Categories
Uncategorized

A Heap of Stones

I had driven past that barn each day on my commute to work for 17 years. When I first moved to Belmont, three sheep claimed the old structure as “home.” In the Spring they would emerge from their lower-level pen newly shorn. I would wonder about the barn in its heyday. How many animals lived within its timbers for warmth? Were there tractors that tilled the field? Did children from the nearby farmhouse play in the rafters?

sheep
A couple of months ago the barn burned down. I was saddened to see the skeletal frame charred and exposed. Hay bales sat intact that had probably been dragged into the barn years before. Within a couple of weeks, the demolition was accomplished. A machine with a claw pulled down the timbers and piled them into a dump truck that carted them off to a place of refuse. The last pile to be pitched was a heap of stones. They had been held together with mortar to offer a firm foundation on which the whole barn rested. Even though the foundation had withstood the heat of the fire, it was no longer needed for support. I wondered what would become of those ordinary stones that had lived with such purpose for so long. Anyone seeing them now would just see ordinary rocks, field stone that is so plentiful that we scarcely notice it.

balancing rock formation
Photo by Tina Nord on Pexels.com

The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote of the seasons in life. He used imagery from a primitive lifestyle. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” One of those seasons came to mind as I saw the great claw lifting piles of foundation stones into a refuse truck: “a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” Ancient people used rocks. They were transformed into essential building material. Alone, a rock had limited use. But, combined with hundreds of others, it could withstand wind, fire, rain and snow. Together, the rocks held up a structure that kept animals secure and hay bales dry. For a long season, these stones were needed.
We’ve been given another year, a new season, a chance at new opportunities even as our world sits frozen about us. Resolutions that were made at the beginning of this month may have already been broken. While we may feel like just ordinary stones that could be easily overlooked, God has a purpose for each one of us. You must be in community with others to be able to fulfill all that God is calling you to accomplish. Then, when God is the mortar holding a bunch of us regular folk together, there’s no telling what changes we can effect for the good of our community. So, for God’s sake, let’s gather stones together!

Categories
Uncategorized

Taking Jesus to Work

The Parable of the Talents   Matthew 25: 14-30
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents,[a] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘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.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘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.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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.’ But his master replied, ‘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.’

selective focus photography of gasoline nozzle
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

It was the third time his boss had been late in just a matter of weeks. His third shift ended at 6:30AM but, once again, she hadn’t shown up by 8AM. The other two times she had been in touch with Joe. But this third time she didn’t call, wasn’t answering her phone and was holding him up for a breakfast date Joe had with his dad. Frustrated at his boss’ lack of responsibility, 27-year old Joe Blumm taped a note on the window of the BP gas station in Eastown (Grand Rapids, MI), locked up the C-store and headed toward home. A customer stopped by the BP when it was unattended, saw the note, took a photo of it and uploaded it to the internet. It went viral. It read: “Hey boss, learn to be on time or at least communicate when you are going to be late, +1 hour with no phone call is unacceptable. As you can see, the doors are locked. I went home. Fire me if you must, but realize I walked out due to YOUR negligence.” Joe was fired but became the poster child for fed-up workers across the country. A shy guy who wasn’t seeking the spotlight, Joe simply wanted a workplace where his efforts would be honored and fair work conditions met.
Ever had one of those days?
Maureen Burns was a faithful member of a committee that served the needs of her community. But, as a Christian, she honored a higher authority than the call of the committee. There was a meeting scheduled on a Sunday night and she said she would not go because it was on the Sabbath. She was the only one not in attendance. Even though she felt misunderstood, she stood her ground.
What would Jesus do?

woman working girl sitting
Photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.com

Isn’t that the question we ask as Christians in our workplace? As people take advantage of us or neglect to do their proscribed duties, how are we called to respond as followers of Jesus? When do we take an unpopular stand and when do we just get out of the way of office politics? Last Sunday I asked folks in our church family to write out for me how I could pray for them in their jobs. Some folks are clearly trying to live out Christian morals in their vocational setting. “For me in my workplace, to remain strong in my faith, to resist temptation and to be an example as a true disciple of Christ.” “For me to be patient and understanding.” “For me to listen fully and with compassion in all my interactions with others.” “For kindness, for good listening skills, for energy and strength.” “To love others and for a loving spirit.”
How do we take Jesus to work with us each day?
Jesus told a parable about three workers. This story is one of several that Christ told to describe how to live while waiting for His return. He preached about the Kingdom or Realm of God continually and had to help earthly-grounded people to grasp holy living. What is proper conduct while waiting for Christ’s return? Jesus painted a picture in words.
The Master or Boss was wealthy and powerful. We know this because one talent had the value of fifteen years’ wages for an average day laborer. Heading out on a lengthy journey, the boss needed to entrust the care of his estate to reliable workers. To one he gave five talents equaling 75 years of salary or, in other words, the paycheck of a lifetime! To the next one, two talents. To the one the Boss must have known wouldn’t perform as well as the others, he gave only one talent. Again, this is no small amount. He still entrusted 15 years’ worth of income to the employee who received the least. And then the Bossman left. He didn’t giving any directions for how to manage the large sums of money. He trusted their leadership and gave them complete managerial freedom.

grayscale photography of man holding phone
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

The two with the greatest sums set to work, investing the money. Being shrewd and taking the kinds of risks that typified their manager’s style, they doubled the amount. When the Boss returned, they were able to share these gains with him. He praised them lavishly for their willingness to go out on a limb for him, balancing risk and caution. They were promoted and put almost on a par with the Master. The third worker took a different approach. He did something that was viewed as a safe and wise method of money management in Jesus’ time: he buried it. When his employer returned to be given his money, the third employee dug up the cash, dusted it off and remitted it—after giving an explanatory speech. He stated that he knew that his boss reaped where he did not sow. It’s interesting to note that the Boss doesn’t refute this statement. The Boss is sovereign. He has rightful claim to anything he wants! The problem is that the third slave acted out of fear. Perhaps he was lazy. Maybe he couldn’t handle much responsibility. It seems that the Bossman understood this guy’s limitations since he gave him the least amount. But still, it was the equivalent of 15 years of income! It was no small entrustment. His fears immobilized him and he was dealt one of the harshest reprimands we witness in the scriptures. When the passage ends with gnashing of teeth and utter darkness, you know it’s been a bad day! We are left with the message that we are expected to take risks for Christ, trusting that we will experience great joy when He reappears for an accounting.
We understand the fear that accompanies our work life, don’t we? Some of the prayer requests from our people echo anxiety. “Pray that, in this changing world, there continues to be a need for the work I do and that my skills will continue to be relevant.” “That I am able to keep it all together.” “To know what I should do for the future.” “In years of retirement, for peace and freedom from fear. Too much time to think…” “For safe driving conditions and safety on the streets and roads.” “For federal employees, that the government shutdown will stop.” (Hallelujah! That prayer was answered this past week!) “For stability.”

For stability. Isn’t that the prayer on all of our lips? Security. Safety. Stability.
How do we invite Christ to calm our fears so that we serve to the best of our God-given abilities? How do we discover the right balance between caution and risk?
Lindsay Armstrong writes about the necessity for holy action in this parable: “What we think about God and do in response to the master’s gracious trust is neither trivial nor incidental. We have real choices and power, with genuine consequences resulting from the ways we use our freedom. What we do or fail to do shapes this world and our lives. It is not the only factor, but it is nonetheless crucial. Thus, compassionately addressing inactivity, fears, and/or misconceptions about God could be a freeing treasure to offer an insecure society.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, pg. 313.)

grayscale photo of man holding book
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

The stakes are high because Jesus has an obvious priority in His ministry. He becomes an itinerant preacher who teaches the commandments for a holy life and shares the gospel. He trains up His disciples so that they, too, can head out courageously and talk about their faith wherever they go. Jesus teaches through His discourses, like the Sermon on the Mount. He models what it is to live in the power of the Spirit through His healing miracles and exorcisms. He teaches about God’s love through His presence with societal rejects. He demonstrates God’s nearness through His touch of the untouchables. No matter where He traveled, despite great risk, Jesus preached about the presence of God’s kingdom among us right now and the need for us to partner with God to transform our world.


We have lots of educators in our congregation: those who offer instruction in the public schools and a team of folks who are part of our Christian Education ministry. Two of the prayer requests given to me were from those with the gift of teaching: “For educators, i.e., budget cuts and unwilling students.” “As an educator, that education is held in a higher esteem when legislative decisions are made and that politicians keep in sight how their decisions affect children.” These educators pray as they enter their classroom each morning!
Psalm 19 upholds the strength of the commandments for Jesus’ people, the Jews. Beginning at verse 7 it reads, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”
Wow! Who wouldn’t want a piece of that action? Jesus reacted to the third slave so harshly because he treated the treasure entrusted to his care with such disregard. Fear that he could never measure up to his master’s expectations led him to waste the potential of the gift he’d been given. We are reminded in this stark parable that living as disciples of Jesus leaves no room for coasting. We understand the responsibility that comes with our faith but are hesitant to act. Like the third worker we bury too much kindness, patience, love and talent in the ground and then wonder why we feel empty. To be baptized into the family of Jesus Christ is no cakewalk! Rabbi Harold Kushner states, “We worship God not because He will make our path smooth, but because He gives us grace and determination to keep walking even when the path is rocky.”

green and brown grass field
Photo by Jim Richter on Pexels.com

Each one of us occupies a critical outpost in the mission field. As you go about your labors do you consider that you are a missionary for Christ? Theologian Kramer states that we are the “spearhead of the church’s encounter with the world displaying Christ’s relevance to the whole range of kingdom life.”
How do we take Jesus to work with us so that a skeptical, post-Christian society will better understand that Christ is relevant for their own life?
One way to imbue our day with our Christian faith is to turn our commute into a pilgrimage. How would it be if we used our time waiting at red lights to pray for our co-workers? Could we use stop signs to confess the negative attitudes we carry with us into our workplace that need to be surrendered? Can we use the stretch of road that shows off the beauty of nature to praise God for creation and to remember our place within the world? We are as insignificant and significant as the shivering sparrow on our birdfeeder. How would it be if we prayed for our neighbors as we left for work and prayed for our family in approaching our home at the end of the day? On the longest stretch of our commute we could consider the distance covered by the disciples to share the good news of Jesus with strangers who were many times hostile toward them. Can we break down our commute into landmarks that turn a monotonous ride into a mobile devotion? What spiritual landmarks can prepare us to bring the peace of Christ into our workplace?
Each week we gather in our sanctuary for worship. We bring our work life with us, perhaps grateful for good jobs and respectful colleagues. Some may feel like the gas station attendant who is hanging on to his sanity by a thread. Some of you may be yearning for meaningful work which has eluded you for what feels like an eternity. We come to church to refuel. We yearn for stillness. Through prayer, conversation, singing and a sermon, we process our experiences from the past week. In worship we come into the presence of Christ so that we will be emboldened to take Him to work with us, whatever our vocational calling may be. We are missionaries with outposts in the kingdom. We are entrusted to bring holy treasure with us that will glorify God. We dare not take that responsibility lightly!

Categories
Uncategorized

“I, state your name, do solemnly swear…”

On Sunday I had the great joy of baptizing three young siblings into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. They were ages seven, five and not quite one. When baptizing young children, I invite the smallest members of the church to sit in the front pews so that they get front row seats to the party! Usually the kids and I sit on the chancel steps together for the children’s message and have earnest talks about faith matters. This is one of my favorite and least predictable moments in the worship service! They tell me who has recently potty-trained in their household. They recount the most recent antics of their dog. Little girls cozy up next to me and whisper that they like my shoes. They reveal to the adults who are listening in on this conversation that they know their baby sister loves them because she smiles at them. Every other answer they offer is “God” or “Jesus” and they’re usually right!


But on baptism Sundays I block the pass to the steps and direct them to the front pews. It’s a bit like herding kittens (which we actually did during another children’s message years ago…but that’s another story) because switching up the game plan on small children inevitably causes some confusion. Once I have them in place, in rapt attention, I begin with the baptism liturgy: “They were bringing little children to Jesus that he might place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant…”

adorable baby beautiful child
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Of course Jesus was indignant! He knew that one of the best ways to grow a church is to have a baby giving you a drunken smile over the shoulder of their parent in a worship service! Jesus understood that the sound of small children thundering forward to sit with the pastor and share their great wisdom during a children’s moment is often the one theological teaching the adults remember when they get home! On baptism Sunday our kids receive a special invitation to the best seats in the house so that they can see the water dripping down the face of a tiny baby who becomes mesmerized with the sensation. They do, however, have a responsibility. I always walk the baby or small child up to this audience of young faces to ask them a very important question before we actually break loose with the water. I remind them that these younger children will look up to them and imitate them. I ask them if they will be a good friend to this child who is becoming a new part of the family. I ask them to promise to show this infant how to love Jesus so that they will learn how much Jesus loves them. I make it easy for them. I tell them how to answer: I promise.
This past Sunday I had three eager faces looking at a couple pews worth of church children. Sometimes their answer, “I promise”, is a bit lackluster. They are timid, distracted or simply using their quiet voices. I wanted some volume for these three baptismal candidates. So I gave more specific directions than usual, turning it into a sort of sacramental pep rally. I set up the proposal of shepherding and modeling for these three siblings a love for Jesus. Then I said, “If so, will you please answer by saying, STRONGLY, “I promise!” I smiled at these dozen or more faces and waited for their passionate responses. They did not fail me. Every single one of them said, “STRONGLY I PROMISE!” Straight out of a comedy routine–but they were serious!
How awesome is that?! They don’t just promise with strength in their voices—they strongly promise! The congregation laughed at their inadvertent joke and we walked the three siblings back to the baptismal font. We could proceed with the sacrament knowing that our church children were all in, ready to lead these newest Christians into the ways of discipleship! As we completed this beautiful celebration of a new faith journey for the family, I was able to assure the congregation that I STRONGLY believed that it had been a good baptism for all three kids! We had a congregational chuckle and I released the front pews to go to their Sunday School classes. As they tore down the center aisle to get to their classrooms, we sang the most fundamental lesson together: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong—they are weak but He is strong! Yes! Jesus loves me. Yes! Jesus loves me. Yes! Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

img_0980
For the three children whose hair was still wet, their journey was launched, their discipleship begun. “Jesus said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these…’ And he took them in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”
You better believe He did! Children so readily accept spiritual truths while we fight our way through layers of rational thought to embrace the assurance that Jesus loves even us, woeful sinners! Later in the day, as I was reliving the moment of the children’s rote repetition of instructions, it made me wonder: What do I STRONGLY promise to do to support my brothers and sisters in the faith? No, seriously!

Categories
Uncategorized

Grateful for Dad

We sang and prayed my father-in-law, John, into the next life on Tuesday night. His space has been confined to a hospital bed for the past 16 months following a stroke. He has lived in the lovely home of my sister-in-law, Jen and her family, who have given outstanding and compassionate care to him over this prolonged period. Their home is nestled into the woods where John and his father planted countless seedlings seventy years ago. His room looks out on this land where his spirit always resided, whether he was there bodily or not.

 

At the end of a very difficult day on Tuesday, he surfaced from unconsciousness in such a way that Jen took his face in her hands and coached him into his new life. We had been praying with him and singing hymns. Garrett was singing a song, Come to Jesus, by Chris Rice. While he sang the last verse, Dad took his final breaths. These are the words of that verse:

With your final heartbeat, kiss the world goodbye. Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory’s side. And fly to Jesus, fly to Jesus, fly to Jesus and live.

I am deeply saddened to be saying goodbye to this man who welcomed me as daughter from the first time I visited the family eons ago. He advised Garrett not to let me go and has supported the two of us and our family in more ways than can be listed or remembered. His capacity for inclusion and warm hospitality were extraordinary. We have spent much time in the past two days recounting the many ways he lived out his devotion to his family.

john tenhave laughing with lisa

For today let me simply offer you a couple of things. First, there is a copy of my husband’s facebook post from January of 2012 that speaks of dad’s ever-presence in times of need! Second, a devotion I wrote almost ten years ago that was published in our local newspaper as a reflective piece.

john tenhave screen shot of garrett's post

 

Willing and Ready June 21, 2009
I’ve always felt blessed to have parents-in-law who live near me and who are a phone call away. My father-in-law has always been available to drive me to pick up a car in the shop or to pick me up when stranded. But I’m thinking those days are over. He still drives and is certainly a willing soul. But, with macular degeneration in both eyes and dulled hearing I fear that a ride with him could be my last! I have to weigh out my needs: the convenience of a loving father-in-law ready to drive me wherever I need to go versus my own personal safety.
So I’m developing a new list of folks on whom I might call should I get in a pinch. There are many, I reason, who do not live near family members they can count on for favors. So I reluctantly begin to assemble an expanded emergency-support list apart from his reliable service. This seems logical enough until I find myself stuck—with my car needing to be dropped off and my father-in-law available, just a stones’ throw away. So, against my better judgment and keen sense of self-preservation, I call him. “Could you meet me at the mechanic’s in about 15 minutes, Dad? I’m dropping off my car,” I say loudly into the phone. Without hesitation, on the other end of the line he says, “Sure.” Simple as that. He has always been so willing.

john ten have
van halsema reunion, overview, lake michigan

I see him swing into the front of the parking lot. I say a little prayer and slide into the seat next to him, securing my seat belt. We talk about nothing in particular, the way family members can do with one another. He appropriately responds to all the traffic signals on the way home. We’re safely going at least 10 miles per hour under the speed limit (giving new understanding to what the word “limit” might mean, in this case). And I make it home safely with no terrifying moments to endure. How blessed I am to have a father-in-law I can call on for help at a moment’s notice even into my 50’s!
God, you place us in families and we are so blessed in the sharing of our days. How good it is to have relationships where we can ask for favors and they are so readily and happily granted. As we roll through the years together, with changes affecting the way we take in our world, help us to be kind in heart and generous in mind. May we be of help to one another as our senses grow dim and our navigational skills diminish. You created us to be interdependent and I thank you for this reminder of how we need each other! In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Categories
Uncategorized

Paying Attention

Several years ago my husband and I traveled to the Florida Keys to celebrate our anniversary. We stayed on Marathon but made our way to Key West for a day. Many of you have been there and you know that everything stops as the sunset approaches. The shops empty out, people drift out of bars, and gather at Mallory Square to watch the light show! There are street performers who take advantage of the guaranteed audience but even they know to pack up their gig as the sun dips lower in the sky. The sun is the indisputable star of the show. I was amazed at the sense of reverence that fell over this crowd of people, many holding on to their drinks and a loved one. There were show-off boat captains who sailed across our line of vision as the sun touched the horizon. But nothing could distract us from the glory of a painted sky, the rosy reflection on the clouds and the rather rapid disappearance of the sun. When the last ray of light left us the crowd broke into applause! It felt holy to me. I felt like I’d been to church, worshiped the God of all Creation with an unwitting congregation. With drinks in hand we had communed together whether folks knew that Jesus was the host of the party or not.

Perhaps you are still full from the holidays? Maybe you’ve had your fill of celebrative meals and family gatherings. Perhaps you’ve already dry cleaned your holiday attire and have settled happily into sweats and slippers? We can only take so much partying before we long for a “normal” routine. When we’re full it’s hard to make room for others. When focused on our agendas, we don’t listen well to each other. We’re so busy thinking about what interesting comment we will add to the conversation that we don’t hear what our companion is saying. It’s good to empty out so that we can experience our hunger for community and for God.

calm blue sea during golden hour
Photo by Sasha Martynov on Pexels.com

It’s Epiphany today—the 12th day of Christmas. It doesn’t often fall on a Sunday. An epiphany is when God touches down in our lives in some undeniable way. The season of Epiphany tells us of Christ’s glory and reminds us of His centrality in our lives. We most easily recognize our dependence on Him when there’s some empty space in our hearts. The  reading from Matthew 2 tells the story of wise men, sages, ancient astrologers who were paying attention to the skies. When a remarkable star appeared they not only gave it their full attention. They were open to the nudging of God that directed them to leave their homes, jobs, and families. They abandoned their professional credibility to find the One whose birth was heralded by the star. We know that their journey was long and sacrificial. So there must have been an emptiness in them that could only be satisfied by pursuing Jesus.

grayscale photography of man luring camels
Photo by Manish yogi on Pexels.com

One word for communion is Eucharist which translates to mean gratitude, grace, rejoicing. Eucharist is communal. If we look around our towns and cities we see eucharist happening in bars and restaurants, gyms and on the local bike trail. Folks are trying to connect but brokenness remains if no one acknowledges that Jesus is the host, that the Son is the star of the show. If folks aren’t paying attention to each other because they’re so full of themselves, they will leave each social gathering lonely.

The health insurer, Cigna, did a nationwide survey about loneliness in our North American culture. 54% of the respondents stated that no one really knows them well! That’s a startling statistic! Younger adults, born between the 1990’s and the early 2000’s, suffer from higher levels of loneliness than people age 72 and older. Some link a rise in social media with an increase in depression and suicide with the younger generation. Cigna and other health professionals have called this an epidemic in our culture. To suffer from loneliness has the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day! It is deadly.

Table fellowship has suffered in recent years because of the frenzied pace of our western life. Perhaps some of you have developed rules for sitting at the table with your family. What interferes with really being with each other? Some owners have banned cell phones from their restaurants. The customers are so focused on their screens that they hardly notice the carefully-crafted ambiance and not even the food that is served to them. Rather than enjoying rich conversation that deepens a connection to another person, they focus on social media connections and leave the dinner as isolated as when they arrived.

two women using smartphones inside room
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

In the Lenten season last year our congregation read a book by David Fitch: Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. Fitch and his wife hosted a dinner group at their home for many years each Friday. Phones were not allowed. They practiced intentional sharing with each other that required good listening and authentic self-disclosure. Over a meal they reflected on God’s presence among them. If they noticed that they drifted into bragging or other forms of self-serving dialogue, they reminded themselves that they gathered each week to meet the deep needs of the other. They ended each evening with prayer and witnessed tremendous healing in their group. They acknowledged that Christ was the Friday-night host, paying close attention to Him and to each other.

Communion can happen in settings outside of the sanctuary. Remember when Jesus and His disciples were surrounded by a crowd of more than 5000 people? Jesus recognized their hunger and asked the disciples to feed them. They were stunned, panic-stricken! They assumed that they would have to rely only on their own resources to sate this enormous Sunday School class. They forgot that Jesus was the Host. They didn’t believe that He could take whatever earthly resources were available and transform them into a means of grace, gratitude, and rejoicing. The text tells us that Jesus took the bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and gave it to His disciples to distribute to the people. All ate to their fill and there were even twelve baskets of leftovers! How does that happen? When we welcome Jesus as the Host to a meal, it becomes Eucharist and we are nourished.

There are times in my ministry when I’ve been invited to eat with someone. Some of those settings have been unappetizing—a nursing home with a strong odor, a soup kitchen where the meal was unappealing, a room where there was a sick or dying individual for whom we were caring. From early in our ministry together my husband and I called this “Jesus food.” We enter into these settings as the guest, willing to eat what is put before us with grateful hearts.

In his book, Fitch reminds us that taking Jesus into our world means voluntarily going to people and settings where we become the guest. We become vulnerable because we aren’t calling the shots. For Eucharist to be genuine, those with the most power must submit first. Like the magi. On their travels I am sure that, when they rode into town, people noticed. They were important, respected, revered. Yet they subjected themselves to God’s will for their lives rather than clinging to their own agendas. One of my claims to fame was a conversation with Christopher Reeve. I worked on Mackinac Island the summer that the movie, Somewhere in Time, was shot. I was an extra in the movie one day and ran into my pal Chris at the end of the day! He interacted with lots of islanders that summer as if he were just another regular guy—which, really, he was! One waitress friend was at a bar one night where people were dancing. The actor asked her to dance and asked her what her name was. He then introduced himself to her as Chris—as if she didn’t know! His modesty was winsome.

When we take Christ out into the community, to the people and places of His choosing, those of us who have status submit to the hospitality of others and become the guest. Fitch writes that in each setting of the table, “a space is opened up for Christ’s presence to come and manifest His rule among us as a community.” (page 67) Communion refuels us. Unless we gather together at this table with Jesus we will fall, as a congregation, into spiritual exhaustion. We may be able to maintain our present programing but we won’t  grow in the Spirit. If we think first of meeting our own individual needs in a church family, our church will ultimately die. Jesus got down on His knees to wash His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. The Host of the feast became the least of all so as to glorify God.

On this Epiphany Sunday we look in on the arduous journey of the wise men. Their culture, nationality, language and beliefs separated them from the Christ child. Yet they recognized that only He could fill their empty hearts with love. They paid attention to the movement of God’s Spirit. They were the first foreigners to worship Jesus, signaling that He was sent by God to bring healing to the world!

Fitch describes the impact of this table: “In this space we submit all of our divisions and personal agendas to Christ’s presence. All of this must die. There we sit, tending to one another and to his presence. And an amazing social dynamic breaks forth that can only be described as a new political order subverting all other allegiances. Just as the first tables of the early Christians subverted Rome and Caesar and started a new way of life before the watching world, so this table subverts all other politics of American self-preservation, accumulation, and individualism. A profound flourishing in the kingdom results.” (page 53)

When we pay attention to Jesus in our midst, a profound flourishing in the kingdom ensues. The results are grace, gratitude, and rejoicing. What a great way to begin a new year!

Categories
Uncategorized

One Family Photo

The two Sundays after Christmas give us the opportunity to examine the stories about Jesus’ life after His birth and before His public ministry. Since there are so few Biblical texts that cover Jesus’ childhood, each story merits attention. This past Sunday the lectionary sent us to Luke 2:41-52, the story of Jesus being left behind at the Temple when He was 12 years old. This passage is the only glimpse we are given into Jesus’ childhood. It’s the only photograph in the family album. It’s a surprising story because it doesn’t portray a perfectly peaceful family. It shows parents who felt irresponsible when they inadvertently left their child behind. Most of us have had those moments of not being able to locate a child in our care. Our heart is in our throat. Our thoughts begin to spin out of control as panic takes over. Poor Mary and Joe spent three days scouring Jerusalem looking for their son before they found Him. The reunion elicited raw human emotions. Mary justifiably confronted Jesus who showed no sign of remorse for the obvious distress His parents were wearing on their faces. She sounds like us—demanding an answer for how her adolescent son could be so insensitive toward them. But Jesus seemed unfazed. In fact, He made Mary’s distress her problem, not His: “Why were you searching for me?” There’s a “duh” here that got cut out of the text, I’m quite certain.

“Duh! Where’d you think I’d be? Sitting at home with you guys?!”


The next words must have stung: “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary and Joseph knew from the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly life that He was not theirs. But this scene shows that mystery envelops the incarnation even for the couple who were the first to be let in on the secret. The humanness of their son had tricked them into thinking that He really was just like them, on track to live the life of a happy, healthy Jewish boy. But these words at the end of a three-day search popped that bubble. Jesus was separating from them and growing into His identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. The Divinity of Jesus began to surface after a seemingly “normal” childhood.

We learn some important facts about Jesus through this story. He was lovingly embraced into a human family. Even though His initial response to His searching parents must have hurt, He was obedient to them and returned to Nazareth where He grew into adulthood. The fact that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” assures us that her relationship with Jesus was deeply satisfying even if there were bumps along the way. Barbara Brown Taylor expresses it in this way, “As becomes clear in today’s story, the enlarging of family boundaries does not come without stretch marks.” We all have stories about our “stretch marks”!

We also see that the Temple was an important place for Jesus. He was a Jew. The reason that His parents lost track of Him is because the Jewish community traveled as a group when making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jesus was part of a faith community that could trust that children would be well cared-for by other moms and dads. The last time the scriptures speak of Jesus being in the Temple was when he was eight days old. He was carried in before he could walk. He was dedicated into God’s service before He could talk. Now, at the age when a Jewish boy celebrates his coming of age, Jesus was making the long trek to the Temple with His parents to celebrate the importance of the faith for Himself. When they found Him they learned that the Temple elders were amazed at Jesus’ wisdom. This would not be the last time that people marveled at His ability to delve deeply into scripture and interpret it in an accessible way. This chapter ends with the concluding statement: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” At age 12 Jesus was preparing for the next time He would come to the Temple–with a band of twelve men who would call themselves disciples!

I’m struck as I read this story of the importance of a faith family. Jesus’ transformation into the Savior of the world was built upon His upbringing in the Jewish faith. From birth to death, He was connected to the Temple and His people. Now, in His Church, we continue to raise our children in the faith. We baptize them and make vows to raise them in the Christian faith. We give them a chance to confirm that faith commitment for themselves when they come of age. We gather for worship regularly and allow different adults in the congregation to help raise them. We read Bible stories to them that help them get to know the story of our faith. One of the most memorable gifts I received as a child was a white leather(ette) Bible from my grandparents. It sits on a shelf in my office now, surrounded by newer interpretations with study notes. But I know that this is the Bible that first taught me the stories about Jesus that formed my faith. Just a few artistic images are scattered throughout the tissue-paper pages that highlight Jesus’ words with red ink. These images gave shape in my young mind to the Jesus we sang and read about in our Sunday school classes.

The story about Jesus continues in Luke 2 with Mary and Joseph finally finding Jesus. It was after the Passover celebration had ended. Jerusalem would have had reminders of the festival evident everywhere: dirty streets, lost and found items, a marketplace that looked as if a plague of locusts had swarmed through. It is a fitting passage for us to consider as we sit in homes strewn with bits of Christmas paper and tags; as we eat leftovers of Christmas feasts and begin to think about packing decorations away. In the aftermath of a great festival of the faith, we set our sights on God for the long haul, for the ordinary days.


One of the ways we learn about the faith from an early age is through our singing. We had our worship service on Sunday around breakfast tables and were able to share, in the intimacy of that setting, the songs that shaped our faith. Our Sunday School teachers had taught us the books of the Bible, the stories of wee little Zacchaeus and Father Abraham at an early age. VBS teachers, whether gifted at singing or not, led us in belting out “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” with animated motions to accent the story line. We grew up knowing that “Jesus loves me…for the Bible tells me so..” Music is a central part to our Christian worship just as it was for our Jewish ancestors. If you look at the Psalms many state that they were sung and even had the accompaniment of musical instruments. After the Last Supper, it says in Mark’s Gospel, “When they had sung the hymn, they went out…” Jesus and His disciples grew up singing their praise to God. In a memory-loss unit, I’m always amazed that people still know some of the songs we sing and can often recite the Lord’s Prayer word for word, even if they don’t remember their own name! Music and liturgy in our worship go deep and continue to nourish us spiritually even after our cognitive abilities wane.

I invited my Sunday morning breakfast companions to choose a hymn that had helped shape their faith. They read their favorite verse for us then we sang that verse together with the inspired accompaniment of our pianist. Hands went up with suggestions of hymns that had a history for people. “In the Garden” was chosen by a member because her father had always sung that to her when she was young. Later he had cradled his grandchildren and offered that same musical lesson in the faith to them with more emotion than melody. We sang hymns that lifted up the power of prayer and the importance of Jesus’ life. One woman asked that we sing the first verse to “How Great Thou Art”, which we did with gusto. Another member suggested we continue with the fourth verse in memory of one of our long time members who had died in his sleep just that night before. With a mix of sadness and confidence we affirmed the eternal rest of our newly-departed brother with words penned more than sixty years ago: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God, how great thou art.’ Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: how great thou art, how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: how great thou art, how great thou art!” Affirming our faith in Christ through melody and lyrics produced tears because we were reminded of those who had instilled the faith that allows us decades later to face death with resurrection hope.

Looking at this one snapshot of Jesus’ family from the Nazareth album reminds us of the lessons of the faith that start young and grant us guidance for all of life. We pin our hope on a human family that sacrificially raised the Son of God as a gift for us. I appreciated the insight of William Danaher, Jr. as he concluded his commentary on this text from Luke’s gospel: “That the incarnation took this shape in the life of the holy family gives hope for families of all kinds and conditions on this day. The model of living that the holy family offers is not, as is sometimes depicted in romantic paintings and portraits, that of a family perfectly ordered and without division or differences. Rather, it is of a family that lives into messy moments with the confidence that God in Christ Jesus has entered and redeems them from within.”

Redemption amidst messy moments in life? I’ll carry that promise into the new year!

Categories
Uncategorized

Expecting

So how are you coming with your list?? We have a matter of hours to go and you’re either settling into a peaceful anticipation of Christmas or you have ratcheted up the stress level to new heights to pull off the celebration of your dreams. There are signs of the season that come at us from every direction. One place that changes this time of year is our mailbox. It starts with the delivery of slick catalogues even before Thanksgiving arrives. Then the Christmas cards start arriving. It’s the one time of year I look forward to opening up my mailbox! We write a Christmas letter each year—it’s not done yet but it will be soon. One year it became a “Lenten Letter” so I’ve learned not to stress over it. We try to recap the year for those who at least pretend to be interested in our lives! My friend calls these sorts of holiday mailings “brag and gag letters.” We include photographs that show off our best side and tell tales of great accomplishments and proud moments. This same acquaintance threatened to start off her letter one year describing the arrest of her daughter for belligerent and aggressive behavior at home while the other daughter had announced during the course of the year that she had switched from Christian beliefs to pagan tendencies. Now that’s the kind of letter that can either make you laugh because of its stark honesty or drain the joy right out of your holiday! Of course it’s no longer just at Christmas that we are subjected to the perfect portrayals of peoples’ lives. With the ubiquitous presence of selfies we have the potential to feel lousy about our own lives every day of the year as people upload photo after photo of winsome smiles in enviable locations. Our expectations for Christmas are peace and joy but sometimes it feels like pageantry of the perfect!

advent advent wreath burn burnt
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So perhaps, on this Sunday that is just two days before the big occasion, we need to sit with Mary and Elizabeth for a while. There is a simple beauty to these two women, both expecting babies in unexpected ways! Elizabeth is past the child-bearing age and is childless. But God has blessed her and her priest-husband, Zechariah, with a pregnancy and a promised baby boy. Mary’s pregnancy—well, we know about that story. We’re just thankful that Joseph believed the dreams God gave him that 1) reassured him that Mary had not been unfaithful to him and, 2) urged the two of them needed to settle into this pregnancy with great anticipation. In the meeting of these two women in the remote Judean hill country, we see God working in deeply personal ways that promise to shake up the world!

gray scale photo of a pregnant woman
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We don’t know what prompted Mary to travel to see her older relative after the annunciation by the angel Gabriel. She was told that Elizabeth was expecting in her old age and that may have been enough to coax her out of town. It’s also possible that Mary needed to get out of Dodge to avoid the stigma that would certainly come her way as her belly bloated before there hadn’t been a wedding. Whatever the cause, Mary’s arrival provides confirmation to Elizabeth that the Holy Spirit is at work. Her husband had been muted when he doubted the angelic announcement that his wife would have a child. So Elizabeth wasn’t able to hear about his holy encounter. Shut off from conversation with each other, Elizabeth must have pondered her pregnancy. When Mary arrives God gives confirmation through leaps in the womb that this baby is special. Elizabeth met God in those kicks and she, the wife of the silenced preacher, became the prophet. She pronounced the importance of these two babies who were linked by DNA but, more importantly, in holy purpose. Mary’s arrival at Elizabeth’s home confirmed to both that the Spirit was at work.
Mary had this remarkable encounter with the angel Gabriel, announcing to her that she would become pregnant with a child who was of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Joseph feared God—respected God’s great power. Yet Mary is unafraid. There is this paradox in the Christian faith that insists that we fear, respect, stand in awe of God’s majesty and might. But, when we encounter God in visions, dreams, through the words of trusted friends or in unsolicited thoughts that bring our attention to God, we experience God as merciful. Rather than being wrathful, Mary meets the God who has patiently led a stubborn people for thousands of years! Rather than meting out justice, God offers forgiveness. Mary empties herself to make room for the Messiah. Rather than chasing around after the next ten things on our list, Mary models for us the need to rest in God’s presence and promise.
After Elizabeth prophesies in the power of the Holy Spirit about these leaping babies, Mary sings a song for all generations. The words to her prophecy foretell a reversal of the order of things in our earthly lives. Charles Campbell states that her song “invites us beyond our realistic expectations and our numb imaginations.” Have we settled for realistic expectations? Have we given up on stepping out in faith to follow the leading of our God? Mary’s revolutionary words almost sound like a protest song of the sixties. But there is no anger in this young woman’s voice that cuts through the dark. She assures generations to come that Jesus’ arrival announces good news to the down-trodden and judgment for those who have replaced God with self. Charles Campbell writes, “In the women’s actions, the world is indeed turned upside down. Hierarchies are subverted. The mighty are brought down. Two marginalized, pregnant women carry the future and proclaim the Messiah.”

grayscale photo of two pregnant women
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

This story is about two women who were expecting. But their pregnancies pushed them beyond the boundaries of their safe expectations for how their lives would play out. God brings them together to provide them the community they lack. They needed each others’ support. Their meeting revealed that God was powerfully at work in the forming of these infants. They were ordinary women of faith, ready to love the child God sent them, and to raise them to fulfill God’s plan for them. In humble Mary and Elizabeth, who were expecting something far beyond their wildest expectations, we encounter God’s upheaval to the comfortable status quo.
Like these two Biblical women who humbly lived the faith 2000 years ago, we are marginal people. That’s good news, actually. We may think that we are super important people because our lists are long this time of year and we are putting miles on our cars with errands and outings. But the drama of the world doesn’t hinge on our actions today. We are able to—and, more importantly, called to—listen and wait for God to break into our mundane routine. Mary and Elizabeth model for us, just two days before Christmas, what our focus must be. We must expect for God to show up and turn our carefully scripted plans upside down. We saw God in the faces of those who received our gifts yesterday at a nearby mobile home park. We expect to hear God in the voice of the difficult relative who always sits around our table at the holidays. We expect to sense Christ’s presence through the words of our church friends. Michael Bennett stated that, “Congregants need to sit for a while with a people—and a God—who will accept them as they are, not as they feel expected to be.” That’s what is available to you each Sunday! You don’t need to come in to worship with picture-perfect smiles and all the details to your lives in perfect order. You are invited to come as you are, with a spirit open to God’s presence. There’s no room in Advent for numb imagination and realistic expectations. Don’t come into worship unless you embrace an expectation to be changed! As Mary and Elizabeth discovered, God is at work! Anything is possible! Jesus is near.

nativity scene table decor
Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com
Categories
Uncategorized

O Key of David

On December 20 I had the opportunity to preach at the Dominican Center at Marywood. They observe the tradition of the “O Antiphons” in the days that lead up to Christmas. Antiphons are names for Jesus from the Old Testament prophets. These evening services go back perhaps as early as the 6th century and were firmly in place by the 8th century. My passage was one I didn’t remember reading before and certainly had not much pondered. The title for Christ I was given was Key of David. Here’s what I offered to those gathered in the beauty of the chapel at Marywood.

A Reading from the Prophet Isaiah Is. 22:22-25
I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open. I will fix him as a peg in a firm place, a seat of honor for his ancestral house; On him shall hang all the glory of his ancestral house: descendants and offspring, all the little vessels, from bowls to jars. On that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg fixed in a firm place shall give way, break off and fall, and the weight that hung on it shall be done away with; for the LORD has spoken.
THE WORD OF GOD.

antique architecture art castle
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

O brother. Oh my goodness. Oh dear! Oh baby! Oh no! Oh, for heaven’s sake. O LORD God. O Antiphons. Oh.
I learned that the “O” in “O Antiphons” is called a vocative particle. Who knew? Not me! A vocative is a word that let’s you know that you are being spoken to directly. It’s also an exclamative—to precede a word or expression with the word “O” turns it into an exclamation, more than just a statement of fact. The scriptures for December 20 directly address each one of us as we turn to one of the titles for Jesus: O Key of David.

antique crumpled crumpled paper dirty
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Have you even been entrusted with the key to someone’s house? Did your boss present you with a key to the business at some point, knowing that you wouldn’t abuse that privilege? We joke about how many people have a key to our church building for a variety of reasons. One woman who never slept very well would make her way down to the church in the middle of the night when wrestling with the weight of the world. She quietly prayed in the sanctuary. My only clue that she had been there was if I noticed that the big Bible beneath the cross had been opened to a new psalm, prophetic utterance or gospel reading. To be given a key is a privilege, a responsibility. It indicates that the key-holder has some authority and power. That makes janitors some of the most powerful people in the land! Have you ever felt how heavy their key rings are?

God speaks through the prophet Isaiah about a very important key—it gives access to the beloved King David. This key determines who will get an audience with the king! It ushers the bearer into the very presence of Royalty. In Isaiah’s time the Hebrew King was chosen and anointed by God. So this is not someone elected by popular vote of the people. The Key of David brings us before the throne of God’s Savior! Now that’s some privilege! O mercy me!
When we put this passage in context we see that it involves two men with authority, Shebna and Eliakim. The two are portrayed so differently that they almost become caricatures. From Isaiah 3:3 and 2 Kings 18:18, we learn that Eliakim is in charge of the palace. This pair of men represent varied forms of leadership and politics. Oh boy! Shebna was arrogant. He was overseeing a sort of public works project: the building a grand and glorious tomb for himself hewn out of rock. He abused public funds to ensure that his name would live on in memory long after he was gone. He reeked of vanity and made plans independent of God.
In comparison Eliakim was almost too good to be true. He set a high mark for the role and behavior of a trusted ruler, one anointed by God. The authority that had belonged to Shebna would be given to Eliakim and he would use it as a father uses his power over his son or daughter: with love and wisdom. He would not seek to preserve his own memory but would be given honor for the way that he led out of a love for and commitment to God. This change of leadership would bring about stability and security for Jerusalem.
Often we hand off a task to those who are already managing other chores. When we find a reliable, hard-working person, we hang more responsibilities on them. They perform admirably—until there is a breaking point. This was the case with Eliakim. He was a politician who first conferred with God to determine his course of action. He was a peg in a firm place and all the glory of the House of David would be draped upon him: descendants and possessions, generations worth of things. This was a great blessing but also an increasingly heavy burden. One of the commentators stated, “No human can bear what is meant to be rolled onto the LORD.” So Isaiah prophesies that the balance would shift at some point and the peg that had been so firmly in place would break because of the weight upon it. The responsibilities that had been suspended from that hook would fall to the ground in a heap. Oh my goodness.

black umbrella hang on the floating hook rack
Photo by Rodolpho Zanardo on Pexels.com

So what does it mean to be an Eliakim rather than a Shebna? To emulate Eliakim we stop sitting on our hands and begin to reach out in service. We don’t worry about how we look to others or what our image is in the mirror. We see ourselves through the eyes of God and reflect the Divine image to those around us. It is this Holy Presence that we know through the Son of God that equips us for all holy labors. John Oswalt, in the NIV Application Commentary reminds us, “Even in a broken body, our spiritual health may be radiant and robust, in spite of our carrying impossible loads. If we have learned how to carry those loads to the Master, and leave them there, we will not be broken by what we are called to shoulder for the sake of others.” Oh glory!
In this Advent season, as in our very lives, we have waited for Jesus. We have yearned for His presence, His power and equipping. We have run toward Him so that we can drop our load at His feet. In these long nights we have waited for His Light for what seems like an eternity. We echo the words from Isaiah and cry out in the darkness, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down—to make your name known.” Through the quiet beauty of the O Antiphons we hear the promise of Jesus assuring us, “Tomorrow I will come…”

Oh my God! Glory be! Amen.

 

 

Categories
Uncategorized

Peace

Perhaps you saw the movie, Wild, which starred Reese Witherspoon in a 2014 film. It was based on a book written by Cheryl Strayed, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon. Cheryl based the story on a time when she lost her mother and was extricating herself from her marriage. Turning to destructive behaviors, including heroin use, she decided to channel her personal turmoil into a physical journey. With no previous hiking experience, she set out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching from the Mojave Desert up to the Bridge of the Gods in the state of Washington. The movie offers flashbacks into earlier portions of Strayed’s life that illuminate her present angst. In the course of her 1,100 mile solo hike through deserted terrain, Strayed faces her demons and arrives at the Bridge of the Gods ready to cross into a new life with a hard-earned peace.

We like these sorts of stories, don’t we? It starts young with stories like Cinderella, the girl charged with sweeping the cinders of the fire. Yet she becomes the princess of the most eligible bachelor in the land. We hunger to see wilderness areas become lush with flowers and streams. On the second Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of Peace. What makes for peace? On the First Sunday in Advent I invited the congregation to write down on a slip of paper what they were waiting for this Advent season. Out of 55 sticky notes deposited in the offering plate, 24 individuals expressed the desire for some sort of peace. The second place answer falls from 24 answers for peace to 5 wishes for a just government and global responsibility. A hope for joy brought in four votes—three of those naming joy that we find in the context of family. Four people penned a desire for healing: for grampa to get better and for the miracle of speech for an autistic grandson. Three people yearned for God’s love–an acceptance of one another. Work and employment needs weighed on the hearts of two people. Two other people simply wrote the word, “Patience” on their paper. The remaining answers from individuals were clarity, truthfulness, humility rather than selfishness and better communication. What an insight into the hearts of our congregation these sticky notes provided! However the yearning for Peace won by a landslide!

One person practically wrote the script for Wild and other similar hardship stories with their answer. On their small piece of paper they expressed the desire to get out of the quick sand; to know their place and use their gifts for God and the Church; and to know their journey. Which path should they take?

How many of us can relate to that at some point in our lives? It boils down to a prayer of Rescue me, Use me, and Guide me.

Amen. Truth told. Sermon given!

Another person wrote that they are waiting for a child. Two words on a slip of paper that speak volumes. We gather in our sanctuaries each week carrying in with us hopes and dreams and sometimes battling despair. Some requests we dare to speak aloud in the context of worship. Others are buried so deep in our hearts that we sometimes forget what it is that we most desire.

What are you waiting for in this Advent season?

The Bible texts chosen for this time of year often speak words of warning. We’re focused on Christmas gifts and parties and decorations. Who needs warning? While in England my sister noticed the packaging of Sterling cigarettes. On all but one panel of the box, words of dire warning are printed. Clearly the British government has mandated that producers of cigarettes warn the consumers that what they are buying could well hurt their health. Sterling cigarettes did not disappoint! Each time you light up you would see the image of this poor man who appears to be on his death bed and subtle messages like SMOKING KILLS: QUIT NOW! But folks buy these and smoke them in spite of the government-mandated truth-telling. It’s easy to look past what we don’t want to see. Maybe that’s why those who put the lectionary readings together put these passages in front of us as we begin a new church calendar and our spirits are merry and bright. WARNING: YOU MIGHT JUST MISS THE WHOLE POINT OF CHRIST’S BIRTH IF YOU’RE WAITING FOR THE WRONG THINGS.

The lectionary text for the second Sunday in Advent is Luke 1: 67-80. It brings us into the presence of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Earlier in the story we learn that he loses his voice because he doubted an angel’s promise. It was an absurd promise—he’d be a fool to believe it. The angel tells him his elderly wife is going to have a baby. He leaves the temple after his time of service and returns home to his wife, who had long ceased hoping for a child. Before long she is, indeed, pregnant and Zechariah is still muted in this gestational chapter of their geriatric lives. It isn’t until the child is born—a boy, as the angel had promised—that Zechariah’s speech is restored. So what does he have to say after nine months of silence? He preaches a sermon! He becomes a prophet who speaks in the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s voice had been absent for 400 years leading up to Jesus. No prophets or prophecies. No miracles. The yearning of the Jews for a reappearance of their God had deepened. So, as Zechariah emerges from the wilderness of being word-less, he breaks God’s silence with words of prophecy.

I like to play a game when reading scripture and that is “Find the verbs.” If you look at this sermon that old Zechariah preached, notice the verbs: Looked favorably upon, redeemed, raised up, spoke through prophets, remembered the covenant, rescued. The power of God’s Holy Spirit has broken into the world again and the awe-struck father of a tiny boy prophesies that things are about to change. The wilderness is ready to bloom!

Part II of his sermon moves toward his little boy. He will become a prophet of Yahweh, the God of the Jews. Remember what comes along with the job description of being a prophet: rejection, shunning, physical harm sometimes. Have you told your kids or grandkids that you hope they will become a prophet when they grow up? That you hope they will preach against the evils of their time, even stating the truth before leaders who will take offence? Probably not! Zechariah knows, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that his boy will somehow prepare the way for God’s anointed One. He will do it in such a way that folks will newly understand the salvation that God offers them. It comes in an unlikely way—not through memorization of scripture or performing a certain number of good deeds or because they have articulated a particularly beautiful prayer. Their salvation comes through forgiveness of sin!

Have you ever spent time in the wilderness of guilt, the desert of inadequacy, the forsaken land of regret? We can waste our lives stuck in these places! John the Baptist came to prepare the way for God’s Messiah who offers us forgiveness. After 400 years of God’s absence, Preacher Zechariah speaks of God’s tender mercy—not warnings of judgment! These people knew that they had strayed from God. They understood why God had left them to their own stubborn devices for four centuries. They had ignored the warning of the prophets for hundreds of years! The last thing they expected was for God to show up with mercy that dispels the darkness and brings about the dawn of a glorious new day. Zechariah prophesies that history is about to be rerouted and the path we are on will lead, not to our destruction or continued remorse over bad decisions; not to further wandering with no sense of direction. No! The presence of Zechariah’s God will guide OUR feet, all y’all’s feet, into the way of peace.

24 out of 55 answers expressed a desire for some sort of peace. These are a few of the prayers: National peace and compassion and morality. Peace around the world. I pray for peace, for people’s tolerance and understanding of each other. Waiting for stories of peace and love to be told on the news. Peace deep in my soul. Moments of stillness and reflection.

In Luke 3, beginning at verse 4. Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah who foreshadows the arrival of a messenger who will prepare the way of God’s Savior. It will be hard work. Have you ever had to clear rocks from a field to prepare it for planting? Were you assigned to weed a garden? Did you lay pavers in your yard to create a path? Then you will appreciate how hard the job description was for John! He was sent ahead of Jesus to make the paths through the wilderness straight, to fill in the valleys and bring down the mountains. This is commanded long before backhoes could do this sort of back-breaking labor! Crooked ways will be made straight and rough places smooth. All who travel upon these newly paved roads (that part of an election campaign promise in our state recently!) will arrive at the same place: a vantage point of clarity, a vista that showcases that God is present and offering salvation to our world. Wow! Imagine how Zechariah and Elizabeth must have unpacked that sermon?!

The end of Zechariah’s sermon ends with a post-script that is succinct and startling: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”

No stories about his first steps, his first word, blowing out the birthday candles or celebrating his bar mitzvah. Holy Spirit. Wilderness. Public ministry. That’s John’s life, in a nutshell. I suspect old Zechariah and Elizabeth had many sleepless nights worrying about their precious boy.

It is perhaps instructive to us that John’s preparation for his prophetic work took place in the wilderness. That was Jesus’ seminary setting as well! John the Baptist and the Son of God are not spared wilderness experiences in life. In fact, God intentionally sends them to wilderness camp trusting that, in that harsh setting, they will discover who and what they can rely on and who or what will let them down. The necessary training grounds for facing our hardships with holiness is a parched land devoid of distractions. Much as we seek to avoid wilderness chapters to our lives, it is in the trenches that we are most apt to experience God’s rescuing. How can God redeem, restore, save, forgive, liberate, and show mercy to us if we’ve never had to struggle? God sent John to pave the way for Jesus who would show us the way of peace.

Their earthly reward? John’s head ended up on a platter presented whimsically to Herod’s wife. We can only hope that Zechariah and Elizabeth had died before their beloved son met his end in this way. And Jesus? His earthly story ends badly as well—on a cross, crucified as a common criminal like a public lynching. So how does this lead our feet into the way of peace? Who would choose to enter into the wilderness if this is where it dumps us off?

The story that we read in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is a story of God’s love for us. The story is much greater than John the Baptist, even though he fulfilled his job description honorably. It’s even bigger than the human Jesus. Through Christ’s bodily death God’s power to bring life out of death was showcased. Sacrifice precedes peace. Working for peace takes….work! It’s a holy task that often plants us in a desolate area. No one is exempt from wilderness time. But if we invite God into those hardships, we can expect a word of hope to break forth. One person wrote on their slip of paper that they are waiting for a new beginning. Another said they were hoping for peace, a ray of it in the world and a light of it in my family. A life of faith will teach us that striving peace may require great sacrifice of us. But we discover that we’re in good company. We are thrilled when we see how much more we can accomplish when we work alongside of others who imitate God’s grace. In looking back at our lives we want to be able to say that we didn’t ignore the warnings, that we didn’t wait around for others to do the work, that we would never eliminate the wilderness moments because those are the crucible in which we do our most important work. Those are the steps that lead into the way of peace. Is that what you’re waiting for this Advent season? Amen.

Categories
Uncategorized

Feed My Soul

While visiting Edinburgh, Scotland this past summer four of us sisters stayed on the Royal Mile while doing our genealogical explorations. Three of us stayed at the Grassmarket Hotel, an area historically named for its past as a marketplace that sold cattle and other goods. It was also the chosen spot for public hangings in the 17th and 18th centuries for early Scots Presbyterians called Covenanters. A pub near our modest hotel was named for a young woman, Maggie Dickson, who was hanged in in the square in 1724. To escape the humiliation of raising an illegitimate child, she killed her newborn infant and was hanged for it. She is remembered, however, because she resuscitated in the wagon when her body was being carted off to be buried! The astounded local officials determined that she had endured her punishment. She had been hanged. They just didn’t expect her to revive! So she was allowed to live out the remainder of her days. She lives on in legend as “half-hangit Maggie” who was regarded with some awe by the townsfolk who grew old alongside of her! A popular area for housing weary travelers like ourselves, Dorothy Wordsworth gave this report of Grassmarket Square in 1791: “Not noisy and tolerably cheap.”

people walking on street between concrete buildings
Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

Three of us stayed at the Grassmarket Square with its ignominious history while another sister, the last to sign on for the summer adventure, lined up a lovely room at the local Radisson. We swung by her hotel each morning as mere peasants, looking in on a glorious lobby. The first morning she came out and showed us the “Do Not Disturb” sign provided for use in her room. They used different words to keep the cleaning crew and other unwanted visitors at bay. The door tag says, “Feed My Soul.” The pauper status of the other three of us was confirmed with this Radisson grand expression for “Leave Me Alone!”

Feed my soul. That just makes me want to sigh! Isn’t that the prayer on our hearts in this busy season of the year? Isn’t that our request of God when the troubles of our world seem overwhelming? What a different message that gives from “Do Not Disturb.” This is often our message of choice: Leave me alone! No solicitation! I’m busy. I’ve got enough on my own plate so don’t bother me to help with your troubles. Do not disturb!

But we will be disturbed in Advent! The lectionary Gospel passage for the first Sunday in Advent is from Luke 21. This is the last chapter in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is still teaching. Chapter 22 begins with Judas’ betrayal and moves quickly into the Last Supper. Jesus wants His disciples to understand that a final time will come when the whole world will be in turmoil. Terror will be the reaction to the events surrounding them and the Son of Man, an Old Testament title Jesus used for Himself, would descend from heaven to mete out justice. Jesus warned against lethargy and drunkenness. He urged His followers to be on high alert, to watch the signs of the times to know when the traditional rhythms to our earthly life were going to be disturbed. In Advent, as we await the birth of the Messiah, we are reminded that we need to be READY for His arrival.

person holding stay focuseds paper
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

For 2000 years folks have tried to pin down the end of this era. Predictions have been made, communities of believers have camped out in full-readiness mode and those times have come and gone with no ultimate divine intervention. People have had good reason in every  age to think that the end is near based on the descriptions in the Bible: international aggression, natural disasters, solar and lunar eclipses, enmity between people and toward God. We certainly can fill in the blanks with our world today. We grieve over our southern border as tear gas and armed troops are used to stand guard between two countries. Small children and young parents run for protection. We look away from those images but find that we are looking at the next news report of entire towns wiped off the map from fires. Hundreds are unaccounted for and others have tales of terror, trying to escape what they describe as apocalyptic burning. Alaskans pick up from a frightening earthquake. Our military patrol puts their lives on the line by entering into generational hatred in the Middle East. Tensions mount as talks with Russia dissolve. Home-bred terrorism leads us to put safety policies in place at schools and other public places. We now lock our church doors during the week in response to the signs of our times. As Christmas approaches we spend money we don’t have for presents we don’t need all in search of a moment of peace. We don’t want to be disturbed but, in Advent, we will be. Jesus urged His disciples to be watchful and prayerful so that we are ready for what each new day will bring. We may think that our message is “Do not disturb” but our deeper prayer is “Feed my soul.” I beg of you Jesus, feed my soul.

nativity scene christmas decor
Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

Mary and Joseph watched for the signs of God’s presence. Mary’s illegitimate pregnancy challenged both of them. They could have easily responded to this life-threatening circumstance by telling God, “Do not disturb us! We have a good life ahead of us. We love each other. We love YOU so let’s keep things just as they are.” But they don’t say this. Joseph reacts in an understandable way to the news of Mary’s pregnancy: he plans to quietly divorce her. He could have brought her before the religious authorities and had her stoned to death for infidelity. He was a man of faith and looked for the most peaceful resolution to the dilemma. But God disturbed his sleep and directed him through a dream to marry his fiancée, accepting that this child was of God. Joseph’s soul was fed and he became obedient to God’s will at great cost to himself and to Mary. The tyranny of Roman rule melted away as they held this precious child in their arms when a barn became their delivery room in Bethlehem. The earthly father of Jesus wasn’t given a speaking part in the Bible but we’re still talking about his righteousness today.

man adult sleeping asleep
Photo by pranav digwal on Pexels.com

I remember a conversation with the father of an autistic girl who was severely handicapped. She was almost 20 but would be forever frozen developmentally at about age three. Her parents felt the need to transition her from living at home to living in a long-term care facility so that she would be well-situated when they were no longer able to care for her. I talked with the dad a week or so before the transition was to happen. He told me that he deeply grieved the change this would bring to his daily routine. “I get up each morning at five so that I can have some coffee and get myself ready for the day. Then I awaken her and get her in the shower. I help her to blow dry her hair and get dressed. We eat breakfast together and then the bus comes to pick her up for school. I love our routine and can’t imagine not seeing her each day.” I was moved by the tender devotion this father showed toward his disabled daughter. Though they had never been able to have a verbal conversation, their love for each other was profound. Some people might have complained that their lives were disrupted by the demands of raising a girl who would never act older than a toddler. But this couple had invited God into their home when she was born and their souls were fed. Like Joseph, they acted in a righteous manner when entrusted with a child with unexpected needs. They watched for God’s presence in this hardship—and she became their blessing!

I wonder what you are watching for as you approach Christmas?  The world into which Jesus was born was violent, secular, divided and suspicious. Some things never change! What are you waiting for in this Advent season? We lit the candle of hope for the first Sunday in Advent. When watching the evening news or having a difficult conversation with a loved one or figuring out where the money will come from for utilities, let alone Christmas gifts, what are you hoping for?

advent advent wreath burn burnt
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Advent is a time of waiting. It seems interminable to our children to wait for Christmas morning just as nine months can seem interminable to parents who are eagerly awaiting the birth of a baby in their family. We look in on our world and beg God to not disturb us, to let us continue as we are or to shield us from the injustices around us. But, if we keep watch and pray to the God who sent us the Prince of Peace, we will be surprised to discover that our souls are fed! Glory be to the Father! Amen.