First Sunday in Advent- Stay Awake

Scriptures:  Isaiah 64: 1-19; Mark 13: 24-37

      I guess you might say that guy is the opposite of staying awake!  He is indifferent.  Maybe that is why the Bible depictions of the Day of the Lord or the Second coming of Christ are so dramatic.  The heavens falling and the Son of Man coming on a Cloud.  The Heaven ripped apart and God thundering through in all his glory so that the mountains tremble!  Something amazing will happen folks, the Bible is shouting- pay attention. 

      As I studied these two passages this week, I looked at some of the depictions of the Day of the Lord  in the prophets.    For especially the 8th century prophets of Israel and Judah, the day of the Lord was a terrible day!  Amos says, why would any desire this day, it is darkness, not light.( Amos 5: 18)  Zephaniah tells of a day of wrath that will destroy all the earth. ( Zeph 1: 14-18)  For Jeremiah it is a day of retribution with a bloody sword.( Jer. 46: 10)

     Yet, when we look at the passage in Isaiah and the story in Mark, we see a different vision. For Isaiah, the coming of the Lord will show God’s glory and power to the nations and remind Israel they belong to God.  For Mark, the Day of the Lord is the Son of Man or Jesus coming back to gather up all the disciples to him.  There is sense in both depictions that this Day of the Lord is less about destruction and violence and more about reconnection. 

   One of the responses to these images and stories down through the ages has been for people to try to pinpoint when this great event was to occur.   When the year changed from 1999 to 2000, I was serving Myrtle Creek, Oregon. Several of my 7th Day Adventist and Assembly of God colleagues were very excited about the change to the new milineum. Many thought that they saw the fig tree and that this was the moment. They preached sermon series on the books of Daniel and  Revelation.   Of course, the Second coming didn’t come as they had anticipated.  Yet, they were responding to a sense of longing and maybe fear in their people.  Some of them longed for Jesus to come back to rescue them and our world from all its sinfulness and strife. 

    As I noted in the Advent wreath meditation both of these passages express the longings of people. They are longings we recognize: for God to rescue the world from its strife and suffering,  for Christ to gather together all his disciples in peaceful community,  for salvation from sin and reconnection to God as God’s people.    Jesus knew that people would want to try to predict when these longings could be realized.  So He told his disciples that no one knows expect God.  And that our response needed to be to stay awake! 

      What does Jesus mean by “ stay awake?”  I think that Jesus does not mean is to literally not sleep. That would only lead to illness, insanity and death.  I think Jesus is talking about a kind of hopeful awareness that stays alert to God. 

    So first of all I think to stay awake means to stay in tune with your longings for  God, for spiritual formation, even for rescue.   To have self awarenesss.     Pay attention to your life and priorities.  As Luke says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” ( 21 34)    This can mean being awake to our struggle with sin and woundedness like Isaiah put so well, “ We have all become like one who is unclean an all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth, we all fade like a leaf and our iniquities like the wind take us away.” ( 64: 6)  and it can also be awareness of our giftedness as  God’s children.  As Isaiah also says, “ Yet, O Lord you are our Father, we are the clay and you are our potter we are all the work of your hand.” ( 64:8)  In other words Jesus invites us to stay awake to the reality of who we are!      

    There is a story about a judge who attended a worship service at which also attended a man who the judge had once sent to prison.  The two of them knelt side by side to take communion one Sunday.  On the way out of the church that day someone mentioned that fact to the judge. Yes, the judge said, it was only by the Grace of Christ.  OH you mean for the man who had changed from convict to church goer?  Oh no, said the judge,  for me, to realize that I am no different from the man I sent to prison, also in need of God’s grace.   

     Secondly to Stay awake means to keep your actions and decisions in alignment with Christ’s path of love and forgiveness. To have others awareness. Paul in Romans 13:11  puts it this way, “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”   Matthew reminds us of the ways of Christ through the parable of the sheep and the goats we read last week. Stay alert to the needs of others especially those who hunger and thirst, who are naked or ill or stranger or in prison.  In 1 Thessalonians 5 Paul reminds people as they anticipate the coming of Christ to  encourage one another. 

     Clearly one way to stay awake and ready for the coming of the Lord is to be about doing the works of love and compassion, acceptance and  justice that God calls us to do. Jesus invites us to wake up to the needs of others around us.

    Finally, to Stay awake means to keep oil in your lamps, to practice a lifestyle that helps you stay healthy and alert to where God is at work.  I call this spirit awareness   Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:6 says clearly about how to be ready for the second coming of Christ, “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober”   Matthew through his story of the brides maids waiting for the bridegroom would say, “  keep your lamp lit and have plenty of oil”   Maybe one way of thinking about this is to find ways to practice  the mindfulness that our speakers last week at the webinar suggested.  Taking the time to slow down, to pay attention to our breathing, and the reality of what it before us. 

   I can remember a time when I was extremely busy at Myrtle Creek with parenting, pastoring, starting an afterschool program and other things.  One day as I walked toward my house, I noticed the tulips were suddenly all in bloom.  I still remember what a special moment it was to stop in awe at those beautiful flowers and to just simply bow and greet them.   To be mindful.

   This awareness of spirit can also becoming awakened to new insights and realities around us.  For example, for many learning about the history of discrimination is our country can be an eye opener.  To live for a time in a culture different from ones own can be an eye opener.  To really listen to someone who has  different political beliefs than ourselves can be an eye opener.  In these and many other ways, we can continue in our lives to awaken to new things about our world, our neighbors, ourselves and our faith.    

   This awareness of Spirit can sometimes be missed by the world.  Before the Berlin wall fell,  Lutheran churches in East Berlin started having prayer services for peace and candlelight vigils at the wall.  Later after the wall fell an East Berlin Communist leader commented. “ We were prepared for everything but prayers and candles.”  ( NPR  All Things Considered, November 9, 2009)

   These passages from Mark and Isaiah express the longings of people. Longings for rescue, for connection, for salvation.  The cry of Isaiah, “Now consider, we are all your people” is answered in Jesus.  Jesus’s coming the first time, the last time, any time is a proclamation that God cares about God’s people. At the end of time- that relationship still holds. 

     So during this season of Advent, Jesus tells us to stay awake.   Wake up to our longings to be rooted in love and open to hope.  By rooted in love, I mean connected to Christ, the source of our lives and love.  By open to hope, I mean seeking a presence of love and possibility in the midst of troubles and suffering and sorrow.  This hope may trust that there will come a day when God will make all things new- symbolized by Jesus coming on a cloud or the new Jerusalem but it also recognizes that none of us will ever know the time of that great ending.  Meanwhile Jesus calls us to a day to day hope- stay awake Jesus says.  Stay awake.

 Stay awake to your own self awareness

  Stay awake to the needs of others Stay awake to the Spirit of God

 

Second Sunday in Advent “Getting Ready”

Scriptures: Isaiah 40: 1-11, Mark 1: 1-8

    I found this cartoon in some of my files.  Seems appropriate for this year, except maybe for different reasons.  The note says, “ Too darned cold for caroling. When this song ends please move the stereo to your neighbor’s porch. Signed, the Mill Church Carolers.

  Christmas caroling for others has long been a tradition of mine.  And this year, I have to re think that tradition because of the pandemic. Yet, I think it is actually a good thing to re think traditions every so often.  What was important to me about the tradition?  Could there be other ways to still keep what meant the most?  Getting ready for Christmas this year includes thinking about some of our holiday traditions and how to adapt them to this time of pandemic.  We have opportunity to reflect upon what it means to get ready for Christmas.

   Our scripture lessons are about preparing the way of the Lord.  Isaiah speaks of clearing and leveling a roadway for the Lord to come.  Mark tells the story of John the Baptist and his ministry in the wilderness trying to prepare people for the coming of Christ through water baptism of repentance.  What do these two passages teach us about preparing or getting ready for Christmas, for Christ coming into our lives this season?    I think that they speak to both an inner preparation and an outer preparation. 

      Mark’s story about John the Baptist is spare and to the point.  John was calling upon folks to look inward to get ready for the coming of the messiah.  He invited them to join him in the wilderness, to get away from their ordinary lives and seek a closer relationship with God. He gave folks the ritual act of water baptism to be a sign of their repentance- their turning toward God. And many people did so. They were eager for spiritual nourishment and hope. 

  Our advent prayer from Ephesians uses the phrase may you be strengthened in your inner being that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith as you are being rooted and grounded in love. ( Ephesians 3: 16b-17)   This is a description of an inner journey to be closer to Christ.  It happens when we take the time to be quiet.  To stop our busy lives long enough to breath and listen to our inner being. To go with John into the wilderness.  When we do, Paul prays that we will find strength, faith, love,

      Yet, sometimes when we go inward, we discover our anxiety, our guilt, our bitterness.  Being quiet and going inward can be scary- we are not sure we will like what we will find.  This is why John’s call to repentance is important.  When we take the inner journey, we can decide to give this journey to God, to turn toward God with all our inner messiness.   I remember my clergy friend Bonnie Parr Philipson had a song called, “ Washerwoman God.”  What a great image!  When we go inward and find some messiness,  Christ shows us that  God wants to clear it away, to forgive us and help us start a fresh. To wash us clean.  

    If you are like me, one of the times I get ready is when a guest is coming. What I do is spend some time making space for that guest.   I clear away the clutter in my house to make room for them because I want them to be safe and comfortable and welcome.  Ok, it’s a chance to clean house.  Advent is a time of preparing our inner selves for  the wonderful guest of Christ.  Of course this guest is not just a guest but a host to the deep love of  God for each of us. This guest when welcomed will make a home in us.  As John says,  I baptize with water, but Christ will baptize with the Spirit!   When we do this inner getting ready work, we strengthen our rootedness in love and openness to hope.  We are ready to let Christ transform our lives.  

      How do we do this?     I suggest that we create some space in our homes and our calendars for this inner getting ready.   For example: take a regular time during advent to light the advent candles and be quiet.  Make a space in our homes that reminds us of the deeper meaning of Christmas- maybe a creche or a worship center.   Take a regular tradition and think about its meaning for your faith.  Find a way to deepen its meaning for you this year.  For example, does getting a Christmas tree reconnect you with Christ’s love for the world or is it just a big expense and hassle that you do because you have always done it?  Is there another way to do this tradition that will give it Christ meaning?   This is the inner preparation.

     There is also outer preparation.  Isaiah describes this as preparing a way for God.  I have wondered what Isaiah meant by all his images of roadwork- Make a straight highway in the desert; lift up the valleys; make low the hills; make the uneven ground level and the rough places plain.   Then I realized that this kind of roadway would be open to everyone.  Even the lame and those who use wheelchairs could travel this road. Isaiah is calling for acts of justice- to make the road to God available for all.   This external preparation invites us to look at what we  need to clear away, what we need to change in our world  so everyone can know the love of God in Christ Jesus.  So everyone can be welcomed to the table of our Lord.     

     What does this external preparation or getting ready look like today?  I wonder if it means that we need to spend some time learning the new technologies – new ways- that allow us to reach new people with the love of Christ.     I wonder if it means spending some time thinking deeply about how we can move from charity to Christ based community with our unhoused neighbors.  This season at the very least it means our willingness to welcome with love new teen volunteers in our meals program and new people in our parking lot.  It means taking the time to prepare the gift of music to share with our neighborhood.   And for each of us, it means listening to God’s nudges for how we can share Christ’s love and act with justice this season.    To make space in our lives for others through prayer, service, listening, and generosity. 

    So, getting ready for Christ’s coming involves both an inner and an outer movement in our lives.  Our communion today reminds us that the source of our faith and our very lives is the love of Christ for us and for the world.    To get ready for Christ coming means opening ourselves to Christ’s presence inside and outside our lives.  I want to close with a meditation that Joyce Rupp has in her book Open Door, a Journey to the True Self. “  As you pause to be with the Beloved, place your hands over your heart. Allow your focus to be as inward as possible. Let this Love be firmly grounded in you. Dwell with the presence of the Holy One.  Then, move your hands from your heart outward in a wide open arc toward the outer world. Again, unite with the Beloved and send the enriching love within you outward to the wider realms of life. After you have reached outward with your love, receive the love coming toward you from the external world. Close your meditation by folding your hands on your lap. Enter into peace.”  ( p. 138)

Third Sunday in Advent- Greeting the Light

Scriptures: Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

From Register Guard Sunday December 13, 2020:

  This is a tough season as it gets darker and darker, earlier and earlier. That is one reason why I like the Christmas lights around town.  It brings some cheer to the dreary days.  I am eager to offer our special Christmas window light this Christmas eve.  For a minute one night I thought that my neighbor behind me had put Christmas lights on their back deck, but they upon closer inspection is was the sequins on my advent wall hanging’s shining reflection in the window.  I greet that light with a little bit of wonder every time I see it.

   The gospel of John begins his tale of Jesus in a unique way. He talks about the coming of the Word  or Logos and the Light not just at Jesus birth as being present at the beginning of creation. Christ Jesus, John proclaims is the light of life coming into the world and the darkness cannot over come it!

   As we noted in our Advent candle lighting we are invited during Advent to greet this light and to reflect upon its meaning for our lives. What does it mean to greet the light of Christ?  The passage in Isaiah is one that the writer of Luke portrayed as Jesus mission statement at his first sermon in Nazareth.  Luke doesn’t quote the Isaiah passage exactly and adds a bit of his own ideas as well.  He took the ideas from Isaiah that met the needs of his time.  I want to do the same.   I wonder what do these ancient words of Isaiah 61, spoken originally to people hoping to return from exile and used by the gospel writers to explain Jesus mission as light for the world. What do they say to us today as we seek to live faithfully and greet the light of Christ in the midst of a pandemic? 

  First we can greet the light by admitting your shadows- recognize our mourning and brokenness.  For me, at this time the emphasis in Isaiah on mourning seems appropriate.  We are all in mourning over the losses of this time of pandemic: loss of life- over 200,000 people in less than a year, loss of revenue and livelihood, loss of hugs and close contact, loss of in person worship, loss of in person singing and choir, loss of ways to build community and connection with the poor we serve, loss of being able to help in person.   I think that we need to honestly express our grief: to lament, to shed tears if we need to, to cry out if we need to, to get angry if we need to. 

    We cannot greet the light of God unless we recognize our need for it.   This is a time to be tenderhearted toward one another.   Kerri N. Allen, a pastor who works as a manager for spiritual care  for a healthcare system writes about the importance of our witness of lament. 

“How do you mourn 240,000 dead?  A year ago, who would have imagined such a question? In our lifetimes we have not experienced a loss of life of this magnitude.  I fear that the politicization of the pandemic has disconnected people form the harshest of realities: these are not merely numbers on a page; they are real human beings, each one crated in God’s image… We can turn to lament as a powerful tool for mourning both individual and social pain. Lament is a truth telling exercise… where we can be forthright about our agonies, fears and losses.  As a chaplain who work in health care, I have seen how frontline workers have been inundated with death while facing their own fear and vulnerability.  As a clinical ethicist, I‘ve been rocked by the racial disparities that have always exited but are now exposed in the virus’s morbidity and mortality rates…. When we lament the losses of 2020, we make a theological proclamation that affirms the full humanity of each of the valuable lives that has been lost. We honor those lives… We must speak out- speak directly to God and name our pain and suffering, speak to other Christians and remind them of our collective responsibility to care for one another and speak straight to the whole of society to say that things are not right.”   ( p, 26  “ Unfathomable Loss” Christian Century, December 2, 2020)

    So, the first way we greet the light is by telling the truth, perhaps lamenting the reality of the troubles all around us and in us.  We reach for the promise Isaiah proclaimed to folks in trouble centuries ago- that God will turn our mourning in to gladness and will bind up the brokenhearted

 For secondly we Greet the light. by turning our hearts toward Christ Jesus who comes as the light for the world.  To receive the loving acceptance and gentle touch of our Lord to heal our brokenness. This means that we can trust that God will be with us in the midst of our troubles. 

     Many of us come from a culture which as taught us to “ stop crying and buck up.”  To put the tears aside and get on with life.  I know I was taught to not get too emotional especially not angry.  Yet, grieving involves all kinds of emotions that need our acknowledgment because they simply are.   I find that the Spirit of Christ is a presence that hugs us close and lets us sob or listens carefully as we rage, or sits beside us as we cry, which allows us to be human and vulnerable and find healing.  We greet the light when we bring our authentic selves to God in prayer, to church in sacred community, to relationships that allow for healing rather than scape goats or bitterness or blame.

  To greet the light which is Christ is to face the light and say- here I am, with all my bumps and bruises, mistakes and wounds. I entrust myself to you.  And here is my community, with all its divisions and injustices, wounds and hurts, suffering and ruins.  I entrust it to you as well. 

   Of course there is that famous cartoon, of the man lamenting to God about not doing anything about hunger and poverty and injustice. And God’s answer is- well what are you doing about it?  When we greet the light with an openness to our authentic selves and the needs of our community, the light will shine for us and help us see our selves and our communities more clearly. The light will show us where the needs and the gifts are inside and outside.  One the gifts of any light is that it helps us see more clearly.   So with the light of Christ. 

     Finally to greet the light is to become part of the light’s mission. To witness to its truth and presence.  To let it shine through our lives. To greet it in each person we meet. To invite its presence into the lives of others who suffer, to treat those who suffer with tender loving care, to proclaim hope in the midst of despair.   To let Christ form us into morning stars that are bringers of hope and poke holes in the darkness.  I want to close with a story about a pastor and his church which greeted the light of Christ by recognizing the needs and suffering of the people, offering the gifts and faith to God to make a difference and became witnesses to the light of God.  

        Pastor Heber Brown II tells about how he started a community garden on his church’s property which grew into an affordable fresh food system for people in the Baltimore area.   As he visited his parishioners in the hospital, he realized that many of their health problems came at least partly from poor diets.  He thought to start a partnership with the fresh food market across from the church but had sticker shock when he went there. The prices were too high for his parishioners and he didn’t want to engage in another food charity.  Then he noticed a piece of land in front of the church and the idea of growing healthy food themselves surfaces.   

     He had little experience with growing food or farming but stepped out on faith.  The younger people in the congregation helped with the building of the beds and the launch of the garden but it turned out the senior became the heart and hands the garden needed.   He writes, “ I had overlooked that many of the people in my congregation had grown up down south on farms. They were part of the Great Migration. I’ve read the books. It’s my personal history. But I had never connected the dots. I had never seen the ministry implications of the Great Migration on the local church.  Gardens need attention every week. That came from the seniors.  Maxine Nicholas was chief among those who led the way. Now, you know Maxine Nicholas- a little sweet lady who gets things done. People listen to her. Pastors know not to get in her way. She was the general. She organized her peers to join in as well. We were growing 1000 to 1200 pounds of produce a season. We were giving the produce to anyone in our congregation or anyone who came to the church. We saw our Sunday morning attendance increase.”   Then they started helping other churches do the same thing and connecting with local black farmers.   

    They also include a spiritual aspect to the work.  Pastor Brown continues, “Our process includes ceremony on the land that is about getting reconnected; I call it being re- membered. We circle up before the garden is planted, after the funds have been raised and promotion has been done. We have the seeds and the tools and the soil all lined up and ready to go. We pray, we sing, we testify about our hopes and aspirations for the garden. We tell stories about our upbringing and its relationship to the land. We spend some time in that sacred space of listening and sharing. We pour water, a ceremony called libation where we name our ancestors and those on whose shoulders we stand.   

    The African American community has suffered so much from disconnection to the land. 14 million acres of land were taken from black farmers in the 20th century. In 1920 we had 15 million acres and today that number is about 1 million. There are stories in our community of families being run off their land by the KKK. The trauma associated with things like that have led many to distance themselves from farming.  This effort is an attempt to reclaim what was taken from us not just in terms of tangible land but also in terms of agricultural legacy and heritage and identity.  … So when we go to the land and call our ancestors’ names and put our hands in the soil, my prayer is that it reactivates that connection; I pray for a reawakening and a recognition of what being holy ground.”    ( Amy Frykholm, “Black Churches Tackle Food Insecurity: interview with Pastor and Food Activist Heber Brown III,“ Christian Century November 18, 2020 p. 32-35)

Fourth Sunday in Advent “ Welcoming Love”  

Friends supporting one another

Scripture: Luke 1 Thought on Elizabeth

    I have been thinking about Elizabeth. Maybe because I am coming up on my 65th birthday, entering the senior category in our society.  Maybe because I have a heart for the underdog- there just aren’t very many songs and such about Elizabeth.  Yet, in these stories in Luke’s gospel Elizabeth is not central but pivotal. 

   To reassure Mary the angel tells her about barren Elizabeth ‘s unexpected pregnancy. Nothing is impossible with God!  And what is the first thing Mary does in the story after the angel leaves?  She goes to see Elizabeth.  And it is Elizabeth and the baby inside her who confirm the presence of the Christ in Mary.  But then, after Mary sings her revolutionary even seditious song Elizabeth takes her in for three more months, during those crucial first weeks of pregnancy.

  What does Elizabeth mean for us?    As I said, I identify with her because of my age.  Yet, also, Elizabeth was not one of the poorest of the poor. Remember Elizabeth was married to Zechariah one of the priests at the temple. He had a good job with some social status. For course first century Palestine is not 21st Century USA, but I find myself having some affinity with Elizabeth. Maybe you do too?  Maybe her story has some gifts for us even today.

   First, I notice that Elizabeth was barren.  She had given up on having children and the important place in the family mothers held.   She had known suffering and loss.  Yet into her barrenness God brought new life. Elizabeth reminds me that no matter how old we are in years, or how or why we may have deferred our dreams- God’s possibilities are available to us throughout our lives. I hear Elizabeth saying to all of us, “Don’t give up on yourself and the gifts of God in your life.”

    I heard on the radio the other day a man share his story. He said that he was recently divorced, lives alone for the first time in many years and was dealing with seasonal depression.   He didn’t say how old he was but some of what he said sounded like he was retired.   When the lack of light in the winter and the isolation of the pandemic got him down, he had a way to cope.  He said that he played his instrument and when the notes came forth he felt like he was giving something to the universe.  In the midst of his barrenness, he discovered a gift of life and hope through his music.   I read recently in a Christmas letter from a retired pastor, she said that she was thinking of this COVID time as an opportunity for sabbath time.   Elizabeth says to us- look for the gifts!  God will not leave you barren.

  Secondly, Elizabeth had a pivotal role in nourishing the next generation. She did this by offering hospitality and support for her younger cousin Mary when she showed up at her door with an unplanned pregnancy.

   Think about it!  As an elder Elizabeth could have treated Mary with judgement or disdain. Yet, she did not. She welcomed her with open arms and the newness she represented.  I think that older adults in the church today have the hard but potentially joyous work of truly having hospitable and open hearts toward new generations of faith seekers and believers. Like Elizabeth we have opportunities to set aside judgments and welcome their gifts and ideas.

  I hate to give a negative example but one time in another church I served there was a young man who had a lot of personal struggles, but he wanted to sing in the little church choir.  The only problem was that he had a lot of piercings.  One grandma in the congregation let him know that she didn’t think he should sing in the choir unless he removed the piercings.    Needless to say, he did not come back.   I think that she was genuinely trying to give him feedback about the impact of such piercings but her judgement was not what that young man needed in his life.

    There is also the story of the young man with long hair and dirty jeans that came to a church service one time. He walked down the aisle and sat down on the floor in front of the pulpit.  Everyone held their breath as the chief usher, a proper older gentleman also walked down the aisle to the young man. Everyone waited in anticipation to see the usher lead the man out or at least to the back of the sanctuary.  But to everyone’s surprise the usher instead sat down on the floor beside the young man for the rest of the service and invited him to the coffee time. 

   How do we signal this openness? Bob Beck and I as we worked on ideas for goals in this area for our church realized that one thing we need to do is to listen. So, we have the idea of developing intentional ways to hear the ideas of the youth and younger folks we know. We cannot wait for new people to come to us, we need to reach out to them.  I suspect that I need to also listen to God in my life to have the truly humble attitude needed to truly listen.

   Finally, Elizabeth not only welcomed Mary but praised the gift of God with in her. Elizabeth’s encouragement led Mary to sing her own praises for what God was doing in and through her and her baby.   Elizabeth rejoiced that the baby within her leapt for joy at the meeting of Mary and the seed of God within her.

    This is the work of ministry together- to praise and encourage the gifts of God in one another. In some ways this can be a kind of mentoring, but really, it’s a mutual exploration of God’s presence in our lives. Dare we speak up like Elizabeth and Mary about what God does amongst us? Yes, the coming of the Christ Child is unique. Jesus the Christ holds a special place in history and our hearts. Yet, the meaning of Christ coming was to save and heal the world. To reconcile the world to its Creator, to set people free from injustice and evil.   Mary sang this truth and was willing to experience the pain of childbirth and to do her part.    Elizabeth and Zachariah knew that their child too was part of this new work of God for the world. Like us, Elizabeth was not the mother of God. But she too had her role to play in God’s salvation drama. So too do we!

    Every once in awhile I will get told by someone in the community about how much I do for the community.  I always wonder- what in the world are they talking about?  Then, I realize they are talking about all of you!  I am  a figurehead for all the love and generosity, the kindness and determination that you all show everyday  in caring for those who have so little in our society.  It may not have been in your 15 year plan 15 years ago, but God gave you one idea- a community meal that opened the doors.        

     Elizabeth’s story invites us to keep looking for those open doors- those places where God is inviting us to embrace new life and possibilities.  It may be in simple things like a meal or a prayer or more involved ones  a webinar or a YouTube channel or an elevator project.  Imagine- when we open those five new doorways in our church building- could we also open up to new relationships with persons dealing with wheelchairs and other mobility issues?  If we start our YouTube channel with our webinar- could there be new relationships that can develop online?  If we partner with other organizations to add some case work services to our meals- could there be new opportunities for our meals guest friends?  Will it all be easy and smooth sailing? Of course not!  Mary and Elizabeth both lost their sons to untimely deaths.   Yet, their death and the women’s suffering did not stop God’s work of love and life in the world.  In fact, they opened up new doors of grace and hope that people have been going through ever since.  So, let’s remember the lessons of Elizabeth.

Like her- claim the hope and gifts of God in you

Like her- welcome others and see the gifts they bring

Like her- nourish the seeds of faith and love that you see growing in those around you and rejoice.

Lighting the Christ Candle

Hello Ebbert folks. Below is a brief liturgy for you to use on Christmas Eve or Day to light the Christ Candle on your Advent Wreath.  Merry Christmas, Pastor June

Each Sunday in Advent we have lit a candle. Let’s light each of the advent candles and recall their meaning. The first candle invited us to stay awake to our hopes and longing for God. ( light candle)  The second candle invited us to get ready for the coming of Christ into our hearts. (light candle) The third candle invited us to greet the light of Christ and top ponder Christ’s mission in the world.  ( Light candle)  The fourth candle invited us to welcome love of Christ and stay rooted in that love for us and the world. ( light candle)  These themes invite us to bring ourselves to this moment  just as we are. These four candles create a beautiful circle of light to surround and illuminate the birth of Christ.

Scripture: Luke 2: 6-7   While they were there (Bethlehem) the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, for there was no place for them in the inn.

Reflection: We have imagined the scene so many times, in so many Christmas pageants over the years.  Yet, the wonder of God coming to be with us in a small infant, born in a barn, placed in a manger, far from his family’s home- comes slowly to us.  Christ is born into our vulnerability, our weakness, our sin. We can imagine the baby’s cries, the mother holding him close trying to keep him warm, the father struggling with powerlessness, the midwife sighing with relief, the animals quiet.  This little one is Emmanuel- God with us.

Light the Christ Candle

Sing:  O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,

           Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by

          Yet, in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light

           The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.  

Prayer:  God who labors to bring forth abundant life among us, we thank you for the birth we celebrate today. A newborn bundle of human life can cause us to gaze for hours, amazed. Refresh our amazement that you sent Jesus to us from your very self, to be born as a human baby and to live among us, showing us the way to new life. In response to your great labor of love, may we open ourselves to you, that you may create new life among us.  Amen and amen.

Sing:  Joy to the world, the Lord has come

           Let earth receive her king

           Let every heart prepare him room

         Let heaven and nature sing; let heaven and nature sing

Closing blessing:

May you be rooted and grounded in love. May you know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge. May you be open to the hope Christ gives the world.  May you trust that in Christ we can accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine.  May you have joy born in you this day. And may you share it with the world. Amen.

Sermon  January 3, 2021   Epiphany Sunday

Scripture: Matthew 2

     Apologies for all cat lovers, including myself.  But I couldn’t resist this dance for the new year- with exceptions.  Isn’t it true that we are all like Snoopy, just a little, with our exceptions.  All creatures- except the corona virus or cancer cells, or the family member we are so mad at right now. 

   The story of the magi in the gospel of Matthew is one that faces squarely the  “exceptions” of those living in the first century.  There is good news- a new king is born in Judea- the messiah. This is the word the magi discover and bring to Jerusalem looking for this favored one. This is the dance.  But there are exceptions to this good news. Herod and his cronies are not pleased.  The text says they were  “frightened”.  That is not really that surprising.  A Messiah right now would shake up the status quo, even threaten the little power Herod held in the Roman run world.   But Herod does not share this with the magi, no he hides his fears, his exception. 

     What makes Snoopy so endearing, is that he doesn’t hide his exception-cats!  The whole world knows he hates cats.  But what makes Herod evil, is not that he is afraid of the messiah and all the changes that might come. But his dishonesty.   He hides his fear behind a false face of interest and piety. He calls together the biblical scholars to learn more. He goes to his Bible like a good pious king. Then he tells the magi, “Go and search diligently for the child and when you have found him bring word to me so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  ( 2: 8)  Now maybe he really would do this?

     Ah but we find out the terrible truth.  When the magi don’t return Herod shows us his true face.       “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi he was infuriated and he sent and killed all the child in around Bethlehem who were two year old or under according to the time hat he had learned from the magi.” ( 2:16)   Herod’s fear and anger burst out in an act of terror.  

      Denying our fears, our angers, our shames doesn’t keep them from affecting our lives.  Hiding them behind faces of looking good to others, doesn’t really help us in the long run.  So, how do we deal with our exceptions?   Those aspects of life or persons which would ruin the dance of the new year for us?  Those threats to our status quo that  frighten us. 

      Well, first we look.  What helps us stay healthy and whole is to be like Snoopy- dance and admit our exceptions.  When we admit them sometimes we can even dissipate their power through laughter or lament.  Then we can choose to act more freely, with more self awareness, more open to God’s possibilities: stars and messiahs and love and forgiveness, even dreams and guidance.  The thing about a star is that everyone can see it.  When the night sky is clear, the stars are available to everyone. But Herod missed the star completely.  He was so wrapped up in his false piety and fear, he didn’t even think to look.  The magi on the other hand when they left the city looked up and saw the star again. It lead them to the exact place were Jesus was.  They looked for guidance and followed it.

     I have to admit that these past few weeks I was feeling rather ill. Stomach upset, tired, some cough.  So I was worried that I might have the virus.  But for a while I denied the possibility. I didn’t want to get tested- to know, to look at the truth.  Finally, I realized that I couldn’t put it off any longer.  If I had the virus I didn’t want to spread it to others.  I needed to know.  I needed to look to the star.  So I got tested and fortunately it came back negative.  I still want to be careful – wear a mask, social distance, etc, but because I looked- I am freer to do my work. 

    The magi looked at the light- the star they had seen in the sky. They also listened to their dreams.  Joseph was also guided by his dreams. First of all to accept Mary his surprisingly pregnant betrothed  and then to leave Bethlehem for the child’s safety.  They listened to God.   To deal with an exception,  I have to be willing to look at it, not deny it.  But then I need to listen to God’s guidance about the situation. 

    The magi had the problem of what to do about Herod- should they trust him or not?  The dream was God giving them an answer and they listened.  Joseph had the exception of needing to protect Jesus and Mary.  God helped him through a dream and he listened and acted.  When we acknowledge an exception, a problem then we need to listen well for what to do about it. 

   ‘For example, perhaps one of the exceptions you discover is that there is someone in your life who really irritates you or anger you or has betrayed you.  These are tough exceptions.  In Herod’s case he chose to lash out and kill in his fear and anger.   We can make other choices and it starts by listening to God’s way of love and forgiveness.  Maybe like Joseph we decide that the loving thing to do is to leave a dangerous situation.  We can think of those families living right now on our border who have fled the violence of gangs and poverty in the original homes. Sometimes, listening to God means leaving a harmful situation.    Or perhaps, when we really listen, we hear God challenging us to forgive someone, to walk in their shoes a bit, to understand them better.   And we start the spiritual journey of healing for our own hurt and finding the way to forgiveness. 

    Listening to God, means that we are open to the messages of  God that help us to love and grow and care for our world.  It is not the same thing as reading the scriptures to reinforce our own ideas.   For example, both the magi and Herod had the same scripture readings about Bethlehem.  The magi used this knowledge to help them find Jesus and worship him and give him gifts.    Herod used this scriptural knowledge to feed his fear and anger and kills those he thought threatened him- innocent children.  One use of scripture led to the helping and attending to a child, the other to the rash and cruel killing of toddlers.  

   Which leads me to my last idea about how to deal with the exceptions in our new years dance.  Sometimes the except is something we can do little or nothing about. Especially if it is a grief or loss that impacts our life.  When I think of this I am reminded of the lament in this passage.  Rachel weeping for her children.  When we read past the picture book scene of the magi at the manger, the Matthew story is rather harsh- exile, violence, terror.  Matthew knows that sometimes in this world all we can do is lament.  Cry out.  So, he allows us and all who suffer such terror and injustice ever since to cry out with those parents of Bethlehem and everywhere where children die too soon and too often.   In the history of England during Henry the VIII the Feast Day of the Innocents was a beloved part of the 12 Days of Christmas because so many families knew back then the pain of losing a baby.  Although lamentation is an action we can do when we feel powerless to do more, lamentation can also energize us to action.  Over the years in Great Britain, health services improved and today the infant mortality rate is only 4.3 per 10000. One of the world’s lower rates.  

    We in the US rank 13th in the world for per capita income.  So we would have a low   infant mortality rate, right?    No, we are ranked 33 among 36 industrialized nations for our rate of almost 6 deaths for every 1000 live births.  We are similar to places like Chile, Sri Lanka and Lebanon which have much lower per capita incomes.   Can we look and lament and act to change to build a society and a world that cares better for mothers and children?   

    In our New Years dance this year, let’s admit and pay attention to our excepts, our version of Snoopy’s cats.  When we do, we can look – and understand ourselves more clearly, we can listen to God’s guidance, those stars God offers us  and we can lament, mourn our losses and maybe discover new energy for positive, loving change in our world.  We can choose to follow the way of the Magi and Joseph to love Christ Jesus and this world he loves.

  As you take communion this morning. Consider the dance of this new year.  Your good wishes for all the world. And also confess your “ excepts” those areas where you need to look, listen and perhaps lament and bring those to God as well.  Christ came that we might have the grace we need to deal in healthy ways with the “ excepts” of our lives.  Look. Listen. Lament. Let Christ heal and forgive our hearts. Amen.  

  

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