Monday, December 18, 2023

12.17.23 "Advent 3 - Joy!" Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Luke 1.26-38

It all began with a simple “Yes!” … 

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

And so it came to pass - Mary became the mother of Jesus … the Holy Mother of God … Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Mary said “Yes!” …

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

Another friend said to me years ago, “I’m tired of saying “Yes!”, but I’ll keep on saying “Yes!” because I’m even more tired of what happens when I say “No!”

I celebrate with you today those who say Yes to life … yes, to you and to me …

In my senior year in Grand Rapids Christian High School, the spring of 1962 … as graduation neared, my Bible teacher, the Rev. Morris Faber, invited the seniors to come to the front of his classroom and share their plans.

One after the other, this and that, 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 enroll in the pre-seminary course … and with that, laughter erupted … I mean, serious, raucous, uncontrolled, laughter, and I was laughing right along with all 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, 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 ministry should look like, it certainly wasn’t me. 

The class laughed, and so did I.

When the laughter died down, 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 of affirmation … as you can tell … Rev. Faber’s 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. Morris Faber and his wife. 

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

I left my table and walked over to them, introduced myself … 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 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 … when I left, he picked up his hamburger and continued eating … his wife, with tears in her eyes.

A simple yes … 

Adults who come from difficult circumstances often look back to one or two people who loved them … someone who said “Yes!” to them, again and again … 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!”

The Power of Yes!

When others say “Yes!” to us, something happens deep inside of our soul - we begin to say “Yes!” to ourselves … 

I suspect Mary had said “Yes!” to herself long before the angel showed up … I suspect God waited until there was enough “Yes!” in Mary’s life for her to say “Yes!” to the angel.

However Mary was reared, whatever experiences she had, it’s evident from the Magnificat, Mary’s song of joy and justice, that Mary had a lot of “Yes!” in her life … and God be praised for that, and for every “Yes!” ever spoken in this world into the face of pain and sorrow, evil and injustice, lies and distortions … God says “Yes!” to a million, billion, gazillion, things: love, life, hope, peace, goodness and justice, fair play, decency, honesty, humility and kindness, mercy and truth.

Paul the Apostle says it well: For the Son of God, Jesus Christ … was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes!” For in him, everyone of God’s promises is a “Yes!”

Which is why one of our alternate banners outside says, “God loves every body” - 

Every kind and type of body - flesh, blood, and bone … every shape, color, proportion, ability, and life … we are our bodies.

It’s “Yes!” that saves the day, and makes a way … it’s “Yes!” that calls for engagement, partnership, compromise, patience, working-arrangement, getting along, and making do.

Mary said “Yes!” to the angel … Rev. Faber said “Yes!” to me … and throughout the years of my work, countless people have said “Yes!” to the LORD, “Yes!” to the calling of God, to the work ahead … to the work of the church … “Yes!” to the cross, because “Yes!” is likely to ask everything of us … to give deeply, profoundly, as near-total as we can, again and again.

“Yes!” is a dangerous word … it gets us into things we didn’t plan on, and sometimes into things we don’t want.

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 sometimes, and maybe more often than not.

One thing for sure: “Yes!” may get us into trouble, but “No!” will get us nowhere. 

One of the components of “Yes!” is trust … trust in life, trust in God, trust in others … life will provide the ways and means of getting something done … because God is involved in all of this … and, yes, we can do it … because that’s how God made us.

It may be difficult … ask Mary how easy it was to bear the child of our salvation and become the Mother of God.

I think of Sharleen Piereson, and George Coulter, 

who said “Yes!” a thousand times over … 

and when the Everlasting Arms carried them away, they heard heaven declare, “Yes! … and welcome home!”


“Yes!” opens the door to all kinds of things … some of them will be downright difficult … and some of them good beyond all measure … 

The power of “Yes!” … “Yes!” to each of you, and “Yes!” to life.

It is, after all, Mary’s Sunday.

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.


Monday, December 11, 2023

 Isaiah 40.1-11; Mark 1.1-8

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

But, then, it’s been that way 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 … Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

What is 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 … 

They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.

Life is not a game to played where the winner takes all!

Life is a shared effort:

To lift up the fallen, 

help the weary, 

carry those who cannot walk, 

bless all in their need - 

the lady at the well, afraid and lonely.

the beggar by the Pool of Siloam, ignored.

the lost sheep and the Prodigal Son - does anyone care?

In recent years, I’ve heard conservative politicians and pundits use the terms “takers” and “makers” … the makers all live in gated communities and drive fine cars … the takers all live on the other side of the tracks, so to speak, and drive beaters.

There is no peace in this kind of thinking … only division and fear … guilt and shame … envy and resentment.

Human beings are given to this kind of thinking because of sin - sin fractures, sin divides and digs ditches … sin plucks the fruit before anyone else can get it … sin pats itself on the back, and kicks everyone else into the gutter …

Not that this kind of thinking if of recent invention …

Step back in time with me, to March 4, 1858, when Senator James Henry Hammond of South Caroline said:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.

This has been the poison in the human story … this is sin revealed for what it is: cruel, ugly and deadly. 

But when we sing of peace, when we offer up our prayers for the world, when we speak the name of Jesus, there are no such divisions … 

Paul the Apostle wrote the definitive word: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ. 

… πάντες γὰρ ὑμεῖς εἷς ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ.

We all share the common lot - poor in spirit … saved by grace … created by the hand of God … we’re all in this together … as the Bible says: we weep with those who weep; we rejoice with those who rejoice.

We feed the hungry … we welcome the stranger … we cloth the naked … we visit those in prison

… … … … …

Ann Patchett recalls a time when she and a friend rented a room on the coast of Scotland … gathered in the sitting room, one evening, 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.’”

Undo the old, rework it into something new … I can’t think of a better definition for the Christian Life!

God is always and forever the God of tomorrow … 

The past is the old sweater, love unravels it, faith knits something new … same yarn, same love, same goodness, but reknited for a new day.

…. …. … …. ….

Another fine writer, Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw poet and essayist, in her book about the Osage Indian murders in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th Century … 

One of her characters, Michael Horse, says he’s written another chapter for the Bible … it goes like this:

Honor father sky and mother earth. Look after everything. Life resides in all things, even the motionless stones. Take care of the insects for they have their place, and the plants and trees for they feed the people. Everything on earth, every creature and plant wants to live without pain, so do them no harm. Treat all people in creation with respect; all is sacred, especially the bats. 

Live gently with the land. We are one with the land. We are part of everything in our world, part of the roundness and cycles of life. The world does not belong to us. We belong to the world. And all life is sacred.

Pray to the earth. Restore your self and voice. Remake your spirit, so that it is in harmony with the rest of nature and the universe. Keep peace with all your sisters and brothers. Humans who minds are healthy desire such peace and justice.

These powerful words reflect the heart and pain of an Indigenous writer … the heart and pain of anyone who thinks deeply and cares about life … these powerful words, strong and beautiful … leave me with a question:

Where are the peace-makers?

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

Listen carefully, and you’ll hear them sing:

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

Hallelujah and Amen!