Saturday, December 15, 2018

“God in the Little Things” - December 16, 2018

Text: Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 2:8-14

The small town of Bethlehem had a proud tradition – but it was still just a small town.  There was a monument to Rachel, Jacob’s wife, who was buried there.  It was the city of Naomi and became the city of her daughter-in-law Ruth, who lived there with her husband Boaz and became the great-grandmother of Bethlehem’s most distinguished citizen, King David.  But that was a long ago.  The fact was, the town really wasn’t very significant. 

Jerusalem, not far away, was filled with magnificent buildings.  The temple was there; it was the seat of power, the seat of government.  But not Bethlehem.  Bethlehem is described in the New Testament as but a village.

The prophet Micah was distressed about the corruption that he saw all around him amidst the worldly splendors of Jerusalem.  He looked to the modest town of Bethlehem as the place where from a rich past would come Israel’s future hope.  As Peter Gomes puts it, the text “is a promise that in the midst of bad things, great things will come from small things.” 

Sometimes, what we need the very most may be found in small things, in the ordinary and everyday.  And that is largely where life is lived.  Life is filled with small things, with everyday activities and demands and encounters, with mundane details.  Life is filled with those things that are unremarkable.  And while every community is unique, for every big city, for every Chicago or Minneapolis, there are hundreds of Gilberts or Huxleys or Ogdens.  Bethlehem had a proud history, but it was no Jerusalem; it was just another small town.  But salvation can come from unexpected places.  Micah looked to Bethlehem.

As it turns out, size and power and wealth don’t seem to be all that important to God.  Goliath was a lot bigger than David.  Egypt was much stronger than the Hebrew slaves.  Pharaoh was more powerful than Moses.  Rome and Jerusalem were a lot more powerful than Jesus and his bunch.  As Paul put it, “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth.”

God isn’t all that impressed with bigness.  And the ultimate revelation of God’s power was to be born in Bethlehem.  Small, modest, unimpressive Bethlehem.

This was not the first time God had pulled such a stunt.  Gideon was the youngest in his family and came from what was described as the weakest clan.  Saul said that his tribe was least of those in Israel.  David was the youngest in his family and had come from this same small town of Bethlehem.  And the Christmas story itself is chock-full of the small, insignificant, and those without power.  Mary and Joseph – a poor, common, not-yet-married couple.  They had come to Bethlehem from Nazareth, which rated no better – folks would later say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  The Christmas story includes Elizabeth and Zechariah, an old childless couple; a tax on an already oppressed and impoverished people; and lowly shepherds out in the fields.  Nothing big or impressive.  

Christmas is a time for remembering that God is often to be found in the small, insignificant, common, seemingly “unimportant” things.

The writer Frederick Buechner, reflecting on his own life, wrote: “I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open... even such a life as the one I was living…opened up onto extraordinary vistas.  Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye.  Eating lunch with a friend.  Trying to do a decent day’s work.  Hearing the rain patter against the windows.  There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving room for you to recognize him or not recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.”

One of the titles for Jesus is Emmanuel—“God with us.”  In Christmas, we celebrate that God is indeed with us, and longs to be with us so much that God took on human flesh and became one of us.  By doing so, God has again declared the creation to be very good, and God has marked all of life, even the small and insignificant things, as of great value.

What we find most meaningful about this time of year is so often in the little things.  Think about Christmas when you were growing up.  (For some of you, that means right now, and for some of you, that was a long, long time ago!)  What do you remember most?  I remember our family going for rides to look at Christmas lights.  I remember my grandmother coming to visit.  I recall certain ornaments that went on our tree, even a couple of ornaments I made with my grandma that are on our tree at home right now.  I remember getting up early on Christmas morning, earlier than my parents really wanted to get up but they went along with it because the kids were so excited.  These are small things, really, but small things can be filled with meaning.  You may have your own memories of Christmas, your own traditions.  And chances are, many of these memories are of “little things.”

Christmas is filled with such small things.  Things like Christmas carols, and baking cookies, and Salvation Army bell ringers.  I just loved our Christmas program last week, which was a highlight of the season, and it was small things – the joy of seeing young people grow and blossom and contribute their talents, the wonder of kids over a wide age range all working together, seeing three year old Ethan singing with the big kids and actually knowing the words to the song.

This season is filled with small kindnesses and unexpected gifts.  This spirit of giving is part of what makes Christmas.  And the fact is, these little things are not so little at all.

In the movie Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ dying word is “Rosebud.”  Welles played a heartless and powerful newspaper mogul.  Nobody knew what he meant by “Rosebud.”  And though a curious investigator interviews many people, he never discovers the truth about Rosebud.  Rosebud was not the name of a woman he once loved or anything else that one might imagine a person to utter with his last breath.  Rosebud was the name of a sled he had as a child, a sled he enjoyed so much, a gift given to him in love, back when he was an innocent child and before his life was given over to the worship of power and money.

In the end, what he remembered most was not some moment of power and glory, not some moment of triumph, but the simple joy of a boy sledding in the winter snow.

From the very beginning, from the prophecies of the Old Testament, the story of Christmas is about common places and people.  Which means that it is about ordinary places like Ames, Iowa and small churches like First Baptist Church, and regular people like you and me, people with hopes and dreams-  and shortcomings and heartaches - and good days and bad days.

If the Christmas story begins in places like the prophecies of Micah concerning Bethlehem, it reaches its fulfillment in the story as told by Luke:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’
The traditions surrounding a birth in Jesus’ day were not all that different from ours.  When someone has a child, we celebrate.  You may see balloons in the front yard and a sign saying, “It’s a Girl!”  There are baby showers and gifts.  And photos are perhaps sent out through social media.

If a child is born to a famous person, things are a little different.  In that case, it’s not just social media among friends – it is all over the place.  We read about it in the papers and learn all about it on Entertainment Tonight.  If the birth is to royalty, it is a major news story.  When Prince William and Kate have a baby, the media is all over it – as was the case just this week when it was learned that they are expecting a fourth child. 

In Jesus’ day, an important custom surrounding births was music.  Local musicians would come and play at the birth of a baby.  It was a way of simultaneously announcing the birth and celebrating the birth.  The birth of a child to a family of power and wealth would be announced with great fanfare and singing.  If the child were a royal heir, there would be a huge celebration with loud, joyful music.

As we read of Jesus’ birth, there are no earthly musicians around.  There are no singers in Bethlehem; there is no dancing in the streets.  And yet, there is an announcement of the birth.  There is singing, wonderful singing, the singing of angels.

If you could arrange such music, more beautiful than anything ever heard, whom would you want for the audience?  Friends?  Family?  Facebook Live?  Network television?

It did not happen that way with Jesus’ birth.  The voice of angels was heard only by shepherds. 

It is hard for us to understand the social standing of shepherds in that culture.  Raising sheep seems a respectable enough profession to us, even if it’s something we’d just as soon leave to someone else.  But in Jesus’ day, shepherds were the scum of society, looked down upon because they were ceremonially and religiously unclean.  Not to mention just being unclean, period - they were dirty and smelly, rough people, poorly educated.

Why do you suppose the angels sang to the shepherds?  It seems to have a certain “pearls before swine” quality to it.  Why was this beautiful music announcing the birth of Christ sung to some shepherds?  Why not to stars and celebrities?  Why not to government and religious leaders?  Or Roman authorities?

The reason must be connected to everything else in the Christmas story.  Bethlehem.  Judea.  Mary and Joseph.  A stable. 

In Matthew, we have a somewhat different angle.  The Wise Men, Magi from the East, come to see the Christ child.  But in Luke, we see the birth of Jesus very much through the eyes of common people.  The very first to hear were the shepherds.  Christ’s birth is good news for all people – that was part of the angel’s message.  But when the angels said all people, they really meant all people. 

Queen Victoria of England once attended worship at a small village church in Scotland, near the royal castle at Balmoral.  The register for the day quaintly recorded the attendance by profession.  It read: shepherds 12, servants 11, queens 1.

Jesus birth represented the fulfillment of a great hope for all people.  It is a hope expressed by the prophets and gospel writers in so many ways.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”  “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God With Us.”  “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.”  “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all people: for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

Jesus’ birth was the fulfillment of a great hope for a Messiah.  It is indeed “good news of great joy for all people.”  But it is more than that.  From start to finish, in the coming of Christ into this world, God forever pronounced the goodness of creation – all of creation.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
All of creation is created by God, blessed by God, loved by God.  Even small, out of the way communities; even unglamorous, common, run-of-the-mill places and things.  Even young, scared, poor, forgotten people.  In the Incarnation, God pronounced forever the goodness and importance of all of life, even the small things.  Because out of love, God became one of us, coming not only to a small and humble place, not only to be greeted by lowly shepherds, but coming to us as a tiny, vulnerable baby.

There is an expression we sometimes hear about “keeping Christmas.”  If we were to keep Christmas throughout the year, live in the spirit of Christmas, it would mean to see and know and cherish the value of every part of creation.  God values vulnerable people so much that God became one of them.  God delights in small, unglamorous places so much that Jesus was born in such a place.  God cares about rough, hard-working people so much that the news of Christ’s birth was first announced to shepherds.  And in Jesus birth, even everyday things like stables and feed troughs and donkeys took on a new importance.

In our times of anxiety and hurt and worry, God is with us.  Emmanuel.  And in our times of joyous celebration, God is with us then, too.  Emmanuel, God with us.  God is with us, even in the little things, if only we will look.  Amen.

Mary's Song - December 9, 2018

Text: Luke 1:39-56

One of the things that I love about this time of year is the music.  From holiday concerts to Christmas caroling to the John Denver and the Muppets Christmas album (you should really check it out).  I love to get out my saxophone and play along with our Yuletide Orchestra.  If you weren’t here last night, our youth and children presented a fabulous Christmas program with really wonderful music.  I love all of the music we have in worship in this season, including our Christmas Eve service, filled with music.

Now, there is quite a variety of music you will hear this time of year.  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and O Come, O Come Emmanuel are really different genres of music.  There is a world of difference between Joy to the World and the Barking Dogs version of Jingle Bells.

Music has always been a part of the Christmas story.  The song of angels surrounds Jesus’ birth.  But before that, there are other songs, voices raised by prophets, by Elizabeth, by Zechariah.  And a young woman named Mary breaks into song, a song that is completely different from much of the music we hear in this season.

Mary is promised to be married to a carpenter named Joseph when she has this very strange encounter.  A messenger from God – an angel – tells her that she has found favor with God.  She will bear a child, a son, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit.  This child will be God’s Son, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Can you imagine?  We have heard this story so many times that it has lost its punch.  An angel appears and tells Mary that she will have a son who will be the savior of the world.

And here is the thing: Mary believes the angel.  This is a miracle in itself.  Mary doesn’t write it off as a weird dream, she doesn’t ignore it.  She believes.  And then Mary, who is perhaps fourteen years old, consents.  She says yes.  “Let it be with me, according to your word,” she says to the angel.

Mary says yes to God’s plan for her.  But that doesn’t mean this will be easy.  She won’t be able to disguise her condition for long—she won’t be able to keep it from her family or from the community – or worse yet, from her fiancé Joseph.  What can she possibly say to him? 

Mary says Yes to God, and right away it causes her trouble.  She is pregnant and not yet married, and that was much more difficult in that culture than it is today.  The angel had told her that her relative Elizabeth, well up in years, was also with child and so Mary leaves home and goes to see and stay with this older and wiser relative. 

And amazingly, she finds that Elizabeth is indeed pregnant in her old age.  Elizabeth is the only one who could understand, maybe the only one who could believe Mary.  At Mary’s arrival, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.  Elizabeth’s child will be John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry.  Old Elizabeth blesses young Mary: “Blessed are you among women.”  After the reception she was no doubt expecting in her own town, Elizabeth’s words are pure grace.  To be frightened and unsure and then hear those words, “Blessed are you among women.”  Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months.

And it is while there with Elizabeth that Mary sings her song, which we know as the Magnificat -- “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  I wonder if the support and love of Elizabeth helped Mary to burst forth with this song.

These are powerful words that Mary sings.  Her song is filled with gratitude and great hope.  And she speaks boldly of how things are and how things should be in God’s world. 

The word that comes to mind when reading the Magnificat is revolution.  God means to turn this world upside down.  And it all begins with Mary.  To accomplish God’s work, God chooses a poor, unmarried peasant girl in an occupied backwater country.  From the very start, God is turning things upside down, doing the unexpected.

Mary looks ahead to the implications of the birth of this child.  “The proud will be scattered.  The powerful will be pulled from their thrones.  The weak and poor will be lifted up.  The hungry will be filled.  The rich oppressors will be sent away empty.”

There were places in Latin America where just a few years ago, the public reading of the Magnificat was forbidden as subversive activity, what with all that business about the mighty being pulled from their thrones and replaced by the weak and poor.  Mary’s vision of Jesus’ ministry sounded dangerously like revolution. 

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he left the Magnificat in Latin.  The German princes who supported and protected Luther in his struggles with Rome took a dim view of the social and political implications of Mary’s Song, what with its reversal of social structures.  Luther’s friends and supporters were in high places, so he decided it was best to just leave the Magnificat in Latin. 

If we are honest, these words can make us just a bit uncomfortable too.  Compared with most of the world, we are fabulously wealthy.  We read Mary’s words, about the powerful and well-off trading places with the poor and unconnected – and we might ask, how exactly is this Good News for those of us who seem to be getting along OK?

Sometimes, before the gospel can be good news, it has to be heard as bad news.  What this may be saying to us is, we have to know how poor we are before we can receive God’s gift of redemption.  We can be too full of ourselves and all of our things to have room for God.  If we look to wealth and power and status to save us, we are going to be sorely disappointed.

The Bible does not glamorize poverty -- we are not to aspire to poverty.  And Jesus did not condemn the people of means who gathered around him, people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  There were a group of women who supported Jesus’ ministry out of their resources – some were apparently well-to-do.  But it’s instructive that God seems again and again to work through the poor and lowly and unlikely and marginalized – fishermen and tax collectors and shepherds and a poor peasant girl like Mary.

Maybe what this is about is that poor and powerless people know their need.  And rich and powerful people sometimes don’t.  Those who are looked down on, those who are seen as outsiders, those who are not seen as having much worth – they may be open to receiving, open to others, open to God.  Those who are insiders, those who are comfortable – maybe not so much.

The folks Jesus has harsh words for are not the obvious sinners, not the thieves and adulterers and the social pariahs.  Jesus accepts and forgives them and seems to like their company.  The people Jesus has a real problem with are the self-righteous folks who think they are above others, who think they have no problems.  Seeing no need for forgiveness, they don’t receive it.  Feeling no need for grace, they are not open to it.  They see no need for redemption, no need for love, no need for God.  And so, they don’t get it.

Mary, the young, poor, unlearned, not-yet-married girl, is open to God.  She is willing to say yes.  And she responds with this powerful song that has echoed through the ages.

This week, as our nation remembered President George H.W. Bush, we recalled one of the key world events of that era, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  Pastor David Lose shares about his visit to Eastern Germany a few years after the fall of the wall.  The group he was with had a chance to meet with leaders of the resistance in Leipzig.  For several months prior to the fall of the wall in Berlin, peaceful protests were held by the citizens of Leipzig.  Gathering on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church, the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas, they would sing, and over two months their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world.

One of the hosts told Lose that after the fall of the wall, a pastor who was helping to lead the resistance asked a former secret police commander why they hadn’t crushed this movement as they had so many others before.  His answer was, they had no contingency plan for song and prayer… They had no plan for dealing with song and prayer.

And Lose said, of those of us worshipping today, “I realize that a few voices drawn together in song in December may seem a small thing in the face of the … worries of the age, but surely no smaller than those voices raised in Leipzig… or in Selma … or in the Judean hill country so many centuries ago.  Mary’s God, we should remember, delights in taking what is small and insignificant in the eyes of the world to do extraordinary and unexpected things…”

We gather to sing like Mary, and our songs of yearning and hope and peace and justice and love can be powerful.

Advent is about preparing our hearts for God’s coming.   Mary really didn’t get a chance at preparation.  For her, Advent wasn’t a season of the year; it was a lightning bolt out of the sky.  An angel suddenly appeared and gave her a startling message.  How could anybody possible be prepared to hear the news she was told?  How do you get ready for something like that?

If there is anything that we can learn from the stories of this season, and for that matter, if there is anything we can learn from the Bible, period, it is that God’s work is surprising.  Often, beyond surprising – you can choose your adjective: amazing, shocking, startling, scandalous, astonishing.

If we are anticipating the coming of the One who constantly surprises us, how can we ever really be ready?  How can we possibly be prepared for something we would never expect?

A simple peasant girl is told that she will have a baby who will be the savior of the world.  And she handles it.  More than that - she rejoices in it.  There is no way Mary could see this coming, but somehow she was ready, and somehow, she responds to God’s call with a Yes.

How do you get ready for those things you can’t really get ready for?

Commenting on how people contemplating marriage or having children may be more ready than they think they are, Po Bronson said, “You learn that being half-ready is a significant advantage in this world, and being half-ready may be as good as it gets.”

In this season of preparation, maybe the best we can shoot for is being half-ready.  God’s work can be so surprising, maybe we can never fully anticipate it.  But we can prepare our lives so that our hearts are willing and our spirits are attentive and our souls are eager to say Yes to God.  We can be as open as we can be and trust in God’s love and goodness, but at the same time expect the unexpected – anticipate that we will be surprised by God.

How was Mary able to sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” when she knew that back home, there were parents and a fiancé to face and neighbors who would talk?  How could she sing, “All generations will call me blessed” when at that moment, her own generation probably wasn’t thinking that?

Mary is a model of love and trust and faith in God.  She believed that God’s word was true.  She found encouragement and support and a confirmation of God’s call in her relative Elizabeth, who called her “blessed among women.”  And she led the choir, singing of the great change that God sought to bring about.

Mary rejoiced in being chosen by God.  Because of her love and trust and faith, when the time came, Mary was at least half-ready.  May we aspire to as much, and lend our voices of hope and praise.  Amen.

“A Word of Hope” - December 2, 2018

Text: Isaiah 11:1-10

Last weekend I was watching the Iowa State-Kansas State football game with our cat Harry.  We were in our man-cave downstairs.  Harry was hanging out, settled in right beside me for this game.  I hope he was pulling for the Cyclones but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was secretly rooting for K-State, who after all are the Wildcats, and that is kind of the way Harry rolls.

At any rate, we were watching the game when our dog Rudy comes along and decides he wants to watch the game as well.  So he jumps up on the couch not knowing Harry is there.  And it wasn’t pretty.  Rudy had jumped up right next to Harry, who glared at him.  Rudy got very nervous and started whimpering.  You might start whimpering too if Harry glared at you – you do not want to see his evil eye.  It can be terrifying.  So Rudy very carefully made his way around and sat on my other side – so that I was a kind of buffer between the two.

Yesterday, we watched the ISU-Drake game and it was pretty much the same routine.  They both jump on the couch, there is an altercation, except this time Harry is the one who walks away and goes to a nearby chair.  And I think I saw Rudy wagging his tail when the Bulldogs took the lead in the third quarter.

I share this story because our scripture this morning asks us to imagine a time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb.  I don’t know about you, but I find that hard to imagine.  I mean for goodness sakes, the dog and the cat can’t even lie down together in peace.

The wolf living with the lamb?
Bears grazing with cows?
Children playing around poisonous snakes?

Come on, get real.  This is not the way the world is.

But you know what, I think that is exactly the point.  This is not the way the world is.  Isaiah is calling us to have bigger imaginations, to see a reality beyond our present reality, to see a time when God’s reign becomes real.  It takes imagination to grasp the width and depth and breadth of God’s will for this world, and it takes poetry to have any chance at all of describing it.

Isaiah lived in a time of turmoil.  He was a contemporary of Micah, whom we looked at a few weeks ago.  Both were prophets in the southern kingdom of Judah.  The nation had seen a procession of mostly lousy rulers.  Corrupt kings who turned their backs on God, who had no concern for justice.  The nation was now reaping the fruits of turning from the Lord.  It was a dark time.

But in the midst of all this, Isaiah has a vision--a soaring, wonderful vision of what God would do.  Isaiah was able to see beyond the immediate moment to a bright future.  It was a powerful vision of unexpected hope.

One reason it was so unexpected was that just a few sentences before, in the previous chapter, Isaiah had described what would happen to Judah as a result of its disregard for justice and Godly action.  “The Lord of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.  He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”

The fortunes of the nation were akin to a forest that had been wiped out.  Utter devastation. 

We have seen what that looks like with the fires that have ravaged California.  Nothing is left standing. 

When a forest has been clear cut, the devastation continues to compound.  During the last years of the Ottoman Empire, in the early 20th century, with the economy in a shambles, the government raised revenue with a new tax – not on production or consumption or property or income, but on the potential for production, the possibility of added value.  There was a tree tax.  Before fruit had been harvested or lumber cut or paper milled, or even shade enjoyed, there was a tax on trees.

If you wanted to evade this tax, what would you do?  Of course, you would cut down trees.  Large swaths of trees in Palestine and Syria were clear cut.  You don’t get over that quickly.  This led to erosion and eventually to a barren landscape that would not support vegetation. 

In metaphorical terms, this is what the nation of Judah was looking at.  This came to pass as Judah was conquered by Babylon and much of the nation taken into captivity.

But this was not the last word.  Isaiah had a vision of what God would do.  Jesse was the father of King David.  “From the stump of Jesse, a shoot shall spring forth.”  Out of this apparently good-as-dead people, out of Jesse’s descendants, there would come life. 

Isaiah foresaw a ruler who would be unlike any Judah had seen:  “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD…with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

At one of its lowest moments, Isaiah saw a glorious future that God had prepared, and at the least likely time, he shared a word of hope.  We read this scripture during Advent because we are reminded that at the least likely moment, in the most unlikely way, God broke into our world, giving us hope.  And even today, in unexpected places, at unexpected times, through unexpected events and people, God breaks in, giving hope.

Now, I realize that it can be hard to take such a word of hope seriously.  These are not especially hopeful times.  And let’s face it: our culture does not value poets like Isaiah; it values realists.  Our culture says, “Wake up and smell the coffee.”  If it is real, it’s there to see, right in front of you.

Those who have dreams, those who have ideals, those who hope for something better, can be seen as naïve and overly optimistic.  Isaiah – yeah, he had some pretty words that make nice Christmas cards, but what he needed was a reality check.  This was just hype that we might expect from a prophet – after all, that was his job.

That is one view.  But there is another.  William Willimon says, “It’s odd that those of us who are still able to dream of something better than present arrangements should be considered naïve…It’s those who are adjusted to the present, who feel no restless discontent with things as they are who are simple and naïve, believing that this is the best of all possible worlds. 

There is, in fact, a reality beyond what we can see right in front of us.  There are more possibilities, more alternatives, than what we can even imagine. 

Having such hope - can be a counter-cultural act of defiance.  The conventional wisdom may be that the poor will always be with us, don’t worry about it; but it is an act of defiance to believe that things can be better, that the world can be more fair, more equitable.  The conventional wisdom may be that people of different races and ethnicities and faiths cannot peacefully coexist.  It is an act of defiance to live with and work with and befriend those who are different.  The conventional wisdom may say it’s a dog-eat-dog world, only the strong survive, you have to look out for #1.  It is an act of defiance to put other values, like compassion and love and forgiveness, ahead of simply “getting ahead.”

Anne Lamott begins her latest book with the words, “I am stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse.”  That pretty well captures the state of our world and the way many of us are feeling.  She goes on and says, “The news of late has captured the fever dream of modern life: everything exploding, burning, being shot, or crashing to the ground all around us….  There is so much going on that flattens us, that is huge, scary, or simply appalling.  We’re doomed, stunned, exhausted, and overcaffeinated.”

This is the way she begins a book on hope.  This is in the tradition of Isaiah, who describes the nation as a forest that has been decimated, and then proclaims these powerful words: “From the stump of Jesse, a shoot shall spring forth.”

When our lives are going just swimmingly, hope is not such a hot commodity.  But when we are sitting on the stump of what had been and what might have been, hope is something we separately need. 

 “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…” Who could imagine anything growing as they sat on the stump of utter despair?  Well the thing is, most all of us have sat there at one time or another.  And maybe that is where you find yourself right now - at that place where you feel cut off from hope, where loss and despair have deadened your heart.  When you are in that place, you are ready for Advent.  Advent is about hope that starts as small as a green shoot from an old stump.

Anne Lamott wrote, “I am stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse.”  But she continued, “even as I await the blossoming of paperwhites on the windowsill in the kitchen.”

Sometimes, all it takes is a small sign, a small change, an opening of light, an opportunity for a glimmer of hope to get through.  Hope and renewal and transformation begin with small steps.  With a smile, a song, a sunrise.  A word of encouragement.  An inkling of an idea.  A loving gesture.  A small step toward healing and wholeness.  It begins with a child, as the prophet says.

We have all known people whose lives have been brought low by heartbreaking loss, by overpowering addictions, by shattered dreams, by terrible disappointments.  We have all experienced this to some degree.  But the thing is, when we hit that place of devastation, when we are sitting on that stump, that is not the last word.

In this season of Advent we celebrate the hope we have in Jesus.  The hope that we have in that child who came to show us that there is no situation and no person who is beyond the reach of God’s love and grace.  The loss of a dream, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, even the loss of a life is not the last word.

I heard a story recently about a church in Nebraska, an American Baptist church.  The church had declined to the point where it really couldn’t stay open anymore.  They only had a handful of members and the bank account was running down.  But they decided to go out with a bang.  They took their remaining funds and decided to hold a big barbecue for the neighborhood, kind of like a going away party.  They dropped off flyers, invited all the neighbors, and the extended church family such as it was showed up for one last hurrah.  It was advertised as a free barbecue for the community for anybody who wanted to come.

The little group of members were surprised when quite a few of the neighbors actually showed up.  Some hadn’t really noticed the church before, or hadn’t paid much attention.  The church put on a nice feed, people visited and had a good time, a couple of people sang for a little entertainment segment.  And some of the neighbors who came wanted to make a donation to help pay for the meal. 

“Oh, no, it’s free – we’re just glad you came,” church members said.  But people insisted.  It wasn’t just one person, it was a number of people.  So they reluctantly accepted the contributions.  It turned out that they made  more in contributions than they had spent on the food.

They decided to do it again.  I mean, they wanted to spend down their remaining funds so they could close.  The next week they put on another neighborhood barbecue.  Even more people came.  Everybody seemed to enjoy themselves and again, without asking for anything, people donated and they made even more money.

And some of the neighbors asked what time the church services were.  And a few showed up.  And they kept doing neighborhood barbecues, and money and people kept coming, and more of them started coming to church.

It had looked like it was over and the church had really made a good faith effort to close down, but they failed at it.  A shoot grew from the stump of that good as dead church, and there was new life.

Isaiah not only says that a shoot shall grow from the stump of pain and loss and broken dreams.  He goes on to paint a picture of a transformed world.  He speaks of a place where there are neither predators nor prey.  And if you are still thinking lions and lambs, you are missing the bigger picture. 

Isaiah foresees a world where there are no scam artists who take advantage of seniors, no pedophiles who abuse children, no drug dealers creating young addicts.  It is a world where bullets are not used to settle disputes and where the strong do not take advantage of the weak.  There will be no ill-treatment or corruption, and the vulnerable will not be in danger.  Those on the margins will be welcomed and included.  And the prophet says, a little child will lead them.

In this season we look to that child born in Bethlehem.  The one who came to bring hope and show us a different way of living.  The one who came to proclaim life even in the face of loss and death.

The vision may seem far-fetched.  It certainly runs against the way things are looking right now.  But you know what?  I’m betting on the child.  Amen.

“God the HR Director” - November 25, 2018

Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Darden Caylor was a pastor here in Iowa, now in Missouri.  He recalls the day he decided to become a minister.  He was sitting in a chair at his grandma’s house when he heard a Voice.  At first, it was kind of muffled, but it became clearer.  “You should become a minister,” the Voice said.

He couldn’t believe it!  Was God speaking to him?  Just then, he heard the voice again, but this time the message was confusing.  “If you build it, they will come.”

Then he opened his eyes and saw his grandma standing over him.  “You should become a minister,” she was saying.  In the background, the movie Field Of Dreams was on TV.  In his mind, the movie and grandma’s words had gotten mixed up.

God’s call comes to us in a variety of ways.  God spoke to a young man named Jeremiah and called him to be a prophet.  But in the great tradition of religious leadership going back to Moses and carrying on to our Nominating Committee work of the present day, Jeremiah was reluctant. 

You may remember that God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and asked him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  Moses said, “Nobody will listen to me.  Who should I say sent me?”  God said, “I am who I am.”  Then God told Moses to throw down his staff.  It became a serpent.  God said, “Pick it up,” and it was a staff again.  God would give Moses power, give him whatever credibility he needed.  Moses would be heard.

But still, Moses complained.  “I’m not a public speaker,” he said.  “I stutter when I get nervous.”  God was getting impatient.  “Your brother Aaron is a big talker, he can be the spokesperson.”  Moses went on to lead the people, but initially at least, he was a reluctant leader.

It wasn’t just Moses.  You’ve got Gideon, called to lead the army of Israel despite long odds.  He had a hard time believing what God was asking and asked for a sign from God – three times.

Then there is Esther, who becomes queen of the Persian king and has the opportunity to save her people, the Jews, but is reluctant and afraid – and Mordecai tells her, you may have come to your royal position for such a time as this.

You can even look to the apostle Paul, a former persecutor of Christians, who is blinded on the road to Damascus and becomes a follower of Jesus and is always a bit reticent of his qualifications because of his past.

The pages of the Bible are littered with folks who doubted their ability or worth or value or calling.  You can add Jeremiah to the list.

God tells him, “Before you were even born, my plan was for you to be a prophet to the nations.”  Pretty powerful stuff.  But Jeremiah questions the wisdom of God’s plan.  “Lord, I’m not the person you want.  I can’t go speak to others - I’m just a kid.”

I wonder: where did Jeremiah get the idea that he couldn’t do something because he was young?  Who taught him that his age limited what was possible?   

“Lord, I am only a boy,” he said.  He had to learn that somewhere.  From his teachers or parents or neighbors or the people at the synagogue.  And now, here he was trying to teach it to God.

I wonder sometimes whether we do a better job of giving folks reasons to say no than encouragement to say yes.  If we are looking for reasons not to answer God’s call, not to use our gifts, there is no shortage:

•    like Moses, we can say “I’m a poor speaker.”
•    or like Jeremiah, “I’m too young.”
•    maybe “I’m not smart enough”
•    or “I’m not spiritual enough” (whatever that means).
•    “I’ll have to face people I don't like.”
•    “It’s too hard.  It’s asking too much.”
•    “I’m too new.”
•    “I need to get my life straightened out first.”
•    “This is an inconvenient time.”
•    “What would my friends and family think?”
•    ..and on and on…
People don’t just cook up excuses like this.  They learn them, and these kinds of messages can be very hard to unlearn.

Two parents seemed to be mismatched.  The father was unemployed with no formal schooling.  The mother was a schoolteacher.  The child, born in Port Huron, Michigan, was measured to have an IQ of 81.  He enrolled in school two years late due to scarlet fever and respiratory infections.  His emotional health was poor.  He was stubborn, aloof, and considered backward by school officials.

He liked mechanics.  He also liked to play with fire - and he burned down his father’s barn.  He showed some manual dexterity, but had very poor grammar.  But he did want to be a scientist or a railroad mechanic.

Do you want to guess who the child was?  It was Thomas Edison, one of our greatest inventors.  We may label and categorize others and pre-determine their worth, but we can’t really see what is inside a person.  What we do know is that the way we speak of others and to others can be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal about Harry Lipsig.  Lipsig, at age eighty-eight, decided to leave the New York law firm he had spent most of 60 years building up.  He decided to open a new firm.  Eighty-eight years old.  So at an age when most people have long since retired, Mr. Lipsig decided to try his first case in a long time.

Here was the situation: A lady was suing the city of New York because a drunken police officer had struck and killed her 71-year-old husband with his patrol car.  She argued that the city had deprived her of her husband’s future earnings potential.  The city argued that at age 71, he had very little earnings potential.

They thought they had a pretty clever defense until they realized that this woman’s argument about her husband’s future earning power was being advanced by a vigorous 88-year-old attorney.  The city settled the case for $1.25 million.  The message was, “He was only a senior citizen,” but thankfully Harry Lipsig didn’t buy that.

So many of the limitations we put on ourselves are learned.  I love the story Molly Marshall tells.  Many of you know Molly, who has preached here at our church.  She is the president of Central Baptist Seminary in Kansas City.  Years ago, while in seminary, she was pastor of a little country church in Kentucky, Jordan Baptist Church.  She was the first woman pastor this church had ever had.

But for the young children, she was the only pastor they had ever known, and one day in the nursery they were playing church.  One of the boys in the nursery wanted to be the preacher, but the girls knew better.  “You can’t be the preacher,” they said, “Only girls can be the preacher.”

There are 100 reasons to say no, but we only need one reason to say yes: God has called us.  And along with God’s call comes the strength and power necessary for the task.

Now in a certain way, Jeremiah’s reluctance may have been a blessing.  He was well aware of his limitations, and going in, he knew that he had to depend on God.  And God gave him the strength and power he needed.  Verse 9 says “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.”  God equipped Jeremiah and gave him the words to speak.

If Jeremiah’s response to God had been “Sure Lord, no problem, I can take care of that.  Easy peazy, don’t you worry about it” - and then went off to preach to the people concerning the impending doom of Judah--I have a feeling it would have turned out rather badly for Jeremiah.  Humility is a necessary quality for prophets, and maybe no one should become one unless they are dragged kicking and screaming into the job.

Like Micah, whom we looked at a couple of weeks ago, Jeremiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah.  By this time, there was no northern kingdom – it had been overrun by Assyria and the population largely taken away.  Judah awaited a similar fate by the rising power of Babylonia.  The handwriting was on the wall.

Given the situation, it is no wonder that Jeremiah’s calling was described as it was.  “Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’

The building and planting sounds a lot better.  But Jeremiah was called to pronounce judgment on the nation.  He famously took a pot and smashed it, saying this is what is going to happen to Judah.  And yet even within the message of judgment, there was hope.  With real estate prices plunging and a bleak forecast for the nation, Jeremiah bought a field to show that he was banking on God’s future – literally.  And he gave God’s message: “I know the plans that I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

The call to Jeremiah is one that is still needed – a call “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

That destroying and overthrowing part sounds pretty harsh, but like Jeremiah we are called to overthrow pretensions and to destroy illusions about ourselves – about our piety and religiosity and invulnerability as Christians, as good church people, as Americans, as middle class folks.  That was essentially what was going on in Judah.  And we are to plant – to plant the will of God, to build up care for our neighbor, to promote goodness and righteousness.  We are to plant seeds of hope and love.  This is something that everybody can do.  This is something we are all called to do.

As a middle school student in Pella, Maria Rose Belding was volunteering along with her Sunday School sorting cans in the food pantry at her church.  One day, she saw thousands of boxes of macaroni and cheese arrive at the food pantry.  It was well-intentioned, she said, but they couldn’t store it, and milk and butter are needed to make it.  Months later, she had to throw away hundreds of expired boxes as people waited in line for food. 

“I remember just crying and being so angry,” said Belding, now 23. “It was clear we couldn’t communicate with our food donors or other food pantries.  We needed a tool.  I remember thinking, ‘The internet — why aren’t we on a network?’”

That thought stayed with her.  As a high school student, she had this idea of a way to match donors and food pantries and organizations that served meals to people in need.  She created a website, but it never really got anywhere.

Then the summer before her freshman year of college, she had a fellowship in Washington DC.  She was temporarily staying with a friend’s brother and it turned out he knew how to code.  She was persistent and got him to make an app – it was an online instant sign-up board to distribute food that would otherwise go to waste to those who need it.

It was an immediate success.  Now at American University, she was sitting in class when the first donation came in.  It was a large quantity of dry beans, a common donation but tough for panties without kitchens to distribute a large amount.  But within minutes, an organization that housed a population of mostly Hispanic clients claimed it.  The donor and recipient organization were two miles apart and did not know of each other’s need.

More than 3000 organizations in 49 states now participate in the food sharing program.  Run largely by high school and college students, the nonprofit Maria created has helped redistribute more than 1.8 million pounds of food since 2015.  She has been named one of 10 CNN Heroes of the Year.

She was just a kid.  Just a middle school student.  But Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me,” and she didn’t let her age hold her back.  She joined a long list of Biblical figures, people like Joseph, Miriam, Joshua, Samuel, David, Mary and Timothy who were young when they answered God’s call.

We are all called by God.  We are called to follow Christ, we are called to be faithful, we are called to use our gifts in service to God and others.  I gave the sermon title a couple of weeks ago because Janelle needed to print the bulletin last week.  God the HR Director isn’t exactly right – maybe God the Recruiter would be more like it, or God the Vocational Guidance Counselor – but the point is that God is probably not as worried about qualifications and experience as we are. 

I don’t know what it is God may be speaking to you about.  Maybe there is a decision you know you need to make, but you are hesitant.  Maybe there is something you have known you need to do for a long time.  Maybe there is a relationship you need to mend.  Maybe God is speaking with you about a place of service in this church or in the community.  Maybe it has to do with priorities in your life.  Whatever it is, if it is important, if it will make a difference, chances are it will not be entirely easy.  It may mean making some hard choices.  It may mean risking in some way.  

The good news is that when we answer God’s call, God promises to always be with us.  God said to Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.”  Do not be afraid.  I am with you.

God calls us.  Each of us.  And whenever God calls, God gives power.  God is with us.  What wonderful words to hear: “Do not be afraid.  I am with you.”  What about you?  Will you say Yes to God’s call?

“Abounding in Thanksgiving” - November 18, 2018

Text: Psalm 148, Colossians 2:6-7

On May 15, 1918, the U.S. Postal Service began regular airmail service, with flights between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City.  The Post Office set a controversial rate of 24 cents for the service, much higher than the 3 cents for first-class mail, and decided to issue a new stamp just for this rate, printed in red and blue and depicting a Curtiss Jenny, the biplane chosen to shuttle the mail.

The two-color stamp meant that the sheets of stamps had to go through the printing press twice.  When this happened, there was always the possibility of a sheet being sent through upside down, and one such misfed sheet of stamps was not caught at the printer.  It was sent on to a post office in Washington, DC.  A clerk in the DC post office did not realize the plane was printed upside down because he had never seen an airplane and didn’t really know what it was supposed to look like, and he sold these stamps.

Called the Inverted Jenny, this is one of the rarest and most valuable of all U.S. stamps.  A block of four sold in 2005 for $2.97 million.  In 2016, a single stamp sold for $1. 3 million, which isn’t bad for an initial 24 cent purchase.

Broward County, Florida has been in the news a lot lately with election recount issues.  But there is another story involving Broward County elections I want to share with you this morning.  A few years back, an absentee ballot was mailed in Broward County with several very old stamps used for postage.  Someone in the elections office happened to be a stamp collector and recognized the Inverted Jenny on the envelope.  Now remember, a single Inverted Jenny recently sold for 1.3 million. 

What is really interesting about all of this is that the absentee ballot was not counted.  The person who mailed it in failed to give any kind of identification.

Here is someone who was sitting on a million dollars but didn’t even know it. 

This week we will celebrate Thanksgiving.  This is a time for giving thanks to God for all the ways that we have been blessed.  But when it comes to counting our blessings, we may have something in common with that anonymous person in Broward County, Florida.  So often, we fail to recognize the blessings all around us.  We may be sitting on a great treasure without even realizing it.

In this morning’s scripture, Paul reminds his readers that as they are grounded in Christ and continue to grow in faith, they will find in their lives a surplus of gratitude – their lives will abound in thanksgiving. 

Well, that sounds very nice and all, but to be really honest, many of us might not necessarily describe our lives as “abounding in thanksgiving.”  We might be moderately thankful, sure, but to have a surplus of gratitude that is just overflowing might be a bit much to ask.

Let’s face it: being thankful does not come easily to everybody.  Peter Gomes was the Dean of the Chapel at Harvard University.  He was named one of America’s best preachers and died a few years ago.

Gomes grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  He said that he had old Pilgrim friends in town – that is, people who were directly descended from the Pilgrims – who went into hiding around this time of year.  They were not big fans of Thanksgiving.  “I hate the Pilgrims,” said one of them.  “Just because they were always cheerful in tough times, and thankful, and worked hard, and all of that, everybody thinks we should do the same.  It was an ill wind that blew the Mayflower into Plymouth harbor.” 

It can be hard to be thankful sometimes.  The calendar can roll around and tell us it is time for giving thanks, but that does not always fit the trajectory of our lives. 

There are reasons we have trouble cutting loose with thankfulness.  But part of our problem may be a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is not simply a response to good fortune or happy circumstances.  It is deeper than that.  Real thanksgiving is a basic attitude we have toward life.  It is not that we are simply thankful when everything is going great; a life of thanksgiving sees and understands the blessings that surround us even when times are not easy.

Samuel Johnson was author of the first major English dictionary.  He was a renowned wit and man about town as well as a person of deep faith.  When after years of labor he finally completed his dictionary, he sent the finals pages to the publisher, Andrew Millar.   Millar exclaimed to the messenger who delivered the manuscript, “Thank God I am done with that man!” When this was reported to Dr. Johnson, he smiled and said, “I am glad he thanks God for anything.”

The Psalms are filled with the theme of thanksgiving, maybe more than anything else.  And the Psalmist sees all of creation as joining in a chorus of praise to God, the creator and the sustainer of all life and all things.

When we have an attitude of praise and thanksgiving to God, we are not alone.  We join with the sun and stars and oceans and mountains and trees and fields.  When we see the beautiful fall leaves, it is hard to argue that they are not offering praise to God.  When we hear birds singing, or a cat curled up and purring, or look out on the beauty of fields at harvest time or the power of a rushing river or the beauty of newly fallen snow, the Psalmist would say that these are all giving praise to God.

So a cynic might argue, well yeah, but we know too much to be thankful.  We understand how bad things really are.  But I think it is just the opposite.  If we really knew, if we really understood the greatness and goodness of God and the enormity of our blessings, we could not help but be thankful.

To some extent, being thankful is an art form.  It is something that we cultivate.  It is something that we work on.  I know people who are doing a gratitude journal or gratitude blog, particularly in this month of November – listing every day one thing for which they are thankful.  The more we do that, the more we make the conscious choice for gratitude, the more easily we are able to recognize all that we have to give thanks for.

A fire broke out and destroyed an entire city block of businesses.  A baker looked at the charred remains of his bakery.  He said, “Well, at least my competitor was burned down as well.”  To find humor and ongoing life even in the midst of suffering is at the heart of it a response of thankfulness.

Now, worry is easy.  A lot easier than thankfulness.  And we certainly have a lot to worry over, if we are so inclined.  Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life.  Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or wear.  Consider the way God provides for the birds of the air.  Look at the way God clothes the lilies of the field.  If God cares for the birds and the flowers, how much more does God care for you.”

But it’s hard not to worry.  And this is directly related to thanksgiving.  The sum of worry and thanksgiving is close to a fixed amount.  It’s like we have this tank that only holds so much, and if we fill it with worry, there’s no room left for thanksgiving.  The more we fill our life with worry, the less our capacity for Thanksgiving.

Related to worry is fear.  Just as thanksgiving needs to be cultivated, it seems to me that our culture is cultivating fear among us.  Fear is big business.  It drives a lot of our politics.  I am glad that we are done, for now at least, with all of the advertising of the election season.  We were told again and again and again how dangerous all of these candidates were.  We heard a lot less about vision for the future or lifting people up or how we can tackle challenges with hopefulness or building a better future for everyone.  Instead, there was a whole lot of fear.

The use of fear by politicians and media and, yes, even by religious folks is so common because it works: we are all subject to feeling afraid, and nobody wants to be afraid.

This is not to say there is nothing out there that we should worry about or be fearful of.  A certain amount of fear can focus our attention and drive us to action.  But when our lives focus on worry and fear, it is hard to be grateful. 

Paul says that when our lives are rooted in Christ, then we are able to abound in Thanksgiving.  When God’s care for us is the bottom line, then we can live lives of thanksgiving.  And thankfulness changes things.  It doesn’t simply change us, it changes situations.  It creates possibilities.  When we are surrounded by people who are grateful, who are thankful, who observe blessings, who look for beauty and goodness and hope in others and in situations, it makes a big difference in our lives.  And when we live lives of gratitude, it makes a difference not only for us but for others.

There is another drag on gratitude that can be especially prevalent this time of year.  Do you remember the TV show Frasier?  There is an episode where Frasier and his brother Niles are in the coffee shop when Niles says to Frasier, “Are you happy?”  Frasier turns the question back to Niles: “Why do you ask?”

Niles responds, “It’s just that I saw an orphan receive a pair of cheap shoes.  And there was such an expression of gratitude on his face.  He was so happy.  Why was he so happy?  Here I am wearing a pair of $400 shoes.  I look at them and wonder if I even really like them.  Do you like them?  They have tassels.  I don’t really like tassels.  What do you think?”

And this sets it up for Frasier to spend the rest of the show deciding if he is happy and what makes him happy.

The point is, it is possible to have a pair of cheap shoes and be thankful, and it is possible to have pair of $400 shoes and wish you had different or better ones.  Spending our lives accumulating bigger and nicer and newer and cooler and more expensive things does not guarantee happiness, and it can keep us from being thankful for what we do have.  Consumerism and constantly striving for more turns our attention away from our blessings. 

Focusing on what we don’t have keeps us from being grateful for the way God has blessed us, and this is true for spiritual as well as material blessings. 

Researchers have confirmed that negative emotions – things like fear, envy, greed, entitlement, resentment, anger and regret – block gratitude, causing self-alienation, broken relationships, and profound unhappiness.  But we really didn’t need psychological researchers to tell us that.  We know it to be true – sometimes, unfortunately, from experience.

Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, writer, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.  He was interviewed once by Oprah Winfrey, who said that there might be no person better than him to speak about living with gratitude.  Given all the tragedy he had experienced, she asked him whether he still had room for gratitude.  He said,

Absolutely.  Right after the war, I went around telling people, “Thank you just for living, for being human.”  And to this day, the words that come most frequently from my lips are, “Thank you.”  When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity.  A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.

He went on to say, “For me, every hour is grace.  And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.”

“When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity.” According to Paul, growth and maturity in Christ results in thankfulness.  Choosing to focus on the way God has blessed us and the way God provides for us, choosing to “count our blessings,” in the word of the old hymn, can change our lives and actually help see us through difficult times.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal theologian and preacher.  She said, “As the life of thanksgiving deepens, we discover that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not those offered for the obvious blessings, but for those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, for insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.”

Thanksgiving is not just a response, it is also a choice.  It is an attitude, a stance toward life.  Scripture says, “In all things give thanks.” Not for all things, but in every circumstance have an outlook of gratitude.  The more we are thankful, the more we grow in Christ - which in turn helps us to be still more thankful.  And we begin to understand the great treasure that we truly have.

In Paul’s words, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives rooted and built up in him, established in the faith, abounding in Thanksgiving.”  May it be so.  Amen.



Friday, November 9, 2018

“Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly” - November 11, 2018

Text: Micah 6:6-8, Mark 12:28-34

The world is changing rapidly.  We all know this.  Culture and technology and social dynamics keep changing and evolving.  For better or worse, the world is a different place than it was 20 years ago.


One of the big changes over the past 20 or 25 years has been that more and more Americans, when surveyed, claim no religious affiliation.  I have mentioned before that this group has been called “The Nones.”  Writing a few years ago, researcher Robert Putnam said that “It is now, roughly speaking, 35 percent [to] 40 percent of younger Americans … who say that they have no religious affiliation.”

That’s a big change.  For many years about 5 to 7 percent of Americans said they belonged to no religion.  The shift, Putnam says, is “a quite novel and interesting, significant development.”

Well, it is more than novel and interesting and significant.  For those of us in the church, it is scary.

The reason many people are staying away from the church is not so much that they don’t believe in God or find Jesus an appealing figure.  It is because of the ways that Christians and church leaders have presented themselves in public: as judgmental, hypocritical, and overly political.  Somehow, people have got the message that the Church is mostly concerned with toeing the line, being on the right side of hot-button issues, and gaining political power.  Love and grace and welcome are not the first things that come to mind for a lot of people when they think of the church. 

Our situation is not terribly unlike that of the prophet Micah, who lived 2700 years ago.  It was a time in which there were elaborate outward shows of religiosity but a lack of deep, transforming faith.  Religious leaders had promoted a status quo religion that kept the powerful in power but turned a blind eye to injustice.  And then Micah showed up.  His message of judgment against the faithful – against the religious leaders and those who considered themselves righteous - must have been quite a shock.

If we were to go back to the verses and chapters preceding our reading from Micah this morning, we would find a no-holds barred condemnation of the faith and worship of Israel.  God’s acts on behalf of Israel are made clear.  God had been faithful, but Israel had turned from God.

Last week we looked at the prophet Elisha and the healing of Naaman, the Syrian military general.  Elisha prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Micah lived about a hundred years later and prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah.  He was one of the writing prophets, many of whom we find in the short books at the end of the Old Testament.  Micah is one of those books that is kind of hard to find when you look it up.  But don’t be misled by the brevity of the prophetic books; their message is powerful. 
 
The prophets thundered against Israel for cheating, abuses of power and privilege, exploitation of the poor and powerless, self-indulgence, and retreat into vain religiosity.  “You cows of Basham,” raged Amos, “who oppress the poor, and crush the needy.”  “Your wealthy are full of violence,” said Micah; “your inhabitants speak lies.” “Because you have plundered many nations,” said Habakkuk, “all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you.” “The people went far from me,” said Jeremiah, “and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”

Pretty tough stuff.  The people had turned from God and failed to live as God had demanded. 

Micah’s understanding was that Israel had turned to elaborate ritual sacrifices while at the same time engaging in wickedness, cheating, violence by the wealthy toward the poor, and rampant lying.  Now, it wasn’t that God was against ritual practice per se.  Ritual can be very meaningful.

I mean, think of our own ritual practices.  Things like communion and then joining hands in a circle after a communion service.  Baptism.   Christmas Eve.  Praying the Lord’s Prayer.  And yes, giving our offerings.

Ritual can be important, but Micah said that these rituals were meaningless without accompanying righteous behavior.  Offering a ritual sacrifice was no substitute for faithful living.

Micah brings an indictment against the people and then turns to a kind of ridiculous hyperbole.  Speaking for Israel, he writes, "OK, we are guilty as charged.  So what do you want, God?  Do you want burnt offerings?  How about thousands of rams?  How about 10,000 rivers of oil?  Would that do it?  Would that be enough?  Would that set things right?”

Just what is it that God wants from us?  Essentially, Micah says that God doesn’t really want anything.  Because God is not after things; God is interested in us.  Faith is a relationship.  Micah 6:8 describes that relationship. What God wants is a certain way of living from us, a way of living that walks alongside God. 

Amos and Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, all of the great 8th century prophets can be summarized in this one verse: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”  This is the high water mark of prophetic religion, and is seen clearly in the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t about laying down a bunch of legalistic rules; he was about living in relationship with God.  For Jesus, it all boiled down to love God and love your neighbor, which is pretty similar to what Micah is saying here.

First, we are to do justice.  Not just like the idea of justice, but actually do it.  This means that we work for the good of all people, especially those who are powerless.  We work to change structures and systems so that everyone is treated fairly and equitably.  There is a social dimension to faith, and as Christians we are to be salt and light in our communities.  We are to live in a way that honors and respects and values everyone.  We do justice and we work against injustice.

Righting wrongs, providing opportunities for those who need it, seeing all people as God’s children, full of worth and value – these are all elements of justice. 

And then we are to love mercy.  If you look in five different translations of the Bible, you might find 5 different words here.  It may read kindness, or loyalty, or love, or grace.  The word that is hard to translate here is hesed – a word that has shown up again and again as we have made our way through the Old Testament – almost every week, it seems, in our scripture reading.  It means something like loving kindness.

Hesed is when you are in serious trouble, you are really hurting, and there is someone who has no reason to help you but they do anyway – they go out of their way to help.  That is what it is to be on the receiving end of hesed. 

I remember a really bad ice storm several years ago.  There were tree limbs down everywhere.  We have a big sycamore tree in our back yard, and every time the wind blows we have a bunch of sticks to pick up.  That happens routinely.  But with this huge ice storm, there were all kinds of limbs and branches down in our backyard, along with an unbelievable amount of the smaller stuff.  I was working on it with both a chainsaw and a rake, thinking that this would take days to clean up.

And about then a woman just showed up in our back yard to help.  I had never met her but she apparently lived nearby.  She had already cleaned up her yard - it was a small yard and she didn’t have much to clean up - but she wanted to help other people.  So she was out looking for people to help.  And she did.  I couldn’t believe it.  That was hesed.  Kindness and mercy and help that was in no way expected, but freely chosen.  She helped out for awhile, and the job didn’t seem so impossible, and then she went on and helped somebody else.

It is interesting that we are to do justice, but we are to love mercy or love kindness.  So it’s not just that God wants us to do good toward others; God wants us to love doing good toward others.  We are not just called to love our neighbor, God wants us to love loving our neighbor.

And then we are to walk humbly with God.  The key word here is walking.  Life is a journey, and walking humbly means that we journey with God; we learn from God.  In Judaism, the word for ethics and morality is “walking.”  It describes how one should go about one’s day-to-day life.  Our walk is never taken alone.  Psalm 23 says, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Walking with God.

The life of faith is not about a bunch of arbitrary rules.  It is not about outward shows of piety and goodness.  It is about walking humbly with God.  As that relationship with God grows, we more and more are led to do justice and love mercy.  As we love God, we are more and more led to love our neighbor.

Micah says that authentic faith is not about outward show or ritual acts; it is about relationships.  Our stewardship theme this fall is taken from Micah 6:8: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”  As a church, we are engaged in all of this and our gifts support all of this. 

The focus on relationships extends to our financial giving.  We don’t receive a bill from the church and we are not asked to pay our dues.  We give willingly and joyfully, out of a relationship.  The Old Testament idea was to give 10% of one’s income as a tithe, or gift to God.  Jesus’ teaching goes beyond this and says that it all comes from God – it’s not that 10% belongs to God; 100% belongs to God.  We are stewards of all of these gifts.  So the question is: how do we use what God has blessed us with and entrusted to us?

We give out of relationship.  God blesses us, and we want to give.  We see needs, and we want to give.  We understand how important our mission is, and we want to support it.

God has created us for giving, and we are at our best when we are giving.  E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary to India back in the mid-20th century.  He was from Baltimore and on trips home from India he would speak in local churches.  One Sunday he was scheduled to speak at a church in a small town in Pennsylvania.

It was his habit to get to the church where he was speaking very early.  When he got to this particular church there was no one there except an older man sitting and playing a simple one-finger tune on the organ.

They got into a conversation.  Jones learned that as a young man, he had been very successful.  He made a lot of money.  Then the Great Depression hit and he lost everything.  He couldn’t find a job until his church needed a custodian and hired him for the job.

The organ that he was playing a tune on with one finger was the organ he had donated to the church when he was young and affluent before the Depression.

He said he loved coming to the church early in the morning before work and just sitting at the organ.  And he told E. Stanley Jones, “The only things I have left, are the things I gave away.  The only things that I have been able to keep are what I shared with others.”

God has created us for giving.  And we are at our best when we are giving.  Cheryl Chatman is the Dean of Diversity and Executive Vice President at Concordia University in St. Paul.   She told the story of her uncle and his life of stewardship.

Cheryl’s uncle was an electrician.  He owned and operated an electrical business.  He was not satisfied just to hire people and provide a job for them.  He strategized about how to give them a sense of self-worth and dignity.

So he started with three men in his mother's garage, teaching classes at night to help them secure electrical licenses.  The class grew and had to be moved to the church’s fellowship hall.  Eventually 46 people regularly attended classes that he taught and are now either journeymen electricians or master electricians.  This resulted in first time home ownership.  It resulted in tuition money for advanced education for their children, four of whom later opened their own successful electrical businesses.

This stewardship trickled down through families and generations.  Aside from the employees and their families, this man provided assistance to senior citizens through gifts of meals, help paying bills, and home repairs.  Chatman’s uncle was a steward who provided opportunities, supported livelihoods, and cared for the elderly.  He was doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  And in the next generation, that legacy continued.  
 
What does God require?  What does God ask of us?  Not ritual practices, not going through the motions of religiosity.  God wants lives of justice and kindness and humility – God wants people who will walk with God. 

As we offer our financial pledges of support for God’s work today, we are committing to support the work that we all do together, the work of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.  Our financial commitments are symbols of what is in our heart, symbols of our commitment as individuals and as a church to follow Jesus as we love God and love our neighbor.  Amen.