Pastor's Blog

God's Abundant Table, Part 1: Bread Everywhere

Exodus 16:1-5            The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”

Luke 5:27-32  After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him. Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

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After we read the passage from Exodus at the roundtable this week, one person said, “That doesn’t seem like the end of the story.  It feels like we stopped in the middle.”  And that’s true – it is not the end of the story, it actually goes on much longer.  The story of how God feeds us runs all through the scriptures from beginning to end.

We started this week close to the beginning.  The people of Israel are not too far into their wilderness journey by this time, and they have run into a problem. A problem they have, apparently, not encountered before – the problem of hunger.  They have been out there long enough to complain about other things, but this is the first time they have complained about hunger.  And I’m glad they had the opportunity to do that, because complaining is something they do well – with style. 

Earlier in their journey, they complained because they were afraid.  Pharaoh and his army were still pursuing them, with horses and chariots.  If you saw the movie “The Ten Commandments,” then you have a powerful visual image in your mind of what that was like.  Surely it was frightening.  But even in fear the Israelites had the gift of sarcasm.  They looked at the army coming at them, and they turned to Moses and said:  “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Nice, don’t you think?

And here they are again, pining for the good old days of slavery in Egypt.  Rolling their eyes, they say, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.”

And the Lord said, “You’re welcome.  Don’t mention it.”

Not really, of course.  Here the Lord did not match sarcasm with sarcasm.  The Lord would eventually lose his temper with the people of Israel, but not yet.  Right now God has some sympathy for them, because after all, these people have never known any life except slavery.  And freedom can probably seem very scary to someone who has never tasted it.  So, instead of snapping at the people for their ungrateful whining, like a tired, exasperated mother, God just gives them what they need: food.

This is the wonderful story of how God rained bread from heaven for Israel, every day for as long as they needed it.  The people would step outside their tents each morning, hungry from their nighttime fast, and find bread everywhere.  And it was good. 

God provided for the people what they needed, and the people had to learn to trust God to give them what they needed.  Each day they were instructed to gather up only as much as they needed for the day – their daily bread.  There was no value in gathering more, hoarding it, because by the next day it would be rotten and crawling with maggots.  Besides, tomorrow there would be more, fresh bread from heaven.  In this was the lesson of trust.  Each day God would provide what they needed for that day. 

Except, of course, on the Sabbath day, when God rests.  So for this one day, God made an exception to the rule and instructed them to gather up extra manna on the day before. On this one day the manna would stay fresh a little longer.  This taught them another lesson – the lesson of preparing, being ready.  They use what God provides to take care of their own needs.

Now just in case you’re wondering right now: what is the statistical likelihood of this stuff falling every day except the seventh day, in a continuous cycle?  I ask you, please, not to worry about that.  The point of the story is just that people who put their trust in God will be fed by the hand of God.  The people who put their trust in God, in fact, will see God’s blessings everywhere.  God’s bread is everywhere.

Stories about people being fed are all over the Bible.  I couldn’t begin to try to tell you about all of them.  It is clear from the scriptures that feeding hungry people is one of the things God does best.  Bread is life. 

But we also know that we need much more than bread to live.  We need fellowship.  We need love.  We need purpose to our lives.  And God provides for us in these ways, as well.

The story in Luke where Jesus sits at table with a whole convention of tax collectors begins to tell that story. 

He sees Levi, the tax collector at his work, and simply says to him, “Follow me.”  Levi rises from his table and walks away from it to follow Jesus.  He asks no questions, he makes no excuses.  He follows Jesus and never looks back.

Levi, who would become the disciple Matthew, found something that day when Jesus called to him – a different kind of bread.  He found the bread that would fill the hunger in him that nothing else could fill.  He found the fellowship of the Lord. And he found purpose for his life.

Of course, having found something so good, he wanted to share it with his friends, all tax collectors, apparently.  Who else would a tax collector socialize with?  Right? Outcasts only have other outcasts.  So the outcasts had a party together at Levi’s house.

But now they had a new friend – Jesus.  And as he wined and dined with the fellowship of tax collectors, the local Pharisees looked on with horror, because in their eyes Jesus was proving just how inept he was as a leader, a teacher. Sitting at table with sinners, defiling himself with their filth. 

Tax collectors may not seem quite so awful to us, but it was the way they used people that made them so contemptible.  Levi and the other tax collectors were despised because they used the people of Israel for their own personal gain.  To the Jewish tax collectors, their fellow Jews were useful to them only so far as they could squeeze something out of them.  They weren’t interested in person-to-person interactions – they were interested in transactions.

It is a very human weakness we share with the Tax Collectors, the Pharisees, the Egyptians, and all different people from all times and places – the desire for our interactions to be transactions, where there is something in it for us.

Yet Jesus dined with all of them – tax collectors, Samaritans, sinners – he shared bread with them anyway.  He didn’t hang out with Levi because he was hoping for a tax break.  He called out Levi because Levi was a hungry man.  And in this he showed all of Israel a different way – God’s way.

God does not withhold the bread of life from any of God’s children – no matter who they are.

All who are hungry, if they come to him, shall be fed.  God will give them what they need.  If they have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts to know, they will find that bread is everywhere.

God gives us what we need.  This we learn from the stories of scripture and from the stories of our very lives.  And just as we have been fed, God calls us to feed others in his name.  Simply because they need it.

To give people what they need simply because they need it.  Not because they are somehow useful to us. 

To welcome people into the fellowship we share simply because they need it.  Not because they are somehow useful to us. 

The world may have taught us to give only to the deserving, to love only those who love us first, but God calls us to a different way of living: to bless because we have been blessed by God, to welcome because we have been welcomed by God, to love because we have been loved by God.

May you open the eyes of your heart and see that God’s bread is everywhere, and may you share it with gladness.

Thanks be to God. 

 

 

Finding Our Purpose,Part 3: One Thing

Exodus 34:29-35        Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2          Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

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Once I heard a Presbyterian pastor speak at a presbytery meeting about the way we handle our business in church. 

This pastor said, “This is how we do church meetings.  We sit down at the meeting table and we say, ‘Hello God.  Welcome to our business meeting.  We are so glad to have you here.  Would you be so kind as to bless this gathering?’  There is an opening prayer…perhaps a brief devotion on a passage of scripture…then everyone says, ‘Amen.’  Then we say, ‘God, thank you so much for your assistance.  I am afraid we have to ask you to leave now because we have some important business to attend to, business that, frankly, we don’t think you would be interested in and most likely you don’t have anything to offer in this regard.  So thanks again, and let me show you the door.  Oh, and God – if you would be so kind as to stay close by, in case we need you later to bless our work.’”

I think there is a lot of truth to that.  We act as though God only has certain interests and as if God doesn’t have something to say to every part of our lives.  We sort of compartmentalize – separating spiritual from practical.

Maybe we do it because it is easier to sort our lives out this way.  I am sure it is easier to manage certain things if we keep God separate from them – put up the veil.

Sometimes we put a veil between ourselves and God, thinking God doesn’t really care about certain aspects of our lives, as though God has limited interests or, worse yet, a limited skill set.  When we put up the veil, we might think we are doing it to spare God the trouble, but we are really only doing it to spare ourselves.

The story about Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness is a fantastic story full of strange and extraordinary things.  This episode about Moses’ glowing face behind the veil is not the strangest, but it is close.

Moses would travel up to the top of the mountain to converse with God – well away from everyone else.  Elsewhere, we are told that God knows that Moses, although an exceptional human being, would not be able to stand looking at the face of God. No one could see the face of God and live, we are told.  Arrangements were made to shield Moses from God’s face and only look upon the Lord indirectly – through a fog or in the periphery. 

But even that indirect exposure was enough to change Moses’ appearance.   When he came down from the mountain he was shining.  Some have suggested that it might be a bad sunburn from all that time spent up in the high altitude.  Indeed, he might have been sunburnt, but I don’t believe that’s all that was going on.  In some inexplicable way, Moses was different.  Radiant.  Whatever it was, the Israelites reacted in a bad way.  They were unable to hear his words because they were afraid. 

So Moses figured out that the best thing to do was to veil his face from the people. The story tells us that he would go back and forth, between God and the people, taking the veil off before God and putting it back on before the people. 

This story about the veil Moses wore is a way of telling us about the power of God’s presence.  The story is a way of telling us that Moses was somehow different after he has spent time with God.  The Exodus saga has many ways of letting us know that the experience of the presence of God is absolutely unlike anything else in the world. 

There is the pillar of fire that leads the people out of Egypt by night, and the pillar of cloud that leads them by day.  The fire and the cloud had other functions once they reached Mount Sinai, the holy mountain of God.  Fire and smoke covered the mountain and the mountain shook.  The cloud would descend from the mountaintop when the Lord was summoning Moses. 

Strange stuff.  Modern minds might say all this can be easily explained by science. This is certainly true.  But that is not the point.  Pre-modern minds used whatever language and images they could to describe something that defies words.  What was true then and is still true today is that the presence of God is awesome and strange, wonderful and frightening.

And this awesome, strange, wonderful, and frightening presence of God desires to be a part of every aspect of our lives.  Now, if that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is.

Paul picks up this image of the veil in his letter to the Corinthian church and uses it to try to explain the way God expects to have an intimate relationships with us, to know us fully and be known by us.  We are invited to allow God into our lives fully, every aspect of our lives, and thus be transformed by the encounter as Moses was transformed.

But, whereas the people of Israel needed the veil between themselves and the radiance of the Lord, Paul says through Christ, the veil is lifted and we are able to see God more fully than ever before.  Like Moses in the company of the Lord, we may stand in the presence of Christ with unveiled faces, being transformed by this encounter.  This we may call faith.

Faith – it is the energy that powers our relationship with God, the gift from God to us that enables us to remove the veil; faith, the one thing that increases when we spend time in the presence of the Lord unveiled.  It is the one thing that drives the rest of our purpose statement. 

It was very clear when session gathered to talk about who we are and whom God is calling us to be that faith was a critical component.  It was clear that the leadership of this congregation felt a call to be growing in faith as the body of Christ. 

Truthfully, it is the calling of all Christians to be always growing in faith, in both depth and breadth.  But there is more than one way to pursue spiritual growth, and that will often depend on a person’s, or a congregation’s, spiritual personality.

We know who we are, to a large extent, by the things we do.  The way we spend our time and our money tells us what our priorities are.  Last week we considered some of the things we do at Faith, which helped us to clearly see some of our priorities.  It is clear that Faith is a relational congregation.  We care about relationships.  We care about how our brothers and sisters in Christ are faring; we care about what makes them happy or sad. 

And we care about the people of this community in which we are planted.  On this land, which was freely given to us so that we may be a blessing to this community, we must seek ways to serve the people around us. This is how we express our faith and this is how we grow our faith.

And so, it is cyclical:  our faith enables our works and our works increase our faith. So we say that Faith Church is a congregation of Christians growing in faith by caring, connecting, and serving community.  Our faith enables us to care, connect, and serve, and our faith is increased by our practice of caring, connecting, and serving community.

Not every congregation is the same.  But, for some, working for the well being of the people around them is the best way they know how to serve Christ.  For some, creating and nurturing loving relationships is the best way they know how to worship God.  Do you think this describes you?  Us?

Being the hands and feet of Christ in our community may be the best way we can remove the veil and draw nearer to God. 

As we move forward under the guidance of our purpose statement, let us seek the presence of Christ in all our activities, and seek to be more like him in all we do.  Let us remove the veil because there is nothing in our lives that God does not want to be a part of, and there is nothing we might do that would not be made better by inviting God into it.  May we know who we are, and who God is calling us to be.

 

Finding our Purpose, Part 2: What We Do

Jeremiah 1:4-10         Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

1 Corinthians 13:1-13           If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

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

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

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Last weekend I was at a place called Transformations Spirituality Center, up in Kalamazoo Michigan.  If you are wondering to yourselves:  Why Michigan?  When you have a chance to go somewhere in January, who chooses Michigan?  You are not the only one who wonders.  I wondered myself, why I couldn’t find something useful down in Florida, for example.  But no, it was Michigan.

I went to this place to practice a type of prayer called centering prayer.  The idea of centering prayer is to open your mind and heart, your whole being, to God; to a place beyond thoughts, words, and emotions; to enter into communion with God.  Yes, it is as hard as it sounds. 

The idea of going to a place beyond thought – what is that?  Because, you know, your mind is always racing around, here and there and everywhere; between your mental to-do lists and replaying the conversation you had earlier in the day and figuring out how you are going to solve this problem or that.  The mind never shuts down. 

Those of you who practice yoga or meditation probably know what this is like.  Letting go of all these things is hard, but it’s what we need to do to be fully present with God.  The biggest problem I keep running into is my effort to make my centering prayer time productive.  I want to make it work for me.   I have that good old protestant work ethic in me that aims to never waste a minute, to always kill two birds with one stone if possible, to be useful, productive.  Unfortunately, this constant desire for productivity is the enemy of centering prayer.

I was reminded during this retreat that even though we are creatures who do many things, we are sometimes just meant to be – not do.  Just be. Taking the time to just be is worthy, indeed.  Not only because we are deserving of rest sometimes, but also because being, resting in the presence of God, is a partner to our doing.  Being in God’s presence will inform and direct our doing.  And what we do is very important.  If we want our doing to reflect our purpose, we need to spend some time being in God’s presence.

As a session, when we began to think about our purpose as a congregation, we though of the many things we do – our worship, our learning, our love and support for one another; our service to the community and the world.  All these things served as a starting point for us to reflect on the purpose we believe God has given to us, the gifts we believe God has bestowed on us. 

You might recall that when I talked about finding our purpose a couple of weeks ago, I said our purpose statement is both descriptive and aspirational – what we do and what we aspire to do. We considered all the things we do, and the things we believe God is calling us to do that we may not yet be doing, and at the end of the day we came to the consensus that God is calling us to –

Be Christians growing in faith by caring, connecting, and serving community. 

It begins with caring.  This might sound like a feeling more than an action. Perhaps feeling is where caring starts, but the feeling of caring leads to actions, and the act of caring is what we see among the congregation of Faith.

More than any other place, we see it in our expression of joys and concerns during worship.  Not a lot of congregations I have known treat the joys and concerns the way Faith does.  You share everything with one another, because you trust that your sisters and brothers in Christ actually care about the joys and sorrows of your life.  And you are right to believe this.  I see it in your faces as you listen to one another, and I hear it in conversations that go on throughout the week.  It’s not gossip; it’s true concern about the needs you have heard expressed and a true desire to help where you can.  I see it as Maria diligently writes down everything she hears during the time of sharing, and sends it out to the congregation by email so we can continue to be in prayer for one another throughout the week. 

The caring begins in worship, in prayer, and moves out from there to wherever God may lead you to respond.  Through our care, God calls us to strengthen our connections to one another.  But our connection to others is something we might become complacent about. 

It is very easy to always sit with the same people, talk with the same people, and never bother to get to know someone new, because we already have friends; never bother to reach out to someone who is alone or suffering because we don’t know them very well.  Our faith challenges us to grow more connected to all our brothers and sisters – the young and the old, the new members and the old timers, the regulars and those who rarely attend. 

This ability to connect is actually a great strength of this congregation, a strength we should be very conscious of using to the fullest.  It is something that can actually help us grow as a congregation – and here I mean growth at all levels: personal spiritual growth, which is where all church growth starts; growth in the vitality of our communal spiritual life; and finally, growth in numbers.   If we reach out of our comfort zones and strive to make strong connections based on love with those members who might feel disconnected from this family of faith, amazing things might happen: a vibrant, multi-generational family might grow.  This congregation has the potential to do excellent care and connecting among the membership of this church, knitting us together in love.

There’s something else.  There’s one more thing that needs to be said about the care this congregation can express.  It isn’t limited to the members of the congregation.  There is also care for what goes on in the community, in the world, beyond our walls.

This is an area with great potential, and great necessity.  The call to connect with those outside our walls is clear in Christ’s commission to the church.  Some of our members take care to bring before us the needs of the community and the world, and ask for our response.  We are reminded that in this community there are children who go to school poorly clothed for the weather because their families simply cannot provide everything they need.  We are reminded that there are families in our community who cannot give Christmas gifts to their children, and there are families who cannot even keep their cupboards stocked with food to eat.  And this congregation responds – not because there is something in it for us, but because Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and the lonely.  We care because we must, and we do it because God has laid the desire on our hearts.

This congregation supports the preschool in our building because of the need in our community – there are many young families who benefit from the love we can share with them, the prayers we can make for them, the smiles we can give them to show we remember what it is like to raise children and we want to encourage them.  Again, we don’t do it because there is some payback in it.  We do it because Jesus calls us to love one another and welcome the little children in his name.

In loving care, we seek to connect with the community in which we have been planted, and reach out to all our neighbors in the world.  Caring, connecting, and serving in our community.  These are the things we are called to do, the things we must do as we call ourselves followers of Christ.  It all grows out of love.

The scriptures tell us in so many ways that God is love, that God’s love for us is unconditional, and that we are commanded to love God and our neighbor.  Paul’s words to the Corinthians in chapter 13 say it beautifully.  Every congregation finds their unique way to live out this love, and at Faith we have ours.  Our caring, our connecting, and serving our community is the gift we have been given at Faith.  It’s what we do.  We may not do it perfectly, but we seek to do it better today than we did yesterday. 

There is something else.  There is one thing that gives us the desire to love one another in all these different ways.  It is the thing that both empowers us to do what we do and grows stronger when we do what we do.  It is what we will talk about next week.  For today and this week, let us seek to do well these things we have been called and inspired to do: to care, connect, and serve our community – in Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

 

Finding Our Purpose

John 2:1-11    On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

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Bloomsburg, the town where we lived for 20 years, is a small town – with all the good and bad qualities that go along with that.  One of the funny things I noticed, that I consider a small town quirk, is that when a new restaurant opened in town, everyone in town flocked to it – everyone.  In a small town, there is only one novel thing happening at a time, so everyone is paying attention to it.  And a new restaurant – well that was about as exciting as it gets.  Kim and I learned to hold back and wait awhile before trying out a new place.  Check our excitement, exercise patience, and just wait for the crowds to dwindle after everyone had their curiosity satisfied.

I worked in restaurants for a while when I was in graduate school; I learned a little bit about the business during that time.  One of the terms I learned was the “soft opening.”  Sometimes an establishment will have what they call a soft opening before a grand opening.  A soft opening might be a friends and family night, where guests are invited for a trial run, to test out the equipment and the staff.  Or it could be just quietly opening for business without any advertising and fanfare.  The point is to ensure that if things go wrong the impact will not be too great, because not too many people will notice. 

By the way, I don’t know if you could pull off a soft opening in Bloomsburg, because if something new is going on, everyone is noticing it.  Huber Heights may be a little like a small town in the same way.  I think of how people have been watching and discussing the progress on the new Panera opening this week up on Troy Pike. 

So just thinking all week about the wedding at Cana, I began to wonder:  Is this sort of like a soft opening for Jesus?

On first read, it kind of looks that way.  According to John, it is the first miracle he performs – or the first sign, as John calls them.  And he does it at a private party where he is simply a guest – not the main attraction.  And he does what he does quietly and behind the scenes. 

They go to the wedding – Jesus, his disciples, and his mother – as guests.  The wine runs out, which I don’t think rates as a world-class catastrophe.  Nowhere near the level of a tsunami or drought.  No lives will be lost for a shortage of wine.  It may be regretful but surely not a real crisis.  And yet, Jesus’ first miracle is to make more wine.

All the evidence combined might suggest that it was something like a soft opening for Jesus – except for one thing.  John thought it was worthy of inclusion in his gospel as our introduction to Jesus the Christ.  And he frames it in powerful language –

It happened on the third day.

My hour has not yet come.

And it revealed his glory.

The story has surprised readers more than most stories of Jesus’ ministry, and we need to take it seriously.  Creating wine out of water is the world’s introduction to the Savior of the world.  Therefore, it must say something about his purpose.

I have had a lot of conversations about purpose lately.  It has been a significant part of the session’s work during the last year, and it has also become a part of the conversation at the presbytery level, in the Leadership Council on which I serve.  We are in deep discernment about our purpose – as a congregation, as a presbytery, as the Church of Jesus Christ.  It is time for us to talk about purpose – because, frankly, the church of the last century, in its comfortable complacency, has all but lost its sense of purpose.

The 20th century was, by and large, a pretty good time for the church in America.  Attendance was great; growth was great.  The church held a place of honor in the American culture, just by virtue of being the church.  Many people came to church because that was what you were supposed to do.  And people would notice.

There was the baby boom, and church nurseries and Sunday school classrooms were filled to overflowing.  The pews were crammed with worship-goers.  Do you remember the days when the ushers had to actually help you find a place to sit?

Offering plates were full because the church was full.  We didn’t really have to think too much about our purpose.  But obviously things have changed.  And in a certain way, maybe that change is a good thing.

Because if we aren’t thinking about our purpose, if we don’t know what our purpose is, we are surely not fulfilling it.

There is no doubt that Jesus had a purpose when he began his ministry in Galilee.  We hear it in a variety of ways in the four gospels.  He came to give us power to become children of God. He came to save us from our sins and to bring in the kingdom of God, to lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things. 

The miracle at Cana certainly says something about his purpose – and I will say more about this later.  But the thing we struggle with is not so much Jesus’s purpose as the church’s purpose.

The gospels tell us that the church’s purpose, in the broadest sense, is to make disciples for Jesus Christ.  There is not one way to do this any more than there is one kind of disciple.  It is the task of every congregation to discern their particular purpose in their particular location.

It was more than 15 years ago that this church went through the process of writing a mission statement.  The statement is thoughtful, carefully crafted, and says much to us about our beliefs, our vision, and our mission.  To some degree, it has guided this congregation over the years, but it has not been enough.

Now we are taking the next step.  We are establishing a statement of our purpose, which attempts to do these things:

It tells us what we aspire to.  A purpose statement is not just a bullet list of what we do; it’s much more.  It perceives what we hold to be most valuable and then puts that value before us as an ideal.  We will probably not fulfill our purpose statement completely, but we will hold it out as a reminder every day of what we are all about.

It gives us something to share with others.  Please understand me – a purpose statement is not a marketing slogan.  It is primarily for internal use.  But it gives us one very important thing: Our purpose statement gives us tools, words to use when we talk to others about our church and why it matters to us.

One of the hardest questions for church people to answer is the question of why.  Why do you come here?  Why is it an important part of your life?  Why might it be of value to someone else?  It can be very hard to answer the why questions about something that has always been a part of your life, such that you don’t even have to think about why you do it.  Why is not terribly important to insiders.  But it is very important to those standing outside.  It is the question that becomes most important when we are standing at the gap between the church and the community, and we are trying to build a bridge. 

Many of us have struggled to find answers to the why question.  But the purpose statement gives us words with which to begin.  And it gives us one more thing –

It captures who and where we are at this particular time, but we are not going to carve it on the cornerstone of our building.  A congregation’s purpose may change, because the congregation and the community may change.  There may come a time when our purpose statement no longer helps us to live and grow as faithful disciples.  It will be necessary to revisit our purpose in a few years time and see if it still resonates, or whether it is time to discern anew, with enthusiasm and trust that God will lead us.

So, you may be wondering, what is our purpose statement?  It is this:

Our purpose is to be Christians growing in faith by caring, connecting, and serving community. 

In the next few weeks we will begin to break down and unpack this statement, to understand and explore the ways everything we do serves our purpose. 

Jesus understood his purpose, and everything he did served that purpose – yes, even making wine.  He went to a wedding feast, a celebration of the union of two people, and he provided the wine – the best wine.  A lot of it.  He filled their cups to overflowing with joy and life.  We don’t have to work too hard to see that the kingdom of God Jesus brings to us, the reconciliation he offers between the world and God, is a joyful celebration.  Out of his love for us his life is poured out as a libation.  He asks us to continue the celebration in his name. 

There’s a word we don’t use often enough about church: Celebration.  Let it be the place we start as we begin to find our purpose.

New Beginnings - Being There

Acts 8:26-40   Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Revelation 3:8           “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

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In last Sunday’s New York Times there was an article about serendipity.[1]  So, as I have been preparing for today this word has been on my mind.  It’s not a word that is easily defined.  Many people tend to think of serendipity as a happy accident or dumb luck.  But the actual root of this word is rather different.

I’ll bet you didn’t know – unless you read the same article I did – that the word serendipity comes from a Persian fairy tale about three princesses from the Isle of Serendip.  As the princesses traveled around they were always making discoveries of things they were not searching for.  The word serendipity came to be used to describe a skill, such as these princesses had, to find new and unexpected things.  Some people are good at it, and others not so good.

Some people are more serendipitous than others.

So, of course, someone asked the question: is it possible to identify certain characteristics shared by people who are especially serendipitous?  She carried out a research project and actually found something.  She discovered a type of person she called the super-encounterer.  These people find interesting surprises everywhere.  Why?  Because they are looking everywhere – deeply and widely and with an attitude of fascination about whatever they are encountering.  These people are discovering things because they are looking.

Serendipity does not just involve dumb luck.  It involves skill; practice. 

To this you might say, who cares?  You might wonder if any of this really matters.  To the rest of us, the super-encounterers might look as though they are wasting a lot of time.  But then again, maybe not.  Another study found that as many as 50% of patents resulted from what could be called a serendipitous process.  The engine behind so much growth and progress in the world is this thing we call serendipity. 

In the church we have our own terms for this sort of process.  We talk about the Holy Spirit, who gives us nudges or visions, opening our eyes to what is possible and how we might engage in God’s work in the world.  We use the word discernment to describe a kind of holy listening – listening and looking for the will of God in our lives.  And just like serendipity, discernment is more than just an accident.

Take the example of Philip in the story we heard from Acts.  The angel said to him, “Get up and go,” so he got up and went.  The spirit said to him, go over to that chariot, so Philip approached the chariot and thereby set a wonderful process in motion.  In this encounter, the Ethiopian received the gospel, was baptized, and went on his way, spreading the good news to Africa. 

All of this occurred because Philip was paying attention.  None of this was on his agenda.  None of it.  But when he woke up that morning there was a discovery to be made. 

It is important to know that these things are real, but they are not fantastical.  We don’t need to imagine a human-like creature with wings and halo standing in front of Philip delivering a message.  And we don’t need to assume that there was some transparent, ghostly creature beside Philip whispering in his ear.  The scriptures use inadequate words to convey something beyond description, and that happens everywhere, everyday, to ordinary people.  Yes, there are angels ready to give us messages, and the Holy Spirit is here now, ready to give us a glimpse of the divine intentions.

As we complete our three-week series on New Beginnings we come to the moment where we are.  These last two weeks we talked first about the importance of remembering, and that there is also a time and place for forgetting – letting things go.  Simply put, there are some things from the past we bring along with us and there are some things we choose to leave behind.  But ultimately, we find we need to live in the present moment, where we are.  Today we confront being there.

Without actually being there – in the place and moment where we are – no angels will be heard, no gifts of the Spirit will be received, no discoveries will be made.  Without being there, no new friendships will be forged, no growth will occur.  But in being there, the possibilities are limitless.

There is a little story I read about Martin Luther King, Jr. as a young man.  When he was first starting out, he candidated at a tall steeple church, a very prestigious pulpit.  It was to be a fine feather in his newly ordained cap.  But the congregation voted no.  They simply said this was not the pastor they wanted.  He must have been crushed, humiliated. 

So he ended up accepting a call at the Dexter Avenue church in Montgomery, Alabama.  The next year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery city bus and a whole movement was set in motion.  King was right there. 

If he had been offered that prestigious pulpit, he would have been somewhere else.  Who knows what would have happened with the bus boycott or the whole Civil Rights Movement.  But he was there, where he needed to be for the work God had prepared for him. 

And the most important thing you need to know:  it wasn’t just an accident.  It wasn’t bad luck followed by good luck. It wasn’t a fantastic coincident.  Nor was it the hand of God moving people around like pawns on a chessboard.  It was serendipity in the best sense of the word.

King was disappointed, surely, but he moved forward in faith, trusting that God had something for him.  He put down his roots in Montgomery, the Dexter Avenue Church and began the work of day-to-day ministry.  And when something happened on the bus, he was paying attention. 

As I said last Sunday, sometimes we need to let go of the past for the sake of living, really living, in the present.  That is precisely what Dr. King had to do – and he did.

We make it a lot harder for God to do good work with us if we are not paying attention.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian is a story about paying attention – and then responding.  He followed the road to Gaza.  He approached the chariot and spoke to the Ethiopian.  He listened and responded with the good news.  And when the Ethiopian said, “Look – here’s some water.  What is to prevent me from being baptized?  What, indeed!  Born anew of water and the Spirit, this Ethiopian man carried the gospel into new territory.

Then Philip, it seems, was teleported to a different location.  “Beam me up, Scottie – my work here is done.”  Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that, but I don’t lose any sleep over it either.  The point is that these two men had a serendipitous encounter because they were ready to encounter something new.

In this New Year, I don’t know what God has in store for us.  We have plans, but sometimes the best plans have to be put aside for the sake of some wonderful new opportunity that God sets before us.  And we want to be ready for that.  We want to be giving priority to developing our spiritual antennae.  Listening in prayer, speaking to one another about how God might be working with us – individually and as a congregation.  It’s important for us to have these conversations, and yes, we must include God in all these conversations.  We must grow in our ability to speak of God – with one another as well as with those we might encounter on the road who are seeking God.  None of us is too old – or too young – to grow.

This church is about the same age I am.  You might call us middle-aged.  We are at that stage in life when we begin to wonder what God still has in store for us.  A few years ago I found this prayer that seemed to be written for me – called A Prayer for the Middle Years of Opportunity.[2]  Maybe it speaks for you, too.

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life,
To organize myself in the direction of simplicity.
Lord, teach me to listen to my heart;
Teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it.
Lord, I give you these stirrings inside me,
I give you my discontent,
I give you my restlessness,
I give you my doubt,
I give you my despair,
I give you all the longings I hold inside.
Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth;
To listen seriously and follow where they lead
Through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.  Amen.

God has set before you an open door, which no one can shut.  Imagine yourself walking through that open door.

 



[1] Pagan Kennedy, Cultivating the Art of Serendipity.  NYT 1.3.16

 

New Beginnings - Forget

Philippians 3:12-13  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.

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Graham Greene was a great English novelist, and among the many wonderful books he wrote was a little story called Monsignor Quixote.  It’s about a priest who is traveling with a companion with whom he does not always agree.  They have very different beliefs and somewhat different values, and after a night of heated disagreement, his companion comes to the priest sheepishly, somewhat apologetically, about last night.  Father Quixote says he has no idea what he is concerned about, for he hasn’t any recollection of whatever they discussed the night before.  “I am trained to forget what I am told,” he says.  Even when it’s not in the confessional?  “It’s much easier for a priest to treat everything as a confession.  I make a habit of never repeating anything to anyone – even to myself, if possible.”

Most people, including his bishop, seem to find Father Quixote to be rather simple – simpleminded.  You know, not too bright.  He certainly is unsophisticated, having lived in the same poor village his whole life, except for the time he attended seminary. 

I don’t believe I know anyone who makes a practice of forgetting.  Most of us are preoccupied, even obsessed with remembering.  When we are younger remembering is easier – but the bar is set pretty high, with all the things we are expected to learn.  As we get older the expectations are lower, which is a good thing.  Our ability to remember things is increasingly challenged, as our mental filing cabinets get overly full and disorganized. 

Last week as we began our series on New Beginnings we focused on remembering – a worthy goal, I’m sure you agree.  Remember the successes, and even remember the failures for the sake of knowing what we did wrong and trying to avoid that particular wrong in the future.  Remembering where we have been, with hearts of gratitude, will surely help us determine where we are going.  But is there also a place, as we move forward, for forgetting?

The Apostle Paul seems to think so.  In his letter to the Philippian church he speaks of forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.  One thing we should know about this:  it was probably one of the last letters Paul wrote.  This was a letter written late in his life.  There was a great deal behind him, which he was choosing to forget for the sake of what lies ahead.

For everything we remember there is also a way in which we would be better off to forget it.  Allow me to suggest three things.

Forgetting the ways in which we were wronged.  It is a temptation to remember every slight, every offense, every abuse we have suffered.  Some of us are very good at holding grudges.  We seem to think remembering these things will somehow bring balance to the universe – or at least, maybe, protect us from ever suffering such an insult again.  There’s that old saying: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. 

And it is not altogether wrong that we should remember the offenses, for the sake of being aware of how we may be hurt.  Jesus advised his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves when he sent them out into the world.  Be wise to the sinfulness of the world in which we live, and the ways we may be hurt.  But at the same time, remember what is good and pure and worthy of our time and effort.  It is too easy for thoughts of past wrongs to poison our minds and hearts.  To the extent that you are able, forget the wrongs of the past.  It will free you to live in the present and move into the future.

I always remembered those words of Monsignor Quixote more than anything else in the story, because it explains so much about the Father – why he walks around so sublimely happy so much of the time!  Happy are those who don’t remember the ways they have been slighted, cheated, or offended by others, for they shall be content.  They shall have the gift of living in the moment.

Forget the ways in which you have been wronged and be at peace.

Forget, also, the way things are supposed to be.  We all know how things are supposed to be, and this will cause us more grief than we care to deal with.  More arguments are caused by people who know how things are supposed to go than anyone or anything else.  I haven’t actually researched this, but I’m saying it anyway because it feels true.

I don’t think I need to remind you of the seven most exalted words in the life of the church:  We’ve never done it that way before.  Or its close cousin:  This is how we’ve always done it.  I would bet that every one of us has said these words at least once.  And while it can sometimes be helpful to know how we have always done it before – especially for a new pastor trying to figure things out – it’s also a way of closing off imagination, conversation, even possibility.  The problem with doing things the way they are supposed to be done is that things actually change. The world changes – everything in it changes.  And the truth is we don’t know how the Spirit will be at work in our lives; we don’t know what God has in store for us.  When you think you know how things are supposed to happen, you close your mind to the possibility of how things might unfold.

Forget how things are supposed to be, and look for the way things are.

Finally, let’s forget our successes.  I know what you are thinking.  Forget our successes?  Why in the name of all that is good would we want to do that?  This can be a harder thing to make sense of.

Last week we talked about remembering that we have been through hard times in the past, that we have weathered storms and survived to tell the tales.  Remembering can help us to believe that the hardships we are experiencing will pass.  Remembering can give us assurance that because we have made our way through storms in the past we can make our way through it again.  Remembering the past can give us strength for the present and hope for the future.

While all that is true, remembering can also get in the way.  I used to work at a church that was seeing a drop-off in attendance, especially among younger people.  We were having a hard time getting youth involved in the church, and there was some growing anxiety about the situation.  We weren’t just sitting around doing nothing – we were trying to do faithful ministry for all ages, but not seeing a lot of results.  And I began to notice something happening.  I was hearing the same sentiment expressed by many people:  If we could just have SALT again! 

SALT was the name of a youth choir that had been active in this church about 20 years earlier.  SALT was a great program.  The choir had attracted youth from all over the community – not just church members. They had traveled all over the region, bringing the good news in song and bringing fame to themselves and the church.  SALT had been a phenomenal success – at least as it lived in people’s memories.  And the darker our current situation looked, the brighter SALT shone in people’s memories.  “If we could just have SALT again” became a sort of mantra.

But we would never have it again.  It was a different time in the church and our culture.  We could have hired a director and designated some funds and resurrected the name, but we still would not have had SALT again.

Sometimes we need to forget the things of the past for the sake of living – really living.

Recently, I heard someone say, “It seems like the more I let go of, the more I get.”  And I have been considering just how true that might be.  We spend so much of our time and energy in the past, holding on to good memories we wish to return to, or bad memories we wish to protect ourselves from or even avenge ourselves for.  We spend too much effort trying to maintain control of things, keeping them the way we like and feel comfortable with.

Imagine all these things as stones you are holding in your hands.  They’re attractive stones, sure, and they seem worthy of our efforts to hold on to them.  But one day you might get a glimpse of a stone of such beauty as you haven’t seen before – just a brief glimpse, really, because you are mostly preoccupied with keeping your grip on the stones in your hands.  But when you happen to glance up and see this new stone, you immediately know that it is worthy of taking hold of.  Yet, you can’t.  Your hands are too full already.

Sometimes you need to let go for the sake of something better.  As we begin a new year, let us consider forgetting those things that lie behind and strain forward for the sake of what Christ is opening before us.

New Beginnings - Remember

Happy New Year!  This week, we began a three-week series on New Beginnings. 

Luke 2:41-52  Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

When I read this story I try to imagine it all from the parents’ point of view.  It’s not hard, actually.  I have done my fair share of losing the children.  That feeling of panic the moment you realize your child is gone.  You reach out for help – I’ve had the shopping mall on lock down more than once.  You go on high alert, focused and with one mission: to find this child.

But I don’t know how it would be to feel that way for three days.

Three days they searched in Jerusalem, a city packed with Jews from all over the diaspora, on pilgrimage for the festival of the Passover.  Three days he was on his own in a city that was not his home, an unfamiliar place.  Three days Mary and Joseph did not know if their son was alive, didn’t know if he was safe.

And then, that moment when you find your child, you breathe a sigh of relief, and say, “Thank God you’re safe.  Now I think I’m going to kill you.”

Well, for Mary, this was one of those days in her child’s life that she would simply hold; one of those days she would need to suspend judgment; one of those days she would treasure in her heart.  It had been like that for Mary from the beginning.

At his birth when the shepherds told all the things that the angels had said, Mary treasured their words in her heart.  I can imagine the same, when they presented Jesus at the temple on the 8th day and Simeon and Anna, who were near the end of their lives, greeted the newborn messiah with words of prophecy and worship.  It was a recognition that as one age was ending, a new age was beginning.  And Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

This week we mark the end of this year, and cross the threshold of a new one.  It is a time of new beginnings, and at such times there are things we take with us and things we leave behind; some things we lay to rest and others we will hold and treasure in our hearts.  It is our task to sort through the pieces of our life and decide where they all go.  

Today we begin a three-week series called New Beginnings, and we look first at the task of remembering.  

There are different reasons for remembering things.  Some things are remembered because they were wonderful; other things are remembered because they were awful.  Everything remembered is remembered because it is somehow shaping us into the people we are and will become.  

Oftentimes the strongest memories are the bad ones – the memories we cling to as a caution, lest it should happen again.  The great depression; the holocaust; Pearl Harbor, or 9/11 – these are collective memories that impel us to guard against a potential danger.

It’s important to remember these things.  “Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it,” said the writer George Santayana.  There are certain things we would wish to never, ever repeat.  The memories might be painful, but they bear recalling for the sake of ensuring that we never walk that path again.

The Lord commanded Israel to remember their years of slavery in Egypt.  This was not a good memory for them, but remember they must.  In the act of remembering, the benefits are twofold – for their relationship with God and also with others:  First, the remembrance allows them to celebrate how the Lord their God led them out of slavery and into the Promised Land.  And secondly, they are reminded of what it is to be a stranger, ill treated, in a strange land; it is a caveat to never, ever subject anyone else to that kind of treatment.

One of my children had a bad year in middle school when her friends suddenly started bullying her for no apparent reason.  She was so miserable she wanted to quit school.  Fortunately it lasted only a year – although it probably felt like an eternity, it was only a year. But she never forgot that year, and it has reminded her to be compassionate toward the square pegs, the misfits, the ones who need a little love.  Her father helped her learn this when he said to her, “Remember how this feels. When you see someone else being left out or picked on, remember how it feels.”

Our memories of pain, while uncomfortable, can guide us toward becoming better people.  But we must allow ourselves to experience the memory honestly.  So often our instincts to protect ourselves from pain will kick in and interfere with our memories. And the memory becomes suppressed or distorted, such that we protect ourselves from the pain but as a result we learn nothing useful.  Honest remembrance is a healthy thing.

Yet, at the same time, we mustn’t let ourselves become overwhelmed by the painful memories, so much that we lose touch with hope.  I had some experience with this recently.

During this past summer, when one of my children was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury I was as frightened as I have ever been.  I can’t really describe to you what those days were like, except to say that I felt like I was in hell.  As her condition began to improve there was some relief, but I began to notice a strange effect of the fear: I couldn’t recall any good memories.  Fear suppressed memories of good things and took away my hope.

Something I read this past fall reminded me of this.  It was a story told by Henry Nouwen about a man named Bill who lived in the community of developmentally disabled adults where Nouwen worked as a chaplain.  Bill had a very tragic childhood and when he first came to the community he was frightened, and untrusting.  And he had no memories.  The pain and the fear of his early life had blotted out all his memories.  

But over the years, he learned to trust and to love again, and gradually – miraculously – he found his memories.  In the security of a loving and caring community this vulnerable man could remember that there had been some love in those early years too.

This summer, I had to work at finding the good memories.  And as I relocated those memories, I found hope.

As a congregation, we look back on our history and recall good things and bad things.  In conversations I have noticed that some of us carry powerful memories of bad times; memories that seem to color all our impressions of this church – they cause us to be more fearful, perhaps, that we need to be.  As we consider the work of remembering, I ask you to remember three things.

Remember the strengths as well as the weaknesses.  This church has weathered some storms.  We can look back at them with clear eyes and remember that we have always had the strength to go forward – in the leanest times as well as the fat times.

Remember the weaknesses, with clear eyes.  Talking about them together can be a helpful thing.  What were the qualities that have dragged us down in the past?  What did we fail to do that we should have done?  What actions did we take that we are sorry for?  

Remember the losses.  This year, as every year, we have lost some beloved members.  Let us remember them with gratitude for all they gave us.  Each one of them left us a lasting legacy – let us remember these gifts.  We owe them a debt of gratitude for their contributions to Faith. Imagine making them proud for the way we are moving forward in their memory.  What does it mean for us to pick up the mantle they left and carry on?

Remember that the things Mary treasured in her heart were both extraordinary and frightening.  She didn’t know what the future would hold for her child, but she knew that all these experiences, these memories, would be important.

As we go into the New Year, let us choose the memories we want to take with us – the memories that will strengthen us, making us wiser and more loving. Let us remember with courage and with love, as we move forward.  Some of these things we may simply hold in our hearts, trusting in God to use them, and us, in the New Year.  

 

 

 

 

It's A Wonderful Life - Treasure It!

Christmas Eve 

John 1:1-14    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Christmas of 1980 was a special Christmas in my family.  We knew that it would be my grandmother’s last.  And everyone wanted to give her something special.  We all wanted to make her wishes come true.  

It was an extravagant Christmas that year.  She got all the things she had dreamed of.  

There was a plush velour rose-colored blanket.  It would have been perfect if it could have been a rose-colored velour electric blanket, but I think the heating elements would have melted that old velour material, so it wasn’t a choice.  

There was an exquisitely beautiful doll.  Yes, this one was a bit childish.  But you need to understand that she didn’t come from the kind of family who could afford to buy their children beautiful dolls or much of anything else, so this dream was a very old one.  And the best gift of all that year was a rain lamp.

Do you know what a rain lamp is?  They were kind of popular in the 70’s.  Somebody said they were the equivalent of the lava lamp for older folks.  A rain lamp is a tall, cylindrical shaped lamp with a Greek goddess in the middle, surrounded by these wires running from top to bottom, all around the goddess.  You turn on the light and it starts a pump inside that sends oil dripping down the wires.  It is supposed to create the effect of rain.  Some people thought they were elegant.  Others thought they were tacky.  It’s a matter of taste.  To my grandmother it was beautiful.  

We loved her so much; we tried to give her everything she wanted.  Have you ever felt like that?

We all have felt that way – when we wanted nothing more than to fulfill the hopes and dreams of those we love.  

This season, we’ve followed the story of George Bailey of Bedford Falls, and all his dreams and desires, his glories and his disappointments.  All his life, George was looking for his happiness somewhere else.  Wanting so much to leave Bedford Falls and have a real adventure, but every time his plans were foiled.  George couldn’t understand why it always had to be such a struggle, why he always had to be waiting for his life to begin.  But while we watched, we have seen something he couldn’t – that all the love, all the goodness, all the living was going on right there all the time.  

One dark night in December when George thought he had lost everything, he lost his hope as well.  George thought there was nothing for him this Christmas, and that he had nothing to give anyone else – absolutely nothing.

But George didn’t count on the love that had been accumulating for him over all those years, like interest in a bank account.  He didn’t know that the years of struggle had born fruit all around him.  He didn’t know that there was a whole town full of people who loved him and wanted to give him everything he needed.  

It was the most blessed Christmas George had ever known.  In that darkest night the light shone, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The story of George Bailey is but a reflection of the story that draws us together every year on this night.  It is a story of a people who dreamed of salvation.  The treasure they sought was a land of promise, a land of milk and honey where they might live in peace.  

It is a story of a people who dreamed of a savior – one who would break the chains of slavery; relieve them from oppression and war and hunger.  

It is the story of a man and a woman who on this night held simple dreams – a dream of finding shelter and the safe delivery of their child.  They sought to be faithful to God’s design for their lives, to honor the treasure they had been given, if not to understand it.  

In the darkness of that night so long ago, these two people were being watched over and cared for and loved, by a God who wants to fulfill the dream – 

The dream of peace; the dream of a world where all people are fed and safe; the dream of a world where love reigns supreme.

You and I share this dream.  We often get distracted by lesser dreams – anything from our own personal drone to a rain lamp.  But deep in our hearts we treasure a greater dream – a dream of a wonderful life ruled by love.  Let us not lose sight of this dream, no matter how dark the night.  

 

No matter how dark the night, the light shines.  And the darkness will not overcome it.

 

It's A Wonderful Life - Trust In It!

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16            Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Matthew 1:18-25       Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

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The Old Testament reading and the New Testament reading are connected by one sentence today: the virgin (or young woman) shall bear a son and he shall be called Immanuel.  But that is really the only thing that connects them.

The political, historical, and religious context of this little passage from Isaiah is really complex.  The Israelites were living in a divided kingdom – the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south.  They warred with each other and everyone else. 

The prophet Isaiah comes to King Ahaz of Judah, trying to give him guidance in a very tense political climate.  I tried to explain the context to the sermon roundtable this week and only ended up confusing things even more.  They all listened politely, until one person said, “So what is the point?  What is this sign Isaiah is referring to?”  It was a good thing she asked that question.  I was in one of my oh-isn’t all-this-stuff-fascinating moods, where the more complex it gets the more interested I get.  Where I tend to get bogged down in the details, and I sometimes miss the point, the beautifully simple point.  But I’ll get back to that later. 

Today we are going to backtrack a bit in the story of George Bailey.  We will go back to George and Mary’s wedding day, and see how on this particular day they were confronted with a big challenge – which was also a chance to practice trust.

***

I think one of the most impressive things in this scene is Mary’s trust in George.  How disappointed she must have been to have the building and loan once again intrude on their hopes and dreams.  Their entire honeymoon fund gone!  She actually gave it away.

And George’s trust in his neighbors!  Again and again, as he handed them the money they asked for, he reiterated, “This is a loan; I know you’re good for it.”  

George’s trust, Mary’s trust – trust in the power of good, or we might say, God.  This is the hinge on which it all turns at this point.  This is a true crisis; make no mistake – a run on the banks, and the risk of the building and loan going under.  Without trust, all is lost.

It would have been very nice for George and Mary to have a honeymoon trip; that is, before havoc broke loose on the economic scene.  Then, at that point, it would have been nice to have a little cash, maybe to stuff under the mattress – just in case.

It would have been a good idea for George to get signed receipts from all the scared folks who took his cash that day, just in case they “forgot” about it later.  

But holding on to her money, Mary knew, would only have guaranteed that the building and loan failed that day.  She would still have her stack of bills but so many people would be hurt.

And demanding receipts from his customers on this particular day would have conveyed a message much different than the one George wanted to give them.  Every word and action that day was intended to send the message that goodness would prevail and all would be well.  Trust in the goodness of your friends and neighbors, the goodness of God at work amongst us, and all will be well.  As the angels might have said, do not be afraid.

In the Isaiah passage, King Ahaz is contemplating his precarious situation, surrounded by enemies.  He is afraid.  And he is considering allying himself with the king of Assyria – sort of like the Bedford Falls folks are considering allying themselves with Potter.  Assyria was a sort of superpower of the region – not a benevolent one.  Again, much like Mr. Potter. 

The prophet Isaiah is sent to him to convince him that he should not fear the enemies at his borders; that the greater danger will come from the nation he is hoping to make an alliance with.  Assyria, the prophet wants King Ahaz to know, is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

But an immediate danger is more frightening than a hypothetical one, and King Ahaz is not convinced.  Some kind of sign is going to be necessary.  And this is where we were at the roundtable this week when someone asked the question, cutting off my long, boring lecture on ancient middle eastern politics – 

What is the point?  What is the sign?

I admit, for a moment I was speechless.  And someone else at the table answered:  the sign is the child’s name. Immanuel. God with us.

All this talk in Isaiah’s prophecy about a woman and a son, curds and honey, the evil and the good – what is the sign?  The sign, my friends, is in the name of the child.

How important names can be.  In traditional cultures where names hold power, and in a culture of prophecy where names carry meaning for a whole people, how important it is to hear this:  He shall be called Immanuel – God with us.

For us, it comes down to trusting in this word.

Ahaz, as it turned out, was unable to trust in the word of the Lord.  He went ahead and made an alignment with Assyria.  After Assyria had handily crushed their mutual enemies, it set its malign focus on Judah.  Judah suffered under the powerful thumb of Assyria for many years, until a bigger, badder power took over and crushed them all – every one of them.  Would things have turned out differently if Ahaz had trusted in the word of the Lord?  That is the viewpoint of the scriptures.

Thankfully, for all of us, Joseph trusted.  He heard the promises of the Lord – that the child in Mary’s womb would be Jesus, the one who saves.  He recalled the promise put forth through Isaiah – he shall be called Immanuel, God will be with us.  

So Joseph swallowed his pride.  He took Mary as his wife, he cared for her and protected her, and when she gave birth, he named the child Jesus – the one who saves.

You see how that works?  Good things come when we trust in goodness, because goodness is from God.

God is good.  All the time.

 

 

 

It's A Wonderful Life - Believe In It!

Third Sunday in Advent

Luke 1:46-55  And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

As beloved as the film is now, It’s A Wonderful Life was not all that well received at the time it was released.  It was a bomb, in fact.  Frank Capra lost more than $500,000 on it.  That doesn’t mean that people hated it – just that they were uninterested in it, I guess. But you know who really did hate it?  The FBI.  They issued a memo after it was released calling it “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.”  They claimed it was an obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore, who played Mr. Potter, as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the film. This, they said, is a common trick used by Communists.[1]

Looking back and considering the climate of the times, not to mention that the FBI director was J. Edgar Hoover, it isn’t surprising that they found it to be suspiciously anti-American.  In that climate of fear that was beginning to take hold in the United States, people were prone to see things a bit too narrowly, a bit too black and white, and make overly broad generalizations.  Fear will do that to people.

But the character of Mr. Potter is not really intended to represent any individual – banker or otherwise.  He symbolizes certain weaknesses, certain flaws of humankind and society.  As I have said, the character of Potter represents evil, something that is present to some degree in every human heart.  

A lot has happened in the story of George Bailey since last week.  After he confronted Mr. Potter so boldly, the board of the Building and Loan insisted that George take over its management.  So, once again, his dream of leaving Bedford Falls was deferred.  He married, started a family, and settled into the rhythms of life in this small town he both loved and hated.  

His management of the Building and Loan was true to the little speech he gave that day in the meeting with the board of directors.  He worked with the poor folks in Bedford Falls, giving them a hand when he could, a chance to lift themselves out of poverty – a chance to do something other than crawl to Potter.  Of course, this meant that the Building and Loan was never as prosperous as the big bank, run by Mr. Potter.

One day something happened that changed everything.  Uncle Billy misplaced the day’s deposits.  It was about $8000.  He was at the bank and began talking to Mr. Potter, got distracted, and forgot to pick up his envelope.  Guess who walked away with it and never said a word.

This was a crisis of the highest order for George and the Building and Loan.  This was when George went crawling to Mr. Potter in desperation and this is where Mr. Potter truly exemplified evil.  For all intents and purposes, he had stolen the money.  He listened to George beg for his help. And he laughed in his face, telling George he would be worth more dead than alive.  Do you see what I mean about evil?

As low as he was already, it was enough to tip him over the edge. George went to the bridge intending to jump. But this was where the angel of the Lord came in.  He was a scruffy little angel named Clarence, sent to redeem George.  The way he did it was to show George what things would be like if he had never been born.  Over the course of the evening, George could see that all the small faithful steps he had taken in his life had made a significant impact on the lives of others and the quality of his community.  And in this scene, we will see how that affected him.

***

Isn’t it funny to hear George gush with love for this town, the town he couldn’t wait to get away from?  He can see everything with new eyes now, because he has been given the chance to see everything from above.  It’s a rare and unique gift he has been given.  Most of us will never have this.  

George was able to see what it would be like to lose everything – without actually losing it.  I guess that’s why some people find this movie too saccharine.  Because most of us only learn what it would be like to lose something by actually losing it.  Such is the case in the reading we heard from Isaiah today.

The people of Israel had experienced a great loss.  Their land had been taken from them by those who hated them, and they were sent into exile far from home.  In their eyes they had lost everything.  But then a prophet, who was probably even scruffier than the angel Clarence – because prophets tend to be the scruffy type – came to them with a message of hope:  

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”

And thus promises were made to the people of Israel from the God they thought had been lost to them.  In their darkest moment, I wonder how well they could believe it.

Belief does not always come easily.  When everything around us seems dark, it can be hard to believe in the light that will overcome darkness.  I don’t know if there is an increase in violence during the holiday season, but it seems to me that most years our observance of Advent is affected by stunningly awful events.  Three years ago at this time we were reeling from the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school.  Last year we were watching riots in Ferguson, the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and rising tensions over the deaths of too many young back men.  This year is no better.  When all we see is violence, answered by more violence, it can be hard to imagine peace.  When we are overwhelmed by the suffering us, it can be hard to believe that the Lord will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things, as the young girl Mary sings.

Isn’t Mary magnificent?  Barely more than a child herself, she has just been visited by an angel and told the most outlandish thing: that she will bear a child, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and he will be called the Son of God.  “Do not be afraid,” the angel says.  And Mary replies, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your word.”

Somehow, Mary believed.  I don’t know if anyone else believed it, but somehow Mary did.

Belief is a peculiar thing, because it asks us to look beyond what our eyes can see.  We see the corruption of power, and Mary sings the proud will be scattered and the lowly shall be blessed.  We see poverty, loneliness, and desperation, and Isaiah proclaims the Lord has remembered his people and there will be joy – everlasting joy.  

The vision of Isaiah, and the vision of Mary, is a vision of how things are intended to be.  It is a glorious vision, some would say unrealistic, because it is a vision of the ultimate reign of God.  

Can you believe in it?

It does require some divine intervention – but make no mistake; divine intervention is always available.  It’s why we come here and gather together – for our prayers to be heard and to hear God’s claim on us, to gather around a little light in this darkest time of the year.  To carry that light back out into the world.

With a little divine intervention, George could see that his life, which had never seemed like enough, was actually rich with blessing.  George could see that his life was worth living.  It really was a wonderful life.  There were debts to pay and battles to fight, difficult people and hard losses.  But even so, it was a wonderful life.

It really is a wonderful life

Believe it.

 

 

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Verses

"Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, love; but the greatest of these is love."

I Corinthians - 13:13