Sunday, January 6, 2019

"They Saw the Child" - El Monte Community Presbyterian Church

Matthew 2.1-12

When you live in a city, like LA, it’s hard to see the stars. 

I used to live in Northern Wisconsin, in the middle of nowhere, but we could see stars … especially on cold winter nights, when the air is clear, really clear … things get clear when it’s 30 below … 

I remember driving out to make a pastoral call … they lived in a small, patchwork house, on a small peninsula, jutting out into one of the great northern lakes … all was ice and snow … and 20 below, maybe colder … but that never stopped anyone in that part of the world.

So, there I was, driving along, not a car on the road … surrounded by stars … sharp and clear, pinpoints of light in a vast velvet-black sky … so close to me, it seemed … I could have reached out and grabbed a handful of stars …

I’ve never forgotten that night …

Some years later, we were living in Detroit, when the lights when out … all over the North East, 2003, the Great Blackout … by the second night, we had neighbors over on our patio … I fired up the gas grill, and we did chicken and steak and pork chops, and everything we could, because we knew the electricity was going to be down for awhile, so grill up the meat, so it doesn’t spoil.

And there we sat, with flash lights, a few gas lamps … after eating, we turned off our lights … and there it was … the rich and beautiful night sky … velvet black, and full of stars … 

A sight never seen in cities …

We have to get out into the country, into the mountains, away from the city, to see the sky at night …

I wonder how many children in years past, laying on their backs in a field at night, scanning the sky, catching a shooting star now and then … dreaming of the universe, vast and mysterious … dreaming of space ships and far-away planets … maybe thinking about God … how big God must be, and how small we are … children laying on their backs in a field of summer grass… a warm night in August … to watch the stars and dream of faraway places.

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Or maybe:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are.

Or even:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you

And, then, again:

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.

It’s Epiphany Sunday … 
The visit of the magi … wise men from the East … astrologers they are, fascinated by the heavens above, vast and beyond count … the stars at night, new moon, old moon … the rising of the sun and its setting … the turning of the seasons … a story to tell … 

The alignment of the stars, a star of peculiar brightness, a star dominating the western sky …  “What’s this?” they ask! … and with their charts unrolled and with their books opened wide, a discovery is made … the star, so bright and clear, the herald of a birth, and not just any birth, but the birth of a king …

So unusual was it all … their curiosity got the best of them, and so begins their quest, a journey, an adventure … weeks, maybe months … traveling afar … to see where the star would take them … and perhaps to find the king … 

Two thousands years later, here we are … telling and retelling the stories of our faith … each in our own way, wise men, wise women, wise children … paying attention to the world God created, the sky above, the earth beneath and the Holy Spirit within …

And still the star shines … the glories of the heavens declare the glory of God … 

Faith, hope and love … grace, mercy and peace … 
The star still shines, bright and clear …

And like those magi of old, we’re the magi now.

Still and always the journey, setting out to discover the king born in Bethlehem … with our gifts, whatever they are … we lay them down before the cradle and before the child it holds …

The Christian Life is always one of journey … 
We never fully arrive … never! … because God is infinite, and whatever we learn of God today, there’s still more to learn tomorrow … whatever good we manage, whatever we truth we tell, whatever deed of kindness we offer, whatever power we challenge, there’s always more to be done … the endless journey is what it means to be faithful to Christ.

Back in seminary, my Hebrew professor, a wise and learnèd man … he’d come bouncing into the classroom, a smile on his face from ear-to-ear … to announce that just that morning, he had learned something new … usually something small … in a footnote, or some obscure Hebrew dictionary … with joy and delight, he’d tell us all about it.

We came to call him, “The Student” … the one always learning, and delighted to learn … encouraging us to learn, and keep on learning … to be students always of God’s Word, always exploring, always going to new places, never afraid to cross a boundary, into unexplored land … never, ever, afraid of making a mistake … in the Kingdom of God, in the quest of truth, there are no mistakes, only lessons to be learned … 

God is a God of great mercy, and above all else, God is the Teacher … God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit … to teach of us life, to teach us love … to teach us how to care for the world God made …

Like any good teacher anywhere, it’s not about the answers, but the learning, the questions, the pondering, the musing … among all the confessions of faith any of us can make, there is one confession that cuts to the core of our journey, that says it well, with humility, honesty and hope: LORD, I believe, help my unbelief.

God takes pleasure in those who want to learn about God’s world … the heavens above, the oceans upon the face of the earth, the creatures, great and small … times long before we were here …

As for creation, it’s just plain silly to suggest that the earth was created 8000 thousand years ago or something like … no, it was created billions of years ago … long before any of us showed up: dinosaurs roamed the earth, for millions of years … until something emerged out of a pool of muck, rich with life … and it grew, and it grew … tens of thousands of years … and here we are today, from the earth we have come, by the hand of God, and still the creation goes on … it never stops … always changing … and now we have to pay attention to something brand new in our story: the impact we’re having on the earth … global warming, climate change, pollution, filth, driven by the blind greed of those who always want more for themselves, and will take it from everyone else … who are always drawing boundaries, and building walls … who love to say some, “you don’t belong here,” “we don’t want you,” “go back to where you came from.”

For those who follow Christ, it must be different: no boundaries, never a wall, and no exclusion … we all belong to one another because we’re all created by God … and to one another we owe the debt of love … to be kind and merciful, to make room for the lonely, heal the broken, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, provide for the homeless, visit those in prison.

What might the magi say to us?

Pay attention to the stars … the world God created, the birds and the bees … flowers and field … the sun above and the earth beneath … all of its creatures, great and small. As Jesus said: Consider the birds of the air … and the lilies of the field!

What might the magi say to us?

If you follow the star, you’ll have to travel afar … the journey never ends … keep on keepin’ on.

And don’t be fooled by Herod, they’d say to us …

Herod welcomed the wise men; sent them on their way with a task, to find the child, and then let Herod know where the child is, so that Herod could go and “worship him”, too. 
It was a lie, fake news, nonsense … 

Beware of Herod, they’d say to us:
Herod the fox, Herod the liar, Herod the con-man, loud and reckless, Herod the man of violence …

When the magi found the child, and laid their gifts before him, the Spirit warned them: go home by another route … 

I like that image: another route … we never cover the same ground again … time does that to us … so the journey goes on.

What might the magi say to us?

“Pay Attention” to places like Bethlehem … small places, out-of-the-way places … people of low-account … a young pregnant girl, a father doing his best … pawns in the power-plays of the nations … late at night, alone and frightened … a kindly inn keeper, with no room in the inn, finds a little room for them outback … with the animals, warm and safe … where God is born … born into the world, then … and born into the world today … the Bethlehems of our world … little places, places of no-account … the least of all places … but that’s where God is born!

Though I’m not a magi, this much I can say:

God is born right here … maybe in the corner over there, or in the kitchen … in our hearts, for sure …  small places, out-of-the-way places … God likes places just like this … and God loves people just like you.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

December 16, 2018 - Palms Westminster - "Do Not Let Your Hands Grow Weak"

Zephaniah 3.14-20; Luke 3.7-18

My granddaughter and her parents live in Amsterdam, and during the winter months, it’s cold and damp.
Her folks picked her up from school the other day, on a cold and blustery day, and asked if she had played outside. “Yes,” said said. 

And, then, they asked: “Were you cold?

She replied, “No! Now I’m hardy!”

Well, she’s learning to be Dutch, learning to be hardy, because the Dutch have battled the waters to make a land … 

With dikes and dams and the latest in engineering, they’ve learned to work together; they’ve learned to be hardy.

As the Dutch put it: “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.”

So, here we are, the Third Sunday of Advent.

Zephaniah says:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

And why exult? … because:

The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

Because we have work to do!

The love of God is never a call to lay down and snooze … to blow off the problems of our world and simply say: “God will take care of us” … no, we’re called to put our hand to the plow and not look back … we’re called to take up our cross and go to work … Jesus says, Come, and follow me … go where I go, do what I do, be as I am … love as your Father in heaven loves … let your light shine before others, so they can see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven … you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

When God created the heavens and the earth, and created you and me, and put us into the garden - it wasn’t to lay around and dream sweet dreams …

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

And when it became obvious that help was needed, God created the woman, to be a partner in the work.

Everyone is called, everyone given a task … everyone has to work.

How many of you have ever kept a garden?

It’s a lot of work.

We prepare the earth … we buy the best seed … we plant with care … we pull the weeds and put on the fertilizer … we water and then we watch the miracle of growth occur … 

When God created us, it wasn’t just for a wee bit of a plot to manage, but the whole wide world … the fish of the sea … the birds of the air … every living thing that moves upon the earth.

God gives the world to us … and gives us the responsibility to care for it.

The whole wide world … that’s why God created us to work together … that’s why gives us the ability to form communities, to build nations … to care for one another … to provide for the weakest of the community … so that no one is left behind, no one abandoned … 

We do this together … 

Yesterday at a wedding, I read 1 Corinthians 13, and thinking about today’s sermon, these words hit me hard:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Whether it be a preacher in a pulpit, a parent with children, or the president of a nation: life requires truth …

To work together, we have to tell the truth … lies disrupt, lies distort, lies destroy … truth builds up, truth encourages us to work well with one another, even if the truth is hard.
Truth builds bridges, not ditches.
Truth builds highways, not walls.

Notice how the Apostle Paul put it?

Love takes no pleasure in wrongdoing … and, then, rather than saying “love rejoices in doing right,” Paul says, Love rejoices in the truth.

Ought we not in this place to be concerned about the truth? 

Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life …  

Of all the places on the face of the earth where truth has to be central, it has to be in the church of Jesus Christ … 

Where truth counts all the time, where lies of any kind have no place: the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, the lies we tell about others, lies about science and creation and immigrants … religious lies, spiritual lies, lies about who’s damned and who’s saved … who’s naughty and who’s nice.

Of all the many lies being told these days, none larger, and none more threatening to God’s creation, than the lies revolving around climate change …  

Our best scientists all agree, thousands and thousands of scientists all around the world, agree, that climate change is real, and it’s related to human activity … 

And it’s all about God’s good earth … 

Many years ago, an elder said to me, and this was in the day when nuclear war seemed so close, “So what,” said the elder; “If we all die, don’t we just go to heaven?”

His question caught me off guard; I don’t know what I said, but his question made me think … and one day, I put it in the form of a story.

A man stood at the pearly gates, and said to St. Peter, “Well, here I am?” 

And St. Peter said, “I have to turn you away?”

The man blustered: “I went to church, I prayed, I read my Bible, I witnessed to others.”

But St. Peter said: “You didn’t care about God’s good earth. What makes you think you’ll care about God’s good heaven.” And St. Peter turned him away.

God created the heavens AND the earth … the earth is precious to God … and it must precious to us, too.

We didn’t know better when it all began … we burned coal and chopped down the trees … we ripped up the soil and dumped our waste into lakes and streams.

But we know better now … God has been good to us: giving us women and men who are called, by the Spirit of God, to study God’s world … 

And they’re telling us, some of the them are shouting at us …

The release of carbon into the atmosphere along with the loss of forests is creating a change in our climate, and the outcome is already evident, all around the world, and it’s going to get worse if we fail to join hands and join efforts to make the needed changes … to keep on caring for God’s good earth.

Zephaniah said: Do not fear, O Zion, do not let your hands grow weak

Like the Dutch: it’s time to be hardy.

Build the dikes and the dams.
Learn new ways of taking care of God’s good earth.
Pay attention to those who tell the truth.
Think carefully, think critically, pray a lot.
Be informed by the truth, and formed by the Spirit of God.

Today, here, at Palms Westminster, the Third Sunday of Advent: shout aloud for joy and never for a moment let your hands grow weary … 

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Last Words" - El Monte Community Presbyterian Church - Nov. 25, 2018

2 Samuel 23.1-7; John 18.33-37

Dear Friends in Christ, today, we celebrate the last day of the year … uh huh … that’s right, today, the last day … and by now, you’re wondering if I’m ok!

Well, I am ok.
And so are you.
And this is the last day of the year.

The church year, that is.

What began last year in Advent ends today … with the Last Word, if you will … the Reign of Christ Sunday!

Next Sunday, we start all over again … with the First Sunday of Advent … to rehearse the story of God’s love … we do this every year, to remind ourselves of the best things in life, the goodness of faith, the love of God, the unceasing care of God that sustains the universe, and watches over you and me.

Today, Last Words, the closing chapter, the final note of the symphony … that for which we long, that for which we pray: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Fittingly, the texts for the day feature last words … 

The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. 

David knows what a good and just ruler is … because David was a just ruler, a good man, a man of courage and kindness, wisdom and truth-telling … a visionary and a man devoted to God, and man after God’s own heart.

But David also walked on the dark side … selfish and violent, greedy and ambitious; David had blood on his hands; his personal life was often a mess, and his family paid the price. 
He wanted what he did, and he did what he wanted, and people died because of it.

David knows, in the last days of his life, looking back, thinking about it, considering God … David knows what Israel’s future requires - the future requires just rulers, like the morning sunlight, to gladden the heart of every citizen and maintain a just society.

Throughout the Old Testament, people grapple with questions of government … just like we do … the governed always wonder about those who govern … why is there so much war? and why so much poverty? What’s going on, and who’s telling the truth? Why can’t we get it all straightened out?

From the Book of Proverbs:

 A ruler who oppresses the poor
      is a beating rain that leaves no food.

 Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
      is a wicked ruler over a poor people.

By justice a king gives stability to the land …

If a king judges the poor with equity,
      his throne will be established forever.

From the prophet Micah:

What does the LORD require of you
 but to do justice, and to love kindness,
 and to walk humbly with your God?

Isaiah writes:

Give counsel,
grant justice;
make your shade like night
at the height of noon;
hide the outcasts,
do not betray the fugitive;
let the outcasts of Moab
settle among you;
be a refuge to them
from the destroyer.

Amos makes it clear:

 I hate, I despise your festivals,
      and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
      I will not accept them;
      and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
      I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
      I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
      and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

In a little stable in Bethlehem, God introduced to the world a new kind of ruler … and a kingdom to fit … 

A kingdom not of sword and horse, but a kingdom of mercy and kindness.
A kingdom not of land and thrones, palaces and pleasure … but a kingdom of healing and hope, justice and peace.
A kingdom, not for the few, but for the many … not for the privileged, but for the people.

Jesus is good and kind, gentle and wise … but he’s certainly no wallflower …

From Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus engages the times in which he lives … in his hometown, he preaches a sermon that enrages the congregation so badly they try to kill him …

Jesus speaks truth to power … he challenges the religious elite of Jerusalem, he takes to task those who use their religion to defraud widows and orphans … he calls into question those who look down their noses at the poor, the prostitute, and the “sinner.”

Jesus chides the rich as fools … and reminds us all that wealth  is a snare … Jesus looks at the great buildings of Jerusalem, and he’s not impressed … when the righteous show up with stones in hand, ready to kill a women, Jesus bends down and scribbles in the dirt, and who knows what he wrote? but the stone-wielding proud turn away in shame.

Time and again, his words frustrate the powerful, his kindness to the poor embarrasses the wealthy … his entire life upsets the world around him … is it any wonder that the religious elite of Jerusalem and the political powers of Rome collude with one another, to kill him?

Now, at the end, in Pilate’s courtroom - Pilate and Jesus engage in an uneasy conversation … Pilate wants to know who Jesus really is, and Jesus knows that Pilate really doesn’t care … because Pilate is a man of power and war … a man devoted to himself and his career … 

Jesus plays with Pilate … teases him … tests him … Is that what you think? is that what you’ve heard?

Jesus refuses to get pulled into idle chatter or debate … he makes it clear to Pilate that all the trappings of Rome and the glory of the temple in Jerusalem hold no interest for him … Jesus isn’t intimidated by power, nor tempted by glamor.

And then Jesus says, 

My kingdom is not of this world! … 

Good news for us … if our LORD’s kingdom were of this world, it would be just another violent kingdom, a kingdom of guts and gore, greed and grasping, fire and death, hate and harm, bullets and guns … it’s not that kind of a kingdom, it’s unlike anything Pilate loves …

The gospel, you see, calls us to be alert … to be careful what we love, what we admire, what thrills and delights us … when it comes to government, rulers and nations … 

The kingdom of Christ is not of this world … so that it can be completely and utterly for the sake of this world … to redeem what is lost, to repair what is broken, to lift up the poor, to bring down the proud, to shine the bright light of truth in the darkness of lies, to bandage the wounded, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the all of God’s creatures, great and small … to honor what God has created, to love one another, to forgive and to welcome … with open minds, open hearts, open hands.

So that, in our time, and for our nation; in these days, and for the world, we might fulfill the words of Christ, to be the light of the world and salt of the earth. 

Hallelujah and Amen!