literary Series (Wheaton, Ill.: H. Shaw Publishers, ©1987), 57.

[3] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[4] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[5] Craig Joseph, “Zechariah’s Poem,” Plan A :: it all started in Ethiopia stories from our family of five (blog), December 12, 2009, accessed December 29, 2014, http://planaethiopia.blogspot.com/2009/12/zechariahs-poem.html.

[6] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[7] Julia Ahlers, Rosemary Broughton, and Carl Koch, Womenpsalms (Winona, Minn.: Saint Mary, ©1992).

[8] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[9] Mary Southhard, “Visitation,” in Julia Ahlers, Rosemary Broughton, and Carl Koch, eds., Womenpsalms (Winona, Minn.: St. Mary’s Press, 1992), 10.

[10] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[11] Ben Thomas, Zechariah and the Least Expected Places, So Elated, Ben Thomas B001LJVXNC, CD, 2008.

[12] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[13] “A Christmas Carol” by G.K. Chesterton. Public domain.

[14] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[15] Leslie Leyland Fields, “Let the Stable Still Astonish,” Leslie Leyland Fields (blog), December 2012, accessed December 29, 2014, http://www.leslieleylandfields.com/2012/12/can-stable-still-astonish-and-6.html.

[16] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[17] Mary Lou Sleevi, Sisters and Prophets: Art and Story (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1993).

[18] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[19] Bernarrd of Clairvaux, in The Harper Collins Book of Prayers: A Treasury of Prayers through the Ages, compiled by Robert Van de Weyer (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), 64.

[20] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[21] Jim Strathdee, in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman, 1969, quoted in Ruth C. Duck and Michael G. Bauch, eds., Everflowing Streams: Songs for Worship (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1981), 33.

“Tear Open the Heavens;” Isaiah 64:1-9; November 30, 2014; FPC Holt

“Tear Open the Heavens”
Isaiah 64:1-9
November 30, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Slide01Lloyd Dobler on Diane Court’s front lawn with a boombox above his head. Katniss Everdeen volunteering as tribute when Prim’s name is called at the Disctrict 12 reaping. Slide03The town of Bedford Falls gathering around George Bailey and his family to help him on Christmas Eve.  Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the sewers of Paris to safety. Slide07 Harry Burns running across New York City on New Year’s Eve to recite his declaration of love to Sally Albright. Anna throwing herself in front of Elsa for protection.  An astronaut going on an impossible journey through galaxies for the love of his family.

 

When it comes to movies, we all love a grand gesture, the chance for wrongs to be made right, for good to overcome evil, for love to win. Slide08Some of these scenes even evoke a visceral reaction, no matter how many times we’ve seen them, like the way my aunt always cries at “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and depending on my mood I can pretty choked up over that final scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” I know what’s going to happen, I have confidence that my DVD wouldn’t have somehow added in a new ending, but still in the re-watching I get caught up in the story, in the “will they, won’t they” of it all, and so I feel a tangible sense of relief and joy when it works out just the way I was hoping.

Slide09In our scripture today the prophet Isaiah is calling out for a grand gesture from God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah says. Isaiah has journeyed back from Babylon with the exiled Israelites and comes to find Jerusalem in ruins and the temple destroyed. “Where are you, God?” the people ask. “Surely you have hidden your face from us. O that you would break forth in justice and righteousness so that the mountains would quake, the nations would tremble, and the evildoers would get what they deserve. O that you would make yourself known to us. O that you would rescue us from ourselves.”[1]

Slide10 The Israelites know God’s presence best through the grand gestures of their history. Their family stories include plagues as persuasion for their deliverance, the parting of the Red Sea to stop their enemies, and food falling from heaven when they’re in the wilderness. They know that God is capable of greatness beyond all measure, and so that is the type of presence they request, the grand gesture that will make things right again. They want God’s presence to be manifest among them, to shake up their enemies, and to form their claylike-selves into the people they are meant to be. They are looking for something monumental to happen.

Biblical commentator, Scott Bader-Saye writes, “God’s refusal to replicate a Red Sea-type deliverance does not mean that God has abandoned Israel (or the church). Our hope does not rely on God’s acting today in the same ways God acted in the ancient stories, but it does rely on God’s being the same God yesterday, today, and tomorrow – a God who hears our cries, a God who does not abandon us, a God who will finally redeem all that is lost in a new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17). The tradition of biblical lament does not invoke the past as nostalgia, nor does it dismiss the present in despair; rather, it draws on the collective memories of God’s people as a source of hope for the future.”

Slide11Hope is the way forward out of the wilderness of those times when God seems absent. Hope in the God who has been, is now, and forever will be the potter of our claylike existence, molding us into our full-capacity selves. The Israelites in our passage defer to this potter, this creator God who holds all things in God’s hands, but are not quite sure how God will work it all out.

Slide12And since this passage in our lectionary does fall on the very first Sunday of Advent, we all have an idea where things are headed, right? We sit here as people who have seen this story play out year after year. We know that sweet baby Jesus is going to glide into our world to come and save the day!

But wait a minute, that’s not exactly what the Israelites were looking for. They wanted the mountains to quake and their enemies to tremble. They want the immediate and grand gesture, not a divine rain check for deliverance in the distant future. They want God’s divinity to be present among them unencumbered. Instead, divinity comes in the form of humanity. Jesus comes as both fully divine and fully human.

Slide14Luther Northwestern Professor, Diane Jacobson writes, “The call is not to come as a child, as ‘God with us,’ but to come in power, in theophanic splendor…[they] call on the Lord to come as mountains quake, fires burn, and nations tremble. Here is a God so terrible that a mere glimpse of his visage might cause death. Such is the God for whom we wait.”

They’re waiting for God’s might, God’s power, even in the expectation of God’s wrath. The Israelites accuse God of being hidden from them, but might it be that God is just not revealed in the ways they’re expecting? Slide15You don’t expect the mighty creator of everything to take the form of small baby. You don’t expect the all powerful to be vulnerable and sleeping in a manger.

When we’re expecting God’s grandeur, we can become blind to God’s incarnation. It was no small gesture for God to become embodied, to take on humanity. It is indeed an act of the heavens being torn open that allows God to break into human history. But it is not the grandness that the Israelites were used to: this small baby born in a small town in a disconnected world, who comes not as a demonstration of God’s might, but of God’s love. Who comes not to control God’s people, but to teach how to be in right relationship; what care for neighbor looks like; and how to live a faithful life, not just to avoid judgment, but to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

God comes into our world embodied, so we might be instructed in how God is to work through our own embodiment towards the bringing about of God’s kingdom. The ways that God might be present in and among us.

Alongside the list I gave of those memorable grand gestures in the movies we likely have our own lists of actions in our own lives or of those we love that are not grand as much as they are incarnational actions of love made present.

Slide16A father reaching down instinctually to hold his daughter’s hand as they cross the street. A teacher offering a listening ear to a student who’s struggling at home.Slide18Someone shoveling the walk of an elderly neighbor after a particularly harsh snowfall. A mother tucking in her son after he falls asleep with book in hand. Slide20 A wife driving to see her husband in nursing care every afternoon, day after day.

Slide21These gestures are not the grand things of the movies, but they are the very real ways that we are incarnate in one another’s lives, and that we allow God to be incarnate in us. May God indeed tear open the heavens, once again, and come incarnate into our Advent waiting. Amen.

[1] Paraphrase by Rev. Vicki Kemper: http://www.firstchurchamherst.org/sermons/past_srmns_08_11_30.html#one

“Great Expectations” Luke 2:22-40 February 2, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Expectations”
Luke 2:22-40
February 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

New Years Eve I was delighted to count down the New Year with David, my best friend Claire, her husband and their son, sweet 2-year-old James. This past week I was able to spend a bit of time with former interim pastor, Christine and her dear son Jacob. I remember hearing the news of each of these pregnancies was quite exciting. There were baby showers, advice given, well wishes, and I’m sure their stomachs were rubbed more often than they could count. Ever since the babies were born they’ve had visits from excited family members and friends, countless memorable family photos, and birth announcements of all sorts.

Slide03Over 2000 years ago, Isaiah prophesied Christ coming into this world. Angels told Mary she would be a mother and Joseph that he would be a father. There was even a Heavenly birth announcement in the form of a bright star in the sky. But aside from a visit with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary had no real baby shower. Jesus’ birth happened in a crowded manger heated only by the warmth of barnyard animals. They were visited not by family and friends, but by wise men, shepherds, and angels. I’d like to see that odd crew try to bring their frankincense and myrrh past hospital security these days.

Slide04It’s strange to be talking again about the birth of Jesus, but our church calendar brings us today to the “Presentation of Jesus,” celebrating Jesus’ introduction into their community, into the world he had come to save.

Slide05Galatians 4:4 tells us, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.” The fullness of time means that Christ’s birth was not intended to be a surprise, Christ came exactly when and where and how and to whom He was meant to come. Yet, the world was not ready. Just as the inns of Bethlehem were occupied, the people’s thoughts were occupied by their own schedules and census travel plans.

Slide06Pregnancy carries it’s own “fullness of time.” There is a set amount time that a woman is pregnant. If she gives birth any earlier, it is cause for concern, any later and most doctors will induce the labor to help the mother and child along. Knowing of the pregnancy, one can begin to prepare, decorate a nursery, and celebrate with family and friends. It is an exciting time of anticipation and hope.

Imagine how different a pregnancy is without this sort of preparation. There are pregnancies that carry more fear than hope: The couple who has suffered a miscarriage and is wary to expect that this time, things will be okay; a young unmarried mother who just wants to hide what is happening insider her, and doesn’t dare speak it out loud; or a woman who doesn’t know she is pregnant, something that doesn’t happen all that often, but just often enough that there is a series on TLC about this experience. Each of these circumstances carries it’s own fear, pain, and yet still, hope.

Slide07Ever since Isaiah’s prophecy the Judaic world had been looking for a messiah. But over time it seems the anticipation inflated expectations. A savior for the world had to be a great king, right? Surely he would be born in a fortress, or castle, or temple, or at the very least, a nice home. Excited for the messiah, they forgot how God works. Since God created all things, God does not place a value system on a person based on how the world sees potential. In fact, more often than not God picks the least and the last and the meek.

Slide08It seems people forgot that Abraham who became the father of many nations, was first cowardly about his marriage to Sarah and so unsure of how God was going to give them an heir that he had a child with his wife’s servant. Slide09They didn’t remember that Moses who led the people out of Egypt was also a murder and poor public speaker. Slide10 They forgot the long list of faults David carried with him even while becoming a great king. So while we can look at first century Bethlehem with clear hindsight and see that of course God would chose to become incarnate as a meek and humble infant to serve the humble and meek, this was not so clear to the people of that time.

Slide11So when Jesus showed up in the midst of a census, in a town with no vacancies, the bright star in the sky seemed to be no more than coincidence to the devout religious scholars. They were so busy trying to follow God as they had been told through stone tablet commandments and wound up scrolls of Torah law that they were unaware that God incarnate was living and breathing in the world. While the world was given many signs of Christ’s birth, they were not throwing baby showers, keeping an eye out for young pregnant women, or looking towards young children, looking in their eyes for a savior. Rather they react more like a mother who didn’t know she was pregnant. When they hear of Jesus’ birth they react, not by worshipping their savior, but with disbelief and fear.

Slide12One of my favorite characters surrounding Christ’s birth is Simeon, who Joyce read about in our text today, and who was acted out by Rich Bucknell on Christmas Eve. Simeon has been waiting for the birth of the Messiah. The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would see the Messiah before his own death. The Biblical account doesn’t tell us much about the character of Simeon, but early Christian folklore provides some interesting stories on this “righteous and devout” man.

Slide13One such story, places Simeon as one of 70 original scribes who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. In this story, Simeon was assigned to translate the scroll for the book of Isaiah, and as he worked, he came to a verse we hear often in our Christmas scriptures, Isaiah 7:14, which says “and the virgin shall conceive, and she will bear a son…” and Simeon hesitated, questioning the believability of this statement. Simeon concludes that somewhere along the way someone must have written this wrong, so he decides to correct the error himself.

But just as Simeon’s is about to write out his new translation, an angel appears to him, telling him the prophecy is correct as written, a virgin will indeed conceive and bear a son. Simeon questions the angel, who then promises him he will not die until he has seen the prophecy’s fulfillment in the form of a Messiah. Now, historians tell us the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible was finished somewhere around 132 BC, so if this folk tale is to be believed, it would mean Simeon would be somewhere in the range of 150 to 200 years old at the time of Jesus’ birth.

I still like this story. I can imagine Simeon as a young scribe, excited about this unbelievable miracle that he is going to witness. A messiah is coming to save his people. I like to imagine this man walking among the people, smelling of the burnt offerings of the temple, praying for peace for those he passed. Well, time passes, and Simeon grows older. I can’t imagine him keeping the story of his interaction with the Holy Spirit a secret, so there might be others waiting with him, for a while at least. Maybe they question the believability of all of this as well. Maybe they question his sanity. But, finally, so many years later the Holy Spirit comes to him again and guides him to the temple.

It is now eight days after Jesus’ birth and as Mary and Joseph enter the temple, Simeon approaches them excitedly. The Holy Spirit helps him to recognize the child and he takes him in his arms saying, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Then he turns and says, specifically to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” So much for a happy birth announcement.

The angel told Mary earlier in Luke’s gospel that Jesus would be called “Son of God,” but was not really given much detail about what else would happen to this infant, “Son of God,” child of hers. In the Gospel of Matthew an angel comes to Joseph and says, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” But there isn’t much more instruction to that either. What will this saving son look like?

Slide16Simeon fills in a bit of the details and at first they seem exciting, “a light for revelation and glory.” This would make a great bumper sticker.  Can’t you just see it on their donkey cart now? But then he continues: “falling and rising of many,” “a sign that will be opposed,” a sword that will pierce Mary’s soul. Now this is not something a mother would like to hear.

Previous to this encounter we read of angels coming to Mary telling her of Jesus’ birth and  “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” An angel has to reassure her, telling her not to be afraid. Later we read of the shepherds and that “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Now, Simeon tells them of the pain that comes with being the earthly parents of the messiah. I’m sure this terrified them too.

Every new parent dreams of what the future will hold for their child. If a child kicks their feet we may predict a future of soccer or football, if they point their feet, maybe ballet. If a child has long fingers we may say they will be a musician or an artist.

Slide19In Korean culture, there is a tradition along these lines called Doljanchi. This Korean tradition celebrates the birthday of a one-year-old baby. The most important part of the dol is a ritual in which the child is placed in front of a table of foods and objects such as string, books, brushes, ink and money. Family and friends gathered watch the child to see what object they will pick up. This object is said to foretell the child’s future. If they pick up the brush or book they are destined to be a scholar; if money, they will be wealthy; if cakes, they will be in government; if a sword or bow, they will be a military commander, if the thread, they will live a long life. Over time, the objects have changed based on societal perceptions of successful occupations. Nowadays there might be a computer mouse for success in a technological field, a toothbrush for a dentist, or a gavel for lawyer.

I imagine the type of table Mary and Joseph would set up at Jesus’ dol. They would likely put a hammer, wanting Jesus to be a carpenter like his father. They might place a scroll, hoping him to be a temple scholar. They might put a fish, so he might be a fisherman, and a string, hoping also for a long life. However, nothing in Simeon’s prediction would likely be on that table.

Slide20In a few minutes Olivia will sing “Mary Did You Know?” This song is a beautiful but haunting song that speaks of the daunting reality awaiting Christ, this tiny baby resting in Simeon’s arms. The works of his ministry, the impact of his faithfulness, the implications of what it will mean for him to be the savior.

If Jesus’ heavenly Father were to set up a dol,  it would have fishing lure, so Jesus would fish for people. There would be sheep’s wool, for leading. Next to those would be things no earthly father would set on the table, nails and a crown made of thorns. God knew Jesus would pick up all of these things.Slide23

The nativity story is not the story of a birthday party. Yes there are guests and gifts, but it’s also a scary and complicated time for this young family. It was not an easy journey to Bethlehem. It was not easy to find a place for Jesus to be born and shortly after Jesus’ birth Herod is already trying to find and kill him. Simeon further complicates things by singing one of the oddest birthday songs you will ever hear; a song filled with joy, gratitude, and pain.

This is indeed a strange birthday, because this baby comes not to receive gifts, but to give them. Jesus comes into our lives Christmas after Christmas, as an infant, but lived in our world as a Messiah. Today we celebrate his entrance into this community, his introduction into the world he had come to save. He is eager to share in our every complication and joy. Jesus comes to give us the gift of life everlasting. We are welcomed to this birthday to receive. May you, as Simeon, be open to the Holy Spirit and eager to experience God in your own life. Amen.

Christmas in July; “Emmanuel: God With Us;” John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28; July 21, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Emmanuel: God With Us”
John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28
July 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - CalendarThis Sunday on the church calendar is called the “15th Sunday in Ordinary Time.” Sounds exciting, huh? The Christian calendar has a total of 33 weeks of ordinary time,” time that is not defined by Lent or Advent or Pentecost or any other liturgical celebration. The trouble with ordinary time in the church is it can lull us into a liturgical rut. While churches all over see decreased attendance due to vacations and busy summer plans, calling this “ordinary time” doesn’t exactly encourage excitement in worship either. Worshiping in ordinary time doesn’t carry the anticipation of Advent, the loneliness of Lent, or the joy of Easter. Compared to fanfare of the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the horror of Christ’s death at Good Friday and the joy of resurrection on Easter, this in between time can seem, well, ordinary.

SLIDE 2 - Ordinary TimeBut even in our ordinary time, we profess a faith that is much more extraordinary than we often give it credit. Which is why today as we crank up the air conditioning, walk about in shorts and skirts, and fan ourselves off with the order of worship, we are traveling back to the manger, drawing close to the story of a baby born into the world to save us all. We are celebrating Christmas in July not because it feels particularly Christmas-y out in the world, but because even in a week where we’ve hit 90 degrees almost every day, we are called to recognize and bring about Christ’s presence in this world.

SLIDE 3 - NativitySo what can you tell me about Christ’s birth?

[Received responses about Jesus’ birth]

We are used to the story of Christ’s birth and so all of these very extraordinary circumstances seem quite ordinary to us.  Our two scripture lessons today tell us that this could not be farther from the truth. This quaint story of a manger birth in Bethlehem was not just what we see at first glance.

SLIDE 4 - WordOur Gospel lesson tells the story of Christ’s birth not in the story we’re used to hearing on Christmas specials in December, but rather in scope of all of time. Through poetic language John’s Gospel emphasizes the theological implications of Christ coming into the world. In this passage, the manifestation of God is identified as “the Word”: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - FootWith Jesus’ simple birth, a greater mission was brought to fruition. Jesus united heaven and earth, by being both God and human, both eternal and temporary. Jesus experienced human pain, happiness, hunger, and certainly the discomfort of 90 degree plus days. He also carried within him the love of a God willing to get his hands dirty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaul’s letter to the Colossians also describes Christ with a long term lens as the “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[2]

While we often think of Christ’s birth as something that happened about 2000 years ago, these two poetic and somewhat complicated passages remind us that Christ is without time and that the Savior who would come to redeem us all was set into motion from the very beginning of creation. Christ as an incarnate living and breathing walking about man was always intended to be a part of how we experience God.

SLIDE 7 - JesusColossians describes Christ as both “firstborn of all creation”[3] and “firstborn from the dead.”[4] While I could probably do a whole sermon on the many times Jesus is described like a zombie, today we can just recognize that Christ was in the beginning with God at creation and also made a way for us to have eternal life with God. Through living a perfect life and enduring the cross Christ brought life to all people.

SLIDE 8 - LightAs John 1 affirms saying, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[5]

SLIDE 9 - Gods ChildrenJesus, God’s only begotten son, was born into the world and died in this world so that we might also become God’s children. So that we might be drawn into the covenant of God’s providence and covered by God’s grace.

Colossians 1:19-20 says, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”SLIDE 10 - Fullness of God

“The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” I love that phrase.  At the great commissioning Jesus passed along the joy and the burden of this calling unto his disciples, and by extension, on to us.

SLIDE 11 - God within“Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[6]

SLIDE 12 - God With UsWhen we gather in worship we are strengthening ourselves for this mission, immersing ourselves in this hope. Since we carry such a powerful message of hope and restoration calling even these in between times in our year “ordinary time” seems a bit inconsistent with this great story we are called to be a part of.

SLIDE 14 - Nativity SetI was reading a story this week by Erin Newcomb, an English professor and author, about her own experience of ordinary time. She writes: “I was struggling with ordinary time this year. Even the weather refused to cooperate, with a brutal heat wave followed by days of downpours that kept us confined to the house for far too long. Our time was getting a little too ordinary, so I rummaged through the basement and brought up some of our Christmas things — a small, artificial tree, a play Nativity set, a box of miniature decorations…We’re listening to Christmas hymns and reading Christmas stories… My daughter and I are talking about what Emmanuel means, and why Jesus bears that name…”

SLIDE 15 - Baby JesusThere’s something about Christmas — the animal stories, the mama and baby — that make it innately more appealing and tangible for small children than the abstract and gruesome theology of Easter. I know the Incarnation is incomplete without the cross and the Resurrection, but sometimes in ordinary time we need a reminder of the vulnerable child who came to live among us.”

She continues, “I am loving Christmas in July, a celebration of the joy and hope of the Christ-child without the surrounding cultural commercialism. As much as I appreciate liturgy, this uncharacteristically spontaneous break from the church calendar is lifting my spirits more than the December season usually does, because this time it’s unburdened by a climate of greed, materialism, and social obligations that often exclude Christ. My departure from liturgy reminds me what liturgy is for: it’s not the dates that are significant but the acts of remembrance, not the calendar itself but the continual effort to walk with Christ throughout the year…Christmas in July assures me that Emmanuel is a year-round gift that transcends liturgy and history and makes all time extra-ordinary.” [7]SLIDE 15 - Walking with Christ

Perhaps your ordinary time has gotten a bit too ordinary. Maybe today, this Christmas in July, this singing of carols and celebration of Christ’s presence on earth will help you to continue to walk with Christ throughout the year.

SLIDE 16 - SurrenderEvery Christmas we celebrate God coming into this world walking and talking among us, but through our witness to God’s power in our world and in our lives Christ is still walking and talking among us, through us. May God become Emmanuel through you this day. Amen.

Here is the song that was sung by the Praise Team after the sermon:


[1] John 1:1-3a

[2] Colossians 1:15-17

[3] Colossians 1:15

[4] Colossians 1:18

[5] John 1:3b-5, 12-13

[6] Matthew 28:18-20

“God Up Close;” Luke 7:1-10; June 2, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Up Close”
Luke 7:1-10
June 2, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I have to be honest, the first time I read through our Gospel reading, I sort of shrugged and said “so what.” It’s not exactly a well-known story in the Bible, with all unnamed characters other than Jesus. At first I was honestly a little bored. Like the formulaic “man walks into a bar” joke scenario, the Bible gives us several, “Jesus enters the scene, something happens, someone’s healed, the end.” And so, my eyes glazed over a bit at this one. But as I read a bit closer and dug a bit deeper I discovered that there is a message in here that’s different from ones we’ve heard before, and maybe even more interesting than the usual bunch of stories because it is so rarely talked about. And sometimes when the characters aren’t given names it makes it just a bit easier for us to read our own names in these stories. So as we unpack this story today, lets think about where our own stories fit in.

Slide02In our Gospel today we hear of a man, a centurion who had a slave that he highly valued that was ill and close to death. The man sends out some Jewish elders to ask Jesus for healing. The elders speak highly of the man, saying that he is worthy of miracle, was a builder of the temple. This is the modern version of: “He’s a good guy, look at all these good things he’s been doing.”

Slide03Jesus goes with them. I don’t know if they asked him to go with them, or what instructions they were given by the centurion, but he go with them. I wonder what they talked about on that walk, if they used that time to fill in some more details about the centurion’s character or if they used their personal audience with Jesus to ask some questions of their own, but Jesus comes towards the centurion’s house and while he’s still a little farther off the centurion sends other friends of his to go tell Jesus “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” He explains, or rather his friends explain on his behalf, that that is why the centurion did not approach Jesus, he didn’t need him to show up. Rather, he says (through his go-betweens), “I, too, am a man of authority. When we say ‘do this,’ people do.” This reminds me of a bit of a old boy’s club nod and a wink saying, “I know how these things work.”

Slide04The centurion trusts that Jesus will just do Jesus’ job, and doesn’t need to mess with the particulars of his life, of his situation. I can see him wondering: If Jesus is a man of authority, why is he spending his time on house calls? If he is King of the Jews, why is he dirtying his own feet on his walk out to this man’s house, who is not even a Jew himself? The man is rather self-deprecating when Jesus comes to his own doorstep. He doesn’t believe himself worthy of miracle, worthy of a visit. But here is Jesus showing up.

As you say your prayers before mealtime or at night, do you ever expect Jesus to appear right there in your dining room or bedroom? When you call on God’s presence do you expect God to actually become present? Or are we more comfortable with Jesus at a distance? Sending our mediators, perhaps asking other people to pray for us, sending your pastor or favorite Christian author into scripture for you? Thinking, oh, I’ll let them figure out this faith thing for me. I’ll let them take care of the healing, take care of this faith business. While it is certainly a good thing to invite the spiritual support of others, we shouldn’t be surprised by the spiritual support of God’s own self.

SLIDE 6 - JesusThe amazing thing about God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ is that God does show up. God becomes human. God becomes part of our experience. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth God puts on skin, becomes earth-bound. Jesus’ incarnation is God taking the extraordinary effort of showing up, of making the God beyond all heavenly expectations into a God that experiences all the realities of this world. This is God showing up.

The centurion doesn’t believe he is worthy of a miracle, but does believe that Jesus is capable of it, whether he is worthy or not and he appeals to Jesus’ authority. He is a rather unusual character to extend such a request, whether it is in person or not. The centurion was a Roman soldier. Slide07Generally when we see dramas of scripture acted out Roman soldiers are cast as the “bad guy,” or at least the “not great” guy. They are often the law and order types in Biblical stories, the rule followers, the maintainers of the status quo. The Romans, particularly the Roman soldiers were the ones who were carrying out the systematic oppression of the people of Israel. Jesus is the one bringing out about the liberation of God’s people. Jesus is cast as the rabble-rouser Jew, the revolutionary, in opposition to both law and order of his time. But it is this man who calls for Jesus’ healing, with Jewish leaders who will vouch for his good character.

Preacher and Luther Seminary professor, David Lose shared this reflection on the character of this centurion:

“[The centurion] is more complex than perhaps many of his day or ours want to make him out. He is a Roman centurion and a man who does good for those in his community. He is part of the force occupying and oppressing Israel and he builds synagogues for the townspeople under his authority. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce someone to one attribute or judge someone based on one element of who they are.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass with cardinal electors in Sistine Chapel the day after his electionPope Francis reminded us of that this week as well. During a homily at mass last Wednesday at the Vatican, the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works. The fact that he included atheists among those who are redeemed by Christ and invited to do good works shocked many. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion – and here’s the mind-blowing element of the story – even though we have no particularly good reason to believe he becomes a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seem particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. [1]

Slide11Which brings us to an important question: you may believe that Jesus Christ was born and lived and died for our sins, but do you believe that Christ has the power to bring healing? Do you believe that our savior can indeed save? In this story, the faith that Jesus commends doesn’t even seem to have much to do with an individual proclamation of allegiance to all that Jesus is, but rather a simple faith in what Jesus can do.

Slide12Who are the people in your life who might have this basic inkling of faith? Who are the people looking for answers, grasping for hope, searching for healing? Might we bring Christ to them, to their doorstep? Might we pray on their behalf? Might we acknowledge their desire for connection to something greater than their own efforts? Might we, like Jesus, commend such a desire to be connected to goodness, their efforts to be a “good person?”

SLIDE 13 - HealingThe centurion had certainly heard about Jesus and all that he could do, but doesn’t expect or feel like he needs Jesus to show up, just to proclaim healing, and the healing will happen. Even in this rudimentary faith, Jesus makes the effort, not just to heal, but to come close. In this Jesus teaches the centurion what sort of savior he is, while commending the tremendous faith that the centurion already has.

Slide14God can proclaim healing at any distance, but God wants to be close to us. God desires to be a God of relationship. God’s desire to be real and present in our lives and in our world is the difference between sending flowers from a florist and planting a garden in your front yard. It is the difference between sending a flat postcard and sending a care package with homemade cookies and jam. This is the difference between sending a text message saying you’re thinking about someone, and sitting beside them in the hospital praying with them while holding their hands.

Slide15In Jeremiah 23:23-24 we read “Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.”

Do we believe that we need Jesus in our own personal lives in order to be whole and healed, or do we believe that God should just heal from a distance? Might we need to invite God closer to our own lives and our own experience?

SLIDE 16 - God is NearGod is both a God nearby and a God far off. When we are worried people experiencing tragedy in Moore, Oklahoma or West, Texas or Boston, Massachusetts, God is still also beside us in our daily concerns, in our skinned knees, in our broken hearts, in our need for forgiveness. It is a definite act of faith to expect God to show up for the healing of those we care about on a large scale, but we needn’t be surprise when God answers our large-scale concerns for healing and comfort for those that need it, with a simultaneous personal care for our own lives as well. We might not see ourselves worthy of God’s care and concern. We may echo the centurion and say, “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” But still, God shows up.

So where do you find yourself in this story? Are you the centurion comfortable and secure with God’s power at a distance? Might you believe in God’s salvation for others, but not quite sure that you’re the one that needs saving? Are you the centurion’s slave, desperate for healing, but without the perceived agency or resources to care for yourself? Are you one of the elders, deeply concerned for one of the “good people” in your life that might not know what sort of salvation Christ has in store for them? What is your response to Jesus showing up? Or do you even call him there to begin with? Who are the people in your life that are seeking Jesus? How might you bring Him near?Slide20

[We discussed our answers in groups within the pews.]

As you think about who you are, may you seek to invite God’s presence into your own life and may you not be surprised when God does indeed show up. Amen

“Simply Giving;” Luke 3:10-18; December 23, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Giving”
Luke 3:10-18
December 23, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

An angel came to his mother telling of his surprising and miraculous birth. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom among the last and the lost and the lonely.

AJohn the Baptistny guesses to who I might be talking about?

Since we’re in church, just a couple of days away from Christmas, Jesus seems like the logical answer. And that’s correct of course, but this same biography belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, also known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ,  “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

John the Baptist is not who we typically think about when we think about Christmas. His stories understandably take a back seat to that of his ever more famous, ever more eternal second cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. But John too was born out of an unexpected pregnancy and called into a counter-cultural life. SONY DSCAngels announced both of their births. An angel came to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and told her that even in her old age she would have a baby. An angel came to Mary and told her that even though she was a virgin she would have a baby. Surprises all around.

The two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary met together and share their news. When Mary told her cousin of her pregnancy, John leapt in his mother’s womb, excited to be in the presence of Jesus. But then, they grow up and the Biblical narratives are silent about any interaction the two of them might have had throughout their childhoods or adolescence.SONY DSC

 Thirty or so years pass and we are told that, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This was before Jesus’ ministry officially began at the wedding in Canna. Before Jesus had worked a single miracle, John was proclaiming God’s will with strength and conviction.SLIDE 4 - Saint John the Forerunner John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man who lived out in the wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. His message was not for those who were concerned with appearances, but for those concerned with God’s work throughout our lives and into eternity.

Here in this place he speaks out to a gathered crowd. This is the message we heard a few weeks ago, John the Baptist speaking of how when Jesus’ kingdom comes to fruition “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Though the end result of this kingdom is a great and glorious thing, such perfection requires eliminating the parts of our lives that are not pleasing to God and fully submitting to God’s will for our lives. John preaches of this refining fire to a gathered crowd and they are, of course, concerned:

SLIDE 5 – John Preaching to Crowd“What should we do?” asked the crowds.

“What should we do?” asked the tax collectors.

“What should we do?” asked the soldiers.

To each, John replied with a message of giving, a message of generosity. What he says is neither complicated nor spiritual. To the poor crowds: share what you have. To the tax collectors: take only what is fair. To the soldiers: don’t extort. In everyday language, these are the rules of the playground: share, be fair, don’t bully.

John gives them very practical commands of how to move forward with their lives, how to redirect their lives towards God’s will. John does not tell them to leave their current lives, but rather to go forward just where they are, but with hearts bent towards God’s will.

 Luther Seminary Professor, David Lose writes about this saying, “Caught between eschatological [end times]  judgment and messianic consummation [the coming of the Messiah], the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither monastic asceticism nor spiritual pilgrimage. John invites them to participate in God’s coming kingdom wherever they are and whatever they may be doing. All they need just enough faith to God at work in and through the ordinary and mundane elements of our lives.”[1]

We are told in our passage in Luke that, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” He answers their unspoken question saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

How wonderful to imagine that John was such a reflection of God’s desire that he could be mistaken for the Messiah. What an incredible image, living a life so in tune with God’s will that a divine connection was assumed. The apostle John tells us in John 1 tells us: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”SLIDE 11 – John with Water and Dove

When we say, “what should we do?” John provides an interesting example. He is not Christ and does not pretend to be Christ. But he is so assured in God’s call on his life that he’s willing to go out to preach and baptize. He is so assured in the coming of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ that he lives his life pointing to Christ. After that first womb-concealed leap in Jesus’ unborn presence, John continued to rejoice in Christ’s incarnation throughout his life.

John gives this gathered crowd specific measurable instruction on how to give and receive in this world, all having to do with money. John also provides a very specific example on how to give and receive in this world that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with relationship. SLIDE 12 – Hand extendedJohn lived his life rejoicing in the company of Jesus Christ. As we are already in the midst of this season of giving, this is an important example to remember. In this Christmas season we will both give and receive gifts, but we needn’t get caught up so much in the gifts themselves, but rather on the relationships that surround them. When we give let us remember John’s command for sharing, fairness, and consideration, but also the simplicity and unconditional nature of John’s joy in God’s presence.

SLIDE 13 - PresentMy sister and I were talking the other day about some gifts we have given and received over the years. No matter what the material gift was that was received, the ones that had the most impact were those that reflected a genuine, unsolicited knowledge of the recipient. These were gifts that required listening, required paying attention, required being in relationship. The greatest gift we can receive was the gift of being known.

SLIDE 14 – Wise Men GiftsWith this in mind, the gifts of the wise men initially seem quite strange. They are coming to celebrate the birth of a baby and bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Seems like quite the strange baby shower presents. Surely these were not gifts that Mary and Joseph would’ve registered for at Babies R Us. But the gifts are also right on track because they point to a knowledge of who this little baby Jesus will become. These are gifts of knowing Jesus’ future. The gold was the symbol for the king; frankincense for the priesthood, and myrrh for healing. These gifts, then, point to a greater gift: the most important gift of this season that cannot be wrapped up in a box or written on a check.The most important gift is the gift of Jesus’ life, which is offered at his birth. Even as a baby, these gifts tell us that Christ is the great king, the priest of all priests, who came to heal this broken world. SLIDE 15 - Jesus as Present

This Christmas let us remember that Christ has come to exchange with us the gift of being known. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead… I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”[2] Say this with me, “I want to know Christ because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” May we desire to know Christ with that sort of intensity, secure in the knowledge that Christ desires us to reveal ourselves to him as well.

SLIDE 18 - Leaping But let us not let our leaping with joy in Christ’s presence be contained to the wombs of our world, the places where we are comfortable, secure, and nourished. Let us leap throughout out lives, sharing the love of Christ. May we, like John, be a witness to the light of Christ, giving the gift of Christ’s love into this world. Amen.

“Abundance” Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15; July 29, 2012

“Abundance”
Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15
July 29, 2012

My Grandpa Charlie was an excellent cook. Our family’s weekly dinners at my grandparents house were not to be missed, as he approached the creation of each meal with gusto. I remember once, right about the time that the internet was becoming popular, that he spent hours researching horseradish to transform a giant horseradish root into the perfect sauerkraut. Still, I think his real gift came not simply in his ability to make a tasty meal, but in his ability to take any leftovers and completely reinvent them into an equally delicious and creative meal. As a child born in the aftermath of the Great Depression, he was instilled with the values of thrift and conservation. If there was food, there was a meal. And if people were hungry, they weren’t anymore after a meal with him.

So, when our gospel reading tells us that five barley loaves and two fish fed thousands, I picture my grandfather rooting around the refrigerator and cooking up a feast.

Our gospel passage tells us that as Jesus had been traveling with his disciples teaching, preaching, and performing miracles a large crowd had formed around him.  Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy food for all these people?” Then in the text we get a bit of a “tell.” Our passage says, “[Jesus] said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

Jesus knew what he was going to do, but as he was in the business of training his disciples, he wanted to let them think through it first. I can imagine Jesus’ disciples a bit exasperated. They were the original hearers, the ones personally selected to be part of Jesus’ entourage, but in joining Jesus they had given up many of their worldly possessions and powers. They weren’t joining Jesus so that they could be benefactors or underwriters of Jesus’ mission. They joined Him because they were interested in seeing what would happen next with this rabble-rousing religious man. They wanted to be a part of this church that was not tied to rules or the law. And now, Jesus wanted them to come up with some sort of catering plan for thousands of people?

Philip answers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Andrew assesses the situation and he says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Immediately he dismisses the thought say, “But what are they among so many people?”

Andrew was looking pragmatically at the facts. If we have five thousand people and five loaves, each loaf divided into a thousand parts, surely would just be one crumb-filled mess.

I’ve always wanted to have a good picture of what these loaves and fish looked like. Were the loaves small dinner rolls? Or were they giant loaves, the sort to hold a sub sandwich? And the fish, were they something small the boy had caught on his line? Or were they something large he had purchased at the market? Like Andrew, I’d like to think that the concrete facts of the case make a difference.

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” Andrew says.

“Make the people sit down,” replies the Lord. The meal is blessed, served, then eaten, and all are satisfied.

Note that the scripture does not say, every one had a snack or everyone made sure others had what they wanted before they ate. In John 6: 11 it says that everyone ate “as much as they wanted.” And when they were done eating, there was still plenty left over. Verses 12 and 13 tell us, “when they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

They filled twelve baskets. There was not just enough, there was abundance!

The theme of abundance is echoed throughout the Gospel of John. In the 16th verse of the first chapter we are introduced to Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The providence of God in creation and God in incarnation are tied together in one timeless blessing of abundance.

Jesus’ ministry is begun when he turns water into wine. In a noticeable act of providence, this is not just any wine, but high quality wine produced from jars of water filled to the very top. Jesus provided abundantly for this wedding celebration.

As Jesus moves in his ministry to Samaria he meets a woman at the community well in the heat of the day. As they both come to the well seeking water, Jesus tells the woman in John 4:13-14, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In the passage we have read today, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we hear a familiar narrative. While the four gospels have many similarities, this narrative is the only miracle story that is told in all four gospels. However, continuing the theme of abundance, the Gospel of John is the only one to add the detail of situating this story in the context of Passover. This context would not be lost on those followers with Jewish lineage, as Passover was the time commemorating when God spared the lives of the first born sons of the people of Israel and provided safe passage out of Egypt.  All through their journey to the Promised Land God provided for them with manna. God provided for them abundantly.

Even at the end of the Gospel of John the author seems overwhelmed by the abundance of what is left unsaid by the innumerable actions of Jesus’ ministry. The last verse of the Gospel of John reads, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These stories of abundance are not simply something relegated to the history of our faith. As God continues to move in the world, we are made agents of that abundance. In Ephesians 3:18-21 we read Paul’s blessing to the people of Ephesus: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.”

So I have to ask, when was the last time you felt, “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine?”

More often than not, our faith is more likely to reflect the pragmatism of Philip and Andrew, than the promise of abundance of Jesus Christ. Sitting here, on the tail end of a recession, it can be hard to imagine we would have anything to give. We are all too aware of the scarcity in our lives. We are afraid of our insufficiency. We are too young, too old, too frail, too busy. We are those loaves, divided over a thousand times, surrounded by crumbs.

Catholic nun and spiritual author, Marcrina Wiederkehr writes of these crumbs in her book, “A Tree Full of Angels.” She writes:

“We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry… we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19). In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? … Why do we straddle the issues? … The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things… We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment.”[1]

There is a provision waiting for us in these crumbs. For when our crumbs are gathered together, there is an abundance. We are “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Why do we wait to serve till it is convenient? Why do we wait to help till it is asked of us?

Artist and author, Jan Richardson wrote a poem inspired by our Gospel narrative, called “Blessing the Fragments”:

Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
to welcome
what comes.

This blessing
knows the secret
of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
the wholeness
that may hide
in what has been
left behind,
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
only lack.

Look into the hollows
of your hands
and ask
what wants to be
gathered there,
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
what feast
will offer itself
from the fragments
that remain.

We are to live as those cupped hands, extending ourselves outwards to welcome the feast that is present in the crumbs.

There are some who know how to serve from the crumbs, like my Grandfather’s meals made from left-overs. It is a gift, to be able to see the abundance in the scraps.

I have been blessed to be invited to tables where I know that I am sharing in this sort of abundance. Tea and cookies from an older widow with a fixed income sustain and nourish in a way the greatest feast cannot. Lemonade provided by a woman with physical limitations receiving help with home repairs quenches thirst like the most gourmet beverages cannot.

There is a short but important story about this in scripture. This passage comes to us from Luke 21:1:

“Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’”

God’s abundance in our lives is shared not through our ability to give much, but our willingness to give all that we can.

That boy in the crowd had five barley loaves and two fish. We are not told how many meals he was hoping to get from that bread and those fish. We are not told whether the boy was giving out of his own personal abundance or out of scarcity of a life of poverty. We are simply told that he had five loaves and two fish and was willing to offer them to others. Andrew at first dismissed the idea and Philip thought feeding five thousand from such meager resources was an impossibility. But still that boy gave what he had and it was multiplied.

I pray that we would recognize the ways that God has filled our lives with fullness, knowing that God desires to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. And that we may give to others what we can, even when it seems like mere crumbs.

Amen.


[1] A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, Chapter 3

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom,” 2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Ephesians 2:11-22; July 22, 2012

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom”
2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Ephesians 2:11-22
July 22, 2012

Children’s Message: “God In Between,” Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom”

Humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I faithfully fill out my schedule and try not to miss appointments. Even when planning family vacations I like to research ahead of time to know what events will be going on, making a calendar of all the things we could do. I have definite ideas about how to plan my grocery shopping. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God.

In our Old Testament passage today I sense this same sort of attitude from David. I imagine David in his palace. Comfortably sitting on cushions, perhaps being cooled by a servant fanning him with a palm branch. Things are going pretty well for David at this point in our account. There is relative peace in the Kingdom, as scripture says, “the LORD had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him.” I imagine him glancing out the window and seeing the tent containing the Ark of the Covenant. David wonders while he is living in a house of cedar, why the ark, the revered commandments from the Lord, a reflection of God’s own self, would be carried about in a tent. He thinks, “Surely God should have a house.”

He tells Nathan and immediately Nathan agrees saying, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.” Though our text does not give us any more of this conversation between them, I can imagine David explaining this to Nathan, perhaps getting excited planning architectural ideas and maybe even discussing a site where they could create this great space to house their great God. Surely David fell asleep that night with ideas buzzing about of this great thing he would do, excited to serve God in this way. David had a plan.

But that was not the sort of plan God had in mind. Nathan’s sleep was interrupted that night, with the word of the Lord coming to him. While David had said he wanted to build a house for the Lord, the Lord says no, I want to build you a house.

But wait, we just heard that David had a house. A rather nice house in fact, built of cedar, one of the more expensive building materials of his day. So, why does the Lord want to build him a house?

It’s a rather confusing passage on an initial read through because it seems like the Lord and David have similar ideas. David would like to build a house. The Lord would like to build a house. Okay, so let’s go ahead and build a house. What’s the issue?

To truly understand this conversation we need to go back to the original Hebrew text. The word that both the Lord and David are using for “house” is “bayit.” Though this word can be translated as “house,” it can also mean “palace,” or “temple,” OR “household,” “tribal group,” “nation,” or “royal dynasty.” David was concerned with God’s need for a house in the physical sense, a place for containment and comfort; a place that will honor God and provide a place for people to encounter God’s presence.

The Lord does not seem to care for this though saying, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

God was not seeking to be contained to a house or building. The Lord says, “wherever I have moved about among all the people.” God is very clear to point out that God was the one doing the moving. God was the one to decide where God’s presence would be.

While David is all excited about his plans, God has a different vision for the future of God’s people. Reminding David of God’s providence for David’s life, the Lord speaks of the ways that God has accompanied David from pasture to royal throne. This is the very same David whom the Lord picked over his seven brothers though David was the youngest, a shepherd, and not thought to be of consequence. This is the same David of the story of David and Goliath. Now the Lord will be the one to make a “bayit,” for David. This “bayit” is not the house of comfort and containment that David was proposing, but rather it is a “bayit” in the sense of a nation or a royal dynasty. A nation that will grow beyond what is comfortable and containable. A nation that is to be the very Kingdom of God.

There is an account of the lineage of David at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. I know sometimes when I’m reading the Bible, lineage accounts are the very sort of thing that I might skip over. If I’m reading an older version I tend to get caught up in all the “begats,” and decide to skip to the end of list and see what happens next. Perhaps you may have had a similar experience of these sorts of lists in scripture. However, in ancient Christian tradition, this was the sort of thing that made people sit up in their seats and listen more attentively. These lists were about legacy, about connection, and in reading them an ancient game of connect the dots was played, revealing an amazing picture of how God’s plan is worked out in God’s own cosmic time and order. So, let us try to listen to this list with this sort of attentiveness. Listen for the names that you know, and those that you don’t know. Try to picture the familiar narratives that pop into your head, and take in the great picture that is God’s plan.

This passage comes to us from Matthew 1:2-5 Listen for the word of our Lord:

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

When we see David, we can see his lineage trailing back to Abraham. Abraham who had grown old and did not believe that a child would be in God’s plan for him. And to Ruth who had lost her husband and so by society’s standards did not seem to have a future. Yes, God had provided for David by elevating his personal social standing from pasture to palace, but he also comes from a long history of people uncertain of how the story would turn out for them.

Abraham had grown impatient in his wait to have a child and so had one with his wife’s servant. At the age of ninety-nine God came to Abraham to establish a covenant with him, a covenant that would make Abraham a father of many nations, nations borne by his wife, Sarah. God had a plan for Abraham.

Ruth’s father in law and husband had both died, so all societal obligations she could have rightfully returned home to her own family, but instead stayed with her mother in law, Naomi. Ruth sought out Boaz who helped her to reestablish the family line. God had a plan for Ruth.

And God’s story certainly does not end with David. Those who are to follow after have an even greater story to tell. This lineage leads directly to Jesus.

While David wanted to contain God’s presence in a temple, God was the one who would work out a great plan for being present in the world. God worked through the “bayit,” the royal lineage of David to lead to the man who would serve as earthly father to God’s own son, Jesus Christ. God’s plan was indeed greater.

God’s Kingdom would come to life not through the establishment of a temple that people could visit and experience God’s presence, but through the living, breathing legacy of the ministry of God’s son, Jesus Christ. God’s presence is not something we visit, but something that lives among us and is enacted through the ways our lives reflect the will of God.

Our New Testament passage today gives us a blueprint of this plan. From Ephesians 2:19-22 we read:

You are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

This beautiful “bayit” household of the Kingdom of God is constructed not with cedar, but by those who seek to follow God. Our New Testament passage speaks also of the different people who Christ has come to reconcile, the Jews and the Gentiles. Both groups were “far off” in their own ways. Though the Jews were God’s chosen people from the very beginning, their desire to follow God through adherence to the law had gradually become more about legalism than relationship with God. When they were unable to fulfill all that the law required they felt far off from God. Those who were not Jewish, the Gentiles, were unaccustomed Jewish religious tradition. Though the disciples, particularly Paul, were working to welcome Gentiles into the Kingdom of God, they were still unsure of their place in this new community, feeling far off from God. Our passage speaks of Christ reconciling Jews and Gentiles into one “bayit,” household of God. Listen now to Ephesians 2:13-18:

13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection pieced together apostles, prophets, Jews, and Gentiles into a spiritual “bayit,” with Christ as the cornerstone. We are God’s dwelling place. God dwells in and among us.

In the book we read earlier, “God in Between,” we hear of a community searching for God after hearing that God could fix their problems. They searched through mountains, over the oceans, in the desert, and in a cave trying to find God, but did not find God in any of those places. Only when they stopped searching and started helping one another they were finally able to discover how God was present in their care and attentiveness for each other.

In Matthew 18:20 we hear a familiar verse. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Notice that unlike God’s plans for the tabernacle in Exodus or David’s ideas for a temple, this plan for encountering God’s presence has nothing to do with physical space, and everything to do with relationship and intentionality. This is the plan for Christ’s Church, a fellowship not determined by physical space but by relationship.

Which brings up an important question: when someone asks you about your church, what do you tell them? Do you tell them about a building or about a people? What sort of “bayit” are you interested in being a part of? What sort of “bayit” are you seeking to build in this world?

It is my prayer that we will all seek to be builders of God’s Kingdom, building a fellowship of believers and a lineage of reconciliation. Unlike the building that David was proposing, this building of the Kingdom of God is not a building that is built just once, it is constantly being remodeled, forever under construction. We build God’s Kingdom through each act of care for one another, each admission of our need for God’s plan. Let us work together to build the Kingdom of God. Amen.