Saturday, December 21, 2019

“The Soul Felt Its Worth” - December 22, 2019

Text: Luke 2:1-14

There are two main points I want to make today.  If you want, you can just jot these two points down and then let your mind wander.  If you want, you can just hang on to these two points and then maybe doodle on your bulletin.  I’ve seen the doodles that some of you make and they are pretty good.  I mean, I’d prefer that you stick with us, I’d prefer you stay awake, but like I said, the message today is simple and there are really just two points. 

Are you ready?  I mean, this is pretty profound, so you need to be ready to take it in.  There are just two points, but these are biggies. 

As I read through our text, the well-known Christmas story from Luke chapter 2, I had two thoughts.  They may be the same two points you would come up with.  But maybe not – your mileage may vary, as they say.

OK, are you ready?  All right: this is what stands out to me from Luke’s telling of the Christmas story.   On this fourth Sunday of Advent, here is the big take home.

Number one: Christmas is simple.
And number two: Christmas is weird.

Did you get that?  Christmas is simple, and Christmas is weird.

Now it’s possible that you may think that is pretty weak for a message on this Sunday before Christmas.  Well, maybe it is, but look, this has been an exceptionally busy season and I just wasn’t able to put together a three point sermon, so two points will have to do.  Christmas is simple, and Christmas is weird.

And to be honest, I was a little less than confident about this two point outline, but then I heard the special music, I heard our men’s trio just a minute ago, and I thought, “You know, this fits perfectly.”  Simple and weird it is.

But before you start doodling, let me say a little more about these two statements.  First, Christmas is simple.  At the most basic level, it is about the birth of a baby.  We can try to make it about other things, but really, the gist of it is, “a child is born for us.” 

When you get past all the get-togethers - the office parties and Christmas lunches and cookie making extravaganzas;  when you get beyond the TV specials – Charlie Brown and the Grinch and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and of course those Hallmark Christmas movies (which I think actually started in July); when you get past the light displays and trees and tinsel; when you get beyond concerts and the Nutcracker and school Christmas programs – all good things, all fun things - the point of it all, the reason for the season, as they say, is the birth of a child.

Like every child, the birth of this child was not without its moments.  It did not all go 100% smoothly - and many of us can relate to that.  Babies tend to come when they come.  Sometimes much too early, and there are medical issues and concerns.  Sometimes very quickly – I read about a pregnant woman who was flying home the day after Thanksgiving.  She was 39 weeks pregnant and had been cleared to fly by her doctor and American Airlines.  But lo and behold her water broke and she went into labor and she had the baby right there on the plane.  The article didn’t say if the mother had to buy another ticket for the baby.   But she did name her daughter Sky.

Sometimes there are complications.  Sometimes there are interesting circumstances surrounding births.  We remember all of these things.  We remember who came to the hospital and those first days with the child.  We look at photographs of baby Zoe – friends and family came to see her, and our dog Conway is in almost every picture.  He wanted to be there right beside Zoe.  We remember these things and we share these stories.

The birth of a child elicits hopes and dreams.   What kind of person will he or she become?  What is in store for them?  There is celebration, there is joy, there is hope.  No matter what part of the world you live in, no matter your background or religion or social status, there are common experiences we all share in the birth of a child. 

Christmas is simple in that we can all relate to it.  We have not all had a child, but we have all been a child.  It doesn’t get much more human, it doesn’t get much more basic, than a child being born.

All of our preparations, all of our activity, all of our efforts in this season stem from a very simple thing: the birth of Jesus.  It is not about pyrotechnics or complicated theology.  It is about a baby.

As we read the story in Luke, we learn that Mary and Joseph experienced more than their share of difficulties along the way.  A poor couple living in a time when their country was occupied and controlled by Rome, they were forced like everyone else to go to their ancestral homeland to register so that they could be taxed. 

And so, we can count Mary and Joseph among the countless people down through the ages who have suffered under coercive power.  They go on a long, arduous journey at the worst possible time.  Why?  Because they have to.  It is not up to them.  And even though Bethlehem is his ancestral city, either family ties are not that close or most of the family has by now moved away, because the best Joseph can do is find a barn where they can stay, and that is where Mary winds up having the baby.

They go to Bethlehem so that they can be counted, but the irony is, they really don’t count – not to Rome.  They are nobodies.  Their only hope, if they have any hope, is not in Caesar Augustus, not in the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but in the God of Israel, who is with them through this long journey.

So they made their way to Bethlehem, get turned away at the inn and wind up in the stable out back.  Our nativity scenes make it seem so sweet, so lovely, so romantic.  I don’t think it was really like that.  I doubt anybody here would sign up to have a baby in the barn – with the sight and sounds, not to mention the smells of livestock.  “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.”  Somehow, the Biblical narrative makes it sound so nice - so appealing, even.

Well, so far it is simple.  A child is born.  It’s a basic, very human and very relatable story, even if most of us were not born out back in the barn. 

What happens when a child is born?  Among other things, the birth is announced.  We do this in various ways.  First, we probably get on the phone and call family and those close to us to share the news.  We may see balloons and banners in the front yard saying “It’s A Girl!” Births aren’t necessarily listed in the newspaper any more – perhaps in small town weekly papers – but the birth of a child will be all over social media.  There may be baby showers, and gifts are given.

The birth of a child to celebrities and royalty is much the same, and it is a major news story.  When Prince Harry and Meghan’s child was born, we heard all about baby Archie.  It is big news.

The traditions in Jesus’ day were not all that different.  An important custom was music.  Local musicians would come and sing and play at the birth of a baby.  It was a way of simultaneously announcing and celebrating the birth.  The birth of a royal heir or a child born to a very important person would be announced with great fanfare through music and singing and festivities.

Now, this is the place where the story starts to morph from reasonably simple into kind of weird.  I don’t so much mean weird as bizarre, but weird as in totally unexpected, totally off script compared to what usually takes place.

There is an announcement.  There is music at Jesus’ birth, but there are no earthly musicians around.  The music is the singing of angels.  Angels.  That is out of the ordinary, you have to admit.  Now, if we could arrange such heavenly music, who would we choose for the audience? 

This heavenly singing is not broadcast on a network Christmas special.  There is not a large audience.  Those who hear the singing of angels are not celebrities or government officials or religious authorities.  These are not leading citizens; in fact, they are about as low on the social ladder as you could be.

The angels announce this birth to shepherds.  That’s it.  Shepherds out in the fields with their flocks.  At night.  Working the night shift.  Angels announce the birth of this child to Second Shift Shepherds.  It’s a little weird, don’t you think?

The big question is, Why?  We have heard the story so many times, we don’t think about it.  It sounds quaint and it sounds beautiful.  But – seriously?  We may think of shepherding as a respectable occupation, and I’m not saying that it isn’t, but in that culture shepherds were looked down on.  They were despised because they were ceremonially and religiously unclean.  They were dirty and smelly, they were poorly educated, they were rough.  They lived on the margins.

Why do you suppose the angels sang to shepherds?  Why was this birth announcement made to them, of all people?  It seems a little off, a little – well, weird.

As he tells of Jesus’ birth, Luke wants us to know that Jesus is a savior for all people.  He tells the story through the eyes of the common people, and he tells us that the very first to hear were the shepherds.  And as we read throughout the life of Jesus, God seems to have a special concern for those living on the margins.

I had known of Queen Victoria of England and heard a lot of references to the Victorian Era, but the PBS series Victoria has made her and that time in history more relatable and understandable.  And more sympathetic.  There is a great story told about Queen Victoria.  She once attended worship on a Sunday morning at a small village church in Scotland, near the royal castle at Balmoral.  The register for that day recorded the attendance by profession.  It read: shepherds 12, servants 11, queens 1.

That register sums up the way it is in the church.  It reflects the way it is in our world.  Shepherds and servants have always been in the majority.  Jesus came for shepherds and servants.  God’s favor was not simply on the wealthy, the beautiful, the powerful.  In the birth of Jesus – in the miracle of Christmas - God’s favor is shown to be upon Mary, a not yet married young girl living in an occupied, unimportant country.  God works through Joseph, a simple carpenter.  And the announcement of this birth is made to shepherds, second shift shepherds out in the field at night.

It’s all a little strange, you have to admit.  If we hear the story as though we are hearing it for the first time, it is surprising, even shocking.

I was walking our dog Rudy a couple of weeks ago.  It was almost dark – at this time of year it is often pretty well dark when I get home from work.  The next street over, there is a house with one of those reindeer light displays – lights on a reindeer shaped frame, pulling a sled - and some inflatable figures.  A toy soldier and a dog with a Santa hat and a snowman.  The reindeer and these inflatable figures are literally 2 or 3 feet from the sidewalk.  Just as we were right in front of the reindeer, the lights come on.  Right in front of us, the reindeer suddenly lights up.  Rudy jumped.  He has no vertical leap, but he jumped straight up and sideways, kind of like a startled cat.  And then the figures lying on the ground, the toy soldier and snowman, started to inflate.  Rudy was freaked out and I got him to move on before he broke out in a barking fit.

My take is that our dog Rudy had the perfect reaction to Christmas.  We are so used to the story that we don’t give it much thought, but if we actually consider what is happening we will jump straight up and sideways and take notice.

The song that the angels sing to these Second Shift Shepherds is, “Glory to God in the Highest.  Peace on Earth, Good Will to All People.”

This is no ordinary birth.  Jesus came to bring hope and peace and joy and love.  This child is evidence of God’s glory.  And it is all about God’s love for us, all of us, every one of us, from Second Shift Shepherds to Queens.  

We long for peace on earth.  We long for goodwill among all people.  Anyone paying attention to the news longs for that.  The hopes and dreams for this child were not just for his family, not just for his hometown; they were hopes and dreams for all humanity.  And through his life, Jesus was indeed the one who brought hope and peace and joy and love to all of us, even here and now.

This season, some of us find ourselves, like Mary and Joseph, traveling a hard road that we may not have chosen.  Wherever we may be on that road, Christ’s coming is good news for us.  In Genesis, we read that we were created in God’s image.  But in the incarnation, in God coming as a baby born in the manger, God takes on the image of humanity.  God takes on human flesh and shows us how deeply loved we are.  This is Good News of great joy for all people.  As the great carol “O Holy Night” says, “he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”  God loves us so much that God came as a baby to dwell among us.

Maybe weird is not quite the right word.  I’m thinking wonderful might be a little more fitting.  Simple and wonderful.  Amen.

“A Vision of Peace” - December 8, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 2:2-4, 9:2, 6-7; Matthew 1:18-25

It happened on April 11, 1954.  A most notable day in history.  Well, I guess it would be more accurate to say it didn’t happen on April 11, 1954.  A computer researcher at the University of Cambridge, William Tunstall-Pedoe, determined that was possibly the most boring day in history.  A computer search engine that he developed analyzed 300 million facts about people, places, business and events and used advanced algorithms to calculate the most “objectively” boring day since 1900.

On that Sunday, Belgium held a general election and a Turkish academic named Abdullah Atalar was born.  , and a soccer player named Jack Shufflebotham died.  The biggest news event around these parts was that the St. Louis Cardinals traded Enos Slaughter to the Yankees for four minor leaguers.  If you were a baseball fan, that might be news, but if that is the biggest thing that happened, then it was a pretty slow news day.

“Nobody significant died that day, no major events apparently occurred and, although a typical day in the 20th century has many notable people being born, for some reason that day had only one [Abdullah Atalar] who might possibly make that claim,” Tunstall-Pedoe explained.  (I did check and as far as our records go, no one in our church was born on April 11 - in 1954 or any other year.) 

Here in the U.S. on that day, Dwight Eisenhower was practicing putts in the Oval Office and Perry Como topped the pop charts while the cover of the New York Post had a picture of two cops attending a conference on juvenile delinquency.  It was a boring day.

I’m curious: What is your reaction to the idea of an extremely boring day in our world?  I have to be honest: my gut reaction is that it sounds great.  It sounds fantastic.  In a world in which so much of the news is truly awful, boring sounds pretty good.  It sounds wonderful.  I mean, we long for such a day, right?

I know that many of the people here this morning are either too old or too young to appreciate good music like this, but back in the day the Talking Heads had a song called “Heaven.”  It is a very interesting song that I never quite figured out.  It starts out, “Everybody’s trying to get to the bar.  The name of the bar – the bar is called Heaven.”  The refrain, sung again and again, is “Heaven….  Heaven is a place….  A place where nothing…. nothing ever happens.”

I was never sure what this song was about – was it poking fun at traditional conceptions of heaven, with gold streets and angels singing, that just sound, well, boring?  Or is it saying that in a world in which so many awful things take place, that for nothing to happen would be really great, even heavenly?  Or more maybe more likely, something else altogether?

Well - where am I going with all of this, on this second Sunday of Advent, as we consider the theme of peace?  We live in a world that is filled with such harshness, such despair, such pain, so lacking in peace, that utter boredom may sound far preferable to our present circumstances.

When we were in Indiana over Thanksgiving, my family exchanged Christmas gifts.  A week or two before, I received that dreaded text message – what do you want for Christmas?

It’s a common question about this time of year.  How many times do we hear this?  How many times do we ask this?  “What do you want for Christmas?”

I can come up with a list if I have to, but it’s a little different from when I was 8 years old.  But if peace in the world peace could be wrapped up under the tree, I would surely ask for it.  At this point, most of us would be glad to have world boredom wrapped up under the tree.

But in our desire to be free of war and violence, to be free from fear and free from worry, free from the strong abusing the weak, we should not confuse lack of open hostility with peace.  Peace is more than just not fighting.  No matter what the Talking Heads may say, Heaven is not a place where nothing ever happens.

Rather than simply the absence of violence, peace is the presence of trust and good will and concern and compassion.  Peace is a world marked by cooperation and friendly relations.

Isaiah has a vision of a peaceful world.  His vision of peace is more than simply not fighting.  Nations shall stream to the mountain of the Lord to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.  And rather than putting resources into warring and destruction, they will go into those things that build up and nurture.

God’s peace, God’s shalom, is more than finding ways not to argue or come to blows.  Shalom means seeing God’s image residing deep inside every person we encounter.  Shalom means not just passively understanding the fact of our inter-relatedness but of actively wanting to do something to make that relationship better.   We do what we can to make others prosper and flourish.

That’s why Isaiah has this vision of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  In times of war, fields are destroyed, crops are destroyed, planting seasons are lost, and people go hungry.  War leaves behind ravaged conditions in which nothing can grow.  In World War II, almost as many Russians died of starvation in cities cut off by the Nazis as did in battle.  After World War II the Russians returned the favor by cutting off Berlin, necessitating the Berlin Airlift to fly in food.

True shalom means that we want to feed one another.  We want there to be enough to go around so that no one will be hungry.  We want lives of plenty to be the norm for everyone, not just for the privileged few.  Maybe it is no coincidence that Jesus, whom we know as the Prince of Peace, was born in the town of Bethlehem, a word that means “the House of Bread.”  Jesus’ coming was about bringing peace, bringing abundance, to everyone.

We can be prone to taking the differences among us and instead of celebrating them as God’s gifts, using them as an excuse to do harm to one another.  That is true whether we are on the battlefield or the playground or on social media.

In Advent we consider the One who came and who will come again to make the Bread of Life available to all.  Jesus came to our world and comes into our lives to bring peace. 

In World War I, trench warfare lasting months and months meant that soldiers from opposing sides were often in close proximity to one another.  This kind of war was horrific.  The British lost so many troops in World War I that Winston Churchill said afterwards that theirs was a victory “scarcely distinguishable from defeat.”

But on Christmas Eve 1914, the proximity of the trenches led to something very different.  British soldier Captain Robert Patrick Miles wrote about it:

We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable.  A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front…  The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us.  Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines.  
British, German, French, and other troops sang Christmas carols, shared Chocolate, champagne, and brandy, and shared photos of loved ones.  They even played soccer.  For a time, at least, they reveled in their shared humanity.

This of course made their superiors furious, not just because the troops were disobeying orders, but because it is much harder to harm someone with whom you have formed some sort of relationship.  Getting to know people, especially people who are different from you, is a way to build peace. 

Isaiah foresees a time when we will come to the holy mountain of God.  And when we do, we will learn war no more but instead we will walk in the light of the Lord.  Sometimes we can see glimpses of this even in our broken world, glimpses like that Christmas Eve ceasefire.

Dwight Eisenhower, who knew more of the cost of war than most of us, said “Ever gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.  The world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children.”

To acknowledge the all-consuming appetite of violence is not being pessimistic or unpatriotic; it is simply the truth about the world in which we live. 

That was the kind of world in which the prophet Isaiah lived.  It was a violent world.  It was also the kind of world into which Jesus was born.  Matthew recounts the birth of Jesus with a brutal honesty and forthrightness that doesn’t fit with many of our beautiful Christmas traditions.  In Luke, most all of the major characters at some point burst into singing, led by the angels.  The story in Luke focuses on Mary, who upon hearing that she will bear the savior breaks forth in praise to God.

There is no singing in Matthew.  Jesus is born in to a fear-filled world dominated by the Roman military, and in the end children are slaughtered because of Herod’s brutality.  It’s no wonder we tend to prefer Luke.

But Matthew contains a word that we need to hear.  When Joseph discovers that Mary is with child, he plans to divorce her quietly, but an angel appears to him in a dream and says “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”  Do not be afraid.  That is what we need to hear.  It is a message of peace.

And Joseph does as the angel says, taking Mary as his wife and naming the child Jesus.

Joseph was able to see what others could not.  He could see in this child the gift of God’s presence, the gift of God’s power, the gift of God’s peace.  He dared to believe that in this confused, conflicted, and broken world, God was sending a child to lead us.  He dared to believe that Jesus was the one who could save his people and lead us in the way of peace.

We live in a world filled with conflict – political conflict, religious conflict, military conflict.  Conflict between neighbors, conflict within communities, conflict within families.  And sometimes, the conflict we feel most deeply is within ourselves.

I recently attended a conference and the speaker, a seminary professor in California, told about running with a friend who convinced him to do an Iron Man triathlon with him. 
The Iron Man is serious business.  You swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon – 26.2 miles. 

They went to this Iron Man competition in Canada.  And the night before, there was a big dinner, a kind of pregame party.  Lots of pasta, everyone was carbo-loading.  And they had a speaker.  Madonna Buder, who was then 82 years old.  She is a Roman Catholic sister who is known as the Iron Nun.

She got that name because she has run in over 340 triathlons and in 45 Ironmans.  She started all of this when she was 52 years old.

Buder kept setting the record for oldest woman who had completed the Iron Man, and then as the oldest person who had completed the Iron Man, finally setting the record at age 82.  You have 17 hours to complete the course; typically it all begins at 7 am and you have until midnight to finish.  Once she finished too late by a matter of seconds and another time she was 2 minutes late, but this did not deter her from competing again.

So, this 82 year old woman known as the Iron Nun spoke to the other athletes on the eve of the competition.  And this was her message: “You are loved.  You are wonderful just the way you are and God loves you.”

Events like the Iron Man tend to attract people who are trying to prove themselves – maybe to someone else and maybe to themselves.  People who despite being incredible athletes may have a deep sense of dis-ease, of nagging anxiety, a sense of not being good enough.  A lack of peace.  Her message was, you don’t have to prove anything.  You are enough and God loves you.  It was a powerful message of peace.

God sent Jesus to bring peace into our hearts, peace deep into our souls.  Jesus came to lead us in the ways of peace and to give us a vision of a world in which God’s peace prevails.  May it be so.  Amen.

“Hoping Beyond Hope” - December 1, 2019

Text: Isaiah 35:1-10

“Be strong, and do not be afraid.”  The prophet Isaiah speaks these words that invite us to face the future boldly.  These are good words to focus on as we start the New Year which begins, of course, today.  This is not the first day of the calendar year or academic year or fiscal year.  But it is the first day of the Christian year – the beginning of the church liturgical calendar.

The beginning of this annual cycle of praise and prayer and challenge and instruction and worship centers around Jesus’ birth, and today, the First Sunday in Advent, we begin that journey.  So at least on paper, this First Sunday in Advent would seem to be an important day.  But the reality is, it hardly gets noticed, coming right after Thanksgiving as it does, with many of us in a shopping stupor and many students and others away this weekend.  And then Advent in general gets completely lost with the big run-up to Christmas.  So Advent is not much in our consciousness.

You will not find Advent cards in stores.  There is no Advent display at the mall, no Advent specials on TV.  We don’t have office Advent parties.

People worry about Christmas being co-opted by the culture.  Well, we don’t have to worry about that with Advent.  The Church has Advent all to itself; nobody else would want it.  And so here we are this morning, as Christians have been for two thousand years, daring to face the future before us.

Christian faith is forward-looking.  At least, that is the way it is designed to be.  Now, to be sure, history is important; tradition is important.  We read the scriptures, which tell us about God’s work through history.  We remember and we celebrate the life and teachings, the death and resurrection, of Jesus.  We live out a faith that has been lived for 2000 years and we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.  We look back, we remember, and this tradition and heritage, this remembering, gives us a place to stand.  We have just celebrated Thanksgiving, which asks us to look back – we look back in order to give thanks for the blessings we have enjoyed.

But our faith involves more than looking back.  The purpose of looking back is so that we can live now, so that we can move forward.  Advent is about preparing our hearts for Christmas, but at a deeper level it is about looking ahead.  It is about waiting and anticipating and turning our gaze toward the future, toward God’s promised future, with hope and imagination.

This ability to look ahead, to look to the future, can be difficult for us.  Peter Gomes, who was the chaplain at Harvard and a great American Baptist preacher, said that we live under the tyranny of the past.  That may not sound right, because a lot of us think of the past as a comfort.  We talk about “the good old days,” about our “heyday,” about “glory days,” and the past can seem very comforting.

I am not real big on change.  They are building a new Fareway downtown.  Well, I liked the old Fareway.  They have remodeled Hy-Vee.  They have changed the dining area.  I liked it the way it was.    

I confess that I am as bad as anybody when it comes to thinking of the good old days.  Zoe reminds me of how often I say, “Well, when I was in college…”  We may think of the past in an idealized way, as the Golden Age, but this is not always helpful.  We can live under the tyranny of the past when the past keeps us from living fully today.  We tend to remember the good parts of the past and forget the heartaches and shortcomings and failures.  We can have this unrealistic view of the way things used to be, and by comparison the present never quite measures up.  It is possible to never really be happy and never fully live in the moment because of this tyranny of the past.

The past can also lay hold of us when we will not let go of past wrongs, when we insist on nursing wounds and holding on to hurts and injustices done to us, real and perceived.  We hold onto old fears and anxieties and worries.  We nurse grudges.  There are those who seem to manage life in a difficult present by holding on to an even more difficult past.  It’s like those clans who can’t remember the origin of a feud – they don’t really know why their enemies are so awful, but they choose to wallow in hatred nevertheless.  The tyranny of the past.

Our scripture this morning asks us to look to a future that is not held captive by the past, a future unlike anything we have experienced before.  “The desert shall rejoice and blossom.  The eyes of the blind will be opened.  The deaf shall hear, the lame shall leap like a deer.  Water will break forth in the desert.”  A highway will go through the wilderness and it will be completely safe – no robbers hiding off the side of the road.  Not even fools will go astray.  Sorrow and sighing shall flee away; all will know joy and gladness.

Well, that certainly never happened in the past.  As good as the good old days may have been, they were never that good.

Advent bids us to a new future.  Now, it is easy to just write off all of this stuff because it sounds way too good to be true.  It sounds way too good to be even remotely possible.  It sounds like hyperbole on steroids, and we don’t take it very seriously.  This is hoping against hope.

The British ambassador to the United States, Sir Nicholas Henderson, was interviewed at the height of the Cold War by a reporter from the Washington Post.  It was about this time of year, it was a features article, and he was asked the question, “What do you want for Christmas?”

Sir Nicholas, a master of British reserve and understatement, did not want to appear greedy.  Wanting to be truthful, he replied to the interviewer that all he really wanted for Christmas was a jar of fruit preserved in ginger, such as you might find at Harrod’s.  Apparently he liked this fruit and that was what he would like for Christmas, and he hoped the Lady Henderson might get him a jar.

A few days later the Washington Post’s feature article described in detail what the diplomatic corps would like for Christmas. The Russian ambassador hoped for peace and goodwill; the Swiss ambassador hoped for genuine disarmament around the world; the Spanish ambassador hoped for Gibraltar to be given back; the Israeli ambassador hoped for peace in the Middle East, and so forth.  And Sir Nicholas, the British ambassador, hoped for a jar of fruit.

Clearly, the British ambassador’s hopes were the most obtainable and realistic, but he did seem to be lacking a bit in imagination and courage.  Sometimes we do not hope enough.  And sometimes our hopes are diminished by the tyranny of the past – by our beliefs about what is possible.

Let’s be honest: we have trouble with a lot of the Bible.  We have problems with different parts of the Bible for different reasons – some of it seems too hard or too demanding, and there are those troubling passages which are too violent or too narrow and nationalistic.  Passages such as what we read today present a different kind of problem.  We like this because it is beautiful and moving poetry.  It is a lovely passage - but we don’t take it very seriously. 

Most of us, dare I say the inner engineer in many of us, likes things laid out in a nice, clear, factual format.  We like summary sentences and talking points.  Like Sgt. Friday used to say on Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

The Bible seems very distant to modern readers because we are lacking in imagination.  Our culture prizes facts and information, and the rich imagery of the Bible sounds very different, even alien.  For the Biblical writers, imagination is the home of faith.  To modern people, imagination is the home of the fanciful, untrue, and na├»ve.  The crocus shall rejoice?  The speechless will sing for joy?  Sorrow and sighing shall flee away?  Are you kidding me?  This sounds like a fairy tale.

Well, this is where Advent begins.  It begins with hope that seems almost an impossible hope.  It seems impossible because things have never worked out this way before and it seems exceedingly unlikely now.  I mean, look at our world, filled with division and animosity and tribalism and hatred.  People are hurting.  Nations are hurting.  The planet is hurting.  The future can seem bleak.  It is understandable that we just kind of wink at each other when we read that the desert shall rejoice and blossom. 

In financial matters, there is boilerplate language that the Securities and Exchange Commission requires in marketing mutual funds and other investments: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”  We’ve all heard these words.

Maybe an investment has done well for a number of years and averaged a 20% gain.  (This is hypothetical, obviously.)  But if you read a fund prospectus or see an ad in a magazine or a commercial on TV, it will say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”  That phrase is meant to temper what might be unrealistic expectations.  Just because something has done well in the past does not mean the same thing will happen in the future.
“Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”  That phrase can work both ways.  Just because the past has been lousy does not mean there is no hope for the future.  We don’t have to be constrained by the failures and the disappointments of the past.

When I was in college – there I go again – my alma mater, the University of Evansville, had a pretty good basketball team.  But for the last 20 years, it’s been rough.  We haven’t been in the NCAA tournament in 20 years.  Last year, with a new coach, we won 11 games and lost 21.  We were hopeful about this season, but based on past performance, the team was picked to finish 8th in the Missouri Valley Conference.

A couple of weeks ago, Evansville played the Kentucky Wildcats – the #1 ranked Kentucky Wildcats, at Rupp Arena.  It was hard to imagine even our very best teams of the past winning a game like this.  A couple of years before we played at Duke and lost.  By 50.  But you may have heard that Evansville won that game in a shocking upset, probably the biggest upset in college basketball of the last 10 or 15 years.  “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”  

The past performance of Israel was not good.  It was not at all good.  The nation had been captive in Egypt for 400 years.  They were finally delivered from Pharaoh and led by Moses, but right away they are wandering in the wilderness, complaining, wishing they could be back in Egypt where they at least had three square meals a day.  Moses goes up the mountain to receive the law, and the people make a golden calf to worship.  It was constantly one step forward and two steps back.  Their history was a succession of corrupt rulers and chasing foreign gods and being a pawn in power struggles between regional powers.

The tribes of Israel could not get along and the nation split north and south.  In time, the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians and then the southern kingdom of Judah was taken into exile in Babylon.  Over the course of Israel’s history, there were occasional righteous rulers and there were great prophets from time to time, but it was not at all what you would call an illustrious past. 

There was absolutely nothing in the past to make anyone expect that a child born to poor unwed parents in a weak, occupied nation like Israel, in a small town like Bethlehem, born in a stable of all places, would be anything special.  But past performance was not an indicator of future results.

We begin this season of Advent with the reminder that our hope is not based on what has taken place in the past.  Our faith looks forward, with prophetic imagination, seeing in our mind’s eye the future God has for us.  And we are not simply reenacting the hope that people had for a savior born 2000 years ago; we are called to live in the real hope, in the this-world and present hope, that God has a future for us, a future beyond imagining.

Our hope is for the world to come, yes, but our hope is for, in Biblical language, a new heaven and a new earth - our hope is for a world made right, a world made anew, a world remade according to God’s will.  We celebrate Jesus’ birth, but our hope is not that Jesus’ birth was Good News then.  Our hope is that Jesus’ presence and the promises of God are Good News now.

And so, we look forward.  We look ahead.  “Be strong, and do not be afraid,” say the prophet.

A remade world may not come this year.  We may not be able to see it happening next year.  But then again, we might.  And if we look closely, we can see glimpses. 

Echoing the words of the 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King Jr. liked to say that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  Parker spoke in those terms about the abolitionist movement.  He could see slavery abolished even when it was far off into the future.  King spoke those words in some of the dark days of the civil right movement.  And Isaiah’s stunning words of hope and joy were written to the exiles in Babylon, when a return to Jerusalem must have seemed a pipe dream.

Advent is about hope.  We live in the hope that just as God came in Jesus Christ to bring us hope and wholeness and salvation, God will come again to set things right in our lives and in our world. 

Our calling is to be a part of God’s movement toward hope and wholeness and salvation.  Toward the time when “the desert shall rejoice and blossom… sorrow and sighing shall flee away, and all will know joy and gladness.” 

And so, be strong and do not be afraid.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results.  The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  Look ahead, abide in hope.  And, Happy New Year.

“Where Are The Nine?” - November 17, 2019

Text: Luke 17:11-19

Like many of you, I enjoy traveling.  It is always nice to arrive at your destination, especially after a long trip, but it is funny how some of the best stories happen along the way.  When we travel we can come across surprising, unexpected things.  Sometimes the most interesting stuff happens on the trip.

Our text today is a travel story.  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, traveling through a border area between Samaria and Galilee.  For a variety of cultural and religious and historic reasons, the Galileans, who were Jews, and the Samaritans really didn’t want anything to do with the other, which made life interesting.  Jesus is traveling through this border area and he enters a village.  This is not his destination; this is just a rest stop on the trip.  But he enters this village and is immediately approached by ten lepers.  The scripture says that “they kept their distance.” 

Well, they were supposed to keep their distance.  This was by tradition, as they could make others ritually unclean.  Or even worse, they could spread the disease.  Leprosy was a terrible disease.  At a safe distance, they cried out to Jesus, that he might have mercy on them.  We can surmise that perhaps they were asking for a donation – this was the only way they had to earn an income.  But Jesus has something bigger than a cash donation in mind.  He simply tells them to go and show themselves to the priest, which is the instruction given in the law for those who have been healed of leprosy.  They set off on their merry way, and lo and behold, they are healed.

It’s already an amazing story, but this is where it becomes really interesting.  One of the ten lepers turns around and goes back to thank Jesus.  One out of ten.  Now you would think that would be the least a person could do.  I mean, if thanks are ever in order, this was the occasion.  But only one returned to thank Jesus.

So this one person returns and this time, he did not keep his distance.  He didn’t have to keep his distance.  He throws himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him.

Jesus then asks a very good question.  There were ten who had been healed, but only one returned to give thanks.  Jesus asks, “Where are the nine?”

A good question.  Where were they?  Why didn’t they return to say thank you?

We don’t know the answer to that question.  But we can speculate.   Perhaps one did not feel great gratitude because he had a sense of entitlement.  Healing was something that he felt like he deserved, he had it coming his way. 

Unlike the Samaritan who returned to express gratitude, this one considered himself one of God’s chosen ones and as such he felt a right to expect that this Jewish teacher named Jesus would do for him what he could.  He deserved it.

Maybe there were a couple of those nine who, after being healed, weren’t entirely sure that that is what they really wanted.  They had been lepers for so long that it had become a part of their identity.  It had become, if not exactly comfortable, at least familiar.  They knew what to expect and how to behave and how to relate.  A predictable life of leprosy in some ways might be easier than a whole new life. 

I mean, everything would change – their living situation, their family relationships, their livelihood.  They were contemplating these matters, trying to decide if this was a good thing or not, and they did not return to say thank you.

One was so self-absorbed, it didn’t occur to him to thank Jesus.  He wasn’t in the habit of thinking about other people.  It didn’t even occur to him that Jesus had anything to do with it.  He just went along with the others, found himself healed, and was happy about it.  It was all about him, and he was delighted by his change in fortune.  Assking who had helped bring this about wasn’t an important matter.  It wasn’t really on his radar.

For one of the nine, there was a different reason.  He had completely lost the ability to say thank you.  For years, he had been forced to beg for money or food and said thank you, at first sincerely and then somewhat grudgingly, and then without any feeling at all.  So many had given him just a trifle, some small thing, and expected his tremendous gratitude.  It got to the point where he just couldn’t say it any more.  He could not say thank you.

There may have been one of the nine who was thrilled initially - who was momentarily thankful - but before he could return to say thanks, he remembered what a terrible lot he still faced.  He was very poor and it was doubtful whether he could get his job back.  His disease had cut him off from old friends and connections.  He had been a victim for a long time, and now that he was healed of leprosy, he simply went right to the next problem.  He didn’t return to say thanks because he was still overcome with feeling sorry for himself.

One of the nine did not return to give thanks because he had never really learned to say thank you in the first place.  He had not seen it demonstrated.  The people in his life had never expressed thankfulness.  His parents had not taught him to say thank you.  It was not a part of his history.  Never having seen it modeled, he himself just simply was not a thankful sort of person.

One, perhaps, was simply too busy.  He was hurrying to see the priest and get a clean bill of health, and he could not wait to get back to his family.  It wasn’t that he was ungrateful; he just didn’t have time to say thank you.  There were important things to do.  He was busy.

And the last of the nine, well, it was a bit embarrassing for him, but he just plain forgot.  He should have gone back to say thank you, but he was so caught up in what was happening that he simply forgot to say thank you to Jesus.

They had their reasons, no doubt.  And some of these reasons were perhaps understandable, valid even.  Except that, we need to remember what it was that they had reason to be thankful for.

This was not like being thankful for a small favor, like motioning for the other car to go first at an intersection.  This was not like saying thank you for a small gift, like a pair of socks from Aunt Jane and Uncle Harold at Christmas. 

These ten people had been given nothing less than a new life.  Leprosy was a terrible disease.  Although we may think of leprosy as a skin disease, it was really a nerve disease.  With leprosy, a person would lose feeling in hands and toes.  Without the sensation of pain, a person could be injured and not know it.  The disease progressed and moved along limbs.  It was a horrible disease.  Those who had leprosy were social outcasts who had to leave their families and go live with other lepers.  They gave up jobs, friends, livelihoods.  The fact that both Jewish and Samaritan lepers were in this group of ten attest to how awful the disease was.  Their shared pain and hardship brought them together and was even greater than the animosity Jews and Samaritans generally felt for one another.

If one were healed of leprosy, I cannot imagine being anything but extremely grateful.

Imagine ten patients in a cancer ward who are suddenly, miraculously made well.  I cannot imagine them not being grateful.  Imagine ten AIDS patients, who suddenly are healed, with no trace of disease.  They would without a doubt return to say thank you – we cannot imagine otherwise.

So what is it with these nine lepers?  What is going on here?

Well it seems that there are two significant points to be made in this story.  First of all is our need for thankfulness.  We have failed to feel gratitude for the very same reasons that may have kept the nine from giving thanks.  We have felt a sense of entitlement and failed to be thankful.  We have questioned whether we really want the wonderful gifts we are given.  We have been too self-absorbed to think of thanking another.

Some may find it difficult to say thank you for anything.  We have focused on our hurts and pains and needs rather than our blessings and failed to be grateful.  We have not learned the attitude of thanksgiving, we have not learned to look around and be grateful.  Or we have been too busy, too distracted, to say thank you.  Or sometimes, we just plain forget to say thanks.

George Herbert wrote, “Thou hast given so much to me.  Give one thing more: a thankful heart.”

This story has a word for us about gratitude.  But there is more.

It is not coincidental that the one who returned was not a Jew, but a Samaritan.  And while the nine were healed, this one was transformed.  He was completely changed.  The scripture says that when first approaching Jesus, all ten “kept their distance,” but now he falls at Jesus’ feet – he draws near to Jesus.  Not only was his body made whole, his while life was changed forever.

But why the Samaritan?  Why was his life changed in a way that the others were not?

Fred Craddock puts it this way:

It is so often the outsider, the stranger, the visitor who sees and appreciates and responds with gratitude for countless gifts that we have come to take for granted.  The visitor in my home talks with and enjoys the children I hardly noticed between coming home and reading the evening paper.  The visitor thanks my wife for the meal I have eaten 1000 times in silence.  It is so often the stranger who notices and expresses appreciation for what familiarity has blinded us to.  This is the truth that hurts.

But it is also a truth that can heal.  He is not just someone who shows us up for the ingrates we are.  He is one sent by God to give us new eyes and ears.  And hearts.
The point is not to simply feel shame for our lack of gratitude.  The purpose of this story is not just to make us feel bad about ourselves.  The word for us is that we may need to learn from outsiders, like the Samaritan, how to see with grateful eyes.

Do you want to know how to be grateful for our country?  Talk to an immigrant who has spent his life savings and perhaps even risked his life, and is willing to work at the most menial of jobs just to stay here.  Talk to the person who has come from another country and who gets there early to wave a flag at the 4th of July parade while others are on the lake or the golf course. 

Ask immigrant youth who are on honor rolls in schools across the nation, “Why do you take education so seriously?  Why do you study so hard?”

Newcomers can help us see everything in a new way.  Children are new enough to this world that they have a sense of delight and wonder that some of us who have been around awhile desperately need.  Lay on your back on the lawn with a 5 year old and ask her what she sees in the sky, or watch her play with a kitten.  You will learn something.

In a sermon about the Prodigal Son, Helmut Thielicke imagines that once, when he was young, he invites a less-well-to-do playmate over to play.  And the playmate is astounded not only by the plenty there – by all this kid has - but by the father's love for his son.  “I never even knew my father,” he says.  And for a short time, the prodigal-to-be sees his father and his situation in a new light -- through the eyes of his friend.  For a short time, he is grateful.  But it does not last.

Often it is that way with us.  Our gratitude fades, unless it is constantly renewed.  That's why God is always sending us children, and visitors and outsiders and newcomers – folks who can see what we have become blind to.

It happens.  The rookie major league ballplayer comes in wide-eyed.  He can’t believe the luxurious locker room, the sumptuous meals, the comfortable, spacious jet airplanes that beat the heck out of bus rides to Toledo.  But over time, things change.  The cushy accommodations are appreciated no more than a Motel 6. The notion of taking a commercial flight feels about like riding in the back of a 15-passenger van.  “I can’t believe I get paid for playing a game” becomes “I’m insulted by your offer of a stinkin’ $5 million a year.”  The sense of wonder and gratitude fades.   

You want to know something?  It can happen in the Church.  Often those who are new to faith in Christ have a spirit and enthusiasm and commitment that has somehow waned in those of us who have been longtime Christians.  Those who are new in the faith often have a joy of salvation and joy in God’s presence that we need to have rekindled in our own hearts.

It can happen in our own congregation.  Sometimes those new to our church can see gifts we cannot see and appreciate blessings that we don’t notice anymore.  Churches tend to feel like we need new people in order to survive.  If you just look at things demographically, that is certainly true.  People move away, congregations get older, we need new folks to survive.  But this is even truer than we realize.  If no one ever aged or no one ever moved away, it would still be true.  We need newcomers to help keep us alive, because they can help give us a sense of purpose and enthusiasm.  They can help us to see those things we have become blind to.  They can help us to feel gratitude.

Do you want to be more grateful?  Find yourself a child.  Find yourself a newcomer.  Find yourself a rookie, a stranger, an outsider.  And ask them to tell you what they see.  Amen.

(I drew inspiration from Martin Bell's story, "Where Are The Nine," in The Way of the Wolf)

“Generous Hearts” - November 10, 2019

Text: Acts 2:42-47

For 34 years, LouAnn Alexander worked as a flight attendant.  But then at the age of 58, she received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.  Before long, this full-of-life mother and soon-to-be grandmother was making plans for hospice care.

Her older brother Rex was flying to see her when he asked the flight attendant—who happened to be an old colleague of his sister - if he could speak to the passengers.  He talked about his sister, even passed his phone around the plane so they could see photos of her.  Then he handed out napkins and asked if they’d write a little something for her.  Many passengers did.  Some drew pictures.  Two seatmates created flowers out of napkins and swizzle sticks.  But mostly, there were warm words.  One said, “Your brother made me love you, and I don’t even know you.” 

96 passengers, people who had never even met LouAnn Alexander, sent notes of love and care and encouragement and prayer.  Her brother never forgot the compassion shown that day.  “I’m just amazed that given the opportunity, even total strangers will reach out and show a lot of empathy and concern,” he said.

People responded to this request, I think, because at some level we understand that we are all in this together.  We understand that it could be any of us.  And deep down we know that regardless of our differences and all those things that might serve to separate us, we are really all family. 

This morning we will be receiving pledges of financial support for our church for the coming year.  Now, the money is important.  Don’t get me wrong.  Giving of our time and energy and talent is important.  I want us all to do that.  But when we are talking about generosity, it really begins with something deeper.  It begins with our hearts.  Part of the reason we give is that deep in our hearts, we understand that we are all in this together.

Our text this morning is from the book of Acts.  It is a description of the very beginnings of the Christian church.  

You may have noticed the bulletin insert this morning – it is a condensed version of the narrative budget that went out in a mailing a few weeks ago.  We have described our life as a church in terms of the heart – worshiping hearts, growing hearts, caring hearts, serving hearts.  It is interesting to me how closely the actions and practices of this early community of believers reported in Acts might be described in this same way.

“They were devoted to the apostle’s teaching.”  This church was about learning.  They were about spiritual growth.  If we reflect back on Jesus’ ministry, he spent the bulk of his time teaching a small group of disciples.  This instruction in the faith continued for these early believers as they were taught by the apostles.  Growing hearts.

This might happen for us as we hear the Word read and proclaimed each Sunday.  It can mean studying the scriptures and the history of the Church.  It can mean learning from each other and from those who have wisdom and experience.  It can happen as kids go to camp.  We need to continue to learn and explore as well as live out our faith.  Growing hearts.

They devoted themselves to ... fellowship.  They shared meals together.  They “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”   These were people committed to one another.  Cultivating their common life together was important.  Caring hearts.

This model of communal living is not the only Biblical model and did not become standard practice for the early church, although it has been practiced by groups throughout Christian history.  But what was non-negotiable was the impulse to care for and provide for one another – the sense of responsibility for each other.

We have such a strong emphasis on the individual and the idea of the self-made person that we can wind up with a very individualized spirituality.  And with our Baptist emphasis on personal faith, we may be especially prone to focusing on the individual to the point of neglecting the community.  Taking a look at these early believers reminds us of the importance of the community and that we are to have caring hearts. 

This was a church that truly looked out for one another.  If there was a big need, they would have a garage sale or put something on Facebook marketplace.  They would come up with the funds and find a way to provide for the needs of the community.

Care was not just a concept or a feeling; it led to action.  It led to service.  Reading this passage you are struck by how many actions there are.  Teaching, fellowshipping, breaking bread, praying, performing signs and wonders, selling, distributing, praising.

This was a faith that led to action.  A faith that led to service.  The church was filled with serving hearts.

And indeed the care and the service provided by early Christians was not only shown to those within the community; it reached out beyond the community.  They drew others in.  They had a focus beyond themselves.  The fact that Christians would care for the poor and the sick and the needy had a great deal to do with the growth of Christian faith in the Roman Empire.  Christians were known for their serving hearts.

They devoted themselves... to the breaking of bread and the prayers…  Awe came upon everyone…  They spent much time together in the temple.  This church worshiped together frequently and fervently.  They centered their community life around it.  They had worshipping hearts.

The word “awesome” has come to have a broader and more generic meaning in our contemporary English usage, but to be in awe is to be aware that we stand before a Power and a Presence greater than ourselves.  This sense of awe was a regular part of the life of these early Christians.  It was a sense of God’s presence with .  Worshiping hearts. 

Luke reports that day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  Growth, you will notice, is not at the top of the list.  It is attributed to God, not to the congregation.  And it seems to be more a by-product of everything else.  This church was devoted to teaching, devoted to fellowship, devoted to worship, devoted to prayer, they had a sense of awe, shared their gifts, shared their resources, shared meals, provided for everyone, they praised God and enjoyed the good will of the people.  Of course they grew.  Of course this attracted others!

With growing hearts, caring hearts, serving hearts, and worshipping hearts, the values of this church are much like what we hope to accomplish today.  But there is one little phrase that especially interests me this morning.  They had “glad and generous hearts.”

Over the past month we have looked at various dimensions of stewardship.  We have heard Erin and Rita talk about their own experiences of having been blessed by God and wanting to give in response.  We have heard from Taylor Schram from the Center for Creative Justice, who shared a moving story of how one client’s life was changed through the work of CCJ.  It is work that our church, work that our giving, helps to make possible.

The stewardship testimonies we have heard came from people who have “glad and generous hearts.”  If you had to describe the central idea of Christian stewardship in a few words, you couldn’t do much better than this.  “Glad and generous hearts.”  I love this phrase because it has connections both to being blessed and being a blessing for others.  Glad and generous.

When we have glad and generous hearts, everything else kind of falls into place.  When a community, such as this church in Acts, is filled with people who have glad and generous hearts, everything else works.  The community is truly a family of faith – and hope and love and goodness.

As we think especially about generosity this morning – about having generous hearts – the question may be, how do we get there?  Can we just flip a switch and suddenly have a generous, giving heart?

As it turns out, this is not rocket science.  The way to develop a generous heart is by being generous.  We learn, we grow, we change by doing.

A basketball player wants to become a better shooter.  How do you do it?  Not by reading about basketball, and not just by getting coached on shooting technique, though that can help.  But the way to improve is through practice.  Shoot a couple hundred shots every day. 

How do you become an excellent piano player?  Taking lessons is a good start, but if you don’t practice, it’s not going anywhere. 

How do you develop a love for books?  You can visit libraries, you can buy books, you can put up book-themed artwork on the wall, but you learn to love books by reading – and maybe as a child you start by having a parent read to you.  The love grows through the doing.

Generosity is the same way.  The gladness part – being thankful, being appreciative, knowing that we have been blessed – can lead us toward generosity.  But generous hearts grow through actually being generous. 

I am not simply talking about money here.  Being generous with our money is really a by-product of having a generous heart.  Being generous means being ready to give, even beyond what is expected, and practicing kindness.  A generous heart affects so many things: the way we use our time.  The way we think of others.  Our willingness to act in ways that show concern and understanding and empathy. 

My mom buys greeting cards like they are going out of style and has birthday cards and anniversary cards ready sometimes weeks in advance.  She will put a date where the stamp goes and when the time comes she puts the stamp on the card and sends it.  She sends cards to family, to nieces and nephews, to folks at church, to other friends.  She has done this for a long time.  It comes from a generous heart. 

There is so much heavy, demoralizing, and just plain sad news out there.  This week I tried to pay attention and looks for stories of generosity – and they were all over the place.  Maybe you heard the story of the young man in Georgia, late 20’s, who needed a heart transplant.  He has autism and with no family, he was homeless.  To get a transplant you have to have a home – a place to go and recover after surgery.  It’s one of the requirements.  One of his nurses learned of this and decided to take him in.  She became his legal guardian.  He received the transplant and he still lives with her and her son.  It was an amazing act of generosity, but I imagine that this was not the first generous thing she had done. 

We grow in generosity by doing – by being generous.  It is interesting that Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”  You would expect him to phrase that the other way around.  If he said, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be,” that would be easy to understand.  We give to things we care about.  That is true.  But Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”  This is about growing in generosity.  As we give, our hearts become more generous.  As we give, we become less focused on ourselves and more focused on others. 

And generosity is not just an individual effort; it is meant to be a team sport.  It is like those passengers on the plane, sending notes to a woman they did not know – generosity can actually be contagious.  It can become a characteristic of a community.  That is exactly what happened at the church we read about in Acts. 

I have been amazed again and again by the generosity this church has shown.  Folks are generous with their time, generous with their money – often in quiet ways that go largely unnoticed.  When we have a significant need, people meet the need.  And we have been generous in supporting ministry beyond ourselves, in the community and beyond.  Like this church in Acts, there are so many in this place who have “glad and generous hearts.” 

We will receive our pledges this morning as the offering is collected, and we encourage you to give generously as an act of worship.  But the challenge for us, the challenge of generosity, really goes beyond that.   

We develop generous hearts by doing – by being generous.  A challenge for us might be to find new ways to act generously.  Do an unexpected kindness for a neighbor.  Send an encouraging card or email.  Make a contribution to an organization you appreciate that you have not contributed to before.  Hold the door open for someone longer than they would expect.  Take the time to visit with a child.  Invite a student for a meal.  And like this church in Acts, share our gladness and generosity as a community.  Amen. 

Friday, November 1, 2019

“Keeping the Garden” - November 3, 2019

Text: Psalm 24:1-6

One day last week, I left for work and there was a scattering of leaves on the ground.  I came home that afternoon, and our front yard was just a carpet of red and yellow.  I love this time of year – not the early snow part, so much, but the fall leaves and the crisp days.  I love the beauty of the countryside during and after the harvest.

This truly is a beautiful world, and like many of you, I have been fortunate enough to see amazing things in this world both near and far.  Those who went on the mission trip to Puerto Rico saw beautiful beaches and coastal areas as well as the tropical rain forest.  And we saw the Flamboyant tree, with a wide canopy of orange flowers.  I had never heard of this tree before we went there, and it really was stunning.

I have been to the Grand Canyon.  Susan and I just stood looking out in amazement at the vastness and expanse and beauty and just overwhelming immenseness of that place.  Zoe and I hiked in the Swiss Alps, and some of the best photos were of delicate flowers alongside the trail, with the snow-capped Eiger mountain in the background.  We have seen the endless views and wide-open spaces of the grasslands of Montana – after being there I understand what they mean by Big Sky country.

We have enjoyed the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, and when the fog comes in they really are smoky.  I have seen amazing wildlife in Costa Rica – all kinds of birds as well as sloths and bats and crocodiles and iguanas and howler monkeys.  But then, I have also seen amazing wildlife in my backyard: squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits and birds, including cardinals who built a nest right outside our bedroom window, and an occasional hawk.  And once in a while a possum or raccoon.  I have even seen amazing wildlife IN my house.  We had quite a collection of canines at our Blessing of the Pets a few weeks ago.

And it wasn’t a Flamboyant tree, but just this week – before the snow - we had a single daylily in our backyard defiantly blooming when by all rights it should have been shutting it down for the season.

I’m sure you have had similar experiences – experiences of the beauty and power and awesomeness and fragility of nature.  Experiences of transcendence - experiences of God in the midst of God’s creation.

We have been thinking about stewardship this fall in various ways.  We have thought about walking as a way of describing the Christian life, and the way we go about living each day.  We have thought about money – about our resources and the possessions we have, which are gifts from God to be used not just for ourselves but for the good of all.  We have thought about our attitude toward life, the way we look at the world - do we live fearfully in the midst of scarcity or do we live joyfully, trusting in God’s abundance?

This morning I’d like to think about the natural world.  What does Christian stewardship mean as we relate to and live in and are sustained by the world around us?

I don’t have to tell you that the earth is hurting.  The planet is in trouble.  Evidence is all over the place.

The number of birds in the United States and Canada has decreased by 29% since 1970.

Deforestation continues all over the world, destroying wildlife habitat and destroying ecosystems as well as removing trees that store carbon and breathe oxygen.

Weather patterns are becoming more extreme.  Globally, the twenty hottest years on record have come in the past 22 years.  There have been more violent storms.  We keep having 100 year and 500 year flooding events.  Sea levels are rising.  At the same time, many places are suffering from prolonged drought.

Fish and sea life in remote parts of the Pacific are dying because they are ingesting large amounts of plastics.

And then there are the fires.  Wildfires in the Arctic.  Wildfires across the western U.S. – devastating fires in California are in the news right now.  I can’t imagine having to suddenly flee your home fearing for your life.  We hear about this kind of thing in our country, but it is all over the place.  They have experienced terrible wildfires in Australia.  And then there is the Amazon, with fires raging.   The area is known as the lungs of the world, but the ability of the Amazon to capture carbon continues to decrease.

With habitat loss and a warming climate, many species are in trouble, if not in danger of extinction.

I could go on but some of you know all of this better than me.  Some of you work in fields that are impacted by such changes in climate.  These crises we are facing are caused by the way we have treated the earth and particularly by burning fossil fuels, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.  But what I want to think about this morning is not so much the science or the politics or the economics of it, though these are all certainly important.  But this morning, I want to talk about our faith.

The Bible is filled with references to creation and our responsibility to care for it.  Let me mention just three.  We read in our scripture from Psalm 24 today, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”  The world is not ours to just do with as we wish; it belongs to God.  Now self-interest is one reason to care for creation, and a good reason.  Our lives are dependent upon a properly functioning eco-system.  But Christians have a reason beyond self-interest for caring for creation.  The earth is not ours; it belongs to God.  We love and care for creation because of our love for the Creator.

And then in Psalm 150 we read, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”  When we sing the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise God all creatures here below,” we join our voices with the whole chorus of creation in singing praise to God.  All creatures - parakeets and poodles, humpback whales and snow leopards, emus and orangutans.  We are a part of God’s creation and we are to care for the created world so that all creatures may sing God’s praise.

And then in Genesis chapter 2 we read, “The Lord God put the man in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.” God has given human beings a special responsibility to care for creation.  The Hebrew verb “to keep” is the same word used in the familiar blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”  We are to nurture, sustain, and care for creation the way God nurtures, sustains, and cares for us.  Think about that.  That is deeply caring for creation.

There is no lack of Biblical material pointing to our responsibility to care for the earth.  Caring for creation is a part of following Jesus.  But I am amazed at the attitudes some Christians have toward the environment – as though a concern for God’s world is somehow a terrible thing.

There was an opinion piece in the New York Times this past week by Katharine Hayhoe.  She is a professor at Texas Tech, where she co-directs the Climate Center.  This is the way the article started:
I’m a climate scientist.  I’m also an evangelical Christian.

And I’m Canadian, which is why it took me so long to realize the first two things were supposed to be entirely incompatible.

I grew up in a Christian family with a science-teacher dad who taught us that science is the study of God’s creation.  If we truly believe that God created this amazing universe… then how could studying his creation ever be in conflict with [God’s] word?

I chose what to study precisely because of my faith, because climate change disproportionately affects the poor and vulnerable, those already most at risk today.  To me, caring about and acting on climate was a way to live out my calling to love others as we’ve been loved ourselves by God.
I have heard people say that Christians should stick to spiritual things and stay out of social issues - and they would put caring for the environment under teh category of social issues.  The problem is that that is an artificial distinction.  For Christian, care for creation is a spiritual thing.

Not only does our faith call us to care for this world, I don’t know that we can meet the challenges ahead of us if we don’t see care for creation as a spiritual issue.  Gus Speith, the dean of Forestry at Yale, was speaking to a group of religious leaders.  He said,
I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation and eco-system collapse, and that we scientists could fix those problems with enough science.  But I was wrong.  The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy.  And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don't know how to do that.  We need your help.
I have to admit, the challenges we face are daunting, to say the least.  It can leave us depressed.  In fact, I actually thought about pulling a switcheroo and preaching on some other aspect of stewardship this morning.  But that is usually a sign that something needs to be preached.  We can’t ignore the issue.

I found myself thinking about Ray Schellinger, our ABC missionary who works on immigration and with refugees.  I shared a few weeks back about Ray’s very difficult, sometimes heartbreaking work.  Given the challenges he faced, I asked Ray how he got up and went to work every morning.  And he talked about small victories.

The same might apply here.  In terms of the challenges facing us as Christians and as citizens of this planet, I have to say that there actually are a lot of small victories happening as we consider the challenge of climate change and caring for creation.

There is a movement toward more local foods.  Rather than trucking in foods from far away or flying it in from other countries, folks are trying to use locally raised food when they can.  People raising chickens in the backyard is actually a small sign of hope.

Here in Iowa, we see a lot of windmills producing electricity.  Some think they are an eyesore, but I see them as a sign of hope.  In Ames, we will be constructing a municipal solar energy farm next year.  Community members including our church have bought shares in the project.  It’s a sign of hope.

One of my college friends is a fish biologist who teaches at the University of Arizona.  With a great concern for the environment, Scott now powers his home completely with solar panels and his family drives electric vehicles.  He basically uses no fossil fuels.  Of course, everybody can’t do that – and this probably works better in Tucson than in Ames – but people like Scott are signs of hope.

Electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, geothermal heating, public transportation, eating less meat, repurposing, repairing, recycling, gardening – these are all signs of hope.  Every time somebody plants a tree, it is a small sign of hope.

Of course, all of these changes have been relatively easy.  There will be more difficult, more costly action ahead.

For me, a big place where hope may be found is in young people, who understand the issue in a much more existential way than those of us who are older.  Exhibit A might be Greta Thunberg, who as a 15 year old began spending her school days sitting outside the Swedish parliament.  She held a sign that said “School strike for climate.”

She started out all by herself in calling for stronger action to combat global climate change.  Before long, other students engaged in similar action in cities around the world.  This year, coordinated international actions have involved over a million students.  From 1 student to over a million in a year.  That is a sign of hope.

Other young people are working at solutions to environmental problems, including Boyan Slat, the young man who devised a way to clean plastics from the ocean.  There is hope for technological advances.

But ultimately, as Christians, our hope is in God, the God who created this world and cares for this world.  There is a lot of fear surrounding the challenges we face, fear that can lead to either denial or paralysis.  But the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy that we have not been given a spirit of fear.  Fear is not from God.  Instead, we have been given a spirit of power, to act rather than to remain paralyzed with anxiety or guilt; a spirit of love, to have compassion for others; and a sound judgment - to use the information we have to make good decisions.  These are the very tools we need to address the challenges we face.
Today is All Saints Sunday.  It is a day to remember the saints who have gone before us.  And not just the “big name” saints, but all saints, including those in this congregation who have gone before us and been examples for us.

Maybe a question for us to consider is: years from now – when people look back on our time - what will be our legacy for our children and grandchildren and those who come after us?  May it be that we had a spirit of power and love and sound judgment.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

“Scarcity vs. Abundance” - October 27, 2019

Text: John 6:1-14

Have you ever had a tough day?  The kind that just makes you want to get away?

Everyone has, and Jesus was no exception.  He had just finished a long theological discourse as a way of defending himself against his critics, who among other things did not like the idea of him healing people on the Sabbath.  And now, he just wanted to get away and rest.  In a boat with his disciples, he goes off across the Sea of Galilee to the other side. 

But the crowds can see where Jesus and his disciples are going and follow him around the lake (the Sea of Galilee isn’t really a sea).  The crowd followed because Jesus had been healing the sick.  You start healing sick people and the crowds will follow you around. 

Jesus gets to the other side of the lake and he goes up high on a high hill.  Jesus gets away from the crowds, away from the controversy, away from the stress.  And then he looks out, and what does he see?  People.  Coming in droves.  Hundreds of people. 

Jesus sees this large and growing crowd, and what does he say?  Well, it isn’t what we might expect a person to say.  He doesn’t say, “What does a guy have to do to get some rest around here?”  And he doesn’t say, “Well, I guess I can pull out my ‘No Greater Love’ sermon.”

No, Jesus sees the crowd and he asks Philip, who happened to be from a nearby town, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people to eat?”

Jesus is a prophet.  He is a teacher and a healer.  He is not a caterer.  Why would this be his reaction on seeing the crowds?  John clues us in that Jesus knew what he was going to do.  This was just the setup.  Philip said, “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food for this crowd!” 

Andrew, one of the disciples, reports that in the crowd there is a boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish - but what would that be among so many people?  It is hard to imagine that in this big crowd, there was just this one kid with the foresight to pack a lunch, but that is the report.

This boy with the lunch has 5 barley loaves.  Barley bread was the food of the very poor – one commentator said that it was held in contempt as a grain for animals.  This was not a loaf of multi-grain bread from Panera.  And don’t think that he had a couple of nice salmon in his lunch box.  Think something more along the lines of sardines.  There were great quantities of small sardine–like fish in the Sea of Galilee that were often pickled.  This boy had some bread eaten by the poorest of the poor and a couple of pickled sardines.  He is young boy, he is very poor, and he has about as meager and pitiful a lunch as you could imagine.  It is not very promising.  It is about as far from promising as you could be.

But Jesus doesn’t wring his hands over what they don’t have.  Instead, he blesses what they do have.  He has his disciples tell everyone to be seated on the grass.  He took the loaves and fish, he gave thanks, and he distributed them to the crowd.  And it was enough.  It was more than enough.  Everyone had all they wanted and there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets.  The pitiful lunch offered by one of the most unlikely people in the crowd was more than enough.

You know as well as I do that this is more than simply a story about food.  It is about generosity and stewardship and about God meeting our needs.  It is about the choice we have to live with an attitude of scarcity or to live with trust in God’s abundance.  It is not just about food for our bodies, it is about food for our spirit. 

How do we look at the world?  The predominant mindset is one of scarcity and fatalism.  There isn’t enough to go around.  We can’t afford to worry too much about others; we have to look out for ourselves.  And even if we tried, we really can’t make much of a difference.

It’s no wonder we think this way.  A lot of people are not asking, “When will I be able to retire?”  They are asking, “Will I ever be able to retire?”  Others are simply hoping and praying for a decent-paying job.  We would all like to be generous, we really would, but we can’t afford to be too generous or there will not be enough for us.

It’s not just money.  For some, time seems to be an even scarcer commodity.  We are pulled in a million directions, with all kinds of demands on our time.  There is never enough time.

In so many instances, there is this narrative of scarcity that is the predominant story.  Security is scarce.  Patience is scarce.  Kindness is scarce.  Understanding is scarce.  Forgiveness is scarce.  Imagination is scarce.  

The tension between scarcity and abundance is always with us.  It was certainly felt in Jesus’ time, and no matter that we live lives of ease and comfort and opulence compared to first century folks, we still live with this tension between scarcity and abundance.

It is with this background that we read John, and what do we find in his gospel?  We find pure abundance.     
In the first chapter of his gospel, John speaks about Jesus as the Word from whom we have all received grace upon grace.  The first miracle, or sign, reported in John is when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Jesus instructs the servants to fill some jars with water, and they fill them to the brim.  The result is a profusion, not merely of wine, but of excellent wine.  Abundance.

At a community well in Samaria, Jesus tells a woman about living water gushing up to eternal life.  No just a trickle, but water all over the place.  Abundance.  In Jesus’ address to his disciples before he is arrested, he says, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.”  Not just room for a few, not an exclusive view of eternity, but an expansive and inclusive kingdom.  Abundance.  And then John closes his gospel by noting that in addition to the things he has told us, there is so much more that if it were all reduced to writing, there wouldn’t be enough space in the world to contain the number of books that would be required.  Abundance.

Whether it is wine at a wedding or rooms for eternity or picnic food, with God’s grace there is always more than enough.  In John chapter 10 Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

In a Christian Century article, Charles Hoffman wrote:

The church of my youth majored in a miserly view of God’s grace.  Its message was grim.  Life had no edge, no elegance and no joy, but was… largely limited to preparations for the hereafter… That early religion held no attraction for me, but I was bound to it by the guilt and fear it engendered in me.

All of that changed when a new minister walked into our church.  He was winsome, engaging, honest and without guile.  One Sunday morning he preached the most important sermon of my life.  His text was John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  I still remember the message: Christ calls us to a life of fullness, affirmation and joy.  In that moment the Word reached out and claimed me.
How would life be different if we really lived out Jesus’ way of joy and abundance? 

Philip and Andrew represent us – they represent the church.  “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food… We’ve got some bread and a couple of fish, but it couldn’t possibly be enough.”  Their vision was too limited.  They were too captured by the story of scarcity.

Like anywhere else, it is so easy in the church to focus on what we lack.  If only we had more members, if only we were in a different location, if only we had more Sunday School teachers, if only we had a bigger choir, if only we had more young people.  If only we had a decent preacher.  If only…

Malaak Compton-Rock traveled to South Africa working on an economic development project with very poor women.  She returned from her trip and went directly to the Salvation Army in Brooklyn where she volunteered in an after-school program.  She told the kids about her trip and they said they wished they could go on a trip like that.  It got her to thinking.  She wound up starting an organization called “Journey for Change.”  She takes groups of twelve to fifteen-year-old kids from New York City to South Africa to volunteer in very poor communities.

The first group of kids who went were involved in that program at the Salvation Army in the Bushwick neighborhood.  Bushwick is a working class neighborhood with a lot of problems.  Less than 50% of the students graduate at Bushwick High.  These were thought of as at-risk kids – at risk for teenage pregnancies, at risk for dropping out of school, at risk for getting involved in gangs, at risk for drugs.

These Bushwick kids were paired with college-aged mentors and worked in Soweto and other shanty towns in South Africa with AIDS orphans and granny families – families headed by grandmothers because the other adults had all died of AIDS.  One of the things Compton-Rock felt was important in organizing the program was to give these kids, who were often on the receiving end of assistance, an opportunity to be on the giving side.  And it has made a huge difference in their lives.  These kids start to dream much bigger dreams.  They learn that they have a lot to give and that their gifts really matter.  Basically, they go from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset.  They learn that there is enough, and that they are enough.

Early in the year, a planning team here at our church broke into two groups.  Each group was assigned to plan an engaging activity for the church – one over the summer and one in the fall.  In June we had a Sunday morning service and cookout and fishing that afternoon at McFarland Park.  The fall group planned our Harvest Festival for today.  I love the idea of a harvest festival because it is all about abundance.  God provides for us and blesses us with a bountiful harvest.  With God, there is more than enough.

I read a very interesting article just this week about a church in Lauderdale – it’s a small suburb just north of St. Paul, kind of tucked in between Minneapolis and St. Paul.   Peace Lutheran Church is in an out of the way location, across the street from the sound barriers along Highway 280.  I’m familiar with the area because it’s just blocks away from where I took classes at Luther Seminary.

The church is not in a location that draws visitors, and it had declined to the point that it had 20 members.  They had enough money to keep the doors open for about 18 months.  Basically, they had 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.

They hired a part-time pastor, and decided that if they were going to die anyway, they might as well go for it.  They were going to die well. 

So here is what they did: they decided to take “love thy neighbor” to a practical extreme.  They leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge.  There would be no litmus tests, no income requirements, they didn’t care if you were Lutheran or atheist.  They would get your furnace running, make your kitchen handicap accessible, ensure your car started in time for work. “Your quality of life can be improved if the toilet works,” said one member.

Pastor Dave Greenlund knew that Peace would get few takers.  Lauderdale is a mix of working people and those who’ve seen better days.  These were not people who talked about their troubles, and there was the natural suspicion of anything religious - the assumption that “free” would come with a lot of proselytizing.

Only two women responded.  One needed concrete repaired and the footings fixed in a rotting garage.  Another hoped that her house could be painted.

The church stayed at it.  They cleaned homes for shut-ins, built chair lifts, rewired old houses for widows whose husbands had kept the lights on with the duct tape method. They did not preach or expect recipients to come to church.  They would simply help.  

In time, word spread.   If an elderly widow’s furnace broke on Christmas Eve, people came to know that you could call the church.  The idea was infectious.  Non-members joined the cause by the dozens.  Donations from the grateful kept the church afloat.  An abundance of love and kindness and community proved bigger and more important than financial limitations.

The church is still small.  They have quadrupled in membership – to 80.  They are still a poor church.  When their air conditioning went out, they could not afford a new system.  So a local contractor offered to refurbish units that had been discarded by a school.  But the contractor showed up with new units instead - the owner said he wanted to “pay it forward.”   

Basically, this church took its five barley loaves and two fish and chose to look at what it had and who it was through the eyes of abundance rather than scarcity.

It is very easy to give in to the prevailing attitude of scarcity – the idea that there is not enough, there is never enough.  But the good news is that with God, there is more than enough.  There is an abundance of hope and joy and love and grace and possibility.  And when we share what we have, our gifts are multiplied.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.