Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Gift -- Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2017

            What is the best gift you have ever received? What is the most wonderful present you’ve ever been given? What story can you tell about your best gift ever?
            My story about one of my best gifts takes place in 7th grade. At the last Girl Scout meeting before Christmas, one of my leaders asked if any of us knew a gift we were getting for Christmas. A few of the girls spoke up and told about a special item of clothing they’d been asking for or some new piece of jewelry they really, really wanted. I tentatively raised my hand, and when my leader called on me, I said I knew about my one big present but I was afraid they would all think it was silly. The girls and my leaders assured me that no one would think that, and no one would make fun of me no matter what the gift was. I took a deep breath and said,
            “I’m getting my doll house.”
            You need to understand that my doll house was a gift that I had dreamed about and saved for a long time. For at least two years, I had saved every penny I earned or was given and bought some miniature piece of furniture or accessory to go into my future doll house. Family and neighbors knew that I was collecting items to decorate it, so I received gifts of tiny mixing bowls for the kitchen and a wee little set of books to go into a miniscule bookcase. So that fall when my mother found a lady in Franklin who built dollhouses, it was a big deal. And when we went to her shop and she let me pick out what I wanted for my floors and on the walls, it was an even bigger deal. And knowing that the doll house was going to be waiting for me under the Christmas tree was the biggest deal of all. I might have been the least cool seventh grader in Middle Tennessee, but I could not have cared less. I was getting my doll house.
            Until the Christmas of 1998, I would have said that was one of the best Christmas gifts I had ever received. But in 1998 I held my ten day old baby daughter in my arms and knew that the gift of my doll house had been topped. A little over two years later, Christmas came in July when my baby boy was born.
            You’re probably thinking that this is going to be a message about the true gift that we receive tonight. And it is. The coming of the Christ child is a gift unlike any other, but what does this gift mean? Is it a gift that you can only understand when you’ve had a child yourself? No. As much of a joy as it is to have a baby, this gift is more than just something only a parent can grasp.
Is the gift ushered in by Jesus’ birth one of salvation? Of course, God becoming one of us through the birth of his Son was and is a gift we can never repay. Not only did God choose to become like us, God chose not to be born to royalty, to wealth, to worldly power or empire, but to be born instead to the lowly and the marginalized, the poor, and the overlooked. Yes, that is a gift unlike any other.
            But I think there is another facet to this gift we receive on this night, this holy night.
We receive the gift of memory.
No, we do not have physical memories of a young couple finding no room in an inn or of a baby being born in a shelter designed for animals.
We cannot call to mind the sound of the heavens reverberating with angel song. We do not have a recollection of shepherds, another group of forgotten and overlooked people, rushing from the hillsides to see a baby.
So what is it we remember? What is this gift of memory we are given tonight and every Christmas Eve?
            We are reminded in this beautiful story of what God intended and intends for the world.
We are reminded of who God created us to be.
We are reminded that God called creation into being out of Love for Love and because of Love.
We are reminded that we are part of that creation. We have value and worth in God’s eyes.
We are reminded of our calling as God’s children, as those who seek to follow his Son.
We are reminded that although our world is so broken, so far from what God intended, Light still shines in the darkness.
We are reminded that as long as we have hope, as long as we keep even one candle lit, the darkness will not overcome the Light … or us.
Tonight we are given a gift. We are given a chance to remember and to see through God’s eyes.
Tonight we are given a gift, and this is one that will not break or lose its shine.
Tonight we remember that Love was born in our midst.
Tonight we remember that the Good News came into the world in the way we all do, in the birth of a baby, in the cry of a child.

Tonight, on this Holy Night, we remember our most precious and wonderful gift, Christ our Lord. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen and amen and amen.

Let It Be -- Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:26-38
December 24, 2017

            “Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered will soon deliver you.”
            The first time I ever heard this song was on my now well-played Kathy Mattea Christmas Album. With all due respect to the group Pentatonix, Mattea’s version is my favorite. I admit that I did not give the larger theological implications of this song much thought. The question of whether or not Mary knew the fullness of her son’s identity was not an issue for me. When I listened to the lyrics, I just thought,
“This is such a pretty song, especially in Mattea’s rich alto. And the questions posed are interesting. They make me think both about this tiny baby and the larger scope of who he was and is.”
            However the question as to whether Mary knew who her son would be or not is a much larger issue, perhaps even controversy, than I realized. Every year about this time I see emphatic statements on social media, “Mary knew!” I think this goes beyond either loving or hating this song. I think it goes to a deeper theological question about Mary; who she was and the part she played in bringing Jesus into the world – literally and figuratively.
            So I am going to wade into the controversy and say definitively … that it is both! Mary knew! And Mary didn’t know! I don’t think she knew fully, at least, the scope of her son’s truth. So what did she know? First, she knew what Gabriel told her.
             Gabriel was sent to Mary by God, and he began this tremendous announcement by saying,
            “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”
            In what is perhaps the greatest understatement of all time, Luke wrote that Mary was
“much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
I too would have been perplexed … and baffled … and confounded … and terrified. Did Mary turn around to see if her heavenly visitor was addressing someone behind her? Did she pale and begin to shake when she realized he was speaking to her? Did she grow faint or bow low to the ground in terror? Perhaps she visibly changed, because Gabriel’s next words were,
            “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
            Mary did not, could not fathom how this would happen because she was a young girl, a virgin. The angel explained to her that through the power of the Holy Spirit she would conceive, and because the child she would carry was created this way, he would be called the “Son of God.”
            There you go; Mary knew. Gabriel told her that she was going to give birth, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the Son of God. Her child would be great. He would be given the throne of his ancestor David. His kingdom would have no end. She, a lowly, poor, insignificant young girl, was favored by God. She would bear the Son of God into the world. Mary knew.
            I understand how important it is theologically and spiritually that Mary knew. Mary was not just an empty vessel or a mindless pawn that God used to fulfill God’s purposes. Mary was a flesh and blood person. She had a mind and a heart. She had a will. She had a voice and a conscience. Mary heard the angel’s words. She asked the angel questions, and she responded favorably. Mary knew she was going to have a baby, and that this baby was born of God and destined for an unimaginable greatness. She was favored by God and this baby would be God’s own. Mary knew.
            But Mary was a flesh and blood person, which meant that she had limits. She was finite. She could only grasp so much. Gabriel gave her a general outline of who her son would be. The fullness of his identity, his truth would be revealed over time. Mary was a flesh and blood human being. She knew she was favored by God. She knew she would have a child who was special, who was God’s child, but beyond that, could she truly see what was to come? Could she truly comprehend what being God’s child would mean? Could she envision how his life and her own would unfold? Did she know, really know what lay ahead? No. How could she? How could anyone? Mary was a limited, finite human being. In that moment when Gabriel came to her and gave her this amazing, overwhelming great news, I just cannot imagine that she could fully know everything that news meant. Mary did not know.
            Mary both knew and didn’t know. It seems to me that what’s really important, really necessary about this passage is not so much the depth or expanse of what she understood at that moment; what matters is how she responded.
Mary said, “Yes.”
As I said before, Mary was a flesh and blood human being with a mind, a heart, and will. We Presbyterians believe both in predestination and in free will. Free will suggests that Mary could have said, “No.” Think about that. Isn’t it possible that Mary could have said, “No?” She had a will. She had a mind. She was not just an empty vessel to be used by God. God became one of us because God values not just our souls but our flesh. Wouldn’t God have valued this young woman enough to hear her “No?”
            But that’s what makes this story so amazing, even beyond this visit from an angel. Mary said, “Yes.” And listen to her yes.
            “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
            Here am I; those are the same opening words Isaiah spoke in response to God’s call.
            “Whom shall I send?” “Here am I, send me.”
            Mary’s response is no less a response to a calling from God. She said “Yes” to God’s call. She said “Yes” to God’s purposes. She may not have known fully what was to come, but then again do any of us know that when we answer God’s call? Mary knew enough. She knew enough. And what’s more important than how much she knew is how completely she trusted.
            She trusted God and she said, “Yes.” She trusted God and she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Let it be with me.
            Here am I.
            It seems to me that our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers got it right when they elevated Mary. As a stalwart protestant, I am not advocating that we imitate Catholicism in our reverence of her. Yet I think we need to stop relegating her to this one Sunday of the year: the Annunciation, Mary’s Sunday. It seems to me that Mary is a role model for all of us when it comes to answering God’s call. She embodies what it means to trust God. She models what it means to step up, to say “Yes,” to show the courage to say, “Here am I; let it be with me.”
            Mary was a real person with a real spirit, a real will and mind and heart. She was young, she was poor, she was female, and those factors made her vulnerable. She would have been considered insignificant by the powers and principalities of that time and place. But her courage was as great as any warrior of her day or ours. Whatever Mary knew, whatever Mary didn’t know, she knew enough and she trusted more. She said, “Yes.” She said, “Here am I; let it be with me.” Let it be with me. Let it be.

            Let all of us, God’s children, say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Witness to the Light -- Third Sunday in Advent

John 1: 6-8, 19-28
December 17, 2017

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” It’s never really occurred to me before how ordinary this sentence sounds; compared with so many other sentences in John’s gospel that is. The very first sentence of John’s gospel is, of course, beautiful poetry,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Gorgeous! But it’s definitely not ordinary.
Verse 14, which we do not read today, is also another poetic masterpiece,
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
I may be frustrated at times with John’s gospel, but those nine words have the power to bring me to my knees. Definitely. Not. Ordinary.
But verse 6 sounds more ordinary than these others.  
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”
Perhaps ordinary is not the right word; maybe straightforward is what I’m searching for. John’s gospel, with its multiple layers of meaning in every verse, with its metaphor and imagery, is rarely straightforward. But verse 6 is. It sounds like the beginning of a wonderful story. It sounds like, well it sounds almost, kind of ordinary.
You’re probably thinking, “It would be ordinary, Amy, if it weren’t for the subject. You know, John?! The guy who wore camel’s hair and ate locusts! That guy from the wilderness who, to put it mildly, was a little off center. He was the one who baptized Jesus for heaven’s sake! How could a sentence about John the Baptizer be ordinary?”
It’s true, John was no ordinary character. The various gospel accounts of him tell us that he was Jesus’ cousin, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Some historians speculate that he may have been an Essene, a member of that ascetic, mystical Jewish sect. And if we know nothing else about him, we know him as the Baptizer, the one who baptized Jesus. Except in John’s gospel he does not baptize Jesus. In John’s gospel, he really isn’t the Baptizer at all. He does do some baptisms, as we read in the last part of our passage, but Jesus is not one he baptizes. In John’s gospel, he is John the Witness. He is John the one who is sent to the witness to the light. He is not the light, but he points to the light.
This last part is almost a disclaimer. He is not the light. That is made very clear. In our later verses, this is reiterated when the priests and the Levites come to question John about his identity.
“Who are you?”
He answered them in the negative; who he was not.
“I am not the Messiah.”
They persisted. Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? We need an answer to give the people who sent us. At that, John quoted Isaiah.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.”
John made it clear who he was not. And the gospel makes it clear who he was. He was the one sent by God as a witness to testify to the light. Don’t get him confused with the light. That is not who he was. He was the witness. He was the one sent by God to witness to the light; John the Witness.
What does it mean to witness? If we are a witness in court, presumably we tell what we know or what we have seen. Many years ago when I was in college, I was involved in a fender bender on the way home from my summer job. It wasn’t my fault. Really. While the other driver and I were waiting for the police to come, and we were exchanging phone numbers and insurance and all the other things you do when you’ve had an accident, another driver stopped. She came up to me and gave me her phone number. She said to call her if I needed to. She saw the whole thing, she said. She was a witness.
John was one sent from God as a witness to the light. He was sent to tell the truth about Jesus, the Light of God, the Word made flesh, the Messiah. He was sent to testify to Jesus’ true identity. John was sent from God to tell people the truth about Jesus, God’s Son, and in doing so to make the people ready. He was that one crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord.
It would seem that John really was no ordinary man, yet I maintain that verse six is a wonderfully ordinary sentence. It is a wonderfully ordinary and captivating beginning to a story unlike any other. Why is it ordinary? Because whether John was an ordinary person or a wild man from the wilderness is not the point.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was Bob.”
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was Glenn or Bill or Mark or Thomas or Vic.”
“There was a woman sent from God, whose name was Alice or Lynn or Peg, Kathy or Wanda.”
Take out John and insert your own name. We are all sent from God to witness, perhaps not in the way John did, but we are called and we are sent. We are all called to witness.
How are we called to witness? While you are pondering that question, let me add one more thing. The Greek word for witness is martyrion which gives us our English word, martyr. One who witnesses is a martyr. While I have not done a full word study on how our understanding of the two words has evolved over the centuries, I find it interesting that these words share a common root. It seems to me that if we are called to witness to Jesus, to tell our truth about him, then there is a certain element of risk implied. We may be martyred for our witness, for our truth telling; perhaps not physically, but in other ways. Not only may we not be believed, but we may be mocked, shunned, disparaged or just downright shamed. More than once I have hesitated telling a stranger my vocation because I dread the response.
Yet, just as there is a cost that comes with discipleship, there is also a danger that comes with being a witness, with truth telling, with testifying to the light. Maybe that’s why we want to believe that is only extraordinary people who are called to witness to the light. But the funny thing about God is that God tends to call ordinary people like you, like me, to do extraordinary things. God works through unlikely people and unlikely circumstances. That’s what we celebrate during this season. That’s what we are waiting for: for God to work the extraordinary through the ordinary, to work the divine and the glorious through the most lowly. That’s what the incarnation is, the Word becoming flesh: our flesh, our ordinary, lowly, frail and fragile flesh.
John the Witness was an ordinary man sent from God to testify to the Light. We are ordinary people sent from God to testify to the Light. We are called to be witnesses, to share our truth, to offer our testimony. We are called to do extraordinary things, not because we have exceptional power that other people don’t, but because we trust that God is working through us and is with us. It seems to me that’s what John understood. He trusted that God was working with him and through him, and he never stopped doing what God called him to do. Not once. He never stopped witnessing to the Light.
There was an ordinary man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all people might believe through his telling.

Let all God’s children, God’s witnesses, say “Alleluia!” Amen. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Good News -- Second Sunday of Advent

Mark 1:1-8 (Isaiah 40:1-11)
December 10, 2017

            The first day of kindergarten for Zach was an exciting one. I tell this story with his permission. I was concerned about sending him to kindergarten because he has a summer birthday. The thinking in the schools where we lived was that boys with summer birthdays – meaning they turned 5 just before they started school – were generally not as mature or as prepared to begin school as kids who were a little bit older. We had been warned by a teacher about sending him to school just yet because he was young, and he was shy at first. He needed time to get to know the other kids and his circumstances before he would just jump into something. That was just Zach, I told the teacher. He was naturally shy at first, and needed to get to know his surroundings. If we waited for him to change, he would never start school.
            So I was nervous. Plus, I already knew how wrenching it was to send a child off to Kindergarten. We drove by the school grounds on Phoebe’s first day, so I could make sure the school was still standing and that my little girl was safe. Zach was, is my baby. Sending him off to kindergarten was its own kind of bittersweet. But Zach was so excited about starting school. He could not wait! So we did what you do to get ready; the night before we had his clothes picked out and ready. We had purchased all of the required supplies. He had his little backpack. That morning I went into his room to wake him up, saying,
            “Zach, it’s the first day of kindergarten. It’s time to get up.”
            The first day of kindergarten! He jumped out of bed. He got dressed with no prompting or pushing from me. He ate a good, healthy breakfast. Then we loaded into the car, and went to school. I admit to wiping away a few tears when I left that morning. My baby was in kindergarten.
            Zach came home that night just as excited as he was in the morning. It was a great day. He made friends. He played. He loved kindergarten! My relief was palpable. I went to bed calm and confident that sending Zach to kindergarten, even though he had just turned 5, was the right decision. The next morning I went into his room, prepared for the same excitement as the day before. I said,
            “Zach, it’s time to get up! It’s time to go to kindergarten!”
            He rolled over and looked at me with shock.
            “You mean I have to go again?”
            Somehow Zach had not understood that kindergarten was more than just a one day extravaganza. Kindergarten was just the beginning. It was just the beginning of years of school yet to come. That first day of kindergarten was just the beginning, and it was the first and last time Zach ever really enjoyed getting up for school.
            Mark’s gospel does not use the word “just” in the first verse of this first chapter, but to me it is implied. I know that what is written is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God,” but I hear, “This is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
            Mark was not one to waste words. There is no birth story in his gospel. There are no choirs of angels, no heralding from the heavens. There are no shepherds guarding their sheep or wise ones compelled to travel from the East. Unlike another poetic entrance into the story of Jesus, Mark does not have time for lush imagery. We will read the word “immediately,” in Mark’s gospel again and again, because for Mark this story is urgent. There is work to be done and good news to share. Jesus, in Mark’s earthy gospel, was on the move, so Mark’s account had to get right down to business.
            This is what the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was about. The prophet Isaiah told of a messenger who would be sent ahead to prepare the way. He would be one crying out in the wilderness,
            “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
            And that one was John the baptizer; a strange dude who dined on insects and wore scratchy, coarse clothing. John came out of the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
            In Mark’s beginning, there was no need for a back story about Jesus. The prophecies of old were back story enough. John the baptizer was not the messiah, but he was the messenger foretold. He came to get the word out about the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He came to let the people know that God’s promises were still alive and well and being fulfilled. He came to let people know that God was still at work in the world and in their midst, just as Isaiah had prophesied. He came to share the good news, and this was just the beginning.
            Just the beginning; key words I think, critical words. It is easy, sometimes, to think of the story of Jesus as ancient history. After all, his birth happened over 2,000 years ago. Whether we mean to or not, we often celebrate it as a remembrance; a fond memory. We wax nostalgic about years gone by. We relive old times in the church and in our families. But the truth is that every Advent we prepare for something that is happening new, in the present, right now. It isn’t that Jesus the man will be born as a baby in a distant land once again – or maybe he will be. It is that God’s promises are still at play. They are still active and being fulfilled. That is the comfort we hear in Isaiah.
            “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
            Not only did God speak comfort to Israel through Isaiah, God issued a new call. Get up to a high mountain. Lift up your voice with glad tidings and with strength. Lift up your voice, Jerusalem and tell the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
            We sometimes miss that this is a dialogue happening between God and Isaiah. At first Isaiah seems to see no point in speaking to the people, in telling them to prepare a way in the wilderness, because people are inconstant. They are like the grass in the field. They flower, they wither, they die.
            But God responded by telling him to share the good news anyway. The good news is not dependent on the constancy of the people. The good news of God is not dependent on circumstances – after all God spoke these words to a people in exile. The good news goes beyond any human endeavor and any human limitations.
            Even in exile, even when the people are fickle and random and inconstant, preach the good news, share the glad tidings. Comfort, o comfort my people. The time and space between Isaiah and Mark become nothing, because Mark furthers the message of the prophet. This is just the beginning of the good news…
            While we may not be living in exile like the people of Israel, nor are we confronted with a strange messenger such as John the baptizer, how much, how badly do we need to hear that the good news of God is just beginning? How badly do we need to be reminded that God’s promises for us, for all creation are still alive, still being fulfilled, and there is still more to come?
            We may not be in exile, but the world around us seems no less threatening, hostile and strange than it must have seemed to the Israelites. We may not be living under direct oppression, but unjust rulers still rule and the powers and principalities still wage war against the kingdom of God. Greed, cruelty and hatred, still seem to win the day over love and kindness. We need God’s words of comfort as much as the people of Israel did.
            But if the good news is not an ancient story, if the good news is not just something in the past, over and done with in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; if, in fact, this is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, then we are not without hope. In truth, hope is alive and well and here in our midst. Because the good news is a story of hope and God’s promises are about hope. Hope lies at the heart of the gospel, and this is just the beginning. That is good news indeed. That is good news. It’s just the beginning.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Watching and Waiting -- First Sunday of Advent

Mark 13:24-37
December 3, 2017

            I don’t do needlepoint or embroider or cross stitch, but if I did, I think I would create a sampler that I would frame and put in a prominent place in my home. On that sampler would be this simple phrase,
            “Life is too short …”
            I realize that this is the beginning of the cliché, “life is too short to hold a grudge.” But a cliché becomes that because it is based on a truth. And isn’t it true that life is too short to hold a grudge? If there is something good about growing older – actually, there are a lot of good things about growing older – it is that I’ve realized a little bit more just how short life actually is. The reason my sampler would only showcase the words, “life is too short,” and not fill in the rest of the sentence is because life is too short for so many things. So here is a short – pun intended – list of some of the things life is too short for.
            Life is too short to hold a grudge.
            Life is too short to be angry or worried or stressed all the time.
            Life is too short to be paralyzed by fear and anxiety.
            Life is just too short to not do those things that you’ve always wanted to do.
            Life is too short not to be with the people you love most.
            Please know that I do not live up to my list. There are so many examples of how this is true and so little time, but here is one. My one creative expression is writing, and I have been trying to write a book since I was about 10. I have countless beginnings of books, yet no finished ones. Why? Because I get paralyzed by my fear that it just won’t be good enough. Well, guess what? Life is too short, so write the book already! Who cares if it isn’t the Great American Novel? Write it anyway, because life is too short not to do what you’ve always dreamed of doing.
            Life is too short. In a roundabout, indirect way, that seems to be what this passage from Mark is about. That seems a strange thing to say, considering the fact that this passage is known as a “little apocalypse.” From the beginning of chapter 13 to the end, Jesus was telling the disciples about what would come. In the beginning verses, he told the disciples about the destruction of the temple. Then he warned James, John and Andrew about being led astray; about not being alarmed when they hear of wars and rumors of wars. Jesus told them that there will be earthquakes and famines, but this would be just the beginning of the “birth pangs.”
            Jesus told them of the great tribulation, of false messiahs and false prophets. Those snake oil salesmen will try to fool the people with signs and omens, but Jesus warned them to be alert.
            Then we come to our verses. Jesus told them of signs in the heavens.
            “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
            It sounds like something out of a movie. In fact, many a movie has been made about the end of the world. The latest special effects have been employed to show destruction and annihilation, whether that annihilation comes from aliens or nuclear war or from the prophecies of the end times finally coming to fruition. In the end, the end will be big and loud and devastating.
            At first it would seem that the apocalypse described here goes right along with that. When Jesus comes again, when the Son of Man returns, it is going to be one blockbuster of an ending. But as one of my colleagues wrote, God has a funny way of bringing beginnings from endings and endings from beginnings. One seems to always lead into the other.
            Jesus finished these words of warning with an illustration about watchfulness. Keep alert. The only who knows when any of these things will happen, when this time of ending and new beginning will occur is the Father. So keep alert. Think about a master who goes on a trip and leaves his slaves in charge of the house. They do not know when the master will return, so they must continue to do their work as though the master will arrive at any minute. There is no room, and there is no time for dozing off. You have to keep awake.
            Watch. Wait. Keep awake. Jesus wanted the disciples to understand the importance and the power of staying awake. He wanted them to really get just how vital it was to stay awake, because just a short time after this they would wait in the garden with him, and they would not stay awake.
            But it seems to me that Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that the importance of staying awake was more than just not being asleep. When Phoebe was little, she would announce that she was awake not by calling out, “I’m awake, Mommy.” Instead, she would say, “I’m not sleeping anymore!”
            But not sleeping and being awake, really awake, may be two different things. The problem with the way we interpret apocalyptic texts such as this one is that we think they exhort us to only consider the future. How will Jesus come? When will Jesus come? And what will Jesus’ coming mean for us?
            However, maybe apocalyptic texts are really calling us to wake up to the present; to see life as we are living it, to recognize just how truly short life is. Instead of focusing on this dramatic ending that may or may not be just around the corner, perhaps we should be focusing on the here and the now. Jesus told the disciples to stay awake, and I suspect that we are being called not only to stay awake, but to wake up.
            Maybe the point of this text on this day, this first Sunday of Advent, is not just about pointing us toward the ending or reminding us of the beginning, but to open our eyes to the right now, to this moment, to this beautiful, irreplaceable moment.
            In Thornton Wilder's play, “Our Town,” there is an incredible scene toward the end of the play when one of the main characters, Emily, who has died, discovers that she can revisit a day in her life. Through the help of the Stage Manager, she chooses one day to return to, thinking that she can just step back into who she was as a young girl in her home with her family. But she cannot return to that moment, because she now sees everything. She sees all that she missed. She sees all that everyone misses. And she cannot reach through to the people she loves to tell them, to show them what they are incapable of seeing or not seeing.
             “Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I'm dead. You're a grandmother, Mama! Wally's dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it - don't you remember? But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's really look at one another!...I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back -- up the hill -- to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?”
            Wake up! In this season of preparation for the birth of a child, wake up! Wake up to the reality that God comes to us in so many, unexpected ways. God comes to us in the vulnerable, in the poor, in the helpless, in the homeless.
            Wake up! Look around you. Sisters and brothers, we are hope embodied.
We are hope embodied.
We believe God is still calling us, still working through us, still moving in our midst.
            Wake up! Watch and wait for the coming of Christ, but instead of keeping your eyes trained only on the future, turn them to the now, to the present. Wake up and see God here, in this moment, in this place, in one another. Realize life while you live it. God is coming, true, but God is here now. So be here now. Watch. Wait. Wake up.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Minister's Corner

This was published in the Shawnee News Star on Saturday, November 25, 2017.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Matthew 18:20, the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version

            The church is not the building. It is not bricks or mortar. It is not contained within the walls or the woodwork. The church does not require a floor or a ceiling. The church is the people. The church is the congregation. The church is not the building.

            This is a refrain that my congregation has been repeating for several years. We began saying it when we made the difficult decision to leave our original home on Beard Street. It has been our litany these last two years as we fashioned the former Sips Coffee House into a place of worship. Although it might seem ironic, we are still saying it now that we are moving again, this time into a building of our own.

            The end of this month will be the end of our time at 114 East Main Street. As I write this on the eve of Thanksgiving, I cannot adequately express my thanks to Brad Carter for his generosity as our landlord these last two years. How thankful I am that we have had that space to call home, even temporarily. Beginning in December, we will be living in our new worship space, our new church home at 120 North Broadway. You may have known it as the Vintage Venue, but now it is the new home of United Presbyterian Church.

            It is our building, and we are beyond excited and overjoyed and grateful to own it. We are doing the things you do when you buy a place of your own. We are painting, putting in new lighting, deciding on a place for everything and everything in its place, and dreaming of new ministries, new possibilities for doing what God calls us to do. Yet, if we have learned a lesson in these last challenging years, it is that the church is not the building. We are the church. Our congregation – no matter how small or how big, how young or how old – we are the church. While we are thrilled to be in this place, to call it our own, we also know that if those four walls were to go away tomorrow, we would still be the church. We would still be the congregation of United Presbyterian, because the church is not the building.

            This scripture from Matthew is often used as a reminder that a congregation, to loosely paraphrase Dr. Seuss, is a congregation no matter how small. But that one verse comes at the end of a passage about church discipline. Jesus told the disciples how they were to deal with one another when they were in conflict, when someone in the church had gone awry. And that passage about conflict is sandwiched between Jesus’ teachings about humility, about caring for the most humble among them and his instructions to the disciples about extravagant forgiveness.

            It seems to me that Jesus was instructing the disciples on how to be in community together, on how to be in true fellowship with one another. Jesus knew that a community of his followers would not be perfect; it would not be without conflict or struggle. But as long as they were gathered in his name, even if it were only two or three of them, then he would be with them. There was no mention of buildings or site plans. The church would be the church as long as it was gathered in his name, wherever it was gathered in his name.

            We have learned that we can be the church anywhere.  As long as two or three are gathered together, a coffee bar can be a sanctuary and a storefront can be sacred space, because the church is not bricks or mortar. It is not contained within the walls or the woodwork. The church does not require a floor or a ceiling. The church is the people, and we are the church.

We invite you to join us on Sunday, December 3rd, the first Sunday of Advent, as we worship in our new sanctuary at 120 North Broadway. Worship is at 10:45 am. Y’all come!

Litany of Leaving -- On Our Final Sunday

I wrote this for our last Sunday in our temporary church home on Main Street, November 26, 2017.
It was a way of saying thanks and goodbye. 

God brought us to this place.
When we were unsure of our future, God brought us to this place.
God brought us to this place, and through the power of God’s Spirit a store became a sanctuary.
Through the power of God’s Spirit, a coffee house became a church.

God brought us to this place, and taught us that worship is not defined by the walls that surround it.
From the pulpit we have heard messages of hope, exhortations for justice and prophecies of peace.

God brought us to this place, and taught us that music could still soar in a smaller space.
From the piano, from the choir and from our own voices raised in song, our music has overwhelmed us with joy and moved us to tears. New hymns have captured our imaginations, and old hymns have seemed even sweeter sung together, neighbor to neighbor.

God has brought us to this place, gathering us together for fellowship.
At this counter, we have shared food and laughter, coffee and sympathy. We have been given new opportunities not only to catch up on one another’s lives, but to live out the hospitality of the gospel.

God has brought us to this place, and here we have met Christ.
At this table, our memories have been renewed. We have met Christ, seen Christ, and shared in Christ’s peace. At this table we have been called, and from this table we have been sent.

God brought us to this place and made of it a church. We give thanks for every moment we have spent here. Like the Israelites following God in the pillars of cloud and fire in the wilderness, we trust that God is just ahead of us. God brought us to this place, God leads us still. Amen.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Kingdom Living -- The Reign of Christ

Matthew 25:31-46
November 26, 2017

            Sonder: the realization that every person you see, every passerby, every random stranger you come across -- the person you almost run into on the street, or the person drinking coffee at the corner table at Starbucks, the man in the next car in the next lane at the bank drive through, the homeless people who gather in groups at the library or who line up in front of us at the Salvation Army – all of these people have lives as vivid as yours. They have people who have been influential in their lives, for good or for bad. They have their own back stories, moments when their lives changed on a dime. Sonder is the realization that every person has a life as vivid as your own.
            Sonder is a word coined by John Koenig. If you Google the word “sonder” you can watch a video about it created and narrated by the author. If I were using this word next week, we could watch the video on the screen.  Soon. Very soon. I don’t know the origin of sonder, how or why Koenig coined it. But it resonates with me. The word resonates with me and the idea resonates with me.
            I first had a flash of sonder, although I didn’t know that’s what it was, when I was enduring an interminably long layover in the Atlanta airport many years ago. There’s an old joke that says if you die in the South, whether you go to Heaven or Hell, you have to go through Atlanta to get there. Sitting for many hours in the Atlanta airport felt like hell. On that particular layover, I had wandered the terminal, and checked out every possible shopping opportunity. This was long before the days when you could get a massage, a mani and a pedi while waiting in an airport. I’d gotten something to eat and drink, found the ladies room, and was now sitting at my gate with what seemed like an eternity still left to wait for my flight. I had a book and crossword puzzles, but I was having a hard time staying focused because I kept listening for updates on my flight number. So I had given up and started people watching. There were the business people in suits, looking at their watches and reading files out of their briefcases. There were some young families; one parent taking turns holding the baby and minding the stroller and diaper bag while the other one took the toddler to the bathroom.
            But one scenario unfolded that I’ve never forgotten. An older woman was waiting anxiously by a gate – these were the days when families could meet you at the gate. She was with a couple of older kids, teenagers. I guessed they were her children. I said she was anxious because she was pacing slightly, looking, peering at the spot where passengers from an arriving flight would soon appear. She clasped and unclasped her hands. The flight’s arrival was called, and travelers began to deplane. She and her children were staring excitedly at each person coming toward them. It must have been a crowded flight because passengers were streaming around this mother and children, parting like a river meeting a large stone. Then the woman’s face changed; it was suffused with absolute joy. She put her face in her hands and began to cry. A tall, lanky sailor strode toward her. He was wearing his dress blues with the white sailor hat. He walked up to her, threw his arms around her and hugged her so hard he lifted her from the ground. The other kids were jumping up and down and hugging him, and he was hugging them back. But I’ll never forget that mother. She was overcome with joy that her son had come home.
            I didn’t know it, but I was experiencing sonder. I realized in that brief moment that I was witnessing another life as vivid as my own. I would never see this family again. I would never know their names or their histories or where they went from that time on. But I knew that they were living a complete existence. I could not write them off as just people in an airport. I imagined that there was a great dinner being prepared at home to welcome their sailor. I suspected that other family members and friends would be joining them. I guessed that preparations and plans had been in the works for quite a while; the house had been scrubbed. His room was shiny clean. The table was laid. Her son was home.
            What is so surprising about this passage from Matthew is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised. When Jesus told those listening about the judgment of the nations, he said that he Son of Man would come in his glory. All the angels would come with him. The Son of Man would then sit on his throne of glory, and all the nations – ethnos in Greek – all people would be gathered before him for judgment. Like a shepherd, he would separate the sheep and the goats. The sheep would be put at his right hand and the goats at his left hand.
            To the sheep at his right hand, he will say,
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
The sheep, the righteous ones, are surprised! They want to know when.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
The answer? “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
He will turn to the ones on his left and use the same criteria for condemnation. I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was thirsty and you did not give me something to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. I was naked and you gave me no clothes. I was sick and in prison and you didn’t visit me.
And the goats, those poor goats, will also ask “when?”
Lord, when we did see you hungry or thirsty, naked, sick, in prison and not welcome you?!
The answer? When you did not offer those kindnesses, that compassion to the least of these, then you did not offer it to me.
The traditional takeaway from this passage is that Jesus is in every person, therefore we are to treat every person – particularly the poor, the hungry and sick, the prisoner, the least of these, as though  we were caring for Jesus himself. That is not a bad takeaway. It is a fine one, in fact. Certainly, it is the essence of what kingdom living is about. Seeing this passage in light of the Sermon on the Mount, considering who Jesus called blessed, it would make sense to reach out to the least ones, the lowly ones, the marginalized and forgotten ones.
There are folktales and stories galore about millers and monks who learn that when they care for others in need, they are really caring for their Lord. It would seem that if you want to be a sheep, than this is what you do.
However, herein lies the rub. I am a sheep. And I am also a goat. I have reached out to the least of these. But I have also walked on by. I have tried to be mindful, intentional about treating others as though I were serving Jesus himself, but I have also dismissed other people as being as unlike Jesus as possible. I label people. I group them into categories. I paint them with the broad brush of sweeping generalizations. To be brutally honest, when it comes to caring and compassion it is far easier for me to care for the least of these then it is for me to care for those with whom I radically disagree.
But then I experience a moment of sonder, a moment when I realize that everyone has a story, everyone has a vivid life. Every person came from another person. Every grown adult was once a tiny baby, dependent on the care of others. Every person needed and needs a hand to hold, no matter what they tell you. Every human is a child of God; every human carries a spark of the divine within him or her. Every human is a child of God. Every human could be Jesus, because Jesus was one of us. Maybe kingdom living is not just about treating others the way we would treat Jesus, but recognizing that every human deserves dignity because they are human. Every human has a story, and sonder, when we experience it, is the gateway to empathy.
The sheep did not know that they were caring for Jesus; they just cared. Are we not called to do the same? To care, not merely because we are commanded to, but because we care. God loves us, and we love God in return. God loves us, and out of our love for God, we love others. So care. Care for the least of these. Care for the hungry and the sick and the thirsty. Care for the naked and the prisoner. Care for the stranger. Care for the human beings who cross your path. Care for the others. Care for them all. Care as though they were Jesus and care because they are human and care because they are God’s children. Just like us.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Playing It Safe

Matthew 25:14-30
November 19, 2017

I read a story in the Christian Century just recently about a church in Chicago that, along with two other churches, invested in an affordable housing development in the 1970’s. They put money and sweat equity into creating this housing, and in the last few years that development was sold for a large sum of money. The church received a big, BIG dollar amount in the sale. While there many needs and demands for the money they received from the sale, the governing board of the church went a different way. They made a bold decision. They took $160,000 and divided it into $500 checks for every active, attending member to use for God’s purposes in the world. There were no dotted lines to sign. There was no fine print. Each active member of the church was given $500 dollars to use in any way he or she saw fit to serve God in the world.
Before this took place, the church had been working through a study on spiritual discernment and decision making; and the day the checks were passed out, the pastor preached a sermon using this passage on this parable of the talents from Matthew’s gospel. According to the writer, there was anxiety on the part of the church elders. Certainly, that money was needed for other things. It was a windfall that could have helped their overall budget enormously. Giving away $160,000 without any accountability was seemingly nuts. It was a risky and pretty insane thing to do. They could be throwing away $160,000! But as the writer put it; that’s how it can feel following Jesus, living the gospel and being a disciple: it feels risky, vulnerable, and nuts in light of the world’s values.
I do not have a series of happy endings for this story. I don’t know what happened next. It would be wonderful to report that members of the church took their $500 and made amazing ministries happen – maybe they did. But I don’t know that. The happy endings are still in the making. And it’s quite possible that not all the endings will be happy. It’s realistic to believe that some of the folks who got the money just gave it back in the offering plate or spent it on something else or are still trying to figure out what to do with their share of the abundance.
Abundance is at the heart of this parable in Matthew’s gospel. The word “talent” is deceiving. It sounds like something small. It is easy to equate it with a gift; such as I have a talent for cooking or writing or gardening, etc. But in that context one talent was equal to fifteen years worth of pay. If you make $25,000 a year and multiply that by 15, that’s $375,000 dollars in one talent! That’s just one talent, and that was a fortune! Now think about how much money the slave who was entrusted with five talents was given. This master was not leaving his servants with scarcity. He was leaving them with abundance; an abundance of money, an abundance of fortune. The master entrusted them to do with this abundance as they saw fit. And as the writer of the story I told at the beginning of this sermon wrote, it was never about the money, it was about the risk.
What would the slaves do with the abundance they were given? What risks would they take? Would they take a chance and make more? Would they hoard what they were given? We see both in this story. The first two slaves took the talents they were given and traded them. The slave given the five talents, traded them and made five more. The slave given the two talents, traded them and made two more. But the third slave was a different story. The third slave was afraid. We could argue that the third slave did not waste the talent he was given. He did not lose it or throw it away. He was not profligate with the talent. He did nothing illegal or immoral with money that was not his. The problem was that he did nothing. He was so afraid of losing it, that he buried it instead. He dug a hole in the ground, put the talent in there and waited until the master returned. Surely the master wouldn’t be upset with him. No, he would have no more than the talent he was entrusted with to return to the master, but he would still have that talent.
But that isn’t how the parable goes, is it? When the master returned, he congratulated the first slave for making five more talents.
“Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
He did the same for the second slave for making two more talents. But when the third slave came to the master, bearing the original talent, the slave said,
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
If the third slave thought that this would be well received by the master, he was wrong. The master was furious.
“You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Huh? To say that is harsh response would be an understatement. There’s so many things happening in this parable, it is challenging to unpack them all. Why did the slave assume these things about the master? Perhaps they were true, but we have no way of knowing what his assumption was based on. How interesting that what the slave assumes becomes the truth, whether it was initially true or not.
It also seems strange for Jesus to tell a parable which ends with someone who has much getting even more. That seems to go against the idea of reversal which is so prominent in the rest of this gospel and the others. However, one commentator urged preachers and teachers to see this parable through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven, and in the beatitudes, those who are blessed are the least of these. The slaves who took a chance with what was entrusted to them may be the least of these, receiving blessing upon blessing.
Ultimately, I return to the quote I used earlier, when it comes to the parable of the talents, it was never about the money, it was about the risk.
Some commentators and scholars encourage sermons on this parable to be reminders about not squandering the gifts that we are given. Others urge the preacher to remember that we have unique opportunities to be a prophetic voice – to speak out against injustice. I cannot help but think that when it comes to this parable, all of the above apply, because ultimately it is about not playing it safe. That’s the true sin that the third slave committed. He played it safe. True, he did nothing illegal or immoral. He toed the line and walked the straight and narrow when it came to keeping safe his master’s money. But if it was about the risk, not the money, then he gravely committed the sin of playing it safe. He was afraid to step out in faith. He was afraid to risk doing more. He was afraid to try. He played it safe.
How often, as a preacher, as a teacher, as a disciple, have I played it safe? How often have I feared more the judgment of others more than the judgment of God? How often have I squandered my unique opportunities to further the gospel because I was too afraid of reproach or failure? How often have I played it safe?
But living the gospel is never safe. Following Jesus, being a disciple is always risky. Faith is not a certainty. If it were, then it wouldn’t be faith. To be a disciple, to love with your whole heart, to follow Jesus, is to risk everything. It is not about playing it safe. Think about that church in Chicago. They took a huge gamble by giving each member that money. There are no guarantees, no assured outcomes, no definitive happy endings. But they did it anyway, because to risk in that way felt to them like what it means to be believers.
The coolest way to end this sermon would be to tell you to see Lori this week and pick up your check. But that’s not going to happen. Sorry. But I will encourage you to examine how you are living – I’m not calling you to look for sins. I’m calling you to look at how you are playing it safe when it comes to your faith. How are you avoiding risks when it comes to living the gospel?
I read a quote this week that went something like this,
“The saddest thing would be to do the same thing for 75 or 80 years and call it a life.”
Life and love and faith is risky business. Step out in faith. Take a leap of hope. Walk in trust that God is walking beside you. But whatever you do, don’t play it safe.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Our Glorious God -- Soli Deo Gloria

I Corinthians 10:23-33
October 29, 2017/Reformation Sunday

            “Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.”           
            “It is better to think of the church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church.”
           “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”
            “Thus, let us drink beer!” These quotes are not from who you would expect; royalty such as Henry VIII or from an ancestor of Anheuser Busch. No, these quotes are attributed to Martin Luther. Martin Luther, whose image can be found on the insert in our bulletin today; who’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle, was the metaphorical opening bell for the Reformation that changed the course of history in Europe and around the world.
            Martin Luther was a theologian, teacher, preacher; he wrote hymns, prayers and committed his entire life to calling the church back to its true vocation of preaching the gospel and being disciples of Jesus the Christ. He also seemed to like beer. Actually, that is no surprise to me. He was German, and I don’t mean this to be a generalized stereotype in anyway, but good beers come out of Germany and Germans are known for liking beer.
            Again, that’s a stereotype. But I come from a long line of Germans. In saying that you would think that I come from a long line of beer drinking Germans, but I don’t. Actually, I do. I don’t but I do. I just didn’t know that I do until my adulthood. My Grampa Busse was a Lutheran pastor, raised in a German household who brewed its own beer. Beer was a common part of their lives apparently. However I grew up knowing only my tee totaling grandfather. I never saw him drink a beer. My parents do not drink beer. There was no beer in our home. I do not know if my grampa railed against drinking in his preaching, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I do know that he did not partake… until he was older. Then he seemed to return to his roots. He would have a beer now and again. That does not sound like a problem or an issue, except as I have heard the story, he was enjoying one at a restaurant and a parishioner saw him. The parishioner was not just upset at witnessing this, the parishioner felt betrayed. This must have seemed the ultimate hypocrisy. Pastor Busse, who did not drink, was drinking a beer.
            “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”
            Paul was not writing about drinking beer in this passage from his first letter to the church in Corinth. He was writing about what people were eating: specifically meat that may or may not have been sacrificed to idols. Jewish dietary laws would have restricted buying meat from the common marketplace because one would not know the origin of this meat. Was it from an idol sacrifice? Was it slaughtered properly according to the Law? For an orthodox Jew, buying and consuming meat from the marketplace would have been too risky. You might break a dietary rule without even realizing it or intending to do so.
            But Paul, who was once a zealot for Judaism, had reversed his thinking completely. “All things are lawful,” he wrote. I understand that to mean that he saw all food as being given by God, and because he was saved through grace in Jesus the Christ, those strict dietary laws to which he had once adhered bound him no longer. So he could eat … and drink … whatever he chose. It was not a sin nor sinful. But Paul did not place a period after the word lawful.
            “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.”
            It was absolutely fine for a follower of Christ to eat meat from the marketplace, even if that meat was offered to an idol. It was completely okey dokey and hunky dory for a believer to go to the home of an unbeliever and eat whatever was served. But it was not okay if doing so caused offense to another believer. It was not okay if it harmed the faith of another. I don’t mean to pick on my grandfather. I am certainly a bundle of hypocrisy myself, and I do not have a problem with the fact that he drank a beer. But I wonder if drinking that beer was akin to Paul’s example of eating meat sacrificed to idols. If drinking a beer or eating suspect meat was not beneficial to another, if it did not build up another, then it was not the right thing to do. It was not breaking a law, but it was causing harm to another believer. While what you eat or drink may not bother your conscience, if it bothers the conscience of another, then don’t do it.
            Yet even with this, Paul knew that his liberty to eat what he chose was sure, and what was more important was that whatever he consumed, he did so with thankfulness. But whatever you eat or whatever you drink, Paul told them, do so giving thanks to God. In fact, do everything for the glory of God. All we have, all we eat, all we drink, all we are comes from God, therefore whatever we do, do it for God’s glory.
            To God alone be the glory is the fifth and final sola or emphasis of the reformers. As I understand these emphases, they were a reminder to the reformers and to the church about what was truly important, about what truly mattered, what truly saved: grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, to God alone be the glory.
            It seems to me that what Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand was that what truly mattered was not what you ate or drank, but that you ate and drank in a spirit of thankfulness. The substance of your meal was not what was important; it was that you ate giving glory to God. In fact, that was what mattered all the time. Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you say, you do it with the full understanding that our glorious God is the foundation of it all, and you give thanks and praise to God alone.
            What truly matters: while I know that the Reformation was not predicated on that one statement, certainly that thought was at its heart. Luther was aghast at some of the practices of the Church: selling indulgences as a means of salvation being a primary one. I would not be a good protestant or a Presbyterian if I did not mention idolatry in the course of this. Idolatry is not just a worshipping of a false god; idolatry distracts us from God. It keeps us apart from God and separate from God. Idolatry makes us forget what truly matters. When Luther nailed his 95 debating points to that door, he wanted to debate and discuss what truly mattered to those seeking to follow Jesus. He wanted the church to get back to what was important, to worshipping not its human made practices and traditions, but instead giving glory to God alone.
            I read an essay by Christian ethicist and theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, which stated that on its 500th anniversary the Reformation is over. It is done. The reforms which needed to happen in what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church have happened. What are we protesting? What are we reforming? The sharp differences that once marked the chasm between Catholics and Protestants are no longer so sharp. The chasm is being bridged. To some, it is not so much a chasm but a shallow dip in our common ground.
            I guess this means that both Protestants and Catholics alike now fully get what matters, what is important. We aren’t just talking the talk of the five solas, we are walking the walk. Yet I wonder if a new reformation needs to happen; not between Protestants and Catholics, but between Protestants and Protestants; between American Protestants and American Protestants in particular. Regardless of what denomination we claim, our lists of rules and regulations are numerous, and our dogma is strong. Yet, is that dogma a distraction? Have our rules, our differences in worship and sacrament, become idols? Do we need, require a new reformation because we have forgotten what matters, and we are not doing everything to the glory of God alone?
            I do not have a specific answer to these questions, and I am not the first to ask them. But I do believe we need to wrestle with them, pray about them, and pray most fervently for one another – especially those with whom we radically disagree. I wonder if in these strange and trying days, we are being called to reconsider and remember what matters and what is important. Perhaps we have forgotten. Perhaps we have lost our way. But the good news is that our glorious God is the God of unconditional love and another chance. The good news is that we never run out of chances or opportunities to turn around, to change course and recommit ourselves to doing everything for the glory of God alone. Thanks be to our glorious God! Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

On Faith -- Sola Fide

Philippians 3:4b-12
October 15, 2017

            I read a story accredited to preacher and teacher, Fred Craddock. He told about a family of Christian missionaries living in China on the eve of Communism. They were told by the military that they would have to leave the country, and they could bring no more than 200 pounds worth of their belongings with them. They were given only a few hours to gather their things. The mother and father spent the next hours frantically going through their household trying to determine what they should take and what they shouldn’t. Should they take great-grandmother’s vase? It was a family heirloom. What about this item or that piece of clothing? Finally, they had packed everything they could take. They had weighed everything they packed. They met the 200 pound weight limit on the money. When the military returned to take them out of the country, they asked,
            “Do your belongings weigh no more than 200 pounds?”
            The parents answered with a determined affirmative. Then they were asked,
            “But did you weigh your children?”
            What?! Weigh the children?! The children were considered part of the belongings?! Forget everything else they were going to bring! If they have to include the children in the 200 pound weight limit, then the children must come first and foremost. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is as precious. There are no family heirlooms that are more important, more valuable. If all they could take out of China was their children, then so be it; the rest was just rubbish.
How true or colorfully embellished this story may be, Craddock described the missionaries as having a “wake up moment.” They woke up to what really mattered. They woke up to what was most vital, most important. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else was important. It was their wake up moment.
Paul seems to be describing his wake up moment in these verses from his letter to the church in Philippi. Paul was reminding the folks there of who he used to be, of his pedigree of righteousness if you will.
“If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish.”
Rubbish is a nice, gentle word. It sounds like something said by the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey. But rubbish is an extremely cleaned up translation of the Greek. It is a word that is only found in this verse, and essentially means the stuff you don’t want to step in out in the barnyard. It is excrement. Paul was not mincing his words or trying to be delicate. What he had before, everything he was before – not only a good Jew, a righteous Jew, but a Pharisee; everything he held dear before under the Law, all of that he now understood to be RUBBISH!!!
This was Paul’s wake up moment. His righteousness did not come from the Law, but only through faith in Christ. It was not a righteousness that he could manufacture on his own, but one that came from God based on faith.
On faith; sola fide or faith alone is the emphasis of our worship this morning. It reminded the reformers – and us – that our salvation is not something we can earn, but something that is given through love and grace. Because that is the emphasis, I understand why this passage was suggested as the scripture for this particular sola. Paul made it clear to the Philippians that he woke up to the reality that his adherence to the Law could not save him; that nothing he did saved him. It was only faith given to him by God that saved him. And through that faith he grew in his knowledge, in his relationship with Christ Jesus. I don’t think it is far-fetched of me to claim that Paul was smug in his former self and identity. He was smug in his confidence in the flesh. He was smug in his zeal and in the status his birth into the tribe of Benjamin gave him. His confidence in all of those things was high, but when he came to know Jesus, he awoke to what really mattered. He awoke to the truth that salvation was through faith alone; sola fide.
So I get the choice of this passage. It is through faith alone – faith given to us as a gift by our gracious God – that we are saved. Everything else is rubbish. Yet, if I were to choose a passage, I probably would have looked to Hebrews.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
I would have looked more for a definition of faith, for examples of faith. It’s not that this passage from Philippians doesn’t make its point about sola fide, it’s that if I am preaching this sermon to me, I need encouragement for a faith that often falters. I need reminders of those who have gone before, on those who stepped out in faith, trusting that God would be there with them. I need examples of those who have taken it on faith that God keeps God’s promises. I crave stories of people who through faith have done wondrous things, who have refused to give up or give in. I need stories and examples and reminders that utilize all the prepositions that go with faith: on faith, in faith, through faith, because of faith, etc. To be honest, I’m not so interested in discussions of justification by faith alone, as I am in finding reasons to keep on going, to stay faithful.
This isn’t because of any particular personal crisis of faith that I am having. It’s just that everyday there seems to be another reason to lose hope. The world and its sorrows batter our faith. There is suffering that cannot be explained away by saying “there is a reason for everything” or that “God has a plan.” What reason?! What plan?!
The suffering of the world is overwhelming to say the least; and for me – and I know for you – part of being faithful is feeling the call to address that suffering, to help alleviate it, to reach out to those who are hurting and alone and afraid, and embody the love of Christ to them.
Yet it is so hard, so difficult. I find that my prayer most days is “I believe, help my unbelief.” As many times as my faith seems strong enough to move mountains, there are equally as many times as it seems to teeter on the edge of disappearing altogether. So, as much as I affirm sola fide, I also want, need, long for, crave examples of faith embodied, faith in action.
I received a strange, unexpected example of this from a completely unlikely source: a sitcom called “Mom.” For those of you who have not seen it, it is a funny, real, sometimes risqué, show about a mother and daughter who are both recovering alcoholics. Much of the show centers on going to AA meetings and dealing with life sober, of dysfunctional families, and the patterns – good and bad – that are repeated and passed down from one generation to the next. But it also talks about forgiveness and letting go of what you cannot control and prayer. In one episode, the older mom, played by Allison Janney, has a relapse. She hurt her back, had to go on painkillers, and they became too much for her. She not only abused them, she started drinking again. Confronted by her daughter and her friends, she has to get sober all over again. Her friends stay with her as she detoxes. But detoxing is rubbish. In one scene, she is imagining or hallucinating that the two sides of herself are talking to her. The devilish, bad girl side is trying to convince her to drink again. She’ll be fine. She can handle it this time. No problem. The good girl side, who looks more like Glynda the Good Witch than an angel, argues for her to stay sober. It was this side of her that worked to repair her relationship with her daughter and her family, etc. Bonnie, the character Janney plays, is arguing aloud with both of them, and finally she cries out,
“Somebody please just help me. God, please just help me.”
And God does. Jesus, or a man who looks remarkably like what Hollywood and American Christianity thinks Jesus looks like with long hair, a beard and a robe, shows up. He sends the two warring sides of her away, and just sits with her. No words are spoken. No judgments are made. He is just there with here, meeting her where she is, staying with her through the worst of the night.
I know, it is a silly example. But in the midst of this show where you would not expect to see Jesus show up, Jesus does. I admit that when I watched that episode, my eyes started to water. That moment did not restore my faith in humanity; there are far better examples of people caring for other people that would do that. But it reminded me that faith is not about believing that God waves a wand and makes everything perfect. Faith is about believing and trusting that God shows up.
Through faith, we can do more than we ever thought we could. In faith, we step out into the world every day, trying to live as God calls us to live, and we take it on faith that God shows up. God shows up for us and calls us to show up for others. This isn’t something we can prove or chart or systematically analyze. It takes faith alone to live in the trust and hope that God shows up.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.