Sunday, December 23, 2012

December 23, 2012 - "I Glorify the Lord" -4th Advent

Micah 5.2-5; Luke 1.46-56

One of the greatest tales of the 20th Century, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien and the stories that follow, The Return of the King.

Translated into dozens of languages, and made available in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy 12 years ago, and now again with a new trilogy telling the tale of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Wizard, the Dwarves and their quest to reclaim a lost homeland and treasure, taken violently from them by the Dragon who so long ago devastated their lands and destroyed their dreams.

The tale begins with Gandalf the Wizard making an unexpected appearance at Bilbo’s home … it’s been years since Gandalf visited, so Bilbo doesn’t recognize him, and finds Gandalf’s presence unnerving, like What are you doing here? You make me nervous.

Gandalf says, I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.

Bilbo’s response: No way … I’m not interested in any adventures … I wanna stay right here … enjoy my garden, puff away on my pipe, eat my seed cakes and drink some beer - go away Gandalf, I’m not interested.

Gandalf leaves, but not before scratching a secret mark on Bilbo’s front door, and later in the evening, when Bilbo answers a knock on the door, there’s a Dwarf who barges in unbidden, hangs his hat and sits down with Bilbo - it isn’t long before 11 other dwarves arrive, one-by-one and in groups of two and three.

Bilbo is beside himself … no idea what’s happening … they’re eating all of his food and making a mess of things.

Gandalf comes back and tells Bilbo that he’s chosen Bilbo to join with the Dwarves in their quest to reclaim their homeland.

Because Gandalf sees something great in Bilbo … something Bilbo himself cannot see …

Gandalf sees a Hobbit of much courage and resourcefulness … a Hobbit with a proud ancestry … forebears who took on strange adventures, traveled beyond the waters into unknown lands and faraway places … Gandalf sees a Hobbit who will rise to the occasion and do great things … who will not abandon the cause nor leave his friends … but will stay the course, go the distance, finish the work.

I love these stories - the call to adventure … is this not the call of God to all of us?

A call to great adventure?

To travel far and wide, across strange waters, into faraway lands? … or at least across the street or on the other side of town.

To meet strange and wondrous people and all sorts of creatures, great and small … 

Danger along the way there will be … goblins and trolls and orcs … great evil, darkness and suffering … and who knows if we’ll make it or not.

But God sees in us what we often fail to see ourselves … God sees our greatness … God sees what we’re made of, because God made us of good stuff … God sees our true soul, our real character, who we truly are, and who we can be when the chips are down, the stakes are high, and the winds of ill-fate blow against us.

It was true of Mary, I suppose - God saw in this young lady great courage … a strength of character that would see her through the toughest of times … the stuff of a mother for the Son of God.

The angel tells her that she will bear a child, and to name him Jesus:

He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The LORD God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.

Mary isn’t at all sure; How will this happen? she asks.

The angel explains … this is of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit … and even now your relative, Elizabeth, has conceived a son … she who was labeled, unable to conceive, is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.

Mary consents with the simplest of words … I am the LORD’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.

Mary hurries off to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah … when Mary greets Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. 

Elizabeth cries out, God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry.

With all my heart, says Mary, I glorify the LORD! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. 

There is joy in Mary’s obedience … though danger lies close at hand … but where can any of us find safety, if not in the LORD God Almighty? 
Better to go on a great adventure and meet a bad end - as the martyrs have all known - then to be cowardly and die the slow death of dreams denied and courage refused.

Gandalf said to Bilbo, I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging.

And such an adventure it proved to be.

And what an adventure it is to be a part of what God is doing in this world of ours … 

Come and follow me, says Jesus … 

Like Bilbo, we’re not sure … we’d rather be left alone, but there’s always the knock on the door … and there on the front steps of our soul, a million people who’ve already said Yes! to the adventure … grammas and grampas, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren … the cloud of witnesses too numerous to number … the saints of old who now wear the crown of glory because they were willing to wear the rags of shame for their LORD …

All of them stand at the doorway of our home … they come on in, the moment the door is opened, even before we can say, Come on in … they take their place at our table, and make their plans for the great adventure that still lies ahead … their work unfinished, and they need us … they ask, Will you finish our work? … and they wait for us to say Yes!

They won’t stay in our home forever … there’s but a moment to decide … as the hymn puts it, Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide … 

Within our heart, we hear the call to go … to be great in the things of the LORD, to rise to the occasion, and join the adventure God has arranged.

There is something great in all of us … God knows it … we have great ancestors in the faith … we have good blood in our veins … we’re brave, and maybe braver than we know … our love is strong, and our strength is gentle … and the call of the wild stirs our heart.

Advent is the Season when it all comes to us, and bids us Prepare! 

Get ready for the adventure of a lifetime … very soon we’ll have to leave the comfort of home and family and the familiar … we’ll have to travel some … to Bethlehem … there to see the Savior … 

Shepherds are there … and wise men, too … from near and far … Mary’s Child draws the whole world unto himself … that all the world might know the grace of God and the hope of salvation.

For God has not left behind this world … God has not abandoned creation, and never will … though devils and demons fill this world with darkness, their darkness is only for awhile … God remains the light of the world, and God is fast at work to undo the damages of sin and repeal the deadly decisions humankind makes … in order to renew all things and bring all things together into the great love of God.

God has taken up our cause … 

God has taken on our humanity … 

From within and below … in Mary’s womb for nine months … then in Bethlehem’s cradle … in his parents’ arms as they flee to Egypt, when Herod rants and rages and sends soldiers to do his dirty work.

The great son of God, the Son of the most High, held in the arms of loving parents, taught by rabbis and schooled in Torah … learning and growing in the wisdom of God … baptized by John in the Jordan … and we know the rest of the story.

And Mary sings with all heart, I glorify the LORD! For the LORD has done great things.

For Mary … and for us!

And there’s no end to it!

The work of the LORD goes on … and still and always the call to adventure … in every part of the world, in every generation, time and place … the knock on the door, the guests with their strange talk of faraway places and great danger … comes the moment to decide … 

There will be danger ahead and delight … you will meet people of virtue and you will see great evil … you will know my joy, and you will know my suffering … you will have fine friends for much of the journey, and sometimes you’ll be all alone … it will end badly for some of you, but for all who take up the cross of adventure, it will end well in the end, and in the end, all will be good … for the word of God prevails … the darkness cannot overcome the light … and this is yet my father’s world! 

Don’t give up … no matter what … stay the course and believe … there is always a way, and you will find it.

The lost are found … the blind can see … the world made new.

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.

Are you ready for some adventure?

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

December 16, 2012, "What Should We Do?"

Zephaniah 3.14-20; Luke 3.7-18

“Are we there yet?”

“Mommy, Daddy, are we there yet?”

Slightly irritated, Mom replies, “No, we’re not; it’ll be awhile. I’ll tell you when we’re there.”

Is it Christmas yet?

No, not yet!

It’s the Season of Advent, when the church remembers a time before Jesus … the hopes and fears of all the years: Where is God in all of the stuff going on? … Are things moving along by the will and purpose of God, or are we stuck here? God promised to come to us, to come to our aid, to help us - when will that happen? Will it happen? Is faith just so much wishful thinking, or is faith real and good and worth our time? Are there other gods to which we might turn? Is there something else we might do? What should we do?

The people ask John, What should we do?

Here they are, coming out from Judea and Jerusalem to hear a preacher who’s washing away sins in the Jordan … that fabled river … where God’s people so long ago crossed over into the Promised Land.

John gets right to the point …

If you have a little extra, share it!

If you’re in position to make money, don’t go crazy about it!

If you’ve got some power, use it carefully! … be satisfied.

Simple … basic … essential … John doesn’t ask anyone to believe in something, but only to behave well … to prepare the way of the LORD.

What is the relationship between John and Jesus?

They’re family … cousins … Jesus lives in Galilee, in the northern part of Palestine … John lives deep in the Southern Wilderness regions … a man of the desert … dressed in the clothing of the wilderness… eating desert food: roasted locusts and wild honey … 

Cousins in the flesh … but it’s the spiritual relationship that Luke wants us to understand … if Jesus is the Messiah, John is a spiritual Elijah … who prepares the way of the LORD.

The angel’s announcement to Zechariah says it all:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah wonders how all of this could be … the angel says to him, O be quiet! … and literally, Zechariah is unable to speak until the day of John’s birth. 

The angel saved Zechariah the embarrassment of his own words … such things cannot be explained, and there’s no use trying … words fail to capture the glory of God … God knew that Zechariah wouldn’t keep his mouth shut, so God shuts it for him … sealed his lips, silenced him, quieted him … all Zechariah could do was motion with his hands.

Let all the earth keep silence … the LORD is in his holy temple.

One of my favorite moments in the Bible - the Book of Revelation - the Lamb takes the Scroll, with seven seals, and opens it … one seal at a time … and at the seventh seal, the final seal, silence in heaven, for about half an hour … why the specific note about half an hour? 

Because heaven is a noisy place … singing and chanting and shouting and blaring trumpets … but even heaven knows when to shut up and keep quiet.

For an entire 30 minutes or so - a very long time in heaven to be quiet.

I once led a silent retreat … we began with small increments of silence … folks would go off and find a quiet place, and stay there - no reading, no writing, no walking about, no talking - just silence - we began with just a few minutes, and then on the third day of the retreat, several hours of silence.

At first, everyone found the silence to be intimidating, unnerving … folks wanted to read, write, talk, walk around, do something, anything … but at the end of the retreat, they found comfort in their silence.

The angel silenced Zechariah … Zechariah needed quiet time, and so did Elizabeth … so did everyone around him …

As Ecclesiastes says, There is a time to speak, and a time to keep silent.

John is born, grows up, finds his way into the Wilderness.

God’s word came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.

There were many who lived in the Wilderness in those days … for prayer, worship, contemplation, reading - spiritual communities similar to monasteries and convents: places of quietness, reflection, silence … a time to settle the mind and wait for the LORD.

When the LORD speaks, as Elijah learned in times past, the LORD is not in the wind and the earthquake and the fire, but in a still small voice - a hush, a breath, a stillness … 

John preaches … and baptizes … and the crowds came to hear him.

John says to them: change your hearts and change your lives … and then you’ll have God’s forgiveness.

There’s something here terribly important … a changed life welcomes the forgiveness of God … and we might well ask, “Doesn’t God’s forgiveness come first?”

Not according to John!

John is preaching to people who know the truth already … who know what God wants, but are reluctant to do what God wants … John says to the people, Do you want God’s forgiveness? ... then do what God wants!

Forgiveness has nothing to do with doctrine and dogma and creeds and confessions … how weary God must be of all our words, our preaching, our songs, our prayers … once again, our nation is beset with sorrow and suffering, and preachers across the land will cry out to their congregations: We need prayer back in our schools, and Bible study … we need to teach creationism … we need to keep women away from birth control … we need to get rid of atheists and Muslims and gays and lesbians and abortion doctors and socialists and Communists and illegal immigrants … and by the way, go out and buy more guns; fill the land with guns; pass laws that make it easier and easier to carry guns … and then we’ll all be happy and safe.

God says, “Be quiet!” … give thought to how you live and the values you hold - and remember, those who live by the sword die by the sword … give thought to how you live: what you do for one another, your care for creation, your kindness to the weak and vulnerable … if anyone makes it to heaven, it’ll not be on points of doctrine, but what was lived … not ideas but mercy … not creeds and confessions, neither prayers nor hymns, but justice rolling down like water and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream [Amos 5.24]

What should we do? The people ask.

If you have a little extra, share it!

If you’re in a position to make money, don’t go crazy about it!

If you’ve got some power, use it carefully! … be satisfied.

Who are the people who ask John?

Those who have an extra shirt and extra food … folks on the better end of things … who’ve made it … who have more in the closet and more in the pantry then other folks … 

The tax collectors … entrepreneurs … deal-makers, money-managers and bankers … go ahead and make money, but do so with restraint … only what’s legitimate, what’s authorized, and no more.

Soldiers of the Empire - probably Jewish mercenaries … they worked hand-in-glove with the tax collectors who relied on the force of arms to extort monies from merchants and travelers … John says: don’t cheat anyone, don’t harass the people with your weapons and power … be satisfied with your pay. 

Share from your abundance.

Restrain your greed.

Don’t bully others and be content with what you have.

Then or now, these are the central challenges that face all of humanity.

Every religion knows these things … Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims:

Share from your abundance.

Restrain your greed.

Don’t bully others and be content with what you have.

John tells us what to do … 

And when Jesus comes, he tells us the same thing … 

And the same fate befalls Jesus, as it did John … Herod kills John the Baptist for calling Herod’s family to account, and three years later, Herod will kill Jesus.

But we know how the story ends, so to speak … Herod doesn’t win, nor does Rome … no do all the powers of death and darkness … 

The stone is rolled away, Jesus steps out of the tomb … God’s way of saying - I will not give up on you … but let the world know, John’s message is the right one … those who share from their abundance, those who are restrained in their quest for money, those who are satisfied and use power carefully, are on the right track … they enjoy my Father’s forgiveness: they are the light of the world, the salt of the earth … their light shines in the world so bright that the world can see their good works and give glory to the Father in heaven.

Amen and Amen!

Monday, December 10, 2012

December 9, 2012 - "All Humanity Will See"

Malachi 3.1-6; Luke 3.1-14

Welcome to the Second Sunday of Advent … 

A little more waiting … as the Psalmist says:
Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!

Those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

We wait for the LORD … but not sitting around twiddling our thumbs … we’re getting ready, doing something, preparing ourselves, our world, for the Messiah.

Prepare the way of the LORD! … and we begin with John the Baptist.

All four gospels introduce us to Jesus through John the Baptist …

John is more than a warmup act for the main show … John is part of the main show … Jesus goes to him for baptism … Jesus affirms John’s work and message … Jesus stands in the River Jordan with John … 

John is NOT the Messiah … John rightly says to Jesus, You ought to baptize me!

But Jesus makes it clear: I’m here with you John … we’re in this together … I will take your message and build upon it … I will say what you say in the course of my ministry … I will point to a level world for all God’s children … a world where mountains are brought low and valleys filled in … 

A world of fairness and opportunity … 

Jesus is more than John … but Jesus is not less than John … Jesus affirms John’s message - Prepare the way of the LORD.

In the Season of Advent, we do well to hear John’s message.

Get ready for the Messiah! To receive him in our time and for our world!

John says to the crowds: Don’t yak about being children of Abraham … God doesn’t care about your pedigree … your ancestry … where ya’ come from or what your mom and dad did … the only thing that counts is here and now … produce fruit, says John, that shows the world what salvation looks like … show the world that you have changed your hearts and lives.

Prepare the way of the LORD!

I do a lot of cooking … I’ve learned some important things:
  1. Know the recipe; how it works: what comes first, what comes second.
  2. Do the prep work before hand - dicing, slicing, chopping and mincing - measure out the spices, if precision is needed … if you don’t use measuring spoons, be sure you’ve done it enough to know what a teaspoon of salt looks like or tablespoon of salt … do the prep work … have it all there … at hand and ready.
Prepare the way of the LORD.

This is a big deal ...

Because the Messiah is big.

Bigger than we imagine … and sometimes the church makes Jesus very small! 

I’m reading an American history book right now … all about 1919 … the year after World War One ended.

It was a time when women couldn’t vote, and the church pretty much said, That’s right; women ought not to have a voice in the affairs of men … women are inferior and unpredictable; women can’t be trusted to make important decisions … they can’t preach, nor can they be elders or deacons … preachers quoted chapter and verse to make their point, and felt mighty good about it … 

A time when divorced men couldn’t hold office in the church … couldn’t be an elder, a deacon or a minister … preachers quoted chapter and verse to make their point, and felt mighty good about it … 

A time when Americans were spying on Americans for all sorts of reasons - if you were German, your were suspected of disloyalty … if you were Russian, you were suspected of being a Communist … if you were Italian, you were suspected of being an anarchist … and the church said it was good and right to love this nation, and protect it from mongrel races, revolutionaries, agitators, Reds and Communists, and Jews and African-Americans who would undermine the Constitution … preachers quoted chapter and verse to make their point, and felt mighty good about it.

A time for lynching - an average of 200 lynchings a year, mostly in the south, but in the north, too … 200 lynchings, and many more beatings, shootings and burnings … Black soldiers had fought in the war, and many were highly decorated by the French, only to return home to Jim Crow laws and discrimination - black soldiers in uniform were beaten, shot and lynched … some were stripped of their uniforms and made to walk home in their underwear … and the church pretty much turned a blind eye to all of it … and in some parts of the country, the church said it was all right, because people of color shouldn’t be uppity, and they need to know their place … white preachers quoted chapter and verse to make their point, and felt mighty good about it.

A time when interracial marriage was prohibited by law, and if a white woman professed love for a black man, she was considered insane, and the black man a seducer … the church pretty much said, That’s right - it’s an abomination to mix the races … the white race is superior, and the black race inferior … white preachers quoted chapter and verse to make their point, and felt mighty good about it.

It was also a time when white men could rape a black woman without penalty … and have children with a servant girl, and everyone thought, That’s just the way it is … 

A congressman from George proposed a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriage: he said, “No more voracious parasite ever sucked at the heart of pure society, innocent girlhood, or Caucasian motherhood then the one which welcomes and recognizes the sacred ties of wedlock between Africa and America … the term ‘negro’ or ‘person of color,’ … shall be held to mean any and all persons of African descent or having any trace of African or negro blood” [Savage Peace, p.287].

The churches of America closed their eyes to most of this, raised their voices and sang, What a friend we have in Jesus.

Truth be told ...

Women still struggle in the American church and throughout the world …

As for racism, human beings have an infinite number of ways to hate one another.

Doors remain closed in much of the church to gays and lesbians - lots of preachers say it’s all right to hate gays and lesbians - and how they love to use the word abomination -and if gays and lesbians happen to get beat up and killed, that’s okay; some of your may recall the Briggs Initiative of 1978 here in California - to fire all public school teachers who were gay or lesbian … the initiative failed!

In some parts of the world, to be gay is criminal, with prison time and even execution … preachers quote chapter and verse, and feel mighty good about it.

Painful, isn’t it, all this history?

I’m sorry to share all of this with you … it’s painful for me to know such things, and I’m sure it’s painful for you to hear it … but if the gospel message is going to have any real meaning for us, we have to know these things … we cannot ignore the truth … it’s sin these stories highlight, and if Jesus comes to deal with sin, then sin is what we must understand … 

Sin is real, and sin is social … sin rips apart the human community, one from the other, pitting human beings against each other, filling the mind with suspicion and fear … the sins of the past are always the sins of today, wearing differing clothes, using cell phones rather than index cards.

We remember the sins of the church because truth requires it …it’s painful to remember, but memory is the key to honesty, humility, and hopefulness.

Things swept under the carpet will only trip us up again and again.

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it … 

Our work is far from done!

Wild and lone the prophet’s voice
Echoes through the desert still,
Calling us to make a choice,
Bidding us to do God’s will:
Turn from sin and be baptized;
Cleanse your heart and mind and soul.
Quitting all the sins your prized,
Yield your life to God’s control.

John’s message is vital to our times … keep Jesus big … big enough to open the big doors of compassion and mercy … big doors of intelligence and kindness … big doors that are big enough to welcome God and the world God created and loves.

Our work is far from done!

Prepare the way of the LORD! 

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

December 2, 2012, "Stand Up and Raise Your Heads"

Jeremiah 33.14-16; Luke 21.25-36

How very interesting …

Jesus talks of things ending.

Just like Jeremiah talked of things ending.

And nobody liked Jeremiah very much … threw him in jail they did … tried to hush him up - Keep quiet Jeremiah - you sound like a traitor - those are seditious words Jeremiah … no true patriot would talk like you do.

No one liked Jeremiah when he talked about the end of things.

And apparently, no one liked Jesus, either … it wasn’t long before the plot to kill Jesus picked up steam and got going … folks didn’t like Jesus, the way he talked about their beloved temple, their wonderful city, full of beautiful architecture and massive buildings, bright and shining, powerful and big … a place of wealth, pomp and circumstance … don’t talk about our city that way, Jesus, you make us feel bad!

This beautiful temple, says Jesus - it won’t last very long. Time is coming when the temple will be demolished; not one stone left upon the other … everything upside down and gone crazy … some of you will be thrown into prison; some of you will die … but don’t be fearful, says Jesus to the disciples.

All of this will give you opportunity.

Opportunity to testify … to speak words of truth … and don’t worry what you’ll say at that moment … I’ll give you the right words to speak, when the hammer falls, when the sword strikes, when you’re on trial, and the world hates you because of me … I will give you the right words!

As for Jerusalem, Jerusalem will come to end.

Don’t hang on to it … let it go … flee to the hills … get out while you can … nothing lasts, and don’t for a moment think it will.

And when it feels like the world is ending, when everything is lost, when violence and death hold great power, stand up straight, raise your heads, your redemption is near.

Heaven and earth will pass away, or at least, that’s what it will feel like, but my words will endure.

Stay alert at all times.

Pray that you are strong.

Strong enough to escape what is about to happen.

Strong enough to stand before the Human One, the Son of Man, the LORD God Almighty.


Sounds serious, doesn’t it?

But that’s Advent for you.

The old must pass away in order for the new to arrive … new beginnings require old endings.

Last Sunday, we ended a series of messages about “end times” … I find it fascinating that our Advent Season begins today with readings from Jeremiah and Luke … readings about “end times” … things coming to an end … important things, beautiful things, powerful things … things we cherish and love and defend … even religious things, spiritual things … holy buildings and sacred places … 

For Jeremiah and Luke, it’s all about Jerusalem … the temple … the center of the world as some thought … the most important city on the face of the earth as some thought … not Rome with all its political power … nor Alexandria with all its learning … but Jerusalem.

The City of David … the city set on a hill … Jerusalem the Golden … the fabled city of the ark, the hopes and dreams of God’s people centered in the music and drama of the temple … it was everyone’s dream to visit the city, especially during a holiday season - like Passover … 

Jesus says: It’s all going to end …

But don’t be afraid, says Jesus … your redemption is near.

A challenge to us … what our eyes see and what God is doing do not easily align for us … 

To our eyes, things may look bad … but in God’s ways and times, the outworking of God’s great purpose is sure and certain.

Stand up straight! says Jesus.

Don’t slouch around like a wet rag … don’t give in to the negative … don’t be Eeyore.

Eeyore is a wonderful little character in Winnie the Pooh stories … Eeyore is a soulful little grey stuffed donkey who is mostly gloomy, depressed, pessimistic and discouraged … 

Eeyore has his ways:

When someone says how-do-you-do, just say you didn’t.

"It's snowing still," said Eeyore gloomily.
"So it is."
"And freezing."
"Is it?"
"Yes," said Eeyore. "However," he said, brightening up a little, "we haven't had an earthquake lately."

Eeyore walked all round Tigger one way, and then turned and walked round him the other way.
"What did you say it was?" he asked.
"Ah!" said Eeyore.
"He's just come," explained Piglet.
"Ah!" said Eeyore again.
He thought for a long time and then said: "When is he going?"

The Season of Advent - Stand up straight! says Jesus.

Don’t slouch around like a wet rag … don’t give in to the negative …

Yesterday, December 1, the day Rosa Parks said “Enough!” - on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, when the bus driver asked her to give up her seat in the “colored” section of the bus for a white man, Ms. Parks said, “Enough!”

Stand up straight, says Jesus … don’t slouch around like a wet rag … don’t give into the negative.

Good things, godly things, are happening … and you can grow and change and evolve, and learn anew the wonders of God’s great love.

“I am what I am” we sometimes say … as if nothing could change … but we can always change … an old dog can learn new tricks … 

Sometimes it feels as if it’s too late … but it’s never too late for God, and it’s never too late for love … it’s never too late to learn more about Christ and grow in his grace.

It’s never too late to be wiser and smarter and kinder and more loving … it’s never to late to learn more about justice and the care of the earth, and how to be generous, and how to think large thoughts and have great ideas driven by the best in humankind’s history, and by the best that God has given to us in Jesus Christ.

I have a friend who always says, “God will provide!”

There’s a certain beauty to this kind of faith … it has the feel of a child’s faith, doesn’t it? “God will provide!”

Mazzy Little Rose, my new granddaughter, knows that Mom and Dad are there, that Mom and Dad will give to her what she needs, when she needs it.

When Jesus tells us to be like a child, Jesus tells us to trust …

My Father in heaven will provide … I don’t know how … I don’t know when … but my Father in heaven will provide.

I think of Huell Howser who recently announced his retirement … his TV program, “California’s Gold” told us stories of the commonplace in an uncommon way … Howser found beauty and fascination in out-of-the-way places, with folks we’d never otherwise see or talk to, in the backwaters and byways of California … 

Howser had good eyes to see how grand people are, and how good is everyone’s gifts … he celebrated everyone, and found delight in all things great and small.

In times such as ours, to have good eyes … eyes to see goodness and hope and beauty and strength … the courage to live in goodness, the faith to believe that God is at work in all things, strength to endure when adversity hammers us on every side, and the greatest strength of all - when we side with God, God stands at our side - yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me!

Hold on and be brave; be smart, be creative, be bold and daring … stand up straight and raise your heads … your redemption is near.

In the midst of adversity, hope.
When walls are falling down, God is drawing near.
When the end comes, there is always another beginning.

My Father in heaven will provide … I don’t know how … I don’t know when … but my Father in heaven will provide.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

November 25, 2012, "New Heaven, New Earth"

Jonah 4.9-11; Revelation 21.1-8

We end our End Times Series today … 

I’ve tried to make it clear to you that the End belongs to God. Period! 

He’s got the whole world in his hands.

And good are the hands of God!

And good is God’s creation … a big universe ...ancient and wondrous … full of mystery and glory.

Billions of years old … billions of years to come … which is why Christian liturgies use the expression, world without end!

Dinosaurs ruled the earth for a 165 million years, and disappeared 60 million years ago … hominids, our early ancestors, appeared 3.5 million years ago … homo sapiens, our specific ancestors, appeared only 250,000 years ago … 

We’re the new kids on the block … newcomers to God’s mighty creation … and we share 99% of our DNA with the chimps.

My wife knows this for certain - she’s always telling me, “Quit acting like a monkey!”

The universe is big.

The universe had a life all of its own before we showed up.

And long after we’re gone, the universe will continue to grow and expand … new life forms will emerge … many of those forms will be here only for awhile, and then go the way of the dinosaurs.

Things come; things go … it’s the way of life … God made it that way … yet God loves all life … you and me, and all creatures, great and small.

God makes that clear to Jonah!

I care for that great city of Nineveh … it may be your enemy; you may hate them, but I love what I made, and I want to redeem everything, make everything new … including animals … they, too, belong to me … the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and everything that crawls upon the face of the earth.

Jonah, what’s your problem?

Jonah’s problem?

Small thinking … Jonah lives in tiny world driven by friend and foe … Jonah hated Nineveh, and hated even more that God loved Nineveh - enough to send Jonah there - to proclaim the Word of the LORD, in the hope of repentance and new life.

Jonah wanted blood and death for Nineveh … when Nineveh repented, Jonah was furious, so furious he wanted to die.

What’s your problem Jonah? Jonah couldn’t think big!  

Christians need big thinking … big enough to encompass the whole wide world … Christians can’t afford little thinking … and the world can’t afford it either.

In the Book of Revelation, little thinkers have no place in the kingdom of God! 

You would think … of all the people on the face of the earth, Christians should be big thinkers … 

But sometimes Christians think small.

Folks fascinated by “end times” are small thinkers … they live in a small world, defined by the moment - calculations, hopes and fears; close their eyes to the big picture; refuse to see the glory of God … try to figure things out, pry into the secret things of God … then pretend to understand the deep mysteries of God … tell the world they have it all figured out … in the words of Revelation 21.8 - they are liars, idolators, they cast spells on their audience - they are small thinkers!

Creationists ignore science and preach an earth only 7000 years old - small thinkers.

Christians who believe that rape is God’s will, that a woman’s body has a mechanism to shut down when it’s “legitimate rape” - small thinkers.

Pat Robertson complains about atheists stealing Christmas - Robertson is a small thinker; if anyone has stolen Christmas, it’s corporate America and Wall Street … the American hymn of greed: buy, buy, and buy some more. 

Robertson says, “I missed God’s message about the recent election” … he’s missed a lot of messages … he’s a small thinker.

But enough of that …

Big-minded Christians look at the starry sky above, the wonders of Grand Canyon, and enjoy the immensity of it all.

We’re not afraid of being small … it’s okay to be small be … a tiny creature on the face of the earth, in a solar system tucked away in a far corner of the Milky Way … small as we are, we don’t have to be small thinkers.

The world is marvelous; we can see it, we can live in it, we can love it … we can love one another, we can love the creator who made us all.

But now a pastoral question - what about loved ones … what about those who have died?

Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians make it clear - our loved ones are safe with Christ … they wait with Christ for the final trumpet, that great gettin’ up morning … body and soul reunited … flesh and spirit once again conjoined … the world made new … a new heaven and a new earth.

When will this happen, we ask?

It is not ours to know, and who cares when it will happen? What counts - it will happen! It’s happening right now, because God is at work in all things, in all things for good, redeeming God’s creation and making all things new. Can you not see it? Isaiah asks.

This earth is God’s beloved creation … God is saving all of it … all of its creatures, great and small … every tree, every rock, every drop of water … because it’s all good … God has no intention of throwing it away.

And neither should we!

If ever there is a reason for ecological responsibility, this is it - this is God’s world, God’s beloved world … and, yes, we can tap its resources, but do so with wisdom and care and restraint.

In the delta region of Nigeria, the Amazon forest of Brazil, the mountains of West Virginia, the spoilage is enormous … land ruined, water polluted, wildlife destroyed … whole areas uninhabitable - is this pleasing to God, when human beings trash the world God created? If a thief broke into our home and vandalized it, what would we think?

I think of the Good Samaritan story - a man beaten by robbers and left to die by the side of the road? Might we think of this as a parable of the earth today? Beaten bloody by robbers, who take what they want, and leave the earth dying by the side of the road? And who’s the Good Samaritan? ... but the one who looks with mercy on the earth, sees its wounds, goes to its aid, makes provisions for its care and healing. Sad to say - in the parable, it’s the religious ones who turn the blind eye to the beaten man.

Are Christians guilty of turning a blind eye when it comes to God’s good earth?

Christians can never turn a blind eye to any company, or any government, that despoils God’s good earth in order to make a profit for shareholders who live far away from the suffering, suffering created by the drive for wealth.

Christians have to think big … because God is big!

The Scottish National Museum, in partnership with museums in Malawi and Zambia, is celebrating the bicentenary birthday of explorer and medical missionary, David Livingstone, born March 19, 1813, near Glasgow, Scotland.

British explorers mostly served colonial interests, and missionaries often did the same thing - but not so David Livingstone.

Lovemore Mazibuko, director of museums of Malawi, said Livingstone was still venerated in southern Africa for his work as a missionary, doctor and educator, and above all for his bitter opposition to the slave trade prevalent at the time and his vision for legitimate trade and commerce for the region.
Mazibuko said: Livingstone brought an end to the slave trade and in that sense he is regarded as a liberator...he changed people's perception on the way people related to one another irrespective of tribe, irrespective of their colour, irrespective of their social status."

Livingston died May 1, 1873 - his heart was buried in his beloved Africa; his body, in Westminster Abby.

Livingstone’s remembered because he was a big thinker … saw the big picture … served a big Christ.

In our own Presbyterian ranks, I think of men like William Sloan Coffee and Robert McAfee Brown … women like Margaret Towner, the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church, 1954.

All of them, big thinkers - that’s why they shaped the church so powerfully in their time, and for years to come.

They beckon us onward … the cloud of witnesses surround us … whispering to us, Finish our work … get busy … get to it … think big … finish our work.

Dear Christian Friends, let’s finish their work, and finish it well … big in our thoughts and sensibilities … big in our prayers and big in our faith … let us think far and beyond the boundaries of our lives and our church - think outside the box … daring and adventuresome like David Livingstone, William Sloan Coffin, Margaret Towner.

Big enough to bless the world!

Big enough to serve the Risen Christ!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

November 11, 2012, "Will the Universe End?"

Psalm 8; Mark 13.5-36

Will the universe end?
Why even ask?
When some Christians ask … 
Smugness …
Bitterness …
Self-centered …
Some Christians want a small universe.
6 - 10 thousand yrs … 
Scientists are fools.
Evolution is a lie.
Pit Bible against Science.
Want to feel big! Important.
They and their world are the center ...

Psalm 8 … big universe.

Distance from the earth to the sun (93 million miles, or about 8 light minutes) is compressed to the thickness of a typical sheet of paper. On this scale, the nearest star (4.3 light years) is at a distance of 71 feet. 

Diameter of the Milky Way (100,000 light years) a stack 310 miles high.

Distance to the Andromeda galaxy (at 2 million light years one of the most distant objects visible to the naked eye) would require a stack of paper more than 6000 miles high! 

On this scale, the "edge" of the Universe, defined as the most distance known quasars some 10 billion light years hence, is not reached until the stack of paper is 31 million miles high.

Psalmist - thrilled with this!

Better question: How will it end?

The Resurrection of the dead …
New heaven, new earth ...

Best question: How do we live?

Jesus: don’t be deceived … don’t panic … be alert … be smart … be wise … be awake!

If I should die before I wake …
Wake me up before I die …

The point of the resurrection… this life is of great value … and this life will be raised from the dead. Death doesn’t win.

Life’s activities: painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving our neighbor - will last into God's future. 

It’s kingdom building.
(inspired by Tom Wright, Surprised by Joy)

Live LORD’s Prayer.

Psalm 119 - to learn and live the instruction of God - laws, ordinances, statutes, God’s promises.

Love God and neighbor …
Micah 6.8 - Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly …
Amos 5.24 - Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Do unto others …

Promises: I am with you always … I will never leave you or forsake you … I shall come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be.

This life: God with us.
After death: with God.
Heidelberg Cat: 
Question 1.
What is thy only comfort in life and death?
That I with body and soul, both in life and death, (a)
am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

This world is our home …

Task: make it so for all God’s creatures.

That’s why we despise war.
Hate injustice.
Shun bigotry.
Reject ignorance and fear.

Strive for peace.
Build justice.
Welcome one another.

Seek knowledge … the light of the world … love - truth - the truth that sets us free, the truth of God’s mighty love for all the world - world without end!

About the end, don’t fret … you’ll make it just fine, because God really loves you … loves your family, your friends - the whole wide world.

As God determines:
The universe began well.
The universe will end well.

In the meantime, let us live well - for the glory of God!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

November 4, 2012, "Does God Have a Plan?"

Daniel 2.36-45; Ephesians 1.1-10
Does God Have a Plan?

November 4, 2012 - 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

New Series for November: End Times - suggested by Elder Dan Tilford

Does God have a plan?
Yes …
Ephesians 1.1-10
With the sound of a trumpet.
In the twinkling of an eye.
The Resurrection of the Dead!
The Book of Life opened.
A new heaven and a new earth.

Is there a timeline?

None that we can know.
Acts 1.7
Matthew 24.36
The End is not our business.

Yet many have tried to out-guess God.

Dispensationalists - timelines and charts.
A few verses:
Harold Camping - latest example - after repeated failures to predict the coming of Christ, Mr. Camping has now disavowed any further efforts.

Others persist: two Christian groups have set-up webcams in Jerusalem, 24/7, so we can watch the return of Jesus when he comes to the Mt of Olives.

Rumors of The End:
Jerusalem sacked and burned 586 BC.
Temple destroyed by Rome, AD 70
Rome sacked and burned by the Goths, 410
Year 1000
14th Century: 
Bubonic Plague
Terrible wars
Papacy divided - Rome, Avignon

Earthquake and war: Chicken Little runs around, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.”

People look for the victory of good over evil … right over wrong.
People overwhelmed: Churchill quote:
In 1922, Churchill wrote: "What a disappointment the twentieth century has been. How terrible and melancholy is the long series of disastrous events, which have darkened its first twenty years. We have seen in every country a dissolution, a weakening of bonds, a challenge to those principles, a decay of faith, an abridgement of hope, on which the structure and ultimate existence of civilized society depends."

Islam has its own version.
So does Hinduism.
All religions have beginnings and endings … nothing wrong with that!

But folks who look for a timeline fool themselves, waste their time, disobey God! 

Glad to be a Presbyterian: The End belongs to God.
A sovereign, loving God.
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The God and Father of Jesus.
The Alpha and the Omega.
The beginning and the end.
Who holds the whole world in his hands.

Jesus says: Go back to Jerusalem to receive power.

Don’t waste time waiting for me to come again.
Wait for the Spirit in Jerusalem.
Ten days.
And then, don’t look upward … look outward - look out for the world … look out for one another … look out for ways to improve life … bring justice, help the downfallen, end war, bring peace.

I am with anyway … always … the Holy Spirit I send to you - my Spirit, my love.

Where two or three are gathered in my name ...

Don’t fret about tomorrow.
What to wear or eat.
Or even death.
Or the End of the World.

Big things belong to God.
God takes care of them just fine.
God doesn’t need us poking around in the things that belong exclusively to God.

Our task: clear and concise.
Love one another.
Make disciples.

While we’re at at it:
Be of good cheer.
Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.
Live every day, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Does God have a plan? … 
It unfolds as it should.

We know all we need to live well for Christ … the rest belongs to God!

To God be the glory.
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

October 28, 2012, "Forgive and Forget"

Isaiah 43.14-28
Ephesians 4.32
1 John 3.19-20

Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012

Reformation Sunday
Oct. 31 - Luther - 1517

Reformation - all about forgiveness

Not via the church, but Christ.

This month - power of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is heart of freedom …

Freedom from the hurt done to us.
Freedom to move ahead.
Freedom to be who we are in Christ - 
We are not our circumstances.
We are not our pain.
We are not our troubles.
We are who we are in Christ.
Filled with the Holy Spirit.

We sometimes hear: forgive AND forget.
Can we truly forget?
Time plays a role here.
But “forgetting” isn’t possible.
God doesn’t forget!
God forgets nothing!
God chooses to “not remember” - big difference.

Re-membering is devastating - even for God.
For my own sake, I will not remember.
I will not fill my mind and heart with past sadness.
I will not dwell on the ones who hurt me.
I will not dwell on failure.
I choose to move ahead.
To a new day.

Remembering causes anger.
Remembering breeds the spirit of vengeance.
Remembering takes us back in time.

What can we do?
Set our mind on the mind of Christ.
Things above.
The promises of God.
God is our refuge.
Our strength.
A very present help in the day of trouble.

The deepest piece of faith:
God at work in all things.

Don’t every preach this to someone who’s in the throws of sorrow.
Preach to ourselves.
For others, offer comfort.
Weep with those who weep!
Be patient.
In time, God will dry their tears!

Some things need to be remembered:
Frederick Buechner: Holocaust, p.285
Xn Century: Anti-semitism in America

We need to remember some things:
Injustice and work to change the world.
Horrors of war and work for peace.
God’s creation and work to honor it.
For ourselves:

Chose the godly way - not to remember.
Give it all to Christ. 
His hurt for our hurt.
His sorrow for our sorrow.
His shame for our shame.
Give it all to Christ!

Press on to the high calling - come home, take off the clothing of the day! Wash up, put on comfortable slacks and shirt.
Don’t wear the rags of hurt.
Wear the clothing of Christ.

Use Scripture and prayer - sing a song.
Move ahead with Christ.

Remember the wrongs done to others and do what we can to set it right for them - this is love at work!

Don’t remember the wrongs done to us - let God set them right for us - this is faith at work!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

October 7, 2012, "Forgive Us Our Debts"

Psalm 51 & Matthew 6.1-15

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

On every page of the Bible, we see the power of forgiveness … the grace of God in the midst of human folly and tragedy … we fall of a cliff, and God comes to our rescue.

Adam and Eve pluck the fruit, plunge the world into spiritual calamity … Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden for a strange new world; there is no going back; they can only forge ahead.

Before they leave the Garden, God becomes a tailor … 

The fig leaves didn’t work … no human device, or effort, can cover over the sadness of sin … we ourselves cannot make up for the deficit of disobedience … this alone belongs to God.

Why forgiveness?

Forgiveness allows every one to get up and get going in the right direction. Forgiveness breaks the shackles of the past so we can set our sights on the future.

Forgiveness begins with God … God is the source of forgiveness.

Because all sin - whatever it is - is sin against God.

The Psalmist writes: Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
      and done what is evil in your sight.

Sin against a human being, we sin against God! 

Sin against God’s creation, we sin against God.

All sin is against God.

Only God can forgive!

God has to forgive!

What other choice does God have?

Destroy the world?

God tried that once upon a time - it would have worked - if God hadn’t saved Noah and his family … there was something in Noah that caught God’s eye, and God, “in a moment of weakness,” decided to save Noah and his family from the flood.

But it was too late!

Noah and his family carried within them the seed of sin.

From the moment Noah and his family left the ark, sin picked up where it had left off … and it only grew worse.

If God had destroyed all of humanity, what then?

We wouldn’t be here.

And God would have to live with the memory that sin was greater than God … that God couldn’t do anything about sin … that all was truly lost.

It was God who learned the big lesson during the flood … I have to forgive them … I have no choice … in order to get on with the work of creation … I have to forgive them.

God was willing to stick with it; make the best of it … I am greater than sin … with the power of forgiveness, I will make it possible for humankind to survive … and more than survive … to have life, life abundant.

I have no choice, says God.
Whatever the price.
I’ll pay it.
Whatever it takes.
I’ll do it.

Jesus reminds us that we have no choice either.

Forgive us our debts AS we forgive our debtors.

If not forgiveness, then what?

Hate and fume?
Fret and fuss?
Rehearse the crimes committed against us?
Remember and remember again what was said to us?
Stay in the trenches of memory?
Go nowhere!
Stuck in the mud.

If we want to get on with our life, we have no choice; we have to forgive!

Forgive as God forgives … 

Did Adam and Eve ask to be forgiven?


The Prodigal Son on his way home rehearses his confession, but the Waiting Father hushes the son and calls for a party instead … the Father knew that forgiveness begins in his own heart rather than in the words of the son.

Our words never prompt God’s forgiveness; it’s the nature of God to forgive … the love of God to forgive … God is the God of forgiveness.

“God’s forgiveness is always will be the last word.”

But let us always remember:

Forgiveness is costly!

Remember the clothing God made for Adam and Eve?

From animal skins.

The first sacrifice … life given for life!

The whole Book of Leviticus … two realities:
  1. There is forgiveness.
  2. It’s costly.

The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way: Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.

Thanks to Jesus Christ, you who were once so from away have been brought near the blood of Christ.

Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Is it easy for God?

God says to us: It’s a price worth paying.

I will go to the cross for them … and with my blood, the world will be cleansed.

When Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him, he’s asking us to participate in the power of cleansing the world … whatever it takes, to undo the damages of sin and set the world right.

At the end of our days … we lay our head down for the last time, we will say with God, It wasn’t easy, but the price was worth it. 

We work at it.

We pray about it.

We cry about it.

It happens … the Holy Spirit comes to us, prays within us with mighty groans
 … minds transformed … the impossible becomes possible.

Time and again, I’ve watched people wrestle with forgiveness … and wrestling it is … to shed the shackles of time and memory … it begins with the raw words: I forgive … and say the person’s name … and if the name isn’t known, then only the memory … forgive the memory … 

Saying the name and the words, I forgive, starts something rolling … a locked door has to be unlocked, and then we begin to walk into the next room … a pulled shade has to be pulled up, and then the light fills the room … 

There is power in the words … I forgive!

And now we have to be careful … I’ve heard folks say, I forgive you, and those words dripped with spiritual pride … it’s not a matter of forgiving someone … it’s a matter of being a person of forgiveness … our very nature, transformed and transforming by the love of Christ, becomes a godly nature, like unto God, and we begin to forgive, not because the other person asks for it, but rather because it’s our nature to forgive!

Don’t be conformed to this world, writes Paul the Apostle, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds … 

Forgiveness begins with the words in our inner life … there may be other other steps to be taken; outward steps … a phone call, a card, maybe a visit … who knows … take a chance … it doesn’t always work, but it’s up to us to do what’s right … and leave the rest to God.

There’s more here to consider … we’ll look further at forgiveness in the next couple of weeks.

And always remember:

God helps us along the way … because God is the God of forgiveness!

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Amen … and Amen!