January 14, 2018                                 "The Secret Godliness"    

                                                               I Samuel 3:1‑10; John 1:29‑42

It's not always easy to figure out just who you are and just what you're doing to "do when you grow up".  Perhaps we need to take into consideration what GOD has in mind for us as we wrestle with this.  In 1 Samuel 3, Samuel heard the voice of God three times, calling him.  Eli helped him figure out what was happening, and that God had a plan for him.

Psalm 139 gives us some insight into just how well God knows us, and that God might indeed know what our purpose in the world is.  From Psalm 139: 1-18: 

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away. 
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely. 
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me. 
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it. 
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence? 
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
9 If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’, 
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you. 
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well. 
15   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed. 
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them! 
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
   I come to the end*—I am still with you. 

OLD TESTAMENT  1 Samuel 3:1-10

1Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’  and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

GOSPEL     John 1:29-42

29The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,  36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed*). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

Psalm 139

To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
   and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me— 
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
   and lift themselves up against you for evil!* 
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
   And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? 
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
   I count them my enemies. 
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
   test me and know my thoughts. 
24 See if there is any wicked* way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting.*

January 7, 2018                                   "To Fulfill All Righteousness"   

Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:11-17      

John is proclaiming a Baptism of repentance--a turning away from sins and turning toward right living.  And Jesus comes to be baptized.  John knew who Jesus was--besides his cousin, he knows that Jesus is the one whom John is preparing the way for.  And so John asks basically the same question that we do about why Jesus would come to him.  We ask from the other side of the story--after Jesus' life, teachings, death, resurrection.  John asks before, but knowing what Jesus is about.  Matthew says it like this (Matthew 3:14-15):

"John would have prevented him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?' But Jesus answered him, 'Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.'"

It kind of seems like play-acting.  Jesus, we would assume, has nothing to repent about, and to seem to be repenting could almost be seen as making a mockery of the very act of repentance.  So how does this "fulfill all righteousness" if it seems like a fake thing, done only for appearance?  It would seem like the opposite of righteous, if it is an acted-out lie that Jesus didn't need to repent. 

Maybe it's that we need to understand what "sin" is, as opposed to "sins".  Bear with me--this may seem like a semantic game, but it actually is pretty important to understand.  "Sins" are what we usually think about when we think about this kind of thing--individual acts of messing up.  Telling a lie is a sin.  Being cruel to someone is a sin.  When we confess our "sins" this is what we are referring to. 

But "sin"--without the "s" at the end of the word--is a state of being.  Sin is the reality that we can't work our way out of.  The sin of racism is a good example.  We, all of us, have entered into a world where racism exists.  The structures of the society in which we live are already set up with racism as a part of it, with advantages for people of certain hue of skin, and disadvantages for people of certain other hues of skin.  Nothing that any of us can individually do can free us from that reality; even as we can make choices about our behavior we can't make choices about whether we are advantaged or not.  And therefore, no matter how pure our motives or our behaviors, we are still motivated and behaving in a context of sin.

In this way, Jesus, like all of us, participated in sin.  He was born into a particular society, at a particular time, with certain social and economic and human rules and realities and prejudices and circumstances that he could not escape, any more than we can escape them.  They were the dynamics as work, and his choices and motivations, although seeking to transcend the prejudices and advantages/disadvantages that existed, he still had to live within them.  Nothing he could do could make him escape from being a Jew living in a nation occupied by the Romans, with certain rules of life and practice within which he had to function.  So he participated in the sin of an oppressive society, with slavery and misogyny and racism and military force used to "keep the peace" when anyone sought to proclaim equality in an unequal society.

And so, from the beginning of his life, he "took on sin"--even while not committing "sins" (we've come to assert, within the Christian understanding of who Jesus is)--and so entered into the ambiguities of our lives. His identifying with us was to live in a society--like all societies--where "sin" is an ever-present and unmistakable reality--and, in his death and resurrection, not only to defeat "sins", but to defeat "sin"--a victory we can affirm even as we are surrounded by it.

OLD TESTAMENT     Isaiah 42:1-9

1Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

GOSPEL     Matthew 3:11-17

11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

December 31, 2017              "I Will Greatly Rejoice"   Rev. Kathy Clark   Isaiah 61:10- 62:3      

The people of Israel had been taken into exile.  The prophets had been warning them for some time that they needed to be much more intentional about the practice of their faith--not only the integrity of their worship of only Yahweh God, but the integrity of their treatment of the widows and the orphans and those in need.  They had been warned that their Sabbath time, no matter how beautiful and meaningful, was in essence ugly and meaningless if their lives were no different the rest of the week--and that if they didn't get it together, that bad things would happen.  But, at times riding high with prosperity and international renown, they got complacent about what Yahweh God wanted, as the prophets warned them.  And they were conquered, and taken away, and now they not only weren't powerful, they weren't even home, and all of that worship in their Temple that they had taken for granted they couldn't do.  It had all fallen apart.

And here is Isaiah, as they are in exile, coming out with a different tune.  Now, when they are helpless, powerless, miles and miles from their own country, comes Isaiah's unlikely affirmation: "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels".   The people had to be wondering just how he could say something like this--how could he say that God had done such wonderful things when they were in such an awful situation?  And how could he go on to say the next thing: "For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations".

This seems absurd.  They are in exile, with no future prospects of national freedom, much less national greatness.  Their lack of righteousness has brought them to this, they have been told, and their praise was seen by God to be disingenuous--and, they had to admit, it certainly had gotten to be that way.  And now this prophet is piping up with such optimism?

As I often say, we know the rest of the story.  God did restore their fortunes, but in a way that was for not only their fortunes, but for all nations.  The King that restored them was Jesus, born King of the Jews, but proclaiming the Kingdom of God, in which ALL are citizens.  And so in the season of Christmas we consider how all of the promises of God come true, in ways that nobody saw coming.

OLD TESTAMENT     Isaiah 61:10-62:3

10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

1For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. 2The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

December 24, 2017              "The Wonder of Christmas: 2. The Wonder of a Promise" 

Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18-25      

Promises, promises.  The British new wave band “Naked Eyes” had a hit single in 1983 by that name.  The refrain:

“You made me promises, promises    Knowing I'd believe
Promises, promises     You knew you'd never keep . . .”

I suspect most of the discussion about promises is when they haven’t been kept, for whatever reasons.  As a person who is divorced, it might be fair to say that I didn’t keep the promises I made on that wedding day in 1984.  The reasons why I didn’t live up to those promises—or why anyone who divorces doesn’t live up to those promises—are many, varied, and at times understandable.  But however understandable the reasons, the promises weren’t kept.

Politicians are famous for making promises that don’t get kept.  The recent tax bill that Congress passed can be seen from one nuanced perspective as keeping promises—and as not keeping promises from another nuanced perspective.  It’s not always easy to be clear when promises are kept—and it’s also not always easy to be clear when promises are made.

That same “not always easy” can be applied to God’s promises too.  Many of us find ourselves furious with God when something terrible happens to us, or to those we love.  People die horrible deaths—isn’t that God reneging on a promise to protect and care for us?  People die period—people we miss, and the death can devastate us—how in the world is God to be let off the hook for that?  And those people God gave us to support us—how about when they fail us?  What was God thinking to give us such fickle people?

And it all gets heightened at Christmas, when we want things to be smooth, and joyous, and with the traditions we so value continuing to play out in the special way that we want them to.  And sometimes they don’t—and it gets at us in ways that take away all the joy we’re expecting to experience. But God surprises us, if we stop to take notice.

God surprises us by not doing the “all powerful” thing that we would certainly do if we were God.  God, rather than bursting on the scene in big, flashy, splashy, impressive beyond imagining ways, and fixing everything, comes as a newborn baby, in a barn, at the end of a long arduous journey by Mary and Joseph. Angels announce it, of course, but they announce it to shepherds, and nobody is paying any attention at all to shepherds. The first visitors to the one who would be King of the Jews—King of the World, actually—are these disregarded members of society.  God willingly gives up all of that God-power (created the world, etc.) with which you’d think God would fix everything, and comes in complete and utter powerlessness (it would seem) and vulnerability.  To keep the promise to love us and be with us.

When you’re going through all of that hard stuff, what you really need is someone WITH you in the midst of it.  I am reminded sometimes by my wife Susan that often all she’s asking for is for me to be supportive, NOT to try to fix things.  God comes as one of us, to get what we go through and to go through it WITH us--as the Christmas hymn “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” says: “True man, yet very God, from sin and death now save us, and share our every load”.  And, as the Christmas hymn “Once in Royal David’s City” says: “Jesus is our childhood pattern; day by day, like us, he grew; he was little, weak, and helpless, tears and smiles like us he knew; and he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness” (underlines mine).

God kept God’s promise never to leave us or forsake us.  God didn’t promise to keep us from pain, or loss, or all of the realities of human life on this earth.  But God kept God’s promise to be God WITH us—in the most “with us” way possible in human experience.  And as Linus said, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown”.

OLD TESTAMENT     Isaiah 7:14

14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

GOSPEL     Matthew 1:18-25

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

December 17, 2017              "The Wonder of Christmas: 2. The Wonder of a Manger" 

Luke 2:1-16      

It has been said that "necessity is the mother of invention". And it would seem that when God enters the world incarnate in the newborn baby Jesus that that was true.  No room at the inn, so the couple stayed in the barn.  No bed for Mom and Dad; no bed for the newborn baby.  So the barn sufficed for the suddenly expanded family to stay, and the feedbox for the cattle sufficed as the first bed for the new human life that was indeed "God with us". There is never a worry that there is not room for God.

God makes it work.  That is the wonder of a manger--that even what seems not to be made for the purpose God uses if for can be used by God for that purpose. 

Some of our previous generations knew this.  Some of us probably knew people who used a dresser drawer as a place for a baby to sleep.  You make do with what you have, even if it's not the ideal situation--even if it's not the intended purpose--as long as it does what it needs to do.  That is how God entered the world--and that is how God still enters the world.  And that is how God makes use of us.  None of us are ideal, but God can use all of us.

Talked the other day with a friend who is active in his home church in another place.  They are on their third pastor this decade, and you know what? It turns out that none of those pastors was "the whole package".  Each of the three had certain gifts that were superb, and other gifts that were not nearly as good.  And in the case of each one, the balance of those gifts was different.  I found the conversation fascinating, because this person had figured out what has certainly made perfect sense to me. I have never known a pastor who had it all--because the "all" is really pretty much impossible for a human being.  Nobody is absolutely perfectly good at everything that the role of pastor demands.  Nobody is probably absolutely perfectly good at everything that ANY job calls for.  But God can use us.  All of us--even in our incompletenesses.  And that is because there is always room for God--and the more we recognize that, the better God can work with us, and through us, even in those areas where we're not ideal--even in those areas where, metaphorically, the only bed we can provide is a feedbox.  As my friend Rev. David Lee insists, "Bethlehem teaches us is that God comes into creation as effortlessly and completely as light into darkness. God fits here. God belongs here. God created all creation for incarnational presence, as well as transcendence"   God is present incarnationally in each of us, as we recognize--and allow to work--God present in our lives, and through us, in the lives of others.

GOSPEL     Luke 2:1-16

1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 

December 10, 2017             "The Wonder of Christmas: 2. The Wonder of a Name" 

Luke 1:26-33; Matthew 1:18-25                

Names matter—we know that.  What a baby is named is not a casual decision—sometimes there is family history to consider; sometimes it is a negotiation between parents (and perhaps even other family members)—what my wife Susan might have been named was a bit of a fascinating negotiation, as I understand it. 

In the Harry Potter series of books/movies, the mere name of the evil wizard is paid great respect—in fact, their newspapers refer to him as “He Who Must Not Be Named”.  One of the sermons earlier in the year—in the series on Moses and the Israelites on their seemingly endless journey to the Promised Land--was based on the passage where Moses gets God’s name—and with a name, so much more is possible.

The Scriptures for the sermon on “The Wonder of a Name” (in our series on “The Wonder of Christmas”) give us the story of how Jesus got his name—with the same basic info communicated by an angel (in slightly different ways) to both Mary and Joseph.  Our hymns at 11 am and our songs at 9:15 am will look at other names—more like images and metaphors—for this Jesus, in light of what he means to the world, both then and now.  Suffice it to say that the respect due to this name—born in the manger, having given up the power of the one through whom the whole world was created—is beyond the respect due to any other name, as Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:5-11: 

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

GOSPEL     Luke 1:26-33

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

GOSPEL     Matthew 1:18-25

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

DECEMBER 3, 2017                Hanging of the Greens

From the Friday December 1, 2006 edition of the "Daily Standard" newspaper in Celina, Ohio, the article "Time for the  Hanging of the Greens" written by Shelley Grieshop.

COLDWATER - Wreaths adorn doors and strands of evergreens twirl along railings and banisters as the Christmas season approaches.

But the greenery that appears this time of year has a deeper meaning than just home decor. It is linked to the Hanging of the Greens tradition.

"The Hanging of the Greens is about bringing in the Advent season," says Margaret Hunter, the chairwoman of the worship and arts committee at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in St. Marys.

The church is one of many in the local area that observe the custom of draping evergreens near windows, in the sanctuary and at the entranceways to remind the congregation of God's eternal love. Congregation members will hang their greenery on Saturday, she says.

Early Christians adopted the use of the evergreen for the celebration of Christmas because its deep hunter green color remains vibrant when all other plants die in the cold winter months. Branches were cut from evergreen trees and placed in temples where they were worshiped for maintaining life throughout the winter and bringing the hope of the return of spring.

Evergreens also were an ancient symbol of immortality, life and growth. Centuries ago people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows - some believing the branches would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.

Different greens have special meaning: laurel and bay symbolize victory and triumph; yew and cypress stand for eternal life.

Wreaths, such as those that surround Advent candles used during the weeks leading up to Christmas, also have symbolic significance. Their endless circle teaches of the endless love of God, according to religious beliefs.

Hunter says the lighting of the Advent candle each week in church is her favorite part of the worship service during the holiday season.

"It's just such a special time for families to come up and light the candles one at a time," she says.

Marilyn Darr and several others from Coldwater United Methodist Church were busy Monday evening decorating their church according to custom, adding gold ribbons to some of the bushy evergreen swags. Darr says she also enjoys the tradition and the decorating process.

"Getting together, the fellowship, that's what makes it memorable," she says.

Each year about a dozen or so members meet first for a meal together before heading to the sanctuary to begin the decorating process, she says.

"It's a special time for us. We're a small church so we all have to work together as a team," she says.

November 26, 2017            "The Wonder of Christmas: 1. The Wonder of a Star"   

Matthew 2:1-12  

This may be the earliest I have ever "started" the time of preparation for Christmas.  Of course, that still puts me weeks behind the retail industry.  But with an extra Sunday between Thanksgiving and the beginning of the four weeks of Advent, and with the Hanging of the Greens, we start the journey to Bethlehem early--as did the wise men from the East who followed the star to find Jesus. 

The Jews were suffering under Roman rule, and were heartsick that they weren't ruled by their own King, blessed by God to restore them to their rightful place in the world.  This had been true for years and years and years, and the Prophets in their Scriptures (our Old Testament) had proclaimed that God would make it right.  Both Joseph and Mary get insights from angels about who this Jesus to be born would be, and it tied in with the words from the Prophets.  And these wise men also figured it out, and began their journey following this star to see the one through whom God would make it right.

Christ the King Sunday (the last Sunday in the Christian year, since Advent begins a new year in the church--kind of how August/September begins a new school year and July 1 begins a new fiscal year) affirms that Jesus the Christ indeed is king of the universe, and not just of a political entity like a nation.  Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God--more than just a government, but a way of living and prioritizing how the world ought to be, with justice, and righteousness, and love as the foundation.  The star led these wise men to THAT King--and it would make sense that those who were not Jews would visit the one who would be King in a much more universal way. 

The star led them there.  It was a different enough star that they--who studied the stars--were able to track its being an aberration.  It demonstrates that from the beginning of Jesus' time on earth--even before he could do any of the amazing things he did as an adult--what he was to be about was bigger than anyone's hopes and dreams for a nation.  Those who weren't even part of that nation which was yearning for restoration were to be part of this Kingdom.

We don't much get the "kingdom" thing.  We left kings behind when we declared our independence from King George III.  But the belief about kings has pretty much always been that they are chosen by God--and have the "divine right" granted to them.  And since the Kingdom of God is all about what God wants for us . . .

November 19, 2017       "It Begins As It Began"   

Joshua 3:7-17                 

We are in general big fans of symmetry.  We like it when stuff happens like other stuff has happened.  And we get that here--just as Moses led the Israelites FROM Egypt to journey to the Promised Land by parting the Red Sea so that they cross through on dry ground, so does Joshua lead the Israelites INTO the Promised Land at the end of their journey by parting the Jordan River so that they cross through on dry ground. 

But there were two differences, besides the fact that it was Moses at the beginning and Joshua at the new beginning.  The first difference is that as they crossed the Jordan nobody was chasing them.  They weren't fleeing for their lives, but rather they were crossing into their new lives.  The mood was less frantic, you'd expect, and more anticipatory.  Finally!  They get there! Now it can start!

The second difference is the key one.  Rather than Moses and his staff parting the waters--as happened when they fled Egypt in haste--it is the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant who part the waters.  They pass through the Red Sea to leave Egypt on a promise, and they pass through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land with a covenant.

The Ten Commandments are in the Ark of the Covenant, and that covenant with God is what goes with them.  They leave Egypt with God promising something; they enter this land that had been promised to them having agreed with God on something.  The Covenant, expressed in the Ten Commandments and supplemented by other rules and guidelines for their lives, is "I will be your God, and you will be my people--and here are the terms of the agreement". 

It would do us well to remember that arrangement--because such an arrangement applies to us in our covenant with God also.  We have received Jesus as the bearer of the promise of God to heal us and forgive us.  We have received Jesus as the one whose teachings we are to follow as citizens of the Kingdom of God.  Just like the People of the Covenant entering the Promised Land, we don't get to negotiate the terms of our relationship with God, nor how the teachings of Jesus say we should live our lives and treat each other.  We didn't create ourselves--God created us, and knows us better than we know ourselves.  We don't determine how forgiveness and grace work; Jesus does, and did it on our behalf.  We don't get to reinterpret what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean for our lives as followers of Jesus.  It is God's wisdom at work, and we can do our best to understand and explain it, but we don't get to change the way it works.  We are those whose very lives are gifts, and we are called to live then in gratitude.

November 12, 2017            "When We Don’t Quite Get What We Want"   

Deuteronomy 34:1-12      

Life is filled with those times when we don’t quite get what we want.  We wanted the Pirates to win the World Series in 2013, the first playoff team after 20 consecutive losing seasons, and they did win the Wild Card game over the Reds, but the hated Cardinals won the next series.  We wanted the Steelers to win the Super Bowl the last time they went, in 2011, but Green Bay won.  I wanted to see Bob Dylan in concert on Monday, but I didn’t realize I wanted to until the few tickets available on Stub Hub were nearly $300, and I decided that I didn’t want to see him that much.

These are things we want but don’t quite get.  Then there are those things that are more reflected in what Moses really wants but doesn’t get. 

Moses had led the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years.  He had worked hard—with God’s help with some pretty intense plagues—to get Pharaoh to let them leave Egypt, where their free labor as slaves was keeping the Egyptian economy humming and the pyramids continuing to be built.  He had been God’s instrument in parting the waters to lead them through the Red Sea to their freedom, in bringing them water from a rock, in praying to God to send them meat and bread from heaven. He had been God’s messenger to them, bringing the Ten Commandments, and their messenger to God, in reminding God of Gods having freed them, so please don’t smite them when they disobey.  Moses had spent 1/3 of his lifetime in this crucial role, and in this long, arduous journey that was far from smooth.  And how he sits, finally, looking down on the Promised Land they will enter.  But he doesn’t get to enter.  He dies.

We all know of those things we’d really like to see happen, and fear we won’t.  Those milestones of kids and grandkids that we, like Moses, might not get to see, especially if we feel like we’ve been there cheering for them along the way.  Our hearts are poured into them, and we really want to get to those milestones with them.  But, like was true for Moses, we might only get so close. 

How do we handle this knowing that it’s not entirely up to us how it shakes down?  How do we entrust to those others who’ve been on the journey the joy of seeing what we might not get to?  How do we trust what’s on the other side? 

November 5, 2017              "Blessed Assurance"   

Exodus 33:12-23      

I said last week in the sermon (basically--perhaps not exactly like this) that sometimes when it feels like God is absent that we create a god to "fill the gap" that seems like is there, like the Israelites in the wilderness did with the golden calf when Moses was on the mountain, away from them for forty days.  And that what we rather need to do is trust in God who is present even in what seems like absence, and that that seemingly absent presence is still with us through what feels like emptiness (Exodus 32). 

The passage for this coming Sunday from Exodus 33 seems to show that it's not always that easy to do that--to hang in there when it seems God is absent, when you're feeling a void, and emptiness but you trust God is there anyhow.  Because Moses, the great lawgiver himself, the one whose intimacy with God has led them from their slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land they will (eventually) enter--Moses himself could seem almost desperate to be assured of God's care and ongoing presence.  Moses, in that intimate conversation with Yahweh God, is pretty forthright in asking for the assurance that God will go with them, and then even when Moses is no longer around that God will continue with them.  Rather than hanging in there in what seems like God's absence, and being pretty OK with that, Moses is insisting that God assure him that God will continue to be with them, and go with them, and lead them.

Well, if Moses needed this, then we probably do too.  Notice, however, that Moses seems not to be asking these things selfishly.  First he asks for an assurance of who will go with him in leadership, then reminds God that this is the people God has called--so it's about Moses and his role with these whom he leads.  Then he asks more specifically about "the people" whom God has called uniquely--and an assurance that they will continue in God's care and favor. Then, and only then, does Moses ask for himself to see God's glory--perhaps to assure himself that God indeed has what it takes to follow up on all of this.

We need reassurances along the way also.  I pray that for you and for me, and for us together, that these seeking of reassurances follow this pattern of Moses--about others, about continued development of leadership, about assurance of God's continued care, and only then a personal reassurance--and a personal reassurance still tied in with concern for others.

October 29, 2017               "These Are Your Gods?"   

Exodus 32:1-14      

When you were a kid in school, what happened when you had a day with a substitute teacher?  Let me guess--any momentum in learning about something was lost in the opportunity to act up.  At least that's what happened when I was in school and we had a substitute teacher.  Behavior was bad, focus was bad, attention span was non-existent.  It's like that was the big chance just to goof off.  When the regular teacher got back, it's like that person had to almost start all over again on the material we were supposed to cover with the substitute.  No progress was made the day the teacher was away and we had a substitute.

I feel sorry for my former students who've had to substitute teach.  And I actually feel bad in retrospect for the way we treated substitute teachers in my day.

That's the same kind of thing that happened with the Israelites in the wilderness. Moses goes to the top of Mt. Sinai, and will come back, it turns out, with the Ten Commandments.  The people begin to get restless, since he's gone for a long time, and they get Aaron (Moses's brother) to ease their anxiety about whether or not Yahweh God is with them.  So Aaron collects up all of their gold and has a calf made of it.  Of this object Aaron says. " These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!".  Well, the golden calf wasn't the god who brought them up out of Egypt, which Moses makes clear to them when he gets back. 

Chances are they really didn't mean to transgress Yahweh God, and may not have even thought that they were.  But they did, and indeed they were.

We generally don't try to transgress God when we get some shiny new thing.  But sometimes we unwittingly do.  Anything that becomes more important, more an object of worship and veneration, than our worship of God is like this golden calf--a distraction, a misappropriation, a substitute, an idol. Even if we're deeply committed to Yaweh God, the new bright shiny object that we pay so much attention to can distract us to the point that we've crossed the line about worshipping that bright shiny object.  It happens subtlely, but when we realize we've done it, we're blatantly aware of it.

 Remind yourself of what bright shiny object is commanding your attention.  And check if it's the present-day equivalent of the golden calf.  Because it might be.  

It's not the end of your relationship with God if you get distracted--particularly if you don't stay distracted.  Moses interceded, and talked God down from crushing them.  God really doesn't want to crush us.  But God also doesn't want us to be distracted in our worship of God by bright shiny objects.

October 22, 2017

In 2006 a book was published called "The Hip Hop Prayer Book".  It grew out of the experience of an Episcopal Church in the South Bronx in New York City.  The beautiful old building had a congregation of people who had all moved away, but came back on Sunday for worship.  And it was in a neighborhood now drastically different from when all of those people were living in it.  In order to be in ministry in that neighborhood, they had to learn the language spoken by those in the neighborhood.  And so a "Hip Hop" worship emerged. 

The "Hip Hop Prayer Book" takes the basic flow of the Book of Common Prayer (first published by the Church of England in 1549 and revised/updated a number of times) and "translates" it into the language of Hip Hop.  That means a number of things, but one very obvious one is that after "Amen" it says "WORD!", which like "Amen!" serves to reinforce what was said, and acknowledge the importance of it, and perhaps even agreeing to act on it.   

This Sunday's Scripture passage is Exodus 20, where The Ten Commandments are given.  The words in Biblical Hebrew (transliterated into English as " aseret ha-d'varîm") can be translated as "the ten words", "the ten sayings", or "the ten matters".   These "ten words" indeed do matter, as the guidelines for how to live given by the God who created everything and gave us everything we have, including our very lives.  They are not really, as a friend in our college fellowship put it, the "ten suggestions".  These ten "sayings" are how we engage and interact with the God who brought us to this place, and with those others in all places who are with us on this journey.  To the people whom God freed from their bondage, they are the basis of The Law--the Torah.

Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it, so even though we are not (for the most part at least) bound by the Jewish law in its totality (we don't have to abide by the dietary guidelines, and a chunk of the New Testament tells the story of negotiations about that), we still are to be guided by these ten sayings.  And they do guide us on how we are to engage with God and with each other.  In fact, they are summarized by Jesus as "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (which sums up the first four) and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (which sums up the last six) .  The ten themselves provide a bit more specifics about what loving God looks like, and what loving neighbor looks like. Jesus adds, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." 

So these ten words/sayings/matters are still relevant.  They still are touchstones for what love looks like--of God, and of the people God surrounds us with.  And they are still guidelines for our interactions, and our choices, and our actions.


October 15, 2017              

Jim Carrey's character in the movie "Bruce Almighty" thought he had a pretty good idea of how the world ought to run, and that if he were God it would be a lot different than how it was going, where he felt like things didn't ever work out for him the way he wanted them to. 

Ever feel that way?  Ever feel like God has it in for you, and isn't really looking out for you?  Ever feel like if YOU were in charge it would all flow more smoothly and make a lot more sense?  (At least for you?)

In the movie, Bruce Nolan gets that chance to be God, and to run things the way HE wants them run--sort of.  The "sort of" is chock full of what he learns about how hard it is to be God.  Instead of getting to complain, he has to deal with all the complaints.  And when he pretty much blows off legitimately and seriously listening to each complaint (he certainly wasn't happy that HIS complaints were seemingly ignored and not given legitimate consideration before he had the "job" to listen) and just does a blanket "yes" to every prayer, it doesn't really work out for anybody.  It clearly is a tough job, being God, and caring for each one of us individually, and all of us together, and with actually paying real attention to what each of us is crying out about and yet what all of us need.

Once again, as was true in last week's story when food is provided for them, so in this week's story, water is provided for them.  Yes, they needed water.  They didn't need to get cranky about it, although it's pretty easy to get cranky when you're thirsty.  And the place where this water was first provided was renamed as a reminder that they got cranky--and seemingly doubtful that God, who had provided before to meet their needs, would provide again (they, and we have such short memories, it seems).  Massah and Meribah basically mean "proving and strife" or "proof and contention". 

Sometimes our crankiness can be excused; sometimes it's maybe not so excusable. 

Sometimes we need reminders that our memories are short. Sometimes we need reminders that God provides.  Sometimes you and I are just like the people at Massah and Meribah.  And sometimes God is just like God is at Massah and Meribah. God provides.

October 8, 2017

Keith Green (who died tragically in 1982) was a funny, but pointedly insightful, singer/songwriter and pianist who had a real knack for lyrics that got right to the point.  Here is his take on the "wandering in the wilderness and complaining about it" stage of the Exodus story, a song called "So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt?"  I'll just let Keith tell it--very funny, but very pointed.

So you wanna go back to Egypt Where it's warm and secure
Are you sorry you bought the one way ticketWhen you thought you were sure
You wanted to live in the land of promiseBut now it's getting so hard
Are you sorry you're out here in the desert Instead of your own back yard

Eating leaks and onions by the NileOoh what breath for dining out in style
Ooh, my life's on the skidsBuilding the pyramids

Well there's nothing do but travelAnd we sure travel a lot
'Cause it's hard to keep your feet from movingWhen the sand gets so hot
And in the morning it's manna hotcakesWe snack on manna all day
And we sure had a winner last night for dinnerFlaming manna souffle

Well we once complained for something new to munch
The ground opened up and had some of us for lunch
Ooh, such fire and smokeCan't God even take a joke? Huh? NO!

So you wanna to back to EgyptWhere your friends wait for you
You can throw a big party and tell the whole gangOf what they said was all true
And this Moses acts like a big shotWho does he think he is?
Well it's true that God works lots of miraclesBut Moses thinks they're all his

Oh we're having so much trouble even now
Why'd he get so mad about that c-c-c-cow (that golden calf)
Moses seems rather idle   He just sits around, he just sits around and writes the Bible!

Oh, Moses, put down your pen!  What? Oh no, manna again?

Oh, manna wafflesManna burgersManna bagelsFillet of mannaManna patty
BaManna bread!

October 1, 2017     

Exodus portrays a God who is decidedly active in the world. And as the story unfolds, and the Egyptians sent by Pharaoh to stop the Israelites from leaving struggle against the forces of nature seemingly unleashed against them--well this ancient passage of Scripture includes this gem: "The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt’". They concluded that the God of nature not only was active, but had chosen sides.

When I was in Dr. Beegle's Old Testament class in seminary, we talked about how all of the various events leading up to the Israelites being led out of Egypt could be explained by science to have been unusual events, but natural events.  We can certainly understand a plague of locusts--happens every 17 years, right?  We certainly experience "plagues" of stink bugs, with whom I seem to be sharing my study at the church.  The Nile turning to blood--well, it could just have looked like blood, from erosion of particularly fertile, red, soil.  Boils--sometimes those kinds of viruses go around.  All scientifically explainable, it seems.  A bit of a shock to some of the students in the class, actually. 

But that doesn't mean that God didn't have something to do with it, now does it?

In today's passage, it actually gives the scientific, meteorological explanation for the parting of the Red Sea: "a strong east wind all night . . . turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided".   Certainly could happen.  But what Exodus adds is the first part: "THE LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided" .  And after the Israelites had all gone through, on dry land, all night long, Exodus gives credit where credit is due: "At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. . .  Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.'".  

Those writing this history draw conclusions beyond the scientific, meteorological facts themselves.  And before we get too postmodern and skeptical, we need to acknowledge that we do too.  We acknowledge forces beyond us, in the storms that have ravaged in the last few weeks.  "Acts of God" is the actual term used by insurance companies, I believe. Something is at work. 

Now whether or not we assign favoritism to those who don't get crushed by nature's ravages, or assign blame to somebody because others DO get it (some of those assignations are too ludicrous to repeat; some of them by "Christian" preachers), we do tend to be pretty non-agnostic about such things.  And if we believe that God created it all, and still undergirds it all (even the Deists acknowledge divine intervention at the beginning, with their "watchmaker God" who created it, set it in motion, and then remains utterly uninvolved), then the mystery we may never figure out this side of Heaven is just what motivations are at work.  It is a challenge to always believe that God is benevolent when we see such devastation.  But it is also a challenge not to see the love we've been given by God when our love expresses itself in caring and support and generosity in the midst of such devastation and the recovery from it.

September 24, 2017

It has been an interesting time in Egypt for the Israelites.  They've been slaving away--literally, as slaves--and Yahweh God has promised Moses that they will be liberated from this oppression--which has gotten so bad that they have to make bricks without straw, and get beaten if the bricks are not good bricks. It is hard to make bricks at all without straw, much less good bricks, so they are pretty much set up to get beaten.  Yahweh God had been doing some pretty funky things with the plagues he's been visiting upon Egypt--the Nile turned to blood, they were overwhelmed with frogs and flies and gnats and locusts (I guess even moreso than the stinkbugs we get visited upon us), all of the livestock of the Egyptians died, all of the Egyptians got boils--there were others, but you get the idea.  All of this was so that Pharaoh would listen to Moses say that Yahweh God wanted Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free and leave--and Moses warned Pharaoh that each of these plagues would happen--but Pharaoh wouldn't respond.  The Egyptians were very used to all of the free labor, and wanted to keep on with it.

Finally God is going to send the last plague--all of the firstborn--animals as well as humans--would die, except those who put the blood of a lamb around the doorposts of their homes--and the Israelites were the only ones who got the memo about the blood.  But there were other instructions for the Israelites: tonight you will eat the lamb whose blood you used, and burn whatever you don't eat.  And tomorrow you will leave.  Period.  You're done with Egypt, and you're taking off.  No negotiation.  And Moses tells them that God puts it like this: "This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you".

Not only is their location going to change--and quickly--but their whole life is going to change--to the point that the calendar is going to change.  This is going to be a complete and utter upheaval of their lives. It has been coming for awhile--the plagues have been setting this up--but here, now, it is an abrupt change. They will keep their names, and their heritage--this is the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who is doing this, after all.  But their reliance on this God will need to be total, and their trust in this God total, because their rescue by this God is total. And it is done for all of them, the community of God's people.

It is remarkable how often I find my way back to the principles of the Twelve Step groups who in essence affirm these very same things for their own lives.  The day you get sober is the first day of a new life, and everything dates from that.  And no longer do you rely on whatever substance has in essence been determining every bit of your life, but you turn your self over to God, who alone can restore you to sanity.  And your own individual journey begins at that point, but it is done accompanied by that community who all--and each one in it--affirm(s) these same truths about who they are and who God is, and what the reliance and trust must be.  It's not a halfway thing.  You're in, or you're not in, and if you're in your ALL in. It is all new, even as the reason it is all new lingers in the background as a reminder of why it has to be this way, and how much better it IS this way.

It seems to me that this lesson from Exodus, and from the Twelve Steps, is for each of us:

Reliance on God is total, and needs to be.

September 17, 2017              

Moses has had an interesting life to this point--some of which he was too young to remember, some of which was very memorable, and some of which he'd like to forget.  (Although the details of our own lives are undoubtedly very different, we, too most likely have also had all of those dynamics.)  And now he is working for his father-in-law in the family business.  He is tending sheep on the backside of the wilderness.  This was not what he ever thought he'd be doing in those years when he was living in luxury in the palace of the ruler of Egypt.  Then he realized who he was, and who his people were, and he got a little worked up one day and killed a guy who was mistreating one of his own people, and he had to flee.  They didn't have witness protection in Egypt in 10,000 BC (or thereabouts), and he wouldn't have been likely to get into that program if they had had it.  So he had to do the only thing he could do to stay alive--run away.  He runs away to his wife's family, and all of the luxury of days gone by is long gone and far, far, away.  He's never going back there--he's wanted by the law.

And then God talks to him out of burning bush.  Didn't see that coming, like a lot of things in his past he didn't see coming, even though he's had to live with the consequences. And he has to live with the consequences of this, too--except this time God has a job for him.  And he has to go back there.  He swore he was never going back there.  And now GOD is sending him back there--back there where he's a wanted man. 

But God reassures him.  All of his doubts, all of his excuses, all of his not knowing how to understand some voice speaking to him out of a burning bush (how do you understand that, anyhow?).  This voice not only tells Moses "I've got your back" (colloquially), this voice also tells Moses who "I" is who has his back.  And that's who I is--"I is".  "I am".  "I will be who I will be". "I have been who I have been"--not only will I AM be with him, but I AM has always been with him, and all those who went before him, and all those who follow after him. 

Moses was the first to get God's name.  The name of God--I AM--reassures us that God is at the core of all creation, and at the core of our own being.  Moses getting the name of God reminds us that God wants to be connected with us, and wants to free us from our bondage, and wants to lead us to a new land (metaphorically).  And God chooses someone like Moses to guide it all back then.  Moses was not without skills, but Moses was significantly unrefined in those skills, and was, of course, being called to do something for which there was no blueprint or job description.  But I AM promises to have his back.  And I AM promises to have our backs too.        

As the plaque on my desk to the left of where I sit now (a gift from you, the congregation) says, "God does not call the qualified.  God qualifies the called".  Often we're led by the Spirit of God to do something we've never done before.  So, like when we learn to walk, we don't start out running.  We start out with halting little steps, and fall down a lot.  And then we get back up, and hang onto something, and take a few steps, and fall down again.  And then we keep working at it.  And eventually we find we're running, and don't even remember when we couldn't.  That's how it is when, like God did with Moses, God calls us.  We don't always get it right at first.  But we keep trying, and God keeps sustaining us.

September 10, 2017

They are on the beach, having breakfast, having just caught 153 fish--which was an extremely large catch of fish, so many that the net had threatened to break.  They are with Jesus again, after he has been raised from the dead.  They seem a bit more used to the whole thing, since nobody is reported as being amazed that Jesus is there--except at the unorthodox method that Jesus suggested for catching such a huge number of fish.  And they don't seem to be afraid any longer--at least until Jesus asks Peter "the question". 

You might remember "the question".  At a certain stage of our life, "the question" is central to our very existence.  When we're trying to sort out and figure out just where we stand with that other person who is so intriguing, with whom we have so much joy spending time together, whose very voice causes us to tingle--and when we're not wanting to mess things up by being too eager, saying too much too soon, seeming "geeky" or (in the great tradition of "Wayne's World") feeling not worthy of that person's attention.  At this reality in our lives, the whole "L" word question is so important--we want to know if the other person feels it, we want to say it, but we don't want to say it first in case we've really misread the situation in some sort of enthusiastic flight from reality.  We're excited, and anticipatory--and afraid.

It's not exactly the same thing, but still pretty important in terms of their relationship--here is Peter on the beach, chilling, relaxed, breakfasting (with Jesus having made the breakfast). All feels peaceful and calm and "right with the world," and Jesus, NOT using the nickname Jesus himself had called him by for three years, drops the bomb on him: "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

This is a serious question.  It seems to be an even more serious question because Jesus called him "Simon son of John" rather than "Peter" (kind of like when you were a kid and Mom used your whole name you knew something was probably really wrong).  And then he asks him twice more after Simon has answered "Yes, you know I love you".  What's up?

Love seems to be a multifaceted thing in the Kingdom of God which Jesus has been proclaiming throughout his earthly ministry the past three years.  Drawing from the great tradition of their historical Jewish faith, Jesus has spoken about loving God and loving neighbor as the two greatest commandments.  He explicates what loving the neighbor looks like in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  He even talks in the Sermon on the Mount about loving enemies and praying for those who persecute us.  It seems that love is not just a one-sided, individualistic relationship--that loving God INCLUDES loving your neighbor.  So Jesus responds to each of Simon Peter's "You know that I love you" with something for Simon Peter to do for others.  And this may be the crux of the matter, both for Simon Peter and for us.  It's not just loving God--it's not just an individual relationship with Jesus--it's not a one-dimensional private thing between me and God or me and Jesus.  The love we have for God--the love we have for Jesus--is expressed both towards God--Jesus--in our prayer life, devotional life, and worship--AND in outreaching concern for the neighbor, for the enemy, for those given to us to love.  Love isn't love until we give it away--and our love for God--and Jesus--isn't fully expressed until it is expressed towards others.

September 3, 2017



They had seen him dead.  Really dead.  Blood-covered, beaten up and whipped, sunburned, dehydrated, not-breathing dead.  They knew he’d been laid in a tomb, awaiting the anointing of his body for proper burial.  And now, here he was, with the same holes in his hands and the same deep gash in his side.  And he’s standing among them.

They had thought he was gone, long gone, and all of their hopes and dreams and plans and expectations gone with him.  And yet here he is.  Not a ghost. Alive. Talking to them.  Eating with them. 

How did they react?  In the story in Luke 24, their initial reaction in verse 37 was this: “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost”. After he shows them his hands and side, verse 41 describes their reaction as “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”. 

This makes sense.  When something unprecedented and overwhelming happens—something that doesn’t fit any paradigm we’ve ever experienced or even imagined—of course we’re frightened at first—startled, terrified.  And even once it sinks in a little bit, we’re still caught up in the moment of it all, with the entirely understandable pile of mixed feelings that they had:  joy, disbelief, still wondering. 

It takes time to process this stuff.  And it seems that in this encounter that Jesus gets that—Jesus understands.  He doesn’t immediately demand that they get off their collective duff and do something.  He takes the time to explain what has come to pass, and help them understand a little better.  But he also tells them that they will be needing to work through this initial reaction, because they will have a job to do (Luke 24:47b-48): “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things”. 

Maybe not now, in the midst of fear, and joy, and disbelief, and wondering. Maybe not until they get a little better sense of what it means that Jesus, indeed the Messiah, is raised from the dead. But, it seems, sooner, rather than later, they will be witnesses of these things—of what they’ve just witnessed, and what it means—and they will be proclaimers of repentance and forgiveness of sins TO ALL NATIONS.  They get to sit with this for a bit.  But then they have a life-changing message to proclaim.

Same with us. We can’t stay in the “wow!” stage of reaction to the love of Jesus touching our lives.  We can’t just bask in the wonder and amazement.  To pick on an old favorite hymn of some people, we can’t just go to the garden alone with him and hang out away from all of the other “stuff” in life that we’d rather avoid.  We, too, are witnesses of these things.  Love isn’t love until it’s given away, and Good News is only Good NEWS if it’s not kept secret. 

We’re singing a song that I first learned at church camp this coming Sunday—that ends with these words: “I wish for you my friend, this happiness that I’ve found. You can depend on Him; it matters not where you’re bound.  I’ll shout it from the mountaintop; I want my world to know; the Lord of love has come to me. I want to pass it on!”

August 27, 2017

Some moments in life are kind of transcendent.  As a baseball fan, Josh Harrison's walk-off home run in the 10th inning last night is one of them--not only did he break up a no-hitter, he also won the game.  It was the first time in the history of Major League Baseball that what he did has ever been done.  It was exciting just watching it on TV--must have been amazing to be there! 

But there are certainly other such moments that are clearly more profound.  The first time you see that person whose love changes your life--the person who eventually becomes your life partner, or your first glimpse of your first-born child.  The moment when you see clearly what you're to do with your life.  You can think of others.  Those moments sometimes can be anticipated, and sometimes they sneak up on us and "gobsmack" us.  But they are, forever, entirely memorable and foundational.  They are even transformational. 

Such a moment happened to Cleopas and the other (unnamed) person in the passage in Luke 24:13-35.  They are walking with a stranger, late in the day that they had heard that Jesus, who had been crucified and was obviously dead, was seen alive.  This stranger hadn't heard that, and they engaged fully in an animated conversation with him about that--and he explained what it must mean.  When they arrive at their destination they invite the stranger in, and something about the way he breaks the bread causes them to have one of those transformational, transcendent moments, because they see that this stranger is indeed Jesus.  And he vanishes, and they realize that even when they didn't know who he was, it was still one of those moments that sneaked up on them, as they remembered:  "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?" It is easy to anticipate that their lives will be different from that point on.  Encounters with Jesus can do that. 

August 20, 2017

Because of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, I changed what I was going to preach about.  An unannounced until worship started sermon that could be called "Reflections on Charlottesville" is what I preached, from Galatians 3:26b-29 and Luke 18:9-14.  The "Pastors Ponderings" from last week address what I'll be preaching this coming Sunday, and I won' repeat them--"you can look it up" as Casey Stengel used to say. 

But to reflect further on Charlottesville, please see this letter from our United Methodist Bishop, Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi.



August 13, 2017

Some names get negative associations because of one person who has that name.  For example, I would suspect very few, if any, American families with the last name of Arnold would name a child Benedict.  And since the demise of the former Heisman Trophy-winning running back and Buffalo Bills record-setter, I would expect few families with an offspring named Oliver John or Oscar Joseph to refer to him as "O.J.".  And has anybody named a son Adolph in the last 80 years? 

That stated, it seems to me that Jesus' disciple also known as "Didymus" (because he was a twin) gets a bad rap.  He is better known as Thomas--and not just as Thomas, but as "Doubting Thomas"--because he wouldn't believe what the other disciples told him, when they told him that they had seen Jesus alive after he had clearly and publicly been dead.  As stated in John 20:25, his response was: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."  It seems he needed more proof, that he didn't trust them at their word. (There may have been good reason not to trust them at their word, as it turns out--and not because of what they said, but because THEY said it.) 

I really don't know why we have a problem with that.  It seems increasingly difficult in this day and age to know what is actually true.  "Fake News" is going on out there in our society--and it seems what one decides is "fake news" could be exactly the opposite of what someone else decides is "fake news".  And flat-out lying (at least it seemed to me like flat-out lying) gets described as "alternative facts".  In this world we live in, why would we believe anything anyone told us unless we can satisfy our own minds with our own experiences and draw our own conclusions?  And by extension, why then would any of us have a problem with Thomas insisting on that same thing?  Why would we agree to a characterization as derisive as "Doubting Thomas" when we ourselves pretty much demand the same thing as he did? 

Jesus doesn't seem to chastise Thomas--in fact, Jesus shows Thomas his hands and side even before Thomas asks, and says "Do not doubt but believe" (John 20:27).  And yet Jesus also says (verse 29): "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." 

We cannot prove everything there is to prove about God.  Heck, we can't even prove to ourselves everything there is to prove about ourselves.  At some point we just have to trust and believe in some things that we can't prove--falling in love comes to mind as an example.  We cannot empirically verify EVERYTHING--and we don't.  If we think about it, we take a whole lot of stuff on faith.  And yet, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know, with having a certain level of requirement of fact or certainty, before we believe absolutely anything.   

It comes down to trust.  But keep asking the questions!