Saturday, December 31, 2011

Eve of a New Year

No sermon for tomorrow because we are finishing our Christmas celebration with Lessons and Carols.  Lots of scripture, lots of singing as we move from the manger to the temple to the wise men. 

Instead, I offer prayers for a peace-filled New Year that is prosperous and justice-filled for all.

Gracious God,
We know that things in this world are just not the way they should be, not the way you planned it to be.  We come off our Christmas high, having seen a glimpse of 'peace on earth' and 'goodwill to all' even as we seen evidence of war and hate and greed.  Help us O God.  Save us from ourselves!

When we pray 'your kingdom come,' help us to be open to the ways your Spirit is bringing the kingdom closer.
When we pray 'your will be done,' bring our desires into line with yours.
When we pray ' give us our daily bread,' give us also hearts that generously share that which we receive from your hand.
When  we pray 'lead us not into temptation,' make us sensitive to all the ways you point us to paths of righteousness. 
When we pray 'deliver us from evil,' help us to understand that sometimes knowing that you walk with us through the evil is all the deliverance we need.

We ask in the name of your Son, the Word Made Flesh, the Light that Banishes the Darkness.  Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Eve: Silent Night

Readings for this evening:  Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20
They sat in the silence of the night.  Suddenly a song drifted on the breeze.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht

They looked up from their trenches across the no man’s land to the German side.  There, lights were flickering – small Christmas trees, complete with candles, adorned the front edge of the trenches.  Families and hometowns of the German soldier had sent care packages and small trees to their loved ones off fighting during Christmas 1914 – the first Christmas of WWI.
The British soldiers had care packages as well.  Their country and hometowns and loved ones sent generous reminders of home – small comfort to soldiers who thought this “war to end all wars” would be over long before they were faced with the reality of a cold Christmas Eve at the Western Front.

Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,

The lights from the trees illuminated the German soldiers, making them easy targets in the dark.  Amazingly the British soldiers held their fire.  Soon, a sign was spotted “No shoot tonight.  Sing tonight.”  The Germans were inviting the British to join them in their Christmas Eve celebration!
A few soldiers ventured into the no man’s land to be met by a few from the other side.  They smiled and shook hands and wished each other a “Merry Christmas” and “Fröhliche Weihnachten!”  More soldiers joined them and soon the no-man’s land became a meeting place, a killing zone became a place of peace and friendship.  Pictures of loved ones waiting at home were admired.  Carols were sung in English and German.  Gifts were exchanged – buttons and items from the care packages.  Addresses were exchanged so men could keep in touch after the war. 

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

This impromptu Christmas Eve truce broke out all over the Western Front as war-weary men from both sides embraced the promised peace of Christmas.  Over 500 miles of front line, German and English and French and Danish soldiers shared food, fellowship.  Christmas Day dawned, and the truce continued as they collected their fallen comrades from yesterday’s battle and buried them.  In some cases, men from both sides joined for Christmas Day communion services.  The festivities continued throughout the day, with songs and games – even a few soccer matches.
Back at their respective headquarters, the generals were not happy with this turn of events.  Orders were issued for the fighting to resume.  In some cases, units has to be rotated from the front and replaced with new units as the soldiers refused to take up arms against those whom had shared the bittersweet joys of Christmas far from home.

They sat in the silence of the night.  Suddenly a song drifted on the breeze.
"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

They looked up at the glowing sky.  The light grew and they could see wings and bodies – angels, lots of angels – coming toward them.  They shrank back from the light.  From the light and angelic voice said, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."

The shepherds looked around in wonder as the angels burst into song.  And then, as suddenly as they came, the angels were gone.
As one they turned to Bethlehem, hurrying to find this child whose birth caused the angels to sings.  And they found him, just as the angels said, in a manger, his mother watching as he slept.

Peace on earth!  The Messiah who will bring God’s kingdom to humankind is here!  They couldn’t wait to tell their families, their neighbors.
That evening Roman generals sat in the comfort of their headquarters issuing orders for this war and that battle to preserve and extend the Pax Romana. They didn’t hear the angels’ song or stand with the shepherds at the manger, so they didn’t know that a child was born who would bring true peace to the world.

There’s a song drifting in the air tonight.

We’ve heard a month of carols in the stores.  We’ve heard greetings of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays during this time billed as the “happiest season of all.”  It’s Christmas time.
At Christmas time the whole world acknowledges things aren’t the way they should be.  The whole world longs for peace, yearns for love, aches for hope.  At Christmas time, we get a glimpse of peace, a glimmer of the world the way it should be.  We hear stories of people helping other, stories of generosity.  Stories of Christmas peace like the 1914 Truce. 

But after Christmas, the generals of the powers of the world entice us to turn again to war, and hate and hopelessness.  The Christmas spirit fades.  People go back to life as usual.

What about us, the keepers and tellers of the Story?   Tonight we’ll sing Silent Night and Joy to the World.  Well share the bread and the wine and marvel again the God loved us so much that God became one of us.
Do we leave here carrying Christmas with us, living it every day?  Or do we allow the generals of the powers of this world to order us back into the fight?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fourth Sunday in Advent: Greetings, Favored One!

Readings for this week:  2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:46-55;  Romans, 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38 (0r 26-55)  

Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you!
Favored one?  Favored how?

She’s just an ordinary 13 year old girl.  She lives in an ordinary village, no different from the hundreds of peasant villages in the region.  She’s got ordinary peasant parents, and an ordinary family.  She’s betrothed like most of the other 13 year old girls in her first century Palestine village to an ordinary man from the same village.  There’s nothing special about her.  Even her name – Miriam,(Mary) – is ordinary.  Everyone in Judea names a daughter after Miriam, Moses’ sister, a strong woman, a prophetess, a hero of the faith. 
She’ just ordinary, plain, old Mary.  She’s not the type of person who gets messaged from angels.  Yet, here’s an angel with a message for her.  His greeting confuses her - she doesn’t feel favored at all. 

After the angel’s next words, she’s not sure she wants to be favored.  Being favored by God in this case means she’s going to be an unmarried pregnant teen.  And while the prophecy about her son-to-be sounds wonderful – Son of God, king in the line of David, a kingdom that lasts forever – she’s pretty sure her parents and her fiancé, Joseph, are not going to like this so-called favored status.  Who’s going to believe that she got pregnant by God?  The small town talk will spread like wildfire.
“What? Me? How?”  She knows, of course, how women get pregnant.  She’s betrothed, practically married, although not living with Joseph yet.  This news is so astonishing, so incredible, so mind-boggling, the question sputters out as she struggles to understand just what the angel is telling her.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”   
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

For nothing will be impossible with God.”

What is she getting herself into?  Is she strong enough, good enough, wise enough, anything enough for this?  But, then, does it matter?  Because God’s spirit will come over her and God has promised to overshadow her – to protect her, to sustain her, to go with her.  She may not be enough, but God is. 
Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

And in her ‘yes’ to God, Mary is transformed.

She has to see for herself if the angel is right about Elizabeth.  Amazing that Elizabeth would after all these years of childless marriage, finally be pregnant.  Just like Abraham and Sarah, barren for so long and then God gives them Isaac in their old age.  Like Hannah, who prays for God to remove her barrenness and give her a child, Samuel, who becomes one of Israel’s greatest prophets.  These are pregnancies of miracle – life where there was no possibility of life.
She greets Elizabeth, unmistakably pregnant. Elizabeth gasps, and says her baby leaped for joy to be in the presence of the child Mary herself is carrying.  Mary hasn’t even said that she is pregnant, but Elizabeth knows Mary is carrying God’s Son, because the unborn John is already testifying, pointing to Jesus. 

Mary, ordinary Mary, breaks into song, becoming a prophet, proclaiming God’s mercy and justice, God’s in-breaking into the world and upsetting the powers of evil and oppression.

“Let it be with me according to your word.”

Sure there were moments of doubt, of uncertainty, times she did not understand.  She pondered and prayed – a lot.  She fretted when 12 year old Jesus went missing, only to be found in the temple.  At one point in his ministry, his radical teachings and the rumors she heard made her certain Jesus was insane and needed to come home.  She cried out to God in pain and doubt, wondering where the promise went as she watched Jesus breathe his last. 
But through it all, she remembered the angel’s words:

 The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary, ordinary Mary, becomes a strong woman, capable to the task of raising God’s Son, of guiding him as he begins his ministry, of standing by him as he suffers on the cross.

Mary, ordinary Mary, becomes a hero of the faith.

Peasant girl to prophetess, maiden to Mother of God – in telling the story, Mary becomes larger than life.  She is the model of perfect obedience and quiet acceptance of God’s will. 
In making Mary into a saint, we lose something.  When Mary becomes this extra-ordinary example of faith, we forget that God works through the most unlikely of people.  We get to sit back and enjoy the story of Mary’s great faith, safe from the possibility of God interrupting our ordinary lives. 

Is this story just a once upon a time happening? 
Or do we believe that God still breaks into the world, using ordinary people like you and me?

Because if we believe that God still breaks into the world and calls ordinary people to build up the kingdom of God, then the angel’s words to Mary are also addressed to us:
Greetings, favored ones!  The Lord is with you!

True, I’m no angel.  But by virtue of the God’s call, and the call this congregation has issued to me, I act as a messenger of God.  Again, I say to you:
Greetings, favored ones!  The Lord is with you!

I imagine you’re thinking:  What me, favored?  I’m just an ordinary person.  I’m just a teen age girl.  I’m just a high school boy.  I’m just a farmer.  I’m just a mom.  I’m just a retired person.  I’m just a bank employee, or a factory worker, or a waitress, or – well you fill in the blank. 
There’s nothing special about me.  I come from an ordinary family in a small town, in a rural part of South Dakota.    I have no special skills, no talents.  I have trouble getting around, or I have health problems – or whatever you have that you think limits how God can use you.

I say again:
Greetings, favored ones!  The Lord is with you!

You are favored.  God has favored you, has a purpose for you even before you were born, has called you in the waters of baptism.   God’s favor and grace rests on you.
God plans to use you to do marvelous, wondrous things. 

Yes, you.
 And you.

 And you.

You are favored and you are called.  I invite you to ponder and pray, to puzzle and dream, to look around with expectancy and hope this week before Christmas.  What is it that God has called you to do? Where has God invited you to make a difference, to bring the kingdom of heaven a little bit closer to earth?

I invite you to respond to the angel’s message, and to God’s call.
"Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.

To this you may want feel like saying: "How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people."

"Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.

Mary’s words become our own:  "Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word."[i]

[i]  Adapted from David Lose’s commentary, used by permission.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Third Sunday in Advent: Do you hear what I hear?

Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

One of my favorite Christmas Carols is “Do You Hear What I Hear.”  One of the things I like best about the song it how the story gets passed along – the night wind tells the lamb, who tells the shepherd boy, who tells the king, who tells everyone.

I like how the story is told just a little bit differently each time.  The wind talks about a star, the lamb about a song on the night, the shepherd boy talks about a child shivering in the cold and the king announces the child will bring peace, goodness and light to all.  The story was experienced in different ways by each storyteller, who told others about what they had experienced.

It is just that kind of story – it begs to be told again and again. 

The portion of the story we hear today starts out: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”  And he said to the people who came to the wilderness, “do you see what I see”.  He answered the priests and the Levites who wanted to know if he was the Christ, “do you know what I know.  There is one standing in your midst, right now, whom you do not know, but whom I am unworthy to even untie the laces of his sandals.”  You know, John didn’t really answer their last question.  He totally ignored their question about his authority to baptize – he was too intent on proclaiming the coming of Jesus! John could not contain telling what he knew – the good news of God coming among us. 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

Last week we talked about John and how his job was to prepare the way of the Lord, to preach repentance in order that hearts would turn back to God.  This week we hear about another part of John’s job - he was sent from God to testify to the light.  That was his purpose – to point out the star, the song, the child, the one who brings goodness and light.  When he is questioned by the priests and Levites, he says two significant things:  He is not the Christ and the one who is the Christ is here.

John was very clear about who he is and who he is not.  And he knew what his purpose was – to be the voice calling out in the wilderness.  To point to Jesus.  To proclaim the coming of the Lord. 

And John does proclaim him.  In the very next verse after the end of our reading, John says “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” 

There was a man sent from God”.  John’s story is also our story.  John was sent from God to testify to Jesus.  And, like John, we are also sent, from Jesus, to testify, - to point to Jesus, who points to God. 

We point to Jesus when we recognize the “God” moments in someone’s life, and open their eyes to the presence of God with them.  We point to Jesus when we are agents of God’s love in the lives of others – “Jesus with skin on” to the people around us.  We point to Jesus in the way we live our lives, the way we treat others.  We point to Jesus when we gather in worship and around the bread and the wine. 

There was a man sent from God.  His name was John.”  And here we are, sent by Jesus, called by his name.  We are sent to witness to the Light. 

We are called to be storytellers.  And what a story we have to tell!   We announce that the coming reign of God is here!  Isaiah says it is good news for the oppressed, healing for the brokenhearted, liberty for the captives, and that justice and righteousness flow freely(Isaiah 61:1-11).  Mary sings of the lowly being lifted up and the hungry being satisfied with good things (Luke 1:46-55).  Light has come into the world – God’s light - and the darkness put up a good fight against the light.  The darkness still puts up a good fight against the light; the darkness doesn’t know that it was beaten by the coming of a child, and a dark day on a cross, and a bright morning where the tomb was empty and nothing would ever be the same again.

Think about it.  Think about the story we have to tell, of how God comes to us.  Think about what we have seen and heard and experienced of God’s grace and love.  How can we stay in our seats!  How can we not cry out! 

There was one sent from God, and that one is you.  And me.  And all Christians everywhere.  We are called to be that voice calling out in the wilderness of a world that doesn’t recognize Jesus standing in its midst.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Second Sunday in Advent: Prepare the Way!

Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

“Pre- ee –ee -paare ye the waay of the Looord.
Pre- ee –ee -paare ye the way of the Lord!”

I can’t help it.  After reading the texts for this week, that’s the only song going through my brain:
“Pre- ee –ee- paare ye the waay of the Looord.

Pre- ee –ee - paare ye the way of the Lord!”
Sorry, I got carried away again. 

But it got me thinking – if Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, what are we waiting for?  And how do we prepare for it?

My tree went up Thanksgiving Eve.  If I don’t get it done by the first Sunday in Advent, it doesn’t happen.  And the wreaths for the door came this week.  It’ s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the Hayes house!
We’ve got our halls decked and I’ve made a list, and checked it not once, not twice, but several times. 

So, let’s see….
Tree up – check.
Gift list made – check.
Gifts purchased – working on it.
Cookies baked – in progress.
Christmas cards mailed-  not yet.

Of course, these are things we do to prepare for Christmas.  But our holiday hustle and bustle doesn’t really prepare the way of the Lord.

We decorated the church at Pollock, and Peace will be decorated soon.  I’ve put out a plea for special music and favorite carols.  Soon I will sit down and plan the Christmas Eve worship, and Christmas day worship.  The children are rehearsing for their programs.
Again, these are things we do to prepare for Christ-mass.  Sure, preparing the church, planning worship, teaching our children the Christmas story is part of preparing the way of the Lord.  But that voice crying in the wilderness invites me to stop and take a look – how much of this is spiritual hustle and bustle and how much prepares my heart – our hearts – for the coming of the Lord?

“Pre- ee –ee- paare ye the waay of the Looord….”
 Isaiah uses the image of a great highway – fill in, bring down, smooth out.  In Isaiah’s time, there were royal highways – roads prepared for kings to use for public procession.  They were wide and straight and smooth.  Nebuchadnezzar built a royal highway for the annual procession of the god Marduk – a straight brick path where the god could be carried easily on his throne.

Highways like that weren’t easy to make in those days.  In fact, they aren’t easy to make today.
We’re talking major road construction here.  We’ve seen some of that this year out on 83, with the road torn out and new foundations laid down.  It’s long hard work, full of dust and delays. It takes time and sweat to make the path straight, and sometimes it gets rougher and more winding before the straight smooth road is finished.

Prepare the way of the Lord.  This isn’t patching a few potholes or putting down a new layer of chip-n-seal.  This is major roadwork, tearing down the road to its very foundations, straightening out that treacherous switchback, leveling off the steep grade.

“Pre- ee –ee  paare ye the waay of the Looord….”
That was John the Baptizer’s job – to prepare the way of the Lord.  He was the foreman in charge of preparing the royal highway of hearts.  He called people to repent and to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  It was a “tear out the old, lay down a new foundation, make the rough places smooth” operation.

And people came out in droves to see this prophet in the wilderness – from all over Judea, Jerusalem, city and country, poor and rich, everyone wanted to hear what John had to say.  What seems decidedly weird to us sounded exciting and hopeful to the people of Judea and Jerusalem. 
·         He word wore camel hair garments just like Elijah. 
·         He lived in the wilderness, eating locust and wild honey – just like the prophets of old who went into the wilderness to get a word from God.
·         There was the belief that Elijah, who was swept up to heaven in a chariot of fire, would return to proclaim the coming of the messiah.
·         Maybe this wilderness preacher who talked of one more powerful coming, really was Elijah – maybe Messiah was near!

People were wading into the Jordan, confessing their sins, being baptized.  Hearts were open, hope was in the air, lives were changed, God was met in the wilderness.
And the one who was more powerful than John, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit did indeed come.

 “Pre- ee –ee  paare ye the waay of the Looord….”
We're in the middle of the annual preparation for his coming.  We’re in the Christmas swing –we want to hear about peace on earth and good will toward men.  We want to deck the halls, not make the paths straight.  We want to sing joy to the world!  We want to stand at the manger, marveling that God came to us as a baby.

Instead we find ourselves today standing in  the wilderness listening to a wild man yell out to anyone who would listen, “God is coming, God is here!  One who is more powerful than me is coming.  Prepare the way of the Lord. Let every heart prepare him room!”’

I’m not sure that I know how to do that.
I think sometime the busy-ness of the season – both holiday and spiritual – makes the way rough and rocky.  We need  this time in Advent,  to step away from the Christmas tree and to let the manger wait, to spend a little time in the wilderness with John listening to the wind, listening to our breath, listening for God.   

In the wilderness, the call to prepare the way of the Lord changes from one more thing on our holiday to-do list and becomes an invitation to meet God.  Maybe all we need to do is be there and to be open.  
We might just discover that God has already prepared the way for us.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

First Sunday in Advent: Tear Open the Heavens and Come!

Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Things were not going as they hoped.  This was not what they expected.
When the Judeans returned from exile, it felt like the new Exodus.  God was bringing them out of oppression with a mighty hand and bringing them back to a good land of milk and honey.   They were God’s chosen people, destined to be a light to all nations.  They would go back to the land, and be prosperous, and worship God and all nations would be drawn to God’s presence among them.

It didn’t work out that way.  Instead, life was hard – this was not the glorious return predicted by the prophets.  There were disputes over land claims, harvests were not good, houses had to be rebuilt.  The people who had been living in the land during the exile were not happy to see the Judeans return - there were fighting and attacks and delegations to the King of Persia trying to get the Judeans off the land.  Those sins which got them exiled in the first place - idol worship and injustice toward the poor, widows and orphans – enticed them.  And they were still a people under occupation by the Persians, without a king in the line of David on the throne.
The people cried out “Where are God’s mighty acts?  Why does God hide from us? From where does our hope come?”

“O God – o that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  Come to us in our need, forgive us of our greed.  Show us your face so we can worship you and follow your teachings.  Make the nations tremble at how zealously you care for you people.  Tear open the heavens and come!” 

Things were not going as they hoped.  This was not what they expected.
500 odd years later, Judea is still an occupied land.  Since they were into exile by the Babylonians and returned to the land yet remaining under Persian rule, they’ve been occupied by the Greeks, then the Romans.  Attempts to overthrow the occupiers are unsuccessful.  They groan under Roman oppression and long for the promise of a king in the line of David.

The king they do have, Herod, is not of David’s line – is only marginally a Jew at all.  He’s in power because he has lobbied for favor with the Romans.  In fact, everyone in power has lobbied for Roman favor – the high priest is not from the correct priestly line, but in power through Roman support.  The ruling class is deeply divided – the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Scribes squabble over doctrine and politics.  Zealots band together to plot violent overthrow of the Romans and anyone cooperating with them. 
The rich ruling class is well off, but the poor are even poorer. The peasant class is prevailed upon to provide food and goods for the cities – fishermen provide fish for the city dwellers, farmers plant wheat for bread on city tables, shepherds send their flocks off to be main course at city banquets, tradesmen are working to build the cities and furnish city homes.  The pittance they are paid for their efforts barely supports their families.

Isaiah’s words sounded like their own hopes.
The people cried out “Where are God’s mighty acts?  Why does God hide from us? From where does our hope come?”

“O God – o that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  Come to us in our need, forgive us of our greed.  Remove our oppressors and bring our Messiah, the promised king in the line of David.  Make the nations tremble at how zealously you care for you people.  Tear open the heavens and come!” 

Things were not going as hoped.  This was not expected.
Just two days ago, Jesus rode into Jerusalem as a conquering king.  Just yesterday, he turned over the money changers tables and drove the merchants from the temple.  Today, he challenged the priests, rebuked the Pharisees, denounced the Scribes, made the chilling prophecy about the destruction of the temple.  He talks about the day he will come in his glory – about judgment.  He tells his disciples to be awake, and aware – like servants who do not know if the master will return at evening or midnight or rooster crow or morning, but constantly ready for his return.

Surely this was the time; Jesus was coming into his power.  But it didn’t work out that way.
The master didn’t return in the evening – he was in the upper room having a last meal with his friends, the bread and the wine standing in for his body and blood.

The master didn’t return at midnight – he was in the garden praying, agonizing, while his friends slept.
The master didn’t return at the early morning rooster crow – he was standing accused before the chief priest and the one friend who promised to stand by him no matter what was firmly denying he even knew him.

The master didn’t return in the morning – he stood before Pilate as Pilate condemned him to the cross.
It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

But then….

Then the sun darkened, and the earth trembled, and the temple curtain was ripped opened as the heavens tore apart and the Son of Man who came to us as a baby in a manger and not a prince in a place revealed the almighty power of God even as he took his dying breath on the cross.
God came down and tore open the heavens!  Came to us in human flesh, loved us, healed us, suffered with us, suffered for us, one of us.  All creation tremble at how zealously you care for you people.  Tore the heavens apart and came to deliver us!” 

This was not what we hoped for; it was not what we expected.
It looked hopeless, but hope burst from an empty tomb;
It looked powerless but God revealed God’s mighty hand;
God tore open the heavens and came down!

This was more than we hoped for; it was beyond all our expectations.

And yet, we understand that cry of Isaiah.  We hear our own hopes echo across the centuries.
For we live in a world where although we can hear the promise of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching, children still go to bed hungry, the homeless shiver in the cold, the sick suffer from their illnesses, violence roams our streets, nations war against nations, and economies collapse. 

We cry out “Where are God’s mighty acts?  Why does God hide from us? From where does our hope come?” knowing that our hope comes from God opening the heavens and coming to us again and again.
We live in the in-between times, where we proclaim God’s victory and wait for the final act.  We struggle to be awake to the presence of God in the world around us, to be alert for those times we see God in the face of our neighbor, and to be aware of the many ways God comes to us.

And so each Advent we start by looking at the end, by looking at what it will be like when we see the “Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory” – that time when the powers of evil will be bound and only God will reign.  We remember with longing the promise of the coming kingdom of God. 
This first Sunday in Advent, we wait with the world in fear and in confident hope, knowing that God has come to us and God will come again.

“O God – o that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  Come to us in our need, forgive us of our greed.  Restore your creation, bring peace to your children, let your kingdom come in full, let your will be done!  Make the nations tremble at how zealously you care for you people.  Tear open the heavens and come!” 

O God, tear open the heavens and come! 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Eve: See God in a Bag of Apples

Readings for Thanksgiving: Deut 8:7-18, Psalm 65, Luke 17:11-19

I was at the gym one day last winter when I overheard two other women chatting at they worked out.  The first asked, “And how are you doing today?”
The second responded, “I’m blessed.  God is so good.”

They chatted for awhile and then the second woman said, “You know how last week I told you I was really hungry for apples.  Well, wouldn’t you know, God gave me some apples!”
"Really?  What happened?”

“Well I was at Bible study Saturday and after it was over, this woman came up to me.  She’s new to the study and I don’t really know her.  Anyway, she handed me a big bag of apples and said, ‘God told me to give these to you.  Enjoy your apples!’  I thanked her and took those apples home and ate one as soon as I got home.  I’ll tell you that was the best apple I’ve ever had!”
“Praise God!  He’s a good God, isn’t he!”

Now someone else might have gotten that bag of apples and thanked the giver and took them home and ate them, thinking how nice it was that someone gave them some apples.  But this woman saw something more than a generous impulse in that gift of apples.  She saw God working in her life.

Ten lepers stood by the side of the road outside a village. This was business as usual for the lepers.  They would often beg outside of villages, hoping for some food or maybe an old garment.  They would call out to those passing by for ‘mercy’. 
This particular day, Jesus was passing through the village.  The lepers saw the group of travelers near the town and as it approached, their hope rose as they recognized Jesus.  They had heard of his work as a healer.

“Jesus, Master have mercy on us.”
Jesus saw them, saw human beings in need and had compassion on them.  He tells them to go show themselves to the priest.  They would have understood that by sending them to a priest, Jesus has promised that they would be healed by the time they got there.  A leper whose disease cleared up had to be certified clean before he or she could return to the community.  The priest had already declared them unclean and the only reason to see a priest again was to be cleaned.

All ten obeyed Jesus.  They hurried off to the priest, and as they went, they discovered that they began to feel better.  Maybe someone looked at his arm only to find smooth skin where an ugly sore had been. 
Nine of the lepers continued to the priest – just as Jesus told them to. They were obeying Jesus’ direction and they were obeying the law.  The priest had to declare them clean.   After the priest declared them clean, there were sacrifices to offer.  It was a week long process, being declared clean – with directions on what sacrifices to offer when and how to prepare for the sacrifice and where to live during the process.

I have no doubt that there was singing and laughing and shouts of “Praise God!” among the nine as they journeyed to the priest.  And there was lots of rejoicing and hugs and thanksgiving when they returned to their families.  And then each of those nine former lepers took up their lives again.  The nine were healed and went on with business as usual.
But there was one leper, who upon seeing he was healed stopped in his tracks.  He glanced at the others as they continued their journey and then he turned back.  He was a Samaritan and there was no point in showing himself to the priest – he wasn’t allowed to worship in the temple and the priest would not have seen him.

He began to shout with praises to God as he returned to Jesus, fell at his feet, and thanked him.   

All ten lepers had been healed.  But only one saw the power of God at work in a new way in his life.  Only one saw in the power of God in Jesus. 

And it changed him forever. 

Tomorrow there will be lots of people sitting down to dinner with family and taking a moment to give thanks.  Maybe they’ll go around the dinner table and share one or two things they’re thankful for.  And they will enjoy the food and the time with family and the post dinner nap and the football game.  It will be a thoroughly enjoyable holiday.  And then many of them will go on with their lives.  It will be business as usual.  Thanksgiving is a day for them, not a way of life.
But for us, called to be children of God, thanksgiving is a way of life.  Like the one leper, we have seen God revealed in Jesus.  We see the power of God at work in our lives and in the world around us:

·        In the smile of our child

·        In the food on our table

·        In the blessing of our jobs

·        In the kindness of a friend

I could go on and on – but so could you.  Take a moment and think - where do you see God’s hand at work in your life? 

Do we recognize how God gives us the good things we enjoy?

In our reading in Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the children of Israel how God has worked in their lives, rescuing them from slavery in Egypt and is now about to bring them into a land of their own.  He cautions them to not forget all that God has done for them.  He cautions them to not boast in the things they acquire in this land God is giving them – their fields and herds and vineyards, the land they live on and the house they live in.  He cautions them to remember that these things they have are signs of God’s work in their lives.
We are called to live lives of thanksgiving and praise.  We are called to look for how God is working in our lives, for how God is working in the world around us.  We are called to point out how God is working and give thanks and praise.

Like the woman who saw God’s provision in the gift of apples, we are called to see God’s hand at work in our lives, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Christ the King Sunday: I just wanna be a Sheep!

Scripture for this Sunday:  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

When my kids were little, one of the Sunday school songs they often sang was about being a sheep.  It went:

I just want to be a sheep, baa, baa, baa, baa. 
           I just want to be a sheep, baa, baa, baa, baa. 
          And I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
         I just want to be a sheep, baa, baa, baa, baa.

And when the kids sang the “baa’s” they would make sheep ears by putting their hands on the sides of their heads and flapping them in time with the “baas”.  I used to drive a school bus for our church’s school, and once all the kids on the bus – all 25 of them from kindergarten to grade 8 – started singing.  I looked in the mirror and saw 25 pairs of hands going “baa, baa, baa, baa.”

I just want to be a sheep…

The scene of final judgment in Matthew 25 is often called the parable of the sheep and the goats.  Now, it’s not really a parable.  This is not an “it’s as if…” story or “the kingdom of heaven is like…” story.  Jesus is giving the disciples a picture of what it will look like when he comes again in his glory. 

In the picture Jesus paints, it’s much better to be considered a sheep than a goat.

In this picture, we all want to be sheep. 

No one wants to be a goat.

31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Jesus talks a lot about his sheep.  His sheep know his voice.  He knows his sheep by name.  He cares for his sheep.  He seeks for the lost sheep.  He lays down his life for his sheep.  In the Old Testament, God is often pictured as a shepherd.  In today’s reading, the shepherding God seeks out the lost sheep, feeds and waters the hungry and thirsty sheep, heals the injured sheep, comforts the weary troubled sheep.
Sheep know the shepherd’s voice and they follow.  They do what the shepherd leads them to do.  They are sheep – it’s their nature.  It’s what they do.

Goats are more independent, more resourceful.  But they also can be destructive and aggressive.  They don’t respect boundaries and don’t let little things like fences get in the way of what they want.  They are goats – they are restless and insatiable.  They do things their own way.      

So who are we in this story?  Are we the sheep?  Or do we squirm a bit when this passage is read – are we afraid we might just be goats?

 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35 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,  36 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 heart of God provides for the poor and the outcast, the sick and discouraged.  Jesus’ ministry here on earth was to exactly the people in this passage – those in need.  His ministry was based on the heart of God, the compassion God has for the disadvantaged and outcast.  And when Jesus comes again, he will call his sheep to himself - those who have the heart of God – those who out of that heart care for the needy among them.

Notice that the sheep were separated from the goats even before they were called blessed and before they were judged.  The king knew the sheep from the goats.  There weren’t good sheep and bad sheep, there were sheep and goats.  The sheep did what they did because they were sheep.  The sheep’s actions revealed their identity as sheep.  This is important.  They are blessed and rewarded not because of anything extraordinary – they are rewarded because they are sheep.  The Shepherd knows them and claims them as his own. 

37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'  40 And the king will answer them, '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.' 

The sheep are surprised.  They don’t remember doing anything out of the ordinary.  They weren’t going around looking for the face of Jesus in others.  It didn’t even occur to them that they should be looking.  They were sheep, and as such, just did what sheep do:  follow their shepherd. 

The Good Shepherd King provides food and drink, clothing, healing, comfort – all the things his sheep need to survive and thrive.  And his sheep naturally lead others to the Shepherd, by sharing what they have received from the hand of the Shepherd with those around them.  They don’t do it because it earns them favor with the Shepherd, but because they are responding to the Shepherd’s love.  Sheep follow the Good Shepherd’s lead.  The sheep know the heart of the Good Shepherd – they have compassion on the least of these, whom Jesus calls brother and sister, child of God. 

Things don’t go so well for the goats:

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'  44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'  45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 

The goats are surprised too.  They don’t’ expected to be found lacking.  Maybe they just couldn’t hear the voice of the Shepherd.  Maybe they were looking for the face of Jesus and just couldn't see the image of God in those around them.  Maybe they were so busy being goats that they forgot to follow the Shepherd. 

What ever happened, the goats thought that they were doing ok.  But they were concerned with themselves, not the suffering around them.  They did not know the heart of the Shepherd, nor did they see the Shepherd in those around them. 

So who are we in the story – are we the sheep or are we the goats?

I have good news – despite that subtle nagging feeling that you might really deep down inside be a goat, in spite of those days you feel more than a little goat-like – you are a sheep.

You are a sheep – The Shepherd has washed you in the waters of baptism.  The Shepherd feeds you from his own body in the bread and the wine.  The Shepherd seeks you when you are lost, gathers you in this sheepfold to provide comfort and nurture and healing.  You are a sheep.

You are a sheep – you follow the lead of your Shepherd.  As you follow, you learn to love those the Shepherd loves.  You learn take care of those the Shepherd cares for.  You learn to give yourself to others because the Good Shepherd gave himself for you.

You are a sheep – you do these things not because you need to earn the Shepherd’s love but because you respond to God’s presence in your life and you see God’s grace around you. 

You are a sheep.  Go and follow the voice of your Shepherd.