Waiting for the Baby

December 24, 2017           Christmas Eve

2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16         Romans 16:25–27      Luke 1:39-55

It is interesting how Jesus’ mother’s image has changed over time; even in the relatively short time that I have been alive and aware of her. The statues and images that I grew up with of Mary, which were mostly Catholic, or from Protestant picture book Bibles, made her look like a young woman in her early twenties. Even in the pictures of Jesus on the cross she looked like she was in her twenties. And that always seemed weird to me because if she had been in her twenties when Jesus had been born, she would have been in her 50’s when Jesus died, and people in their 50’s do not look 20. She was always interestingly ageless and unreal.

But then, as I got older and learned about the history behind Christianity, I found out that she was probably in her late teens when she gave birth to Jesus. Most women in their teens do not look like women in their twenties, so all those images that I grew up with were way too old.

Personally I cannot imagine how Mary, as a teenager, processed everything.   I understand why we are tempted to represent her in her twenties and NOT as a teenager because when you read the Biblical account she is this calm saintly figure, who is completely accepting of what happens to her. (And teenagers aren’t usually that mature) But what happens to her is so radical and unusual, and puts her in such a precarious social position I can see why we want to make her older than she probably was.

Think about it. Here is a young girl, who has probably never been outside of her home or family influence when she is visited by the angel Gabriel. I think if any of us were visited by and angel we would be terrified! Then Gabriel tells her that she is going to have a baby by the Holy Spirit. I give her points for asking how that is going to be possible. Gabriel explains the process and then Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Now that reply is significant for two reasons. First because Mary accepts the commission that she has been given. You might say that it was already a done deal and that she didn’t have a choice, but actually she did. I think that if she had said that she couldn’t do the task that God would have found someone else to work with. God doesn’t take away our free will. Mary is told what is going to happen, but then she agrees to be a part of God’s plan.

Second, in the acceptance of being a part of God’s plan, even though she might not have realized totally what she was getting into, shows a great deal of courage.. For her to become pregnant is to break one of the big cultural taboos of that society. She was already engaged to Joseph and when he finds out that she’s pregnant he has every right to have her stoned to death for infidelity. The fact that he plans to send her away quietly shows him to be a very kind, merciful person. Her life would basically have been over as a respected member of society. And I am sure that in the close-knit society that she lived in she must have known the possibility of that happening.

But she still says, “Yes.” So you have to ask – where does that courage come from? It comes from her faith, which must have been pretty strong and abiding before Gabriel showed up and had that in depth conversation with her. Her calmness, even during a radically unusual spiritual encounter, and her ability to respond with faith in God shows me the level of trust that she has in God and His ability to be with her while she sees this through.

Methodism says that our faith is built on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I am sure that Mary, while she couldn’t read knew about her Torah, Law, and other stories. She was surrounded by her Jewish traditions, and I am sure she had the faculties to reason what was right and wrong. But I am sure that the experience of talking with an angel topped all of that.

Mary’s story is also our story of what happens to our faith when we encounter the divine in our lives. Most of us are not asked to radically put ourselves on the line when do encounter God. But when we do encounter God we are changed and strengthened in our faith and often we see that what we thought was impossible is now possible.

This theme of impossibility becoming possibility continues when Mary visits Elizabeth and finds out that this woman, who no-one thought could ever get pregnant is now going to have a baby. And Mary’s song is all about making the impossible possible. The little village girl is going to be called blessed for       many generations; the proud will question what they do; the rulers who are evil will be brought down from their thrones; the hungry are going to be fed; the rich who prey on the poor are going to be denied what they want; and God is going to deliver on His promise of a messiah. That’s a lot of impossible becoming possible.

And that impossible – of God becoming incarnated into a baby – is the possible of what we are all waiting for this evening, and what we are going to celebrate tomorrow morning.

But in the meantime we have to wait.

After the initial good feelings of being with Elizabeth, Mary had to go home and wait. First she had to wait for Joseph to accept her, which he did with a little help from an angel. And I am sure that both she and Joseph had to convince her family and his family that everything was going to be all right and that they were working on God’s plan. But then they had to wait.

That’s how it is with God’s work, sometimes we have to wait. There is a process and a timeline with a pregnancy that you can’t change. As miraculous as the birth of Jesus is, he still had to go through the whole process of gestation and birth. If he hadn’t then his life wouldn’t mean what it does mean for us.

Sometimes we want to rush our projects that we are doing, whether they are projects for God or our own day-to-day living tasks – we want to get them done now.   I know that I have a part of me that is type A, who wants to make lists in the morning and spend the day crossing things off. At the end of the day it feels very good to look at that list and know that I accomplished all that. But the flip side to that is when I don’t cross something off my list, I get discouraged that I didn’t get it done. And even more frustrating is when the universe doesn’t cooperate with me and my designated timeline.

But would I have even started my projects if I didn’t have faith that God was working with me? Like Mary I have the free will to accept or reject the tasks of life that are put in front of me.  Like Mary I accept them because I have faith that God is going to be there with me while I am working on them. Some things I can get done right away and cross them off my list. Other things I have to accept that they are going to take time and that I just have to wait for certain things to happen, fall into place, and then the next step can be taken. I just need to learn to wait, and remember that just because nothing seems to be happening it really is.

I get that feeling of waiting that Mary had to go through, because I’ve been pregnant three times. You can’t speed up the process of a baby – it has it’s own natural timeline that you need to bend your life to. The best thing to do while you’re waiting is to keep living your life and do as much as you can to create a healthy baby.   Sometimes when I want to speed up a process it would be good if I could remember that everything has it’s own natural time-line of creation and that if I just keep living my life and do as much as I can to create a healthy environment for the project then whatever I am working on will come into fruition.

During this Advent/Christmas season I have been waiting. A few months ago my son told me that his girlfriend was pregnant – but it was still early in the pregnancy, which is a scary time.   So I told them that whatever happened I loved them and would keep praying for them. I didn’t tell many people because I had to wait to find out what they wanted to do – I knew what I thought they should do but I am not them, so I had to wait. This week I found out that all is well and tomorrow they will be going down to city hall, in Tokyo, and get married. The baby is fine so far, it’s a boy, due in April, and next month they will be moving to Okinawa where her family lives, and my son already has a job lined up there.

Waiting is hard, sometimes we get impatient and we want to push God’s plans forward. WE WANT TO DO SOMETHING. But we often need to have faith that God is working with us and it’s all going to be well and come together. God worked a long time to bring us the Christmas miracle of Jesus. Let Christmas remind you that he is working his miracles in your life. Just be patient, have faith, and wait and a lot of impossible things in you life will become possible.

 

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Christ is With Us

December 10 & 17, 2017         2nd Sunday of Advent/3rd Sunday of Advent          

Isaiah 40:1–11             2 Peter 3:8–15a           Mark 1:1–8

I was looking on-line for Christmas stories and I found a funny one told by a minister named John Simmons. Apparently there was a Sunday school class that was putting on a Christmas play – the traditional one with the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem and the baby Jesus being born. In the group was one little boy who wanted so very much to be Joseph. But when the parts were handed out, his biggest rival was given that part, and he was assigned to be the inn-keeper instead.

He was really not happy about this, so during the rehearsals he began to plot how to get even with his rival. Finally, on the night of the performance, Mary and Joseph came walking across the stage. They knocked on the door of the inn, and the disgruntled boy as the inn-keeper opened the door and asked them gruffly what they wanted. Joseph answered, “We’d like to have a room for the night.” Suddenly the inn-keeper threw the door wide open and said, “Great, come on in and I’ll give you the best room in the house.”

Now that wasn’t in the script, and for a few seconds the kid playing Joseph didn’t know what to do. But then he had an idea. He stepped up to the innkeeper, and looked beyond him through the door that represented the inn. He made a big production of looking right and left. He stepped back out beside his “wife” and said, “No wife of mine is going to stay in dump like this. Come on, Mary, let’s go to the barn.”

Sometimes Christmas just doesn’t work out the way we expect it to, or want it to.

Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way we expect it to, or want it to.

Having Christmas at the end of the calendar year is a mixed bag. If you’ve had a good year, then it’s kind of like the icing on the cake. The happy celebrations surrounding you are appropriate, welcome, and feel really good.

But if you haven’t had a good year: If there has been a death in the family; you’ve lost your job and are in economic straights; you were involved in a major project that got upended or went wrong; a major relationship went sour in your life; you got in trouble with something that was way too much for you to handle, or something didn’t happen that you really expected was going to happen; then the end of the year can feel like: I just want to get through this holiday season, and I don’t want to be happy or merry or bright about it. I just want to end this year and start the new one, which I hope will be better.

We all have times like this in our lives. We say – I want this day, week, month, year to end so that I can reset, start over, and get back on track.

But to put things in perspective, can you imagine how the Israelites felt before the birth of Jesus? They were in the middle of a really bad national and cultural slump, and they couldn’t see a day, or week, or month, or year, to reset, start over, and get back on track.

As a nation they were occupied by a foreign nation and army, which had imposed a king on them, who wasn’t even Jewish, and most of their taxes went to supporting the oppression. Their culture had been invaded by the Greco-Roman culture, which had set up temples over the last three-hundred years on their lands, dedicated to multiple gods. The Pharisees were actually an answer to that invasion – they were originally set up to be a school of cultural to teach and live by example so that ordinary Jews could see how to live the law and ancient culture.

Their nation and culture were not in a state of self-determination, which gave everyone a high sense of uncertainty. What kept them going was that they did have a promise from God that God would stand by them no matter how bad things got.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.       

            Those words were spoken by Isaiah several hundred years before Christ during a time when the fabric of the Jewish people was being torn apart. It was also a time of national and cultural invasion, a time of oppression, and a lack of self-determination. The Jewish people believed that the reason for the invasion was because as a culture they had allowed false gods to be worshiped and had abandoned the laws of Moses. But Isaiah, while loudly proclaiming the sins of the people, and the coming judgment of God, had also proclaimed that even during the bad times when the nation had to suffer for its abandonment of God – that God wasn’t going to abandon His people.

The scripture that we read today is part of the collection of promises that Isaiah tells people that God is going to restore the Jewish culture and that he is going to send to them a great Messiah, who will insure that the people will know that God will be with them forever.

And during the first century people were really waiting and hungering for the Messiah, and were certain that it was time for a turn around. So when John the Baptist appears in the wilderness and tells people that the time is at hand and that people should start to atone for their sins, and to start to live a life with God now, people found a lot of hope in that message, because it assured them that their was going to be a turn around for the better in their lives.

When you are in a dark, sad, place it is hard for you to imagine that things are going to get better. Look at the little boy who didn’t get the part of Joseph. As a kid he probably felt that the chance to fulfill one of his life’s ambitions was done and gone. And let’s not judge him too harshly for his smart-aleck actions. He was reacting as a child by countering his negative feeling of disappointment by creating a situation where the other kid would have disappointment too. If he couldn’t be the star and play Joseph, then he was going to make sure that the other boy playing Joseph wouldn’t be a star either and fall flat on his face. But of course as a child he didn’t count on the other boy actually having a sense of humor and enough wit to figure out how to fix the problem and make the scene work.

The problem is, don’t we sometimes react that way when something bad happens to us? Don’t we sometimes try to make some else’s life miserable when our own life becomes miserable? I’m not saying we do it consciously, often it’s because we are hurting so much we don’t realize that we are hurting others. But how do we keep ourselves from focusing on the bad that has happened to us and start to focus on the good?

One thing that can help us is something that we hardly talk about in our modern age: the Biblical Lament.

Laments usually start out with the awful thing that happened to someone. Then the person really lets rip on how they feel both physically and emotionally. (Psalm 22 is one of the great examples: all my bones are out of joint and I am scored by others and despised by the people are just a few of the lines.) They often include all the bad things that are happening now because of the event and the possible horrible things that will happen in the future. Some laments are really hard to read because they are so emotionally raw and negative.

BUT at some point in the lament there is a remembrance of how God has been present in the person’s life before, and a prayer that the person will feel God in their life again – even if they don’t feel God’s presence now. And that idea is key – the fact that you don’t feel God now, but you remember that He was in your life, and you invite him back in to help you deal with it.

The idea of Christmas is a happy thing. God is being incarnated, and a baby is being born. But he’s being born because we have sorrow in our lives, and God wants to connect with us in our sorrow, remind us that He is always there, and give us hope.

So if you’ve got tough times and this Advent/Christmas isn’t working out for you, or in the future if Epiphany isn’t working out for you, or Lent isn’t working out for you, or Pentecost isn’t working out for you, sit down with God and lament. Invite him into your pain. God knows and understands that it’s all part of the relationship that He having with us.

And if you do that – even if you might not be feeling the merry and bright – Christ will be with you this Christmas.

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Keeping Christ in Christmas

December 3, 2017             1st Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9              I Corinthians 1:3-9                  Mark 13:24-37

Many of you know my birthday is on December 19th, which is exactly one week before Christmas.  But did you know that I was actually supposed to be born on Christmas – my original due date was December 25th.  My mother really wanted me to be a Christmas baby, but I was born a week early, so she missed. When I found out about this I was happy that my birthday wasn’t on Christmas, because I actually knew a few kids who had their birthday on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, or the day after Christmas, and all of those kids didn’t like their birthday, because their birthday had to compete with Christmas.

As a kid I thought that their complaints about the set-up were perfectly legitimate. The most common complaint was that they would often get one present for Christmas and their birthday. And it was always phrased with, “I’m getting you a double present.” The problem with that is: kids are smart. They can’t do higher-level calculus, but kids know when things are not equitable. The average kid knows that a toy costs X-amount, so a double present to cover Christmas and the birthday should be double the X-amount. Kids can do that kind of math and they know when an adult is being cheap and trying to get away with just one present. The second complaint was that they could never have birthday parties because everyone was already doing a Christmas Eve something at church, or having Christmas with their families on Christmas day, or it was just too much trouble to have a party the day after Christmas.

Now I want to say that I think birthdays and birthday parties they should be celebrated because life is precious and there is nothing wrong with saying, “Yes, I made it through another year. Good and bad, I got through it, I’m still here, let’s get back out there and do some more.”

But I am bothered about the fact that our society is entrenched on treating Christmas like everyone’s second birthday. You know what I’m talking about – the commercials have started. The hardware stores are advertising the tools for men; the car companies are doing the family and non-family vehicles; the department stores are showing toys and giant screen TVs; the computer and phone companies are showing the gadgets; the jewelry stores are reminding the men that the special lady in your life is definitely expecting something expensive in a small box; decorating stores are reminding us that the in-laws must not be disappointed at your décor when they come over for dinner; and everyone is reminding us that we need to purchase more lights so that each piece of property has more wattage-use than a small African village.

Where is Christ in all this?

The reason why we have this holiday does have to do with gift-giving, but not between ourselves – rather it has to do with the fact that God, the ultimate creator of the universe, gave to us, the incarnation of himself through his son. And with that incarnation we were given the gift of assurance that God understands us because he lived us. The gift of salvation because he understands how and why we sin, and because of that we know that when we do acknowledge our sins and try to work on their solution with God that we will find the absolution that is there already with God’s love. And since we have absolution then we also have the chance of eternal life with God, not only after we shuffle off this mortal coil but also now while we are working on this mortal coil.

Assurance, plus solutions, leading to absolution, which leads to salvation, and equals eternal life. All adding up to one of the most precious gifts that can be given: the Gift of Hope. Hope that no matter how bad things get that they will get better. Hope that no matter how badly we mess up, we can work on a solution. Hope that no matter how confusing it is, it will make sense; if not now, then someday.   Hope that no matter how much we have lost, there will be a resurrection to something better. And that hope leads us into the faith that keeps us going.

That was the gift of Jesus.

Now I am not saying that we shouldn’t give gifts on Christmas – gifts show people that we care about them. In our hectic life we often forget to say thank you or show people how much we really appreciate them. So in this season, when God gave us the greatest gift that He could, it’s the perfect time to give love and appreciation to people. I’m just not sure how a 50” screen TV expresses the love of Christ. (Unless someone with horrible eyesight really needs it) It expresses my love for watching football or movies, but not my love of Christ.

So I think the way out of this materialistic tangle is for us to ask ourselves: On Jesus’ birthday, what gift could we give to Him? And that gets me thinking of the third commandment that Jesus gave to us: to love others as Jesus loved us. So the best way to give a gift to Jesus on HIS birthday is to ask yourself: What gift would Jesus like me to give to someone?

And let’s use the gift that God gave us as a guideline: The Gift of Hope. What gift could you give to someone that would give them hope?

That’s sometimes a really tough question to ask and answer. If you sit with that one for a while you understand why people fall back to the 50” screen TV. In order to give someone the gift of hope you have to really consider what is happening in their life. You need to listen and learn about what is going on with them, and you need to find the place in their lives where they have the least amount of hope, or no hope. Where do they need assurance? Where and what are their difficulties? Where are they sick, or hungry? What have they done wrong that needs help with making things right? What can you do to take a little bit of the stress off of them and help them to find some peace?

Answering those questions might bring you into a level of intimacy that you might not find comfortable. And then, once you do discover someone’s place of no-hope or need, you might find that it can be really tough to get something in motion. You know the old Chinese saying: Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day (that’s a short term solution); teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime (that’s a long term solution).

If only the long-term solution was as easy to do as it sounds. Fishing requires equipment; do you or they know how to access it? Can you afford to access it? Do you or they know how to use it? Do you know where to find the fish? Or even what fish would be the best for them that would keep them fed?

It’s overwhelming questions like this that scare us away from trying to help people long term, because we worry that we will get it wrong. It’s easier to give them a fish.  And there is also the possibility that if you go through all that, even though you want to teach someone to fish, maybe they don’t want to learn, and then you’ll feel that your effort will be wasted.

But don’t worry about your effort being wasted – because if you dedicate that gift to Jesus you will get some help, not only in the planning but also in the giving.

After all, not every one understands a gift when they receive it. We’ve all been given gifts that we thought were not-so useful at one time and then a few years later they are the perfect thing that we need for a situation. Maybe what you give someone now isn’t appreciated – but it is appreciated by Jesus, because Jesus can hold onto to it for you and put it to use with them later. Trust him to do that.

And sometimes someone doesn’t accept your gift. As a gift-giver it can hurt to have your gift of help and love rejected – but take a breath and think: How many gifts has God given you that you didn’t use at one time or another? Did you think you were ready for them at the time? God gives us the free will to accept or reject Christ and God’s love, but Christ and God don’t reject us when we reject them. Pray for that person and maybe down the line they will have the strength to pick up what you gave them, and that will get them out of their hopelessness and back on track.

Don’t let the fear of not-knowing if it will work or rejection keep you from giving hope. Even a little hope, a little caring, goes a long way. I challenge you all this season to find one person who is in need of hope and to give them something to get hope. Maybe all you can do is give them a short-term hope, and that could be enough, remember any blessing is still a blessing. But maybe you can show them how they can learn something to have continual hope. When you do that you will keep Christ in Christmas and be giving Him the best birthday present he could have.

 

 

 

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The King of Love

November 26, 2017               Christ the King

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24          Ephesians 1:15-23      Matthew 25:31-46

       Christ the King Sunday is the newest day in the liturgical year. Did you know that it was added to the calendar by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, in response to increasing secularization movements worldwide? But it was most particularly in response to the plight of Mexican Christians who were being told by their government that people should only have allegiance to their government, and that the church shouldn’t have any allegiance in their lives. The Church in Mexico pushed back, holding public parades throughout the land (with significant governmental interference) with people marching and chanting, “Christ is King!” That declaration inspired Pope Pius XI to declare a new holy day, Christ the King Sunday. Originally it was celebrated in October but after Vatican II, Rome officially declared its observance would be on the final Sunday of the Christian Year. When Protestants adopted the Revised Common Lectionary and its calendar, we also adopted this Sunday as an observance.

It seems logical that we should acknowledge at the end of the Christian year the place that Christ occupies in our heart, because all through the year, as we examine the aspects of Christ’s life we try to become more like Christ. In this democratic society, some people might be put off by the title of “King,” but if you think about it you realize that by making Christ the ruler of our lives we are holding ourselves to a high ideal to be as Christ-like as we can.

Think of what an ideal king or ruler is. First of all, they dedicate themselves to the welfare of their people. They want to make sure that people are fed, clothed, and housed properly – that they have their basic needs met. That means that they create a kingdom where everyone can be productive and work for what they need.

Christ as the ideal king dedicated himself to our welfare. It’s true that except for the miraculous loaves and fish, he didn’t really provide food, clothing, and shelter, but he reminds us that all that we have ultimately comes from God and that we need to live in an attitude of gratitude for our blessings. He also continually told his disciples to share what they had with those who had less than they did. And we do know that the first disciples created a society among themselves that was dedicated to caring and providing for each other’s needs, and in which everyone could be productive and help each other.

Ideally in a perfect kingdom there would be no poor or sick people. Even if a person might fall on hard times and not be able to work, the king would make sure that the society would be structured to help them get back on their feet. I don’t think we’re going to eliminate disease in our world of bacteria and virus, but the king would make sure that treatment is available to everyone. Christ dedicated himself to healing others, both in body and in mind, and taught his disciples how to do the same.

Another aspect of a perfect king would be the equal respect that he would have for all of his people. A person with lesser means is not going to be treated differently under the law from someone who has money. The king, as final arbitrator, would enforce justice equally to everyone.

Christ treated everyone with equal respect, even those people who were his enemies. I am always struck at how respectful his discourse is, even with people who are trying to entrap him into saying something that would get him into trouble. One event that comes to my mind is when he rebukes the Pharisee who is treating the woman who washes his feet with contempt. He corrects the Pharisee with the truth, but also with a measure of respect, and then shows the woman respect by valuing the gift that she has given him. To Christ, everyone was equal, and what sets us apart from each other is not our economic or social power, but how fairly we treat each other as human beings.

Finally a king must be willing to defend his people. He must be willing to go out and battle the world when his kingdom is threatened. Christ was not a military leader, but he took on the biggest battle that we face everyday: The battle with ourselves, our abilities and the choices that we need to make. We go out everyday into the world and try to do the right thing and very often find ourselves doing the wrong thing. We make mistakes in the name of battling the evils of injustice, poverty, ignorance, power, and greed. We get caught up in temptations and distractions that wound ourselves and others. But we have a defense against all those evils in Christ. Christ was born in this world to be us, and battled all the evil that we battle. Then he died defending us against evil by giving us the assurance that if we keep Christ in our hearts that we will be forgiven, because God will see our true selves, and we will have a place with Him now and forever.

So as the just-king is the ideal ruler, Christ is our ideal role model for our own lives. We need to try to dedicate ourselves to our own and the welfare of others. We need to be grateful for what is in our lives and keep helping others become productive citizens who can provide for their needs. We need to help heal others in body, mind, and spirit. We need to treat others with equality, dignity, and respect. And we must be willing to engage in the battle against evil – the forces that create negativity and harm – rather than the force of goodness that creates renewing actions of compassion.

Think for a moment of the opposite of the ideal king – the evil forces that are epitomized in the tyrant. The tyrant doesn’t dedicate himself to enriching his people, only to enriching himself. He doesn’t care about their health or wellbeing, only about his own and maybe a close circle of friends who keep him in power. He doesn’t treat others with equality or respect; the value of a person is based on what they can do for the tyrant, not on the value of simply being a human being. And he is not interested in defending anyone else’s property or interest, unless it is related to the safety of his own. The tyrant’s actions lead only to him, not to his fellow humans, and not to God.

Underneath the tyrant and the ideal-king are their motivating emotions. The tyrant loves only himself, possibly others who can benefit him, and hates those who don’t benefit him. The ideal king however is motivated by love. Yes, he has a love for himself but it is connected to the love and compassion that he shows for all his fellow humans, because he sees that whatever positive action they do, is going to help everyone around them.

God’s motivation is Love.   Love for us is why he was willing to come to earth to be with us. By being incarnated as one of us he showed us that he was willing to live and work along side us to allow us to see that He understands us. Love is why Christ sacrificed himself on the cross for us, so that we would be free of the burden that sin weighs on our minds when we think that we can never undo or be free of the mistakes or even the evil that we have done. Love is why the Holy Spirit was given to us – to guide us through life when things become uncertain. Love is why we feel the presence of God when life is both good and bad.

If we want to be like Christ, our ideal king, our motivating emotion should be love. We don’t feed the hungry, heal the sick, do justice, and respect people just because we should. We do it because we love humanity, recognize the value of all people, and we want to show that love with action. And yes, humans can be annoying, and frustrating, and dim-witted at times but underneath that we are worthy of being loved, even when we don’t feel we’re worthy. We can all love – we just have to practice loving others. And if you find it particularly difficult to love someone don’t you worry about loving them – just give them to Christ to love first and he’ll take care of it while you practice and work on catching up.

Christ our ideal King begins with love. It’s something that we should remember as we start down into this crazy season of shopping, parties, families and friends. If we can practice living and being with love in our hearts – then Christ will truly become our king.

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Choose God

November 12, 2017               23rd Sunday of Pentecost

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25          1 Thessalonians 4:13-18        Matthew 25:1-13

        The time from All Saint’s Day until Christ the King Sunday is called the Season of Saints. It’s about 4-5 weeks long, depending on the calendar, and in pre-reformation days, it was the time for a church to celebrate the saints who meant something to the people of that particular church.   Most churches had a patron saint for their church, and then there was usually a saint or two from the area kicking around, and maybe a national saint, and maybe a saint from a “foreign land” would be celebrated to give a little flair to the season.

This isn’t a major biblical season, like Advent, so once the protestant reformation kicked in, with the emphasis on only God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the season of saints became irrelevant.   But this season has begun to have a bit of a comeback because there is always a need to look at what the characteristics are that make a good Christian, and a saint is the uber-type of Christian.

Today we heard the story of a public conversation between Joshua, the successor to Moses who brought the people into their promised homeland, and the leaders of the Israelites.  Joshua speaks as the representative of God, and tells the story of the beginning of their connection with God. He starts his story with Abraham, who was called out of his homeland, near the Euphrates River, by God.

Most of the Israelites knew that God had given Abraham the choice of serving God alone as his sole deity. This is a pretty big choice for someone to make who had grown up in a culture of multiple gods. I’m sure that Abraham was kind of blown away by the concept that there could be only one god. But there is something offered in this choice: if Abraham does follow God and worship only this one deity then God is going to watch over Abraham and help him find a permanent home to live in. Abraham doesn’t reject this idea – he listens to God, decides to follow God, and takes his wife and begins his travels towards the land of Canaan. He travels into Canaan and then is forced to go to Egypt because of a famine, and after a few more adventures around the Middle East finally makes it back to Canaan where he and God cement their covenant in a ritual that you can find in Genesis 15:7-19.

But before the choice that God gave to Abraham to follow Him there was another choice that was made: God chose Abraham as the person He was going to ask to be his follower.

First our God made a choice to call this man Abraham, and then offered it to Abraham, who chose to pay attention, accepted the offer and devote his life to following where God led him. God acted first. God called. Then Abraham choose to forsook all other allegiances and follow.

Joshua frames this narrative because God is giving the Israelites the same choice again. You see just as Abraham lived in a culture that worshiped multiple gods, the Israelites had also been living in a culture that worshipped multiple gods. As an oppressed people they had been exposed to the theology and worship of the Egyptian Gods and had been affected by them.   They had been the minority living in a country that was all-powerful in the region, and I am sure that many Israelites felt that perhaps their God wasn’t so important or powerful because their own culture was mostly enslaved to the dominate culture which had these beautiful temples and rituals. It is the nature of humans to be impressed with the bigger and the more beautiful and THINK that it is the better.

But now God is saying to them, you have the choice that your ancestor Abraham did. Before you enter the land that was promised to you, you have to decide if you are going to follow Me, or the other gods of Egypt that you grew up with, or even the gods that your ancestors served before Abraham, or even the gods of the region that you are going to walk into.

Joshua declares that he and his household are going to commit to serve God. And then the multitude says that they are going to commit to serve God. Understand they had a CHOICE to serve or not to serve God, and that day they chose to follow God.

God of course wants all of us to follow Him. God wants all of us to be a part of his family. God wants all of us to serve Him by loving everyone around us as if they are a part of our family. But God also has a personal relationship with each of us: He chooses us to be His child and then turns around and gives us a chance to choose Him as our God.

We can choose to be a part of God’s family or not. We can choose to worship and serve God or not. We have the choice to worship other things and make them into gods, like money and power. The greatest and scariest gift that God gave to us is our free will. God’s want us to come to Him, but he wants us freely and willingly, not as oppressed slaves like the Israelites were in Egypt, possibly worshiping something they didn’t believe in out of fear for their lives. When we come to him freely then our hearts and souls will be truly be His, because the giving of our hearts and souls will be an action of love in itself.

That moment of choice, when we say that we will follow God, is the first step we take to sainthood. The second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, etc. . . step is when we try to live it.

Sometimes that choice to follow God is easy. It is easy to be kind to people who you love you and who love you back. It is easy to give to charity when you have extra. It is easy to walk the path of righteousness when it is well lit. Now I don’t want to disparage the easy parts. I have heard people say, “Well yeah, she gave all that money to charity, but she’s got that big corporate job and is filthy rich, so she can afford to give it away.” Hey, check that at the door! Nobody ever has to give anything away – they do it because they want to, because they choose to. Maybe it’s not the widow’s mite, giving all they have, but it is giving, and it should never be snarled at. Any and all giving blesses the world and should be praised and rejoiced.

Sometimes the choice to follow God is not so easy. It is hard to be kind to people who don’t seem to care. It’s a little tough sometimes to be charitable when you’re on the edge of needing charity. Sometimes being right and fair is a couple of steps forward and one or two steps back. Sometimes when you are fair no one seems to get ahead. Sometimes we make a wrong turn, with the best intentions. We commit those negative actions that we don’t mean to do and hurt people. Sometimes the way forward is not well lit.

Well, that is when God’s love kicks in. The love that sent Himself incarnated to us in Jesus, to assure us that He understands us. God has walked this road with us and seen what we see, and understands that sometimes are choices are made with the best intentions but don’t work out. God is here to try to help us out if we choose to reach out and connect with him. We can take the time to pray, meditate, use our minds and hearts, and open them to the Holy Spirit to help us. We always have that choice to reach out to God. And unlike what some people might think, reaching out to God is not a sign of weakness, it is a path of strength that God gives to us that we can use.

And sometimes the choice to follow God is really hard. There are a lot of things in this world that can tempt us and get us away from the choice of God and get us to worship other things. And a lot of them are connected to fear. The fear of poverty can lead us to love and worship of money. The fear of being helpless can lead us to a desire for power and control. The fear of being alone can lead us into bad relationships. The fear of unhappiness can lead us into alcohol and drugs.   But God understands our fears and assures us that He will be with us always. There are a number of promises in the resurrection. First, that God will be with us always, second that all bad things can change and be made new, and third that, no matter what our situation, God is never going to abandon us. We do not need to live in fear, because God chose us, and when we choose God, God is going to help us through.

Remember, God offered to bring Abraham into a land “of milk and honey” that would be his own forever. That was going to be his reward for choosing to follow God. Well, God is going to bring us into a better place if we choose to follow Him. But we need to make the choice to follow, and then make the commitment to follow, even when it seems that following God is not an option in this world. That’s the enemy speaking – there is always an option with God

Abraham was given the choice to follow God. The Israelites were given the choice to follow God. As He liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, He also liberates us from slavery to sin and death through the faith that we have with His gift of free-will to accept His other gift of Christ’s salvation to us.

Choose God; act with God; love with God, and you will be led to your place that God has made ready for you.

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Witnessing to the Saints in Our Lives

November 5, 2017                 All Saints Day Celebration

Revelations 7:9-17      1 John 3:1-3               Matthew 5:1-12

Many of you know I was raised Presbyterian, and Presbyterians don’t celebrate any of the extra Christian holidays. Basically it was Advent without the candles (The only reason why I knew about advent candles was because my mother, who was raised Catholic-Episcopalian-Methodist had an advent candle tree!) Christmas, Lent (sort of), Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost.

We never celebrated the extra stuff like Ash Wednesday, or the Baptism of Jesus, or All Saints Day. Especially not All Saints Day, because those saints were those people who were all Catholic, and Pope connected. Presbyterians are Protestant efficient – You’re supposed to concentrate on God and Jesus, and maybe the Holy Ghost got mentioned once in a while. The Virgin Mary was Jesus’ mother, and she only got mentioned during the Christmas story.

Can you imagine what it was like for me when I started to attend the Methodist Church and it was announced that All Saint’s Day was coming up, so be sure to let Rev. Hawes know who you want to have remembered this year! WHAT! Methodists have saints?

Okay – then I found out that for Methodists the saints are NOT people who have been canonized by a higher church authority. Of course, if you want to you can incorporate the admiration of traditional saints into your life, but usually for us saints are ordinary people who have gone before us to God’s glory and given us an example of how we should live as Christians.  As a teacher I related to this because I had been trained in modeling as learning method. One of the ways to succeed at learning or mastering something is to find someone who had succeeded at what you want to do, find out how they became good at it, and then copy their technique. So it follows that a good way to become a good Christian is to copy the life of good Christians.

Let’s imagine that we are sitting in a circle and the leader says to us: Name an attribute that someone should have, which would mark them as a Christian. An attribute that you could take on for yourself.

The first word that comes to my mind is that a person should be loving to other people, because the active verb of the three great commandments is love: Love of God, love of ourselves and other people, and love of our actions in Christ. The last one is important – we don’t love others in the way that Christ loved us because we HAVE to, rather we love-to-love others – it’s an enjoyment because we are all sharing and plugging into the universal love of God.

Now if we move to the person on my right she might pick up the theme and say that a Christian is not only loving but respectful. Not only of other people but of people’s choices. For instance if a person needs to choose to spend time with their family rather than spend it with their friends, a Christian respects that choice and doesn’t feel slighted. Someone who is respectful attempts to understand where another person is coming from and what is important to them.

The next person might say that a Christian should be hard working or maybe even industrious. This a John Wesley point. Wesley didn’t think that a person should work so hard that they excluded their family or friends, or that a person shouldn’t take some time to relax and rejuvenate themselves, but he did feel that a good Christian examined his or her life and tried to make the most efficient and balanced use of their time.   Some time should be spent at work, some time with family, some relaxing, some with mission, and definitely some with worship, either publically or privately.

Another person might say that a Christian should have integrity. Integrity has two meanings: that you have strong, honest, moral principles, and that you have a whole or undivided character.   I think the basis of a good moral principle is a belief or action that moves away from the negativity of SIN and towards the rejuvenation of GRACE. A person who has a whole or undivided character is someone who is consistent in all their actions no matter what facet of life they are dealing with. They are not just Christians in one part of their lives and neglect being Christian in the others, like at work because being a Christian might not be convenient. Whether they are dealing with their relationships, their work, or their spiritual life they apply the principles of generous-renewing-actions-of-compassion to their lives. And finally a person who is honest, is honet with others and with themselves. An honest person is willing to examine their life, evaluate if the pieces are working well together, and repair what needs to be repaired.

And then another person might say that, besides being loving, a Christian should be joyous that they are alive and living on this world, which allows them to learn and to love God. I recently read an article about praising God. It talked about how people who were thankful for what they had were happier, but that people who praised God for their blessings as well as thanking God were more joyful. That was a light-bulb moment for me because I thought: Yes I am thankful to God, but I need to consciously praise God more when I thank Him. I’m actually trying to thank and praise God now.

It actually feels a little funny when you first start to do it. I sort of felt uncomfortable like I was equating God to puppy dog who was learning to sit or stay. (Oh what a good little puppy you are for sitting.) And I know that as New Englanders we aren’t always good with praise – I know I’m not. It sometimes makes me feel embarrassed, and then I forget to say “thank you” to someone who praises me. But I tried it the other day. I thanked God for something and then I praised Him. I said: Thank you God for my garden and all the beautiful flowers and vegetables that we get from it. You are such an awesome God to make these beautiful plants and these delicious foods that we eat.   And that actually deepened my thankfulness because by praising God I became connected to more than my garden – I become connected to all of God’s creation. Everybody try it sometime.

But getting back to our saints. There was a line in John’s letter that really struck me: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Hmmm. The world did not know God. I think that’s still true. I think the world, our society, our national and international order, is aware of God, but it doesn’t know God, and it doesn’t really actively seek to know God. Even though society might try to know God it gets tangled up in the politics of itself and the play of human power against human power.

But INDIVIDUALS are trying to know God, and a lot of individuals are really working at it, and some of us are even succeeding. Although, sometimes we might feel like the people in Jesus’ beatitudes: Poor in spirit; sad for our losses; lacking in power to do anything; and wanting more fairness in the world. But Jesus tells us that even though we might feel that way, we are still blessed by God. We just need to keep on trying to be compassionate; try to keep our hearts with God; try to keep on making peace; try to keep going when the world seems against us because God is with us and blessing us all the way.

So today we honor all those people in our lives who weren’t perfect but who taught us how to love; how to respect; how to work hard; how to have honesty and integrity; how to live with Grace; how to be joyous with God; and how to keep on being the best we can be, even though the world doesn’t seem to get our brand of love for each other. If our saints could keep on in this imperfect world so can we. And later we will meet them and we’ll get to tell them how much they influenced our lives in God’s Glory.

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Foundation of Faith

October 29, 2017       21st Sunday in Pentecost

Deuteronomy 34:1–12            1 Thessalonians 2:1–8                        Matthew 22:34–46

Happy 500th year anniversary of the Reformation! On October 31 Martin Luther posted 95 points of debate against the practice of indulgences on either the door of the church or on the wall of All Saint’s Church in Wittenburg, where he was serving as a priest – there is debate on which action it was. You know, when I learned about this action in school it was presented to me as an act of defiance against the church. In actuality Luther was just following local custom.

You see, besides being one of the resident priests and ministers of All Saint’s Church he was also a professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenburg. And it was customary for professors to post theological points of debate on church doors or walls for a few weeks each year, beginning on October 31 and ending in mid-November. This was how the university put out talking points that the teachers and students would participate in.   Most of those debates were contemporary issues. Today for instance we might post the issues about the pro and cons of having sports on Sunday, or whether one denomination should be in communion with another.

But back then the hot topic was the sale of indulgences. The sale came about because the Vatican was in a financial crisis. The last few Popes had spent more money on enriching themselves and their families than they had on maintaining the property that was the seat of the Catholic Church. The physical Vatican, known as St. Peter’s Basilica, had been terribly neglected over the years and was literally falling down. Bricks were coming loose from the buildings and hitting, or near missing, people on the heads.

Pope Leo X, who had inherited the mess, was desperate to save his living space. So he resurrected a practice that had been used, in a limited way, in the past: The sale of indulgences.

Indulgences actually started in the early church as prescribed prayers or works of charity, for the penitence of sins, which were supervised by a priest to validate them. Well, you might say – there is nothing wrong with that. An act of charity is a valid action of penitence. The problem was that over the centuries more people had used the act of donating to the church as the way to get an indulgence. A bell-tower for your local cathedral was an act of penitence and would help to get you a place in heaven.

Pope Leo took it to another level. He let it be known that your space in heaven was assured if you donated to the rebuilding of St. Peter’s. Since everyone believed back then that you would go to purgatory to be cleansed of your sins before you could go to heaven, then if you were willing to donate to the Vatican a certain sum of money, your sins would be forgiven, and your trip through purgatory wouldn’t take as long, or you would bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven.

Usually indulgences were used for the living and the wealthy. But Leo uberized indulgences. First of all, he made indulgences allowable not only for something that you did, but as insurance for something that you might do in the future. Second, he not only targeted the wealthy, he also targeted the middle class and the poor by allowing smaller pieces of indulgences: He priced them by year: so much money = so many years off the purgatory sentence. Third, not only could you buy an indulgence for yourself, but you could also buy an indulgence for a family member who had died.

It was one of the most diabolical marketing campaigns of history. It played on people’s fears of purgatory; it played on their desires of heaven; it was available to everyone; and it was affordable. Maybe you wouldn’t get mom and dad out of purgatory entirely, but hey, getting them five or ten years closer to those pearly gate – isn’t that what a good son or daughter does?

It is also interesting to note that Pope Leo was born a Medici, the richest and most powerful Italian family. This is why one of the debate points in Luther’s Theses is that since the Pope comes from one of the wealthiest families in the world, he should pay for the building himself, and not take the money out of the mouths of poor people through fear.

Now God might not like some of the real estate deals that we’ve done down here, but we’ve got license in this territory. God, however, does not like it though when we try to sell real estate in heaven. That is His territory, and we do not have license for that. And I am sure that God saw what was happening and said, “Oh no. This is not going down. Who shall I send? I’ve always worked well with lawyers. Paul was a lawyer; Augustine was a lawyer. We also need a theologian; a theologian who is also a lawyer. Hmmm. Can’t be too old – he’ll seem out of date. Can’t be too young – he’ll seem like an upstart. Needs to be established and respected enough so that people will take him seriously. Ah yes, there’s that moral theological professor in Wittenburg, trained in law before he became a priest.   Just the right establishment, just the right age, just the right stubbornness. And he knows that the main treasure of the Church should be the Gospels and the Grace of God.” (Theses number 62)

Martin Luther understood that we, as humans, stand between two conditions: The condition of SIN, which as you know I like to define as Systemic or Spontaneous Inflictions of Negativity, and the condition of GRACE. And for Grace I like to define it as Generous Renewing Actions of Compassion Everyday. God, I would say, operates with Generous Renewing Actions of Compassion ETERNALLY, but we’re human and stuck in time. So we have to plug ourselves into God on an everyday basis.

Participation in Sin takes us away from God; Participation in Grace moves us closer to God. We are justified, or made right in our lives, by our faith in God, because when we have faith in God, we accept his renewing actions of compassion that lead us away from sin.

Those actions can come from anywhere. Sometimes acts of compassion come from people we love. We kind of expect those, to the point that sometimes we aren’t as grateful as we should be for them. Sometimes they come from friends or acquaintances, which can be expected or surprising, depending on the circumstance. And we should also be thankful for them. Sometimes they come unexpectedly from the world. Those we don’t expect and sometimes I think that those are the ones we are most grateful for because they are so unexpected. We should be equally grateful for all of them, because all acts of compassion come from God’s love. No matter who gives you compassion it is a reflection of the ultimate love that God has for us.

And that love isn’t given to us because we paid for it. That was the problem with the system of indulgences. It set up the idea that before you even got to God’s love you had to pay for it. It was the reverse of how it actually is – God loves us to begin with. God loves us before we sin, while we sin, and even after we sin.

Now that doesn’t give us a free pass. We still have to repent, or turn ourselves around and move in a different direction, when we sin. The only thing that counters sin is grace. The only thing that is going to repair and heal an infliction of negativity is an action of generous, renewing, compassion. And it can’t be a quid pro quo: I insulted someone, now I’m going to buy them flowers, or I continually support an immoral company, so I’m going to send money to African orphans. That’s operating in a system of indulgences. That’s not what God wants.

What God wants is for us to change our hearts; to open our hearts; to love God with all our body, mind and soul and to love others, and to love ourselves. And finally to love others as Christ loved us – using Generous Renewing Actions of Compassion Every day, like Jesus did in our Gospel stories.

The good thing about remembering the reformation is that it celebrates the re-forming of ourselves as we make our journey of faith with Christ and the Grace of God. Martin Luther walked that road. It was a tough one when he walked it. We’ve kind of got it easy compared to him; we don’t need to change the entire paradigm of a system. We just need to uphold the reforming of ourselves everyday.

So today celebrate your re-forming with God’s love. Celebrate the GRACE in your life. Celebrate Gracious Renewing Actions of Compassion by thanking people and God for them and by giving them to others. When you do you will be living right with God.

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