The Great Invitation to Give and Receive

January 29, 2017                   4th Sunday of Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8      1 Corinthians 1:18-31         Matthew 5:1-12

The scriptures that we read today are two of my favorite in the lectionary. The reason why I like this pairing is because they encapsulate so much of what our Judeo-Christianity is about.

Every scripture has time and cultural context. Micah lived in a time when the country of Judah was doing rather well over all but there was a lot of exploitation in business and temple practices. There were a lot of nouveau-riche people in the economy, mostly in Jerusalem, who were showing off their wealth. And priests of the Temple, when people came to give a sin offering, were taking advantage of this by promoting that it was better to sacrifice twice or more of the standard amount to show true contrition. It was sort of like what we went through in the Renaissance with the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences.   You could buy your way out of sin without having to change your heart.

Micah slams that practice so beautifully by naming those rivers of oil, and rams, and calves, and then saying that in the end they are all worthless before the Lord, because all God really wants is for us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Basically that’s it. Oh, He’s not going to turn down those sin offerings. He’s not going to turn down our confessions and our prayers. He will accept and listen to each of them, because our connection to Him is very important.   But our only job in this world is to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And if we walk with God then God will walk with us. But we’ve got get on with it and be walking with God!

About three hundred years later along comes Jesus. And one of his intentions was to teach us how to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And today we read the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which very much outlines Jesus’ message of how to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God in chapters 5, 6 & 7.

But Jesus doesn’t start by saying what we should and shouldn’t do. He starts by blessing the crowd. But when we read these blessings we need to a little careful as to how we interpret them.   A lot of people read them as cause/effect statements. In other words, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he isn’t saying that you are blessed with the kingdom of heaven because you are poor in spirit or that you are blessed with comfort because you are in mourning.

What Jesus is doing here is pronouncing a blessing on the people who have come to hear him teach. And he is blessing them so that they will think differently about the way the world works. In Jesus’ teaching he is describing how we are to live as God’s people in this world and he’s saying right off the bat that because we are God’s children, no matter what our condition is, that we are blessed.

Even though Jesus starts out his sermon by saying that we are blessed we need to remember that blessings flow two ways.

Many of you have heard me say that one way to start a connection with God is to remember our blessings. I don’t like the phrase count your blessings because I feel like it’s too much of a quantifier of blessings. As if: You have a lot of little blessings they are somehow equal to or better than a few big blessings.   I believe that all blessings are important. A blessing that seems like a small blessing now might turn out to be a HUGE blessing down the road. So I like to say instead: remember your blessings and say thank you for them.

But even when we remember our blessings we usually only think about the blessings that we receive, not the blessings that we give. I actually think that they go hand-in-hand with each other because often the blessings that we give become the blessings that we receive later on. What’s the verse 11:1 from Ecclesiastes? Cast your bread on the water and it will come back. I don’t think we should deliberately look for it, but often blessings do come back in another form.

Receiving blessings can sometimes be hard to do. I love doing favors for people, but sometimes it is very hard for me to accept help when it is offered, or ask for help when I need it. Often my initial reaction is to resist. You know the, “Oh, I don’t want to impose on you.”   When that happens I often need to remind myself that by accepting or asking for someone’s blessing I am allowing them to give me a blessing – so then we are both blessed. Besides, why should I hog all the fun and be the only person who gives blessings?

Blessings can be found in so many places. We can be blessed by having a house to live in, but we are also blessed by the places that we have access to. If you think about it public parks are also part of our living space. I can go out and enjoy the Sharon Green just as easily as I enjoy my living room. Think of all the beautiful trails we have in this area to walk around in, and all the free knowledge I have access to through our library system.

We are also blessed by the people around us. Yes, sometimes people can be difficult, but for the most part we can learn and grow from them even if we do find it difficult to sometimes love them.

A place that we all have that is a living space, a learning space, and a people space is a church. Our church is a blessing. It’s a place to come and to rest your weary mind. It is a place to be built up spiritually. It is a place to find hope. It is a space to use for everything from a Bible Study, to an AA meeting, to a knitting group. But most importantly it is a place to build, form, and sustain disciples.

A lot of research has been done over the years, both religious and secular, centered on the action of giving and receiving. It has been found that generous givers are typically more spiritually vigorous and happier than those who are not generous. This extends beyond giving money to the church, so that it can continue as both a spiritual entity and as a community place. We give to the church not just because it is the right thing to do and we want to maintain this building, but because in our hearts we believe that what we do here not only uplifts and strengthens ourselves but also is a mission to uplift and strengthen others; both those who our beyond our community doors as well as those in our community.

Think back to Micah. His disgust wasn’t about the offerings – it was about the spirit of the offerings. The fact that all those people thought they could offer lots of stuff to the priests, and that would ensure God’s blessing in return. But actually if they had changed their hearts and walked with God then they could have used all the extra oil, rams, and calves to help their neighbors who were in distress.

Think forward to Jesus, who is telling all of us that we are blessed already. We are blessed even if we don’t feel spiritually worthy; or are mourning a loved one; or are caught up in a struggle to do the right thing; or have no political or social power; or are trying to be charitable; or we just don’t have the ability to ward off the hurt in life; or we try to make peace in a world in conflict.

Think of that – We Are Blessed Already. And the big thing that Jesus is trying to do is to create our lives so that we share our blessings with each other. Whether it is our time, our money, or our expertise; our job is to share our blessings with others.

So I challenge you to accept Jesus and God’s invitation to give and receive generously. Remember and recognize your blessings. Thank God for them. Look for ways that you can give as well. And then thank God for those opportunities in your life. As you receive and give, and give and receive, you will be strengthened as a disciple, you will live with abundant blessings, and your connection with God will multiply and grow.

And we will all be able to rejoice and be glad, for not only will our reward be great in heaven, but also here as we live with our blessings below.

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The Invitation to Follow Christ

January 22, 2017       3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4      1 Corinthians 1:10-18           Matthew 4:12-23

Two weeks ago I introduced the idea of Baptism as the Invitation from God (via John and Christ) to wash our past away and to accept the chance to step out on a new path and a new way of being. But when you start a new way of being you don’t know how to be that new person. So Jesus gave the second invitation to come and see what his teachings are all about and how they connect you to God.

This week our Gospel story is about the next step: The invitation to follow Jesus. This invitation is different from come and see. To follow means that you are actually going to try to put Christ-ideas into practice in your life. A certain commitment is required from you to try and act on loving God with your whole being, loving yourself, loving those around you, and using the blue-print of Jesus’ love to accomplish that.

Some people are a little intimidating to me in the way that they follow Jesus. I’m not talking about the subway preachers who I used to encounter in NY City, who would basically yell at everyone and tell us all that we were going to hell if we didn’t accept Christ right now! I’m talking about people like Mother Teresa who went into the slums of Calcutta and helped the really poor people who had been rejected by society. Or someone like Bonheoffer who stood up to Hitler and spoke out against the state taking over the church and using it for its own ends. Or even all those Civil Rights ministers who marched against those fire hoses and dogs. I mean those people really made a dedicated effort to follow Christ and sometimes I feel that I can’t measure up to them.

To get over that intimidation I try to remember that just as everyone’s connection to God is unique and different so is everyone’s ministry going to be uniquely their own. That’s because everyone’s ministry is in a context of the place that they exist in when they follow Jesus. This Gospel story about Jesus calling the original disciples reminds us of the beginning of Christian ministry, but it also reminds us that all stories of people answering Jesus’ call to “follow me and I will make you fishers of people” are equally important. If someone is sitting in the pew, it is because he or she has heard the call to serve God by serving others. And it doesn’t matter where or how you serve God – as long as you serve God.

Now if you read Matthew from chapter one up to this part of chapter four you are suddenly thrown a plot twist with a verse from Isaiah. Matthew basically spends the first three plus chapters showing that Jesus is the Messiah because he is fulfilling all the Prophesies that described what he would be like. Then suddenly in chapter 4, verses 15 & 16, we take a left turn with a quote from the book of Isaiah about the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali in Galilee as “Galilee of the Gentiles” and a “land of deep darkness. Let me give you a little historic background on this.

During the time of Isaiah’s prophetic work Assyria, in 726 BC, had conquered and annexed the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (later Galilee) and exiled many of its people. Then, in 722 BC, Assyria, ordered other captured people to be relocated into the Zebulum and Nephtali territory. This was typical Assyrian policy. Take over territories, exile the strongest of the natives, leaving the “poor of the land,” then resettle the area with people of other languages, cultures, and religions so that they are all thoroughly disoriented and demoralized, with no cultural center, and therefore unlikely to be able to work together to rebel.

Over the centuries it stayed a multi-ethnic blend of peoples who had little wealth or power and no resources to defend themselves whenever the next overlord (Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome) would run over them. It was still “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Under Roman occupation, it had become a place of relative peace. But the history had left its deep wounds and the scars were still everywhere, wreaking damage on the image of these people. Remember the slight that Nathaniel gives about Jesus? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That’s because Galilee was still seen as the backwoods, nothing-good-happens-there area of Roman-Palestine.

But it was in this place, in the heart of darkness of Israel, that Jesus established the center of his public ministry. In fact our Gospel reading ends today by saying, “Jesus went around everywhere throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Think of that – Jesus started his ministry in the most hopeless area of his culture; the place that had been written off for centuries as being hopeless. These people were seen as being at best seen as second-class citizens of Judea, and perhaps lower among the religious leaders in Jerusalem. The Samaritans might have been seen as a bit lower, but not by much.

Think of what Jesus’ ministry meant to those people. Suddenly in their midst was a teacher, a preacher, and even a miracle worker. But most importantly, here was someone who was listening and responding to their pain, their loss, and their suffering. They needed the teaching and preaching, and miracle healing, but the healing they needed most of all was the kind that comes from listening and caring. They needed to know that they were valued children of God, who were worthy to receive the word of God, and who were worthy to become followers of the Messiah. That is what Jesus offered them.

Jesus came equally for those whom the culture has judged negatively, or oppressed, as well as those who are have security. He came for all people, for all of God’s children, all across this world, and he invites each one of us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done in this life, to join him in the work of discipleship, to join him in the work of transforming the world.

Jesus calls some of us to the adventure of serving in the mission field in a foreign land. Others are called to adventure closer to home, serving God’s people through service organizations and schools, through foodservice and legal assistance, through volunteering, through offering prayer and healing. Through talking with our neighbors and helping them out in their times of need. There are so many ways for God’s people to follow Jesus into the adventure of serving.

As we try to follow Jesus let’s think of where the-land-of-darkness is in our own lives.

Is it a person who is in a depression? Is it someone who is suffering from substance abuse? Is it a child who is missing a mother or a father and needs to have a foster grandparent? Is it a family that is living in uncertainty because they need some help with rent because only one parent can work; or help with babysitting because both parents need to work? Is there a community problem that needs fixing, or help, or organizing?

Every time you bring light into darkness with Jesus’ love you are following him. Jesus’ invitation to follow him starts with us sharing our love and God’s love with each other, and other’s who need love. Every small act of kindness and compassion, and one-to-one act of justice that we practice, is just as important as a big dramatic action that someone else might do for God. Remember Jesus’ calls us to act in the specific context in which we have been placed.

We don’t have to go to a war zone to follow Jesus. We don’t have to go to another country, or another city, or even another neighborhood. All we have to do is to tend the garden in which God has planted us, and nurture the people who God has placed in our community. And if each of us tended our community as best we could with God’s love, imagine how we could c

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Methodists in Sharon, CT

Preached at Sharon UMC.  Lakeville UMC had a different sermon since it was Sharon UMC’s Church Birthday.  The theological points are the same but the historic reference points are different.

January 15, 2017       2nd Sunday of Epiphany   Church Birthday 182 years

Isaiah 49:1-7        1 Corinthians 1:1-9         John 1:29-42

Methodism was in America before the Revolutionary War, so for all we know there were itinerate Methodist ministers popping in and out of Sharon before the United States was even a country. But we do know that the first recorded preaching of a Methodist minister in Sharon was in 1788.

Mr. Cook, who was a Methodist lay preacher, preached at Samuel Hitchcock’s house in the south part of town.   Apparently he was a really good preacher so he was invited to return. Now remember, back then there wasn’t any TV, so a good rip-rousing preacher on an afternoon was excellent entertainment, besides being good for the soul. The second time he preached so many people wanted to come and hear Mr. Cook speak that the organizers of this event had him preach in the ballroom of Gallow’s tavern to accommodate the amount of people. However, the members of the town council felt that that preaching in a tavern had crossed the line and was irreverent, so they told the tavern keeper that they wouldn’t renew his license if he did that again.

Little did they know that Mr. Cook was only following a Methodist tradition of preaching in taverns – or actually preaching anywhere. Methodists have preached on street corners, in mining camps, even John Wesley stood up on his father’s table-top gravestone and gave a rousing sermon.

Sharon was one of the main stops on the itinerant preacher circuits. One of the most colorful preachers on the circuit was Freeborn Garretson. One of his diary entries from the area says: Monday, September 25th, 1788, I preached a funeral sermon in the same neighborhood; and the devil sent out a woman with a pistol or two to shoot me. While I was preaching from ‘Acquaint now thyself with him, and be at peace, thereby good shall come unto thee,’ Job 22:21, she came in, and made so much noise that I stopped till they put her out and shut the door.

But my favorite story happened on July 23, 1789, when he came to the town of Sharon, in Connecticut, where he found a number of precious souls, to whom he preached in the open air, there being so many assembled that no house could accommodate them. Unfortunately at about 2:00 in the afternoon Freeborn went to the local meadow to catch his horse, which was picketed on a long rope. Somehow the rope got around him and the horse swept Freeborn off his feet. He blacked out and when he came to was really disoriented until he found his hat with his name in it. Seeing his name he remembered who he was. He made his way to the farmer’s house where they called for a doctor and discovered that Freeborn had: my right shoulder dislocated and my left wrist, thumb, and shoulder, and several fingers, much strained, my body severely bruised, and several contusions on my head. The doctor patched him up and he rested for a few days recovering. He said of the people of Sharon that: Many of the inhabitants of the town came in to see me, and my soul was so happy that I was constrained with tears to exhort all that came near. I think I never had so strong a witness of perfect love. I was enabled to bless God for the affliction, and would not have had it otherwise. I do believe it was rendered a blessing to the place.

            Probably sometime after that, the Methodist Society was formed in Sharon. We don’t know the exact year but we do know that it met at the house of Mr. Alpheus Jewett, who Jewett Hill Rd. is named after. The farmhouse was at the corner of Caulkinstown Rd and Jewett Hill Rd and Mr. Jewiett and his wife opened their house to worship every Sunday, which, because they didn’t have a regular minister, was more like an adult bible study class with music and prayers. Every two weeks a traveling minister would come through and preach for the society on a weekday afternoon.

Mr. Jewett and his wife, were great people who really followed the idea of Christian nurture and fellowship. He was a farmer who employed a number of extra laborers and he always invited them to the preaching and gave them the time off to do so. One day, one of his workers, Mr. Maxam, declined to go and, when asked why by Mr. Jewett, he said that he was very poor and needed the money – so he would go and work at a neighbor’s farm for the afternoon. Mr. Jewett paid him for his time in church. Mr. Maxam was so impressed with this that he became a full member of the society and one of the founding Fathers of the church.

By 1808 the membership of the society was probably getting to be too large for the family living room so Mr. Jewett built a meeting-house for the society on his property, opposite the farmhouse at the corner of the corner of Caulkinstown and Jewett Hill Roads, and that was the first Methodist church in Sharon.  But within twenty years the society had grown out of the building so they began to discuss building a bigger church.

I’m sure that this was a lengthy discussion. There were probably people who wanted to keep things just the way they were, but at the same time they were just too big a group now to be accommodated on Mr. Jewett’s property. I am sure there were a lot of debates about what if they failed and couldn’t keep the new facility going for one reason or another.

But those founders finally took a leap of faith. On January 13, 1835 the Methodist Episcopal Church became a legal entity, and incorporated as an official church with the state of Connecticut. You see they hadn’t had to do that before since their building was on private land. But now they had made the full legal commitment to be a religious entity and to build a church in the downtown part of Sharon. As far as we can figure out the land was donated by the King family, who were possibly members of the church. They also purchased the parsonage, in 1839 (which was probably originally a family house for members of the King family) because they wanted to have a minister who lived in the town and could be a part of their community.  For that I thank the founding fathers and mothers, because it is a great community to live in.

While I was reading the opening of the Corinthian’s scripture I thought about what it was like for those few hardy souls who started the church in Corinth. They probably weren’t that different from the people who started the Methodist church in Sharon.

It’s true that the people in Corinth were starting their religion from scratch – since most of them converted from either Judaism or paganism, and the Christian church, was still sort of figuring out what the prayers and the hymns should be. But we do know that many of the early church rituals were borrowed from Judaism, and some pagan ideas slipped in as well, just as Methodists took traditions from the Christian church. But remember Methodists were actually innovators in some things like hymn writing, and scandalously setting words to popular melodies that you might hear in taverns.

Also I am sure that the people in Corinth had a wide variety of religious affiliations. In any day and age, there are people who have no belief, a sort of belief, a searching belief, or a strong belief. Just as the young church in Corinth probably brought in a variety of believers I am sure that the young Sharon Methodist Society provided a spiritual home to many non-believers, sort of believers, searching believers and strong believers to God, who were looking for a home.

But Corinthians had something very basic in common with the established Christians 1,800 years later – they wanted to figure out how to connect to God in a new way and make themselves better people through that connection. The important thing that both the church in Corinth and the Sharon church did, and why they ultimately prospered, was that they provided a place for people to find their faith.   Last week I talked about the Invitation that God gives to all of us through our Baptism. But we in turn provide an invitation to people to come and experience the Christ connection to God by providing a space for them to explore their faith and how it works in the world. A good church of faith always says, “Come and see,” to people. Jesus didn’t say, “Come and believe completely, right away.”   He gave people the space to experience and evaluate his teaching and to grow into those experiences and teachings, and to deepen their commitment to God.

Often we don’t like evangelism because we think that it means that we need to shove our ideas down people’s throats. But think of what Mr. Jewett did for Mr. Maxam: Mr Jewett didn’t say to his farmhand, “You HAVE to come to worship service.” Instead he said, “I will help you so that you CAN come if you want to.” The invitation was freely given and freely accepted and Mr. Maxam found his faith through that invitation.

During my research I found a lot of stories about our church down through the years. But always we have been a people who provide a space for people to find their Christ Connection to God. We can be proud that we have maintained that connection. From Corinth to Sharon has been a long road, but that connection has been maintained. And with God’s Grace we will continue our Christ Connection into the future. Happy 182 plus years to all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Invitation to Come and See

Preached at Lakeville UMC.  Sharon UMC had a different sermon today because they were celebrating their 182 birthday.  Theologically the sermons are the same but the historic references are slightly different.

January 15, 2017       2nd Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 49:1-7                1 Corinthians 1:1-9                  John 1:29-42

You guys don’t know this, but today Sharon United Methodist Church is celebrating its 182 birthday. I’m actually going to preach a different sermon today down at Sharon outlining part of their foundation and history and, while I was reading the opening of the Corinthian’s scripture, I thought about the similarities between those few hardy souls who started up the church in Corinth and the people who started up our Methodist churches in this area.

First of all, the church in Corinth probably started as a house church, just like many of the Methodist societies started. It took them a while to grow their numbers and at some point they probably felt that they had too many people going in and out of houses. So they decided that they really needed to find a more permanent place to worship, which could accommodate everyone. So, like all of our churches, they started to collect funds to purchase a building or to build one as a central meeting place for everyone to use.

One could say that the church in Corinth was creating their traditions from scratch because the Christian church was brand new and still figuring out what the prayers, rituals, and the hymns should be, whereas the early Methodist church already had rituals and traditions from the Anglican Church. But we do know that many of the early church rituals were borrowed from Judaism, and some pagan ideas slipped in as well. However, Methodists were actually innovators in some things like hymn writing, setting words to popular melodies that you might hear in taverns.

It’s true that the people in Corinth were jumping into a brand new religion and expression of faith. But I don’t think that the people in Corinth were without faith.   Probably most of them converted from either Judaism or paganism, so they had some form of faith already. The Christian church was a better way for them to express their beliefs in God. The Corinthians had something very basic in common with the established Christians who were becoming Methodists 1,800 years later – they wanted to figure out how to connect to God in a new way and make themselves better people through that connection.

Also I am sure that the people in Corinth had a wide variety of religious affiliations. In any day and age, there are people who have no belief, a sort of belief, a searching belief, or a strong belief. Just as the young church in Corinth probably brought in a variety of believers I am sure that the local Methodist Societies provided a spiritual home to many who were non-believers, sort of believers, searching believers, and strong believers, but who were looking for a home to work on their faith.

And that ultimately is the most important thing that the early church, the churches that started in early America, and our church today have in common. They gave and give people a place for their faith to have a home.            Both the Corinth and the early Methodist churches provided a place for people to find their faith.

Last week I talked about the Invitation that God gives to all of us through our Baptism. But we in turn provide an invitation to people to come and experience the Christ connection to God by providing a space for them to explore their faith and how it works in the world. A good church of faith always says, “Come and see,” to people. You know, Jesus didn’t say, “Come and believe completely, right away.”   He gave people the space to experience and evaluate his teaching, and to grow into his ideas, and through those ideas and experience to deepen their commitment to God.

One of the neat stories I found when researching the Sharon Church was that the first building wasn’t in downtown Sharon. We don’t know the exact year that the Sharon Methodist society started, but we do know that it met at the house of Mr. Alpheus Jewett, who Jewett Hill Rd. is named after. The farmhouse was at the corner of Caulkinstown Rd and Jewett Hill Rd and Mr. Jewiett and his wife opened their house to worship every Sunday, which, because they didn’t have a regular minister, was more like an adult bible study class with music and prayers. But every two weeks a traveling minister would come through and preach for the society in on a weekday afternoon.

Mr. Jewett was such a neat guy, (his wife was pretty cool too) who really followed the idea of Christian nurture and fellowship. He was a farmer who employed a number of extra laborers and he always invited them to the weekday preaching and gave them the time off so that they could go. One day, one of his workers, Mr. Maxam, declined to go and when asked why by Mr. Jewett, he said that he was very poor and needed the money – so he would go and work at a neighbor’s farm for the afternoon. Mr. Jewett paid him for his time in church. Mr. Maxam was so impressed with this that he became a full member of the society and one of the founding Fathers of the church.

Now that is a great example of “Come and See” evangelism.

Often we don’t like evangelism because it feel that it means that we shove our ideas down people’s throats. But think of what Mr. Jewett did for Mr. Maxam: Mr Jewett didn’t say to his farmhand, “You HAVE to come to worship service.” Instead he said, “I will help you so that you CAN come if you want to.” The invitation was freely given and freely accepted, and Mr. Maxam found his faith, by coming and seeing through that invitation.

Essentially we should all be evangelists. That doesn’t mean we need to stand on street corners and shout out our faith. What we need to do is promote a “come and see” approach that each of us can participate in by inviting others in the most authentic way that we can to meet the Jesus we know.

One way to share faith authentically is to figure out why we personally made a decision to follow Jesus. My short story is that Jesus helps me to get through the day with a code of ethical love that I can be guided by. Also I tend to over think things and Jesus helps me to let go and rely more on the fact that God is working with me and that I can have faith that things will turn out all right. I also have experienced the forgiving Grace of God when I mess up. That is a big part of my story.

It’s hard sometimes for me to share my story with others. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I definitely do not connect with someone else. But I figure that as long as I tell my story with the attitude of, “Come and see,” rather than, “Come and believe completely right away,” then at least I’ll give someone something to think about.

Hear are some questions that you might ask yourself to clarify your idea of being a Christian:

Why are you a Christian? How do you express or practice your faith? What story from the Bible inspires you? What characters and stories from the Bible do you really connect with? What is it about Jesus that you really like and inspires you, and helps to get you through your day?

To all of these questions, every person will have a different answer, a different reason, a different story from the Bible, or from our tradition, or from a personal experience, that gives shape to their story.  But that’s okay. Because everyone has their Christ Connection happen to them differently.   The trick is for us to always be a people who provide a space for the Christ Connection for people so that they can find God.

From Corinth to the Northwest corner of Connecticut has been a long road. But down through the ages we have extended the Great Invitation to others to come and see what all this Christ stuff is about. Let’s work with God’s Grace to continue our Invitation to the Christ Connection now and into the future.

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The Beginning of the Great Invitation

January 8, 2017         Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9         Acts 10:34-43         Matthew 3:13-17

Once again we are here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, celebrating Jesus’ Baptism.  I know that chronologically Jesus still needs to go out into the wilderness for 40 days, before coming back and beginning to preach and recruit the disciples.  But this is considered to be the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because it is the moment when Jesus goes public with who he really is.  

            Jesus is baptized by his cousin John, in the river Jordon.  This isn’t the part of the Jordon that is by a village or an agricultural area.  This part of the river is located in the wilderness area.  So people need to hike out, away from civilization, to hear John. 

            I’ve always imagined John to be a 1st century version of a church revivalist.  He must have been a really great preacher because not only did the regular people go out to hear him preach, but also the Scribes and the Pharisees were checking him out.  He probably had a number of people at his location camping out on a daily basis.  They probably got there by packing some food and camping gear, and then they followed a path into the wilderness.  Then they would set up a tent, build a little cook fire and wait for John to come out and begin his preaching. 

            If you think about it that would not have seemed strange to the Hebrew people.  They had a cultural history of walking for 40 years in the desert before they arrived in the promise land.  They celebrated this journey with the festival of Sukkot in which people would go to their ancestral lands and live in temporary shelters for seven day.  Their first ancestor, Abraham, also wandered the lands of the mid-east until he was told by God to settle down in the land that became Israel.  So the idea of walking out into the wilderness for a spiritual encounter –  even if it was only a day or two walk out, a sleep over for a few days to hear someone preach, and a day or two to walk back – wouldn’t have seemed strange.  I can imagine that whole families were out there, camping out, visiting and listening to John preach.

            John has got a message going.  He is telling people that the Messiah, who they have been praying for, for several centuries, is coming.  He is telling people that they need to get ready to receive the teaching of this Messiah.  He is telling them that the only way that they are going to be able to recognize the Messiah when he comes is if they are willing to change their lives by opening up their hearts to their own imperfections, and getting their hearts, minds, and actions right with God.  He says that if they are willing to do this, then, when the Messiah does come, they will be able to recognize Him and accept the message that He is going to bring them.

            But John knew that there was a stumbling block in people’s lives to this hearing, receiving, and transformation.  

            The problem that a lot of people face in their lives, when they are trying to change, and get themselves in-line to do the right thing, is that they carry with them a past of mistakes, failures, and sins.  And those mistakes, failures, and sins, wear us down; and speak to us, reminding us that they are there, and make us believe that: We are not good enough to change; We are not able to change; Or we are going to mess-up the change when we try to change.   

            We all carry this baggage.  How do we get rid of it?  There are some little things that maybe you can just let go, but you can’t un-know the deep emotional experiences that you have had or done.   John knew that there were all these people coming to hear him preach who deep inside wanted to believe that when the Messiah arrived they would be able to receive His teaching. But when they heard it that they wouldn’t be able to receive His Love and Grace because they felt unworthy to receive His Love and Grace.

            So John introduces them to the challenge and invitation of Baptism.

            Baptism is a challenge because John asks: Are you willing to hand over all that baggage that you are carrying around with you of mistakes, failures, and sins to God?  And are you willing to accept the challenge of being something different that is not defined by those mistakes, failures, and sins, but is defined by you trying to be a better person within God’s Love and Grace?

            Baptism is also an invitation because God does not force you to accept His Love and Grace.  We accept it willingly.  Now you might say:  Well, the Methodist church baptizes infants – they don’t choose to be baptized.   This is true, baptism, besides being a vehicle to receive God’s Grace, is also a means of welcoming a child into the Christian community.  But when a child becomes confirmed in the church they are essentially choosing to accept their baptism.  They then knowingly step from God’s Prevenient Grace into God’s Saving Grace.    

            And of course, for Methodists, accepting God’s Loving Grace into our lives is the first step on our spiritual journey of life.   Baptism is the beginning of the Great Invitation to live your life with God, not apart from God.

            But why Baptism?  Why this dunking or washing in a river? 

            First of all it links with purification rituals of Judaism.  In the 20th century we are so used to having access to showers and being clean that I don’t think we can appreciate how a 1st century person felt when they had a chance to ritually immerse themselves three times in water completely and how clean and transformed they must have felt. 

            Second water since ancient times was linked with the idea of birth.  A person lives in a water environment before they are born and water is necessary to live.  Water is an essential element of life, so to be immersed in it, and to come out of it, symbolized rebirth of an individual.

            Imagine being one of those people who had trekked out into the wilderness for a few days to hear John.  You probably hadn’t had a decent bath before then, so there you are standing all grimy and sweaty and not feeling clean on the outside.  And then John is talking to you about your sins, which makes you feel unclean on the inside.  And then he says that you can change and become clean again, and you are then invited to come down to the water for a baptism.  You are told that if you are truly willing to repent of your past and accept the challenge of a new way of life – trying to live everyday as a person who follows God – then you will be born as a new person. 

            So you come down to the water.  You declare to John that you do want this new life of God’s Love and Grace.  John blesses you and tells you that all your mistakes, failures and sins are going to be washed away, and then you are immersed in the water three times.  (According to Jewish purification rituals you need to be immersed completely three times.)  When you come out your feel clean on the outside and also clean on the inside if you have truly given your heart and life to God.

            Do we believe that of our own Baptism? 

            We were all baptized, and although ritually we only do it once, we believe that the one time allows us at anytime to wash away our mistakes, our failures, and our sins.  This can happen when we open our hearts, give them to God in prayer, and ask God to come into our hearts, repair them, and make us new.

            When we pray do we actually say: God, I am opening my heart to you.  Here are my mistakes, or my failures, or my sins, or my problems.  Like my baptism I am washing them out of my heart and giving them to you.  Make my heart clean so that I can be guided by you and do your work in the world.  I accept your Great Invitation to live my life with you and your Love and Grace.  

            I can imagine that this is what many of those people said when John baptized them.  And I can imagine that they then became ready to receive Jesus when he came to the Jordon to be baptized; or when he came he came to their towns to preach; or when they heard about him from his disciples.  Their hearts had been opened to receive God, so they heard God as spoken by His son.  And because of that first Invitation they were able to receive and accept the invitation of Jesus’ salvation.

            May we be willing to open our hearts, so that we may experience the same.       

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Seeking Christ in the Year Ahead

January 1, 2017     New Year’s Day       Epiphany Sunday

Isaiah 60:1-6               Ephesians 3:1-12        Matthew 2:1-12

Well, here we are on New Year’s Day and for the last week I have been thinking of something that is a New Year’s tradition. Some of you might welcome it, some of you might dread it, some of you might ignore it all together, but we all know that the tradition is there, and, whether or not you participate, it nags in the back of your mind. The tradition is: New Year’s Resolutions.

You don’t need to raise your hands for these next questions. How many of you have made New Year’s resolutions at some time in your life? How many of you have kept or completed even a small a New Year’s resolution?

Looking back I know that I actually have followed through on ONE in its entirety. One year I decided that would expand my knowledge of literature, so I resolved that I would read 10 classical novels during the year. I looked up somewhere (this was before the internet) the 100 classic novels that you must read, then I wrote a list of the twenty that seemed to be the most interesting. Then I went down to a bookstore – this was in Japan so I had to go Downtown, 30 minutes by train, to the foreign bookstore – and I found 10 of those books on the shelves and I brought them back home, and read all ten during the year. I felt pretty good when I finished the tenth because I had completed my resolution.

But I can honestly say that most of my resolutions have never really been completed in their entirety. And that can really bugged me to the point where I sometimes say, “I’m not doing any New Year’s resolutions this next year!”   But the part of me that is my Type A personality (I always say that I have a Quad Letter personality – I can swing through type A to B to C to D in one day) always kicks in the last week of December and says, in a bright and cheerful voice, “What are we going to accomplish this coming year?” I think that’s because I am always hopeful that I will do better, and can be better in the next year.

The problem is that even though I know that I can be better, or that I can improve something, I am a remarkably impatient person. And the problem with being an impatient person is that you get discouraged very easily when you don’t have measurable results on a regular basis, or if you don’t get the results when you think they should happen. The one thing goal workshops don’t teach you is how to reconfigure your goal measurements from what you expect or think they should be to what they really are and to recognize them as a win.

I am also a child of the later 20th century who thinks that things should happen faster than they do. I know that you can’t rush the process but I often want to, and I get discouraged when I can’t get things completed when I think they should be completed.

The other problem that I have is that very often things don’t get completed the way I envisioned or thought that they would be when I started my resolution or goal. I also over think the process. I can imagine all the ways things could go wrong which sometimes discourages me from doing anything at all.

So this week my personal resolution neurosis was sitting in the back of my mind when I started to tackle the story of the Wise Men.

When I was a kid I was under the impression that Jesus was born and the star appeared over the stable, and then a week and a-half later the wise men showed up in town. So maybe they were traveling for 10 days at the most. But when I re-read the story I realized that we only know that the Wise Men came from the east – but we don’t know where in the east they came from. Tradition says that they were Magi, which was a classification of Zoroastrian scholars, so they could have come from as close as Yemen and as far away as Persia. We really don’t know how long the journey was. Scholars place it at any where from 40 days to nearly two years. Also the Wise Men didn’t know where they were heading to. They saw the star, understood by their studies that it was supposed to be the announcing the arrival of the King of the Jews, but they were unsure where they were going to find the new king.

So to put this into context: We have a group of scholars who have probably been studying the possible coming of this celestial and world event. (Magi were the authorities on astronomy in their day.) Then the star appears and they realize that this is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go and see if in fact this star is the event that is announcing the new King. They get their traveling gear together, with special gifts for the king – just in case the star is what they hope it is – and they head out. Their goal is to find the baby and see if he is who they hope he is.

If you remove your knowledge of the end of the story you realize that there were A LOT of possibilities for failure.   Was the star too far away; how long was their travel time going to be; would they even be able to get to the destination? What if it stopped shining before they got there? Traveling wasn’t exactly a safe thing to do back then. They might have been robbed by bandits; or one of them might have gotten sick or had an accident on the road far away from medical facilities.   And the logistics were even a bit dicey. Would they have enough supplies; or could they get more on the way?

I am sure that all of these uncertainties were in their minds – but that didn’t stop them. They got up on those camels and headed out – because in the end, if they didn’t go looking, if they didn’t test their theories in real-life, they never would have known.

I wonder what they expected when they found Mary and Joseph, humble parents, living in a humble house. (The Gospel of Matthew implies that they had moved out of the stable by that time.) Maybe they had expected a prince in a palace, or at least someone living in a scholar’s or a priest’s home. But even though we don’t know what the Wise Men’s expectations were, we do know that they accepted the outcome of their search and gladly, without hesitation, knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.   They didn’t argue about where or who God had led them to – they accepted it with glad hearts.

You’ve got to hand it to these guys – they had a resolution (a firm decision to solve a problem or see something through) and they stuck to it. They were willing to live through the uncertain process and the unexpected outcome because they had faith that God would lead them to SOME answer. And in the end they met the Baby Jesus and saw that all of their studies and learning were true and that prophesies were going to be fulfilled.

After really thinking about what the Magi went through, I’ve decided that I’m going to lighten up a little about the process and outcomes of my resolutions. As a Minister at least one of my yearly resolutions centers about trying to be a better Christian and trying to improve my relationship with Christ, but I always feel that somehow I fall short during the year and that maybe I don’t do it the way I SHOULD do it. But if the Wise Men were willing to overlook all those uncertainties of their resolution and search for Jesus then I should too.

When I seek Jesus I should just go out there and look for him. I’ve got a star to guide me in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. I’ve got the promise and assurance from God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit that if I really try that I will find and connect with Jesus. Like the Magi I should just enjoy the journey. And actually, I have advantage over them because I know that eventually I am going to find Him and His Grace and Love.   Maybe Jesus won’t be in a place that I expect, but like the Magi, if I keep an open mind and a heart then I will be able to recognize and accept him and His Grace and Love once I do come across them.

So, as we make up our resolutions for the year, make one of them be that you will do something to help you find Jesus. Be like the Magi and take a risk into the unknown territory of your heart and your faith. Follow the guiding star of God’s Love and Grace. At the end of 2017 we might all be surprised at where and what God has led us to.

 

 

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Improbable Hope

December 18, 2016               4th Sunday in Advent            Blue Sunday

Isaiah 7:10-16         Romans 1:1-7          Matthew 1:18-25

I’ve always felt that the old expression: Nothing is impossible, is a little weird. I agree that when one of my Japanese students would say to me, “I could never go to America,” that I would say to her, “Nothing is impossible,” because I would be trying to encourage her and get her out of her cannot-be-done mindset.

But in truth some things, by way of the laws of physics, are impossible. I am sure that the speed of light is going to remain constant, the earth is going to continue to go around the sun in the same direction, and hydrogen and oxygen atoms will continue to bond in a two-to-one ration, creating water. If any of these things change we will have the impossible universe. I don’t know what it will be, since we will be operating by unknown physical laws, but it will be the impossible universe.

On the other hand I like the term: Nothing is Improbable. It is true that there are long-shots and that some statistical odds are higher than others. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t happen. Which is why people keep buying lottery tickets. I looked up the statistics for the NY Lottery and your chances range all the way from 1:48 to 1:22.5 million per game. But the thing is no matter how improbable it is that you will win, SOMEONE is going to win, and there is nothing that says it won’t be you.

That’s improbability: Something that’s unlikely to happen, but it can still happen. We all have had improbable things happen to us. And the world of improbabilities, and the corresponding possibilities, is much larger than the world of the impossible.

The Christmas season is actually a time of celebrating improbabilities. Jesus Christ is one of the most improbable stories in humanity. I mean let’s just look at the particulars.

First, Mary is visited by an angel and told that she is going to give birth to the Son of God. Then Joseph is visited by an angel and told the same thing. Never mind the Son of God thing – I’ll get back to that later. Two people visited by angels: Improbable, but there are many stories in the Bible of people having heavenly visitors and given guidance or a heads up on what is going to happen.

Joseph and Mary are not wealthy parents. Jesus is born in a stable, not in a palace. You usually don’t associate poverty with someone who is going to change the world. Again, improbable. Not only that; three Magi come to visit the baby Jesus and bring him gifts – another thing that doesn’t usually happen.

Jesus is born during a time of political instability and of no actual chance of a rebellion against Rome or any political change happening or succeeding. And yet this son of a carpenter ended up transforming the political and religious structure of Rome within 300 years.

There is absolutely nothing in the story of a child born in poverty; raised in obscurity; who as an adult had no fixed address and spent his life as a wandering preacher on the edge (not in the center) of the most far-flung empire in the world; who preached counter to cultural norms, and whose basic message was that God loves and walks with everyone; there is nothing to suggest in that story that the world would be shaken and transformed by him. It is improbable that nearly every historic figure with power of that time would be referenced through their relationship and relevance to Jesus Christ. It is improbable that a religious movement of only a few, that began with the birth of a child in a stable, in an insignificant town, would become the religion of 2.2 billion, and that it would become the center of art, music, politics, and poetry.

The odds are not in favor of what ended up happening. But that didn’t stop all that from happening.

As a Christian culture we are so used to living inside the construct of Christianity that we take for granted the probability of it. To us it seems like – this is the way it was meant to be. But actually there is nothing logical or certain about what happened.

And I find great comfort, and great assurance, and great strength in that.

The comfort is that God did so love the world that he sent Jesus to us. He sent someone to teach us how to be the best that we can be. He sent someone to show us that we are connected to God and to the miraculousness of His Holy Spirit. My comfort is that we live in the improbability that the Lord of all creation would have such love for all his creatures that He would send someone to show us that love.

And this leads me to the assurance that because Jesus was born with us, lived with us, and died as one of us, that no matter how bad it gets God sees and stands by me. Also because of Jesus’ resurrection after his death I am assured that my life will continue on in God’s love, and continue to participate in his creation until that creation is fulfilled.

Then finally, I can find strength knowing that my life has a purpose. Perhaps that purpose will not be as paradigm shifting as Christ’s was. I don’t think that I am going to be one of those people like Mother Teresa who puts a definite dent in a huge amount of society. But I can make a difference to some people, somehow, when I am presented the opportunity to do so by the God’s Breeze that connects people to people. A lot of times I feel that I stumble in my purpose, but I also know that if I do my best for God’s Love then God will be able to use what I do to His purpose.

And that is the relationship that God is looking for. You see improbability happens because God is working with what we give Him, as much as we are working with what he gives to us. Things become possible when we work with the purpose of God’s love, because He uses our purpose to fulfill His purpose.

The improbable birth of a baby in a stable changed the world. But perhaps all that improbability was set up by God Himself just to show us how any thing is possible.

Are you ready to believe in the probable? Are you ready to believe that God is going to be working with you in your life? Are your ready to believe in healing and hope in the face of great pain or difficulty? Are you ready to believe that we continue on in God’s love with each other even through eternity? Are you ready to be open to the improbable happening in your life?

Then the Christmas story is your story. And it’s waiting for you to jump in and accepting all the possibilities that God has in store for you.

 

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