Monday, December 26, 2022

12.25.22 "Christmas Day: God Said Yes!"

 Psalm 100; Luke 2.1-14


God said “Yes!”


That’s the heart and soul of Christmas … 

The birth of Jesus, called the Christ … the Anointed One, the Messiah, the one who points the way to the truth … who is the truth … 


The truth that sets humanity free from the lies and deceptions of sin … the truth that liberates and lays the groundwork for love … the kind of love that alone creates a life, a real life … 


A life full of hope … 


In Christ, we still hope … 

Hope is not done hoping … if anything, Christmas, unleashes a whole new dynamic of hope … 

Hope for a better world … hope: for ourselves, our loved ones … for all of God’s creatures, great and small … the earth, the air, the water.

The hope realized in Christ, grows larger … 

Women and men of Good Will and Purpose are called to fulfill the hopes and dreams of every child … for safety and for peace … for comfy beds and full tummies:


The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.


Is this too much to hope for?


Not at all … because God created the world in just such a way that the world and its resources can supply all our needs … it’s only sin, and its companion, greed, that hordes the earth’s wealth, and distributes it according to the interests of some, to the detriment of the many … 


Yes, sin remains, doesn’t it? 

In all of us … in each of us … 


So, we still hope … we commit ourselves to the project - to the work of God … to fulfill the promises of Bethlehem - that unto us a Savior has been born, Christ the LORD … 


God says “Yes!” 

Yes to hope, and yes to peace, and Yes to Joy, and Yes to love. 


God said Yes in the first moment of creation … the Spirit of God hovers over the dark swells of energy … God says, “Let there be light!”


God says Yes to Adam and Eve in their innocence and then in their sin … when Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden, God says Yes, again, and makes clothing for them … good clothing, sturdy clothing, but at a cost - an animal gave up its life to cloth two foolish human beings who chose self-interest rather than obedience … who then blame one another for the mess rather than admitting the truth … with two sons, one of whom kills the other in a fit of jealousy … and then, God be praised, a third son, Seth, in whom God says Yes again …


All along the way, God says Yes.


The Apostle Paul put it this way: For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaim … was not “Yes and No”, but in him it is always - “Yes.” For in him, every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.”


There is no message on the face of the earth more positive than the Gospel of our LORD Jesus Christ … 


Our faith in Christ is not the only faith that God has created and sustains … 

God is at work saying Yes everywhere … all across the face of the earth … in countless guises and many tongues … throughout the human story … 

God says Yes, again and again …


Even as humankind often says No!


When humankind turns faith into condemnation … 

When humankind, in its perversity, turns love into damnation … when humankind takes delight in some going to heaven, and others going to hell … playing with that foul idea, toying with it, to frighten children, to lay guilt upon guilt … to distress and destroy, and then go to war for it all … 

Religious zealots here in the States, the Taliban banning women from college, religion gone wrong … even as it rakes in the money from the naive, the frightened, the gullible, and always the true believers … those who believe the rejection of many is somehow the best way to create a better world. 


This day, I shout to the world, as loud as I can: Unto us a Savior has been born … God has said Yes, and will always say Yes to the world, to all of us … to every man, woman, and child … to the dogs and to the cats … to the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, to the critters that crawl upon the face of the earth … God says Yes.


And that makes us a people of Yes …


Yes opens up the door to new ideas, new ways of living, new patterns of thought …


Saying “Yes” can be downright frightening … disturbing … upsetting the apple cart … 


When some said Yes to the children of Little Rock, that all the children of town could go to the same schools, with the same teachers, the same desks and the same pencils … some shouted out their hate, and said No - not all the children … we don’t want all the children … we hate some of the children … and they have no place in our schools, our neighborhoods, our homes, and our hearts. 


When some said Yes to gays and lesbians - that all of us have the right to understand ourselves, and who we are, and to love as love manifests itself in our being … and some said No, we will not accept their love, we will not grant them their liberties; we will condemn them, fight them, beat them, and kill them. They have no place in our lives.


These same battles are being waged right now for all the trans-children and their families … 


And for women’s rights to choose …


Some just keep on saying No … and they dress it up with Bible quotes and pious prayers … they blab about family values, and the American Way - and they haven’t a clue.


They’re blinded by their hate, 

Chained in the deadly power of No. 

Stuck in their ways, cannot move. 

No wonder they’re angry - angry at everyone else, when they should turn to themselves and face the truth.


God says Yes … yes to love, and yes to freedom, and yes to all the complexities of the human story … how we love, and how we live, and how we all seek the same things: a place in the sunshine of God’s love, a place at the table for decent food and safe housing … good schools, safe neighborhoods … good jobs, fair wages … a chance to be me, and for you to be you.


God. says. Yes.


It costs God a lot to say Yes … 

It’s costly to say Yes.

But you know what?

Saying No is even more expensive … saying No bars the door and pulls the curtains …  


All my life, I’ve had the privilege of knowing people who know how to say Yes … they possess a quality of life second to none … life may not be easy for them … but they say Yes.


They commit themselves to the big projects, take on huge burdens … get the job done, and the world is better for it.


Think of the people in your life who say Yes.


The teacher in third grade, the minister with the youth group, the banker who gave you a loan, the people who’ve loved you … all along the way, the power of Yes … 


Yes to kindness … generosity … let’s get it done … we’re on our way … tomorrow is our purpose, and today we move ahead.


Christmas Day … Christ is born … God says a mighty Yes to all the world, and the angels sing for joy.


Hallelujah and Amen!

Monday, December 19, 2022

12.18.22 "Advent 4: Love" Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 Isaiah 7.10-14; Matthew 1.18-25

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It's the only thing that there's just too little of

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

No not just for some, but for everyone


The power and goodness of Advent …


It’s quite the journey.


Some years back, I was asked, “Why do we spend all this time preparing for the birth of Christ. He’s already been born. He’s here,” she said to me, “and he lives within my heart.”


Well, true enough … but even the best dancers rehearse the basic steps.

The finest pianists warm up before a concert.

Opera singers do voice exercises and sing the scales.


The basics, the essentials, the rudiments of faith, where it all begins.


Yes, Christ is born … 2000 years ago, in that little Bethlehem manger … in the midst of a difficult time … when the Empire of the Day was cruel and cunning, when life was cheap, and death ruled the day.


Yes, Christ lives in our hearts … we know that, and we take comfort in God’s love!


And when it comes to the practice of love, we’re always experimenting - are we not? Is there anyone here, or anywhere, who has a clear and definitive idea as to what love should look like all the time, anywhere, in every situation? 


Like good dancers, pianists, and singers, we rehearse the essentials - the basic things of our faith, the rudiments … the ABCs, and the 2+2s … to keep the mind limber, the soul alert, our lives rededicated … to be reborn, again and again … not that we’re starting over … we’re not starting over … but we’re going over the basic articles of our faith. We hold them before ourselves - we look at them from different angles - we ponder the great themes of life: hope, peace, joy, and love.


What is new is the times in we live

The church of yesteryear is behind us.

The church of tomorrow isn’t here yet.


All we have right right now is right now.

And the stories of our faith:


The basic steps … laid out by Moses and the Prophets.

The essential tools … set before us by the Apostle Paul.

Generations of Christians who’ve gone before us.


They did their best … 

They did it right, 

And sometimes they did it wrong.

They loved, and loved well, 

and sometimes loved poorly.


They served Christ with distinction.

And sometimes they served themselves for the sake of power and glory.


From them, we learn … 

We rehearse, we practice. 

Folks will look back at us and give thanks for our efforts … and sometimes, I’m sure, they’ll look back at us and shake their heads.


We receive what is given … and make it our own … 

We take the basic steps … and then we improvise … 

We look at what others did, or didn’t do … then set out to make our own way in the kingdom of God …


Every dancer practices night and day, and will never say, “I’ve arrived; no more practice is needed.”


Pianists and opera singers are always striving for a little bit more … artists and poets work at their craft with sweat, blood, and tears … and parents, too - how in the world to raise a child? And along the way, how to get along with one another, what does the LORD require of us? What is justice, and what is kindness, what is humility?


We’re a work in progress.


What I may have known yesterday needs revision today … what I knew twenty years ago, well, let’s just say, it belongs mostly on the shelf. 

All my life, I have striven to give fresh expression to the gospel, to understand the times in which we live, the flow of history, and what does the LORD require of us. 

The whole narrative of Christ, his birth, his words, his death, speak of new things God is doing … the traditionalists of his time couldn’t stand it; they dug in their heels and said, “that’s that” - they turned from the future; they hid themselves in the past.


Even as I speak, God’s people are discovering new ways of living the life of faith … books are still being written … theology is still evolving; ethics are being revised; preachers still preach, and people still scratch their heads … and, btw, head-scratching is a good spiritual practice … I mean it … sometimes the most important three words we can ever say, “I. don’t. know!”


And then we can add: “But I’ll find out, and we’ll get it put together. We’ll figure it out.”


Until the next round of change and transition comes upon us … the process never stops, the process always requires inventiveness, ingenuity, innovation, not to mention patience, with trial and error … learning the new, forgetting the old … willing to take some chances, risks, in order to find the new thing God is doing.


Advent, you see, is our practice session … every year, we go through the basics:


What does it mean to be people of Hope?

What does it mean to be those who practice Peace?


Last week, we centered ourselves in joy … and learned that happiness is one thing, and joy is another, and sometimes they run hand-in-hand, and sometimes they go their separate ways.


Today, the word is love.

What does it mean to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves?


What is love?


Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach …


Dr. Scott Peck wrote:

“… in attempting to examine love we will be attempting to toy with mystery…. Love is too large, too deep ever to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of words.”


What is love?


The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want …


The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it …


Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful …


Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor …


Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.


Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.


For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …


At the end of the Advent Road - love … to love fiercely, deeply, passionately, the things of God … to love God’s creation, and all of its creatures, great and small … to pay attention to the cries of help that come our way … to seek the welfare of all, and not just the few … to follow Christ with all that we are, and all that we hope to be … and then some … and so it is, that we come to the end of the Advent Road … it’s taken us on quite the journey … all the way to Bethlehem.


Hallelujah and Amen!


Sunday, December 11, 2022

12.11.22 "Advent 3: Joy!"

 Isaiah 35.1-2; Luke 1.39-56

It all began with simple “Yes!” … 


The angel of the LORD came to Mary, with a suggestion, and Mary said, “Yes!”


And so it came to pass - that Mary, a young lady, perhaps no more than 14 or so, became the mother of Jesus … 


She said “Yes!” …


A friend of mine recently wrote - “Say yes until you have to say No!”


I celebrate with you today all those who have said Yes to life … who said, “Yes” to you … to me … 


In my senior year in Grand Rapids Christian High School, as graduation neared, my Bible teacher, the Rev. Morris Faber, invited the seniors to come to the front of his classroom and share some plans.


One after the other, this and that, and college and career, and all the dreams that a high school senior enjoys … and, then, it was my turn.


I told the class, I was going to Calvin College, and enrolling in the pre-seminary course … and with that, the class broke out into laughter … I mean, serious, raucous, uncontrolled, laughter, and I was laughing right along with them … I’m sure some thought it was a joke, but it was no joke. I had decided that I would be a minister.


Now, just some backstory - I was not what would have been recognized as “clergy” material … I’ll not bore you with the details, but it can be said, that if there were a picture of what a high school senior headed into the ministry should look like, it wasn’t me. 


So the class laughed, and so did I.


When the laughter died down, the Rev. Faber turned to me … all 5 feet, 5 inches of him - and said, “Tom, I believe you will do it.”


I’ve never forgotten that moment, as you can tell … that was in the spring of 1962 - that word of encouragement, the power of Yes, has stayed with me all these years.


Twenty years later, I was in Grand Rapids for some study, eating at a Russ’s Restaurant, a local chain famous for its hamburgers … and there, a few booths away, was the Rev. Faber and his wife. 


He was recognizable - small in stature with a gnome-like face … there he was, having lunch.


I left my table and walked over to them, introduced myself … the Rev. Faber looked at me with that thousand-yard stare common to dementia.


His wife explained to me, and I told her my story … then I thanked the Rev. Faber for his confidence in me. His wife thanked me for coming over, and I thanked the LORD that I had the chance to see him again, to thank him personally for his goodness … did he understand what I said?


Probably not … as I left, he picked up his hamburger and continued eating … his wife, with tears in her eyes.


A simple yes … 


Mary said it to the angel … the Rev. Faber said it to me … 

 

Say Yes until you have to say No.


I’ve been thinking about this for the last several weeks.


Yes is a dangerous word … it gets us into things we didn’t plan on, and sometimes into things where we don’t belong.


I’ve learned over the years to be a bit more cautious with my “Yes” … but on the other hand, caution needs to be thrown to the wind, and maybe more often than not.


One of the components of Yes is a simple trust in life … that life will provide the ways and means of getting something done … that God is involved in all of this … and, yes, we can do it … 


It may be difficult … ask Mary how easy it was to bear the child of our salvation … recalling what the Angel said to her, what the shepherds and wise men said … wondering what her son would become, and when he began his ministry, Mary’s concern:  his wandering, his preaching, threats against him … until finally, his arrest, a quick trial, and a public execution …


Yes opens the door to all kinds of things … and some of them will be downright difficult.


I think of Bonhoeffer and Barth in Nazi Germany … they said Yes to Christ, and No to Hitler … it cost Barth his job … he was deported to Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of the war years … it cost Bonhoeffer his life … he was hanged in the Flossenb├╝rg Concentration Camp, as the war neared its end.


The power of Yes …


Yes is the heart and soul of joy … 


It is Mary’s Sunday, we light her candle, and it’s pink … my thanks to Marjean Thomas and to Arlene Bennett for the light of the day … 


Mary’s Candle, Hail Mary, full of grace, the LORD is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death.


Joy is saying Yes to God!


But let me quickly make something clear … joy and happiness are not the same thing … they can run together, and often do, but there’s a difference … a difference between joy and happiness.


Happiness is circumstantial … I’m happy if the Dodgers win … I’m happy when my children are happy … I’m happy in the company of good friends … I’m happy on a vacation in Napa Valley.


Things can go terribly wrong, and they can, and they will … happiness will disappear like a splash of water on hot summer sidewalk … happiness is a variable … joy is a constant … 


Joy is deeper … less of the moment … more of a shaping, a long-term shaping of the soul … joy is quiet, calm, strong …  


Joy grows slowly … it requires a lot of Yes … 


Adults who come from difficult circumstances often look back to one or two people who loved them … someone saying Yes to them … so they made it … scars on the soul, scars on the body, but the power of Yes, the power of someone’s Yes in the midst of craziness and sadness … 


“You can do it!”


“I believe in you!”

Isaiah 35.1-2; Luke 1.39-56


God is saying Yes to us all the time.


I have found it to be true: joyful people are joyful because they tend to say Yes to life’s requirements … they learn the important lessons of trying something new … they learn the important lessons of failure … they can say Yes to the incomplete, the unexpected, the less-than-perfect realities of life.


Something worth doing is something worth doing badly … playing the piano, running cross-country, writing an essay, or learning how to dance.


The first piano recital may go well, but afterward, the budding pianist will rehearse it all over again … the weak spots, the missed notes, and so on.


Running cross-country, you may come in last.


A baseball star hits 330 … which means only one hit per three at-bats … two-thirds of the time, there’s no hit. 


Learning to dance is no easy task.


The piano player goes back to work … the baseball player talks to the coaches … and Mary is the Mother of Jesus.


It’s all begins with a simple Yes …


Hallelujah and Amen!

Monday, December 5, 2022

12.4.22 "Advent 2: Peace!"

Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12


The world’s a bit of a mess, I’d say …


But, then, it’s been that way, in varying degrees, ever since Cain killed Abel … 


So, what do we do?


Do we wash our hands of it all? Circle the wagons and protect our own? Surrender our ideals? Hunker down in our little part of the world? Pray, and hope for the best?


Here in this place, and in churches all around the world … churches - great and small … we pray for peace, we preach and sing, Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.


Last week, it was hope … hope grounded in the promises and love of God … centered in the crucifixion of Jesus, a reminder that life can be hard, really hard, even for God … 


It’s no cakewalk for God … to be God.


To right the wrongs … and keep the light shining … and it’s our task, as well … in concert with God and all the angels of heaven, we sing:


Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me!


But no one ever says it’s easy to be people of peace … 


Just before Thanksgiving, the Disney Chanel had the last episode of Andor … great series … people on the fringe of the Empire, trying their level-headed best to make a life, to make a living … but in the end, the Empire becomes so cruel, so evil, so desperate to rule, no one can rest easy; everyone is threatened … so the work begins, the resistance, the Rebellion, star wars, to find a better way.


It’s a big story, that fires our imagination … could we be so brave? Could we endure? Would we make it? That’s what big stories do: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, A Tale of Two Cities, The Night Before Christmas … stories that call us to goodness and greatness.


We have a story, too … a big story … stretching all the way back to the moment God said, Let there light.


Paul the Apostle tells us: We were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. 


From the dawn of time, to the end of it … from the first words of creation, to the last trumpet … the story, the work, the love of God!


The prophet crying out: Prepare the way of the LORD … make his paths straight.


Our story is never just “my story,” or “your story” or the story of Westminster … our story belongs to the ages and reaches for the stars.


A huge story, deeply personal … in every generation, in every age, it comes to those just like us … heed the call of Christ, love the things of God, work for peace.


Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.


And what is peace? Is peace merely the absence of conflict or war? 

An absence of those things would be terrific … 

But there’s more to the word peace … 


The Hebrew word Shalom says it well: to make something whole, complete … everything in its place, and place for everything.


The flourishing of society … the welfare of all …


Life is not a game to played to the death - winner take all!

Life is a shared effort, to give and to receive.

To lift up the fallen, help the weary, carry those who cannot walk, bless all in their need - the lady at the well, the beggar by the Pool of Shalom … the lost sheep and the Prodigal Son.

We’re all in this together, with Christ … we weep with those who weep; we rejoice those who rejoice.


Peace is never an easy road … Jesus says, My peace I give unto you … and in the next breath, Jesus tells us of a cross to bear, a burden to carry, a tough road to travel. 


Jesus says, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.


Peace-makers … deeply personal … peace with God … Paul the Apostle says, we have peace with God through our LORD Jesus Christ … 


So we can move on - forgetting the past, says Paul … forgetting the worst of it, and, yes, forgetting the best of it, too … 

The worst is set aside so we don’t drown in a sea of regret … 


But here’s a part we all too often ignore: setting aside the best of it.

The best of it? you ask!

Yes, to free the future … to free the future from our achievements.

From the backward look rather than future adventure.


A wise pundit once said: The greatest cause of failure? Success!


In business, in church, in government, personal life nothing worse than letting yesterday’s success set tomorrow’s agenda.  


The writer, Ann Patchett, tells a good story about her and a friend, renting a room on the desolate coast of Scotland, watching “… in horror as the owner sat and pulled apart the most beautiful sweater I’d ever seen, winding the yarn back into balls. ‘I wanted a new sweater,’ she said while we sat their aghast, unable to save it. ‘I’ve had this one for years.’”


If we want something new, we may have to unravel the old - and maybe that’s what death is all about … God unravels the old, winds it up in a ball, and knits something new.


God is always the God of tomorrow … the past offer counsel, but the future demands new blueprints.


Peace-makers are badly needed.


The rising tides of:

anti-semitism … 

Christian nationalism

Racism

Gun violence

Climate change

Homelessness …  

Homophobia & Transphobia


It’s not easy to build bridges when some folks are determined to blow ‘em up.


It’s not easy to offer peace, when some are eager to live by the fist.


It’s not easy to tell the truth when folks find comfort in lies.


It’s not easy to lean into the future if we’re strangled by the past.


And of our own shortcomings? … sometimes we’re the problem.


We talk amidst the devastation

of abandoned cites

the wrath of men

searching for peace.


The writer and comedian, Ruby Wax, says: “So this is the human condition: we’re living longer, getting taller, and are a push of a finger away from every other person on the planet and yet we do not know how to run ourselves.”


Peacemaking … it takes work, skill, patience, humor, humility, a willingness to be misunderstood, and a willingness to bear another’s pain, lots of forgiveness, honesty, starting all over again …  and the capacity - to keep on dreaming!


Where are the peace-makers?


They’re right here … in these pews, down the street and around the corner, and all around the world … 

Women and men of good conscience, who honor God.

Or maybe they have no religious sensibilities at all, but, by golly, they know right from wrong, they know the lie from the truth … they’re not deceived by glittery things; they’re not power hungry … they look for the gold, the real stuff, and they find it …


Where are the peace-makers?


A special call out to the story-tellers of our day … poets, novelists, script writers … costumers, set-designers & cinematographers; singers and musicians, location scouts and gaffers … on stage and screen, on the page and with the blog … those who help us understand ourselves, who show us the world, in ways both surprising and challenging … 


Peace-makers are everywhere … and they’re hard at work.


Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.


Hallelujah and Amen!