Our first lesson is from Exodus 34:29-35: In this lesson, Moses descends Mount Sinai with the covenant or "testimony" from God in hand, the Ten Commandments. The writer of Exodus alerts the reader to a noticeable change that has occurred to Moses since he has been in the mountain of God for an uncommonly long time. We are told that the skin of Moses’ face "shone because he had been talking with God". Such a change frightens Aaron and the Israelites, possibly because they think he himself has taken on some divinity. Thus, Moses would employ a covering of veil before the people though removing when "before the LORD to speak with him".
34:29 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.
34:30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.
34:31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.
34:32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.
34:33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face;
34:34 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,
34:35 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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Luke 9:28-36, (37-43) Though we hear these stories every year at this time, the lessons of Transfiguration Sunday never lose the power to stir the imagination and evoke a sense of other-worldliness. This story comes from the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus has just told the disciples about the demands of discipleship and warning them about his great suffering to come and his rejection by his own people. He told them that they could expect similar treatment.
9:28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
9:29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
9:30 Look! they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.
9:31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
9:32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
9:33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" --not knowing what he said.
9:34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.
9:35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
9:36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
9:37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.
9:38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.
9:39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.
9:40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not."
9:41 Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here."
9:42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
9:43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
The Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!
Boy at the Bottom of the Mountain
By Bonnie Boyce
One of the beautiful and sometimes startling ways in which we encounter scripture is that it can become very personal. This story has always been very personal to me, because I identify with the boy and the bottom of the mountain. At 15 I had had my first epileptic seizure while visiting my sister during her first year of Erskine College in SC. It was early on a Sunday morning and just as the sun was coming up, the bright light passed through the blinds of the window—shining strobe-like into my face. The next thing I remember is seeing my sister sitting on top of me, slapping me and crying, thinking that I had died. I woke up after having a grand mal seizure feeling euphoric, not an uncommon phenomenon after experiencing such an event. I assured my sister that I was okay and that we should go to church, which we did. Afterwards, my parents made a frantic trip to pick me up and after the emergency appointments the following Monday to the neurologist’s office and subsequent EEG’s, I was diagnosed with Adolescent onset Epilepsy and placed on a fairly severe regime of anti-seizure medications. You probably can understand why this story is so personal for me. Jesus went up the mountain to pray with his disciples, there something magical and transformative happened to him and to his disciples. But the story does not end in magic or on the mountain top, they each are brought down to the reality of a wounded, sick and hurting world and it was into that world that Jesus walked.
Transfiguration Sunday marks the beginning of Jesus journey to Jerusalem and therefore to the cross. Most ministers focus on the transfiguration of Jesus and the ways the disciples don’t seem to catch on to what is happening. The transfiguration of Jesus is said to be the total gospel message all packaged in one image, the image of Jesus on the mountaintop, his face shining like Moses, Elijah standing there pointing out the fact that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophets and the slow-witted, weary disciples trying the best they could to just stay awake in the moment. And then almost as quickly as the transfiguration of Jesus had startled the disciples, Jesus takes them back down the mountain where the crowds were waiting. There was the boy at the bottom of the mountain, who had epilepsy and also the disciples, who like my big sister, couldn’t cure him by themselves.
We know about mountaintop experiences, those divine moments where the veil between heaven and earth becomes so thin that visions of future come pouring through as if they were already in existence. Remember Martin Luther King, Jr. said he had been to the mountaintop two nights before he was gunned down and he prophesied that one day, his people would get to the Promised Land. Just as Moses had been to the mountaintop and knew his people would get there but that he would not. Jesus went to the mountaintop and his future was unveiled before him, the future of his death on the cross and the resurrection to follow. His face shown like a brilliant flash of lightning and his clothes dazzled as if they were made out of newly fallen snow. His aura, his energy field around him was so bright from the direct encounter of God, that he appeared to be literally “the Light of the world.” Peter’s enthusiasm to build cabins on the mountaintop is totally understandable, who wouldn’t want to stay there. But Jesus knew that there was still much work to do at the bottom of the mountain.
And begrudgingly, the disciples followed him down the mountain and into the crowds that begged for their attention, the voice of God still ringing in their ears, “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him!” The next morning, it was business as usual for Jesus and his band of disciples. A man shouts out of the crowd calling to Jesus, “Teacher, look at my son, my only son.” Which certainly sounds a lot like, “Behold my son, my only begotten son.” And the boy has another seizure, he is foaming at the mouth, his body being hurled to the ground, and Jesus, reaches down, heals the boy and hands him back to his father. It seems that Jesus always gives back to those who need his help. He raised the son of the widow of Nain and “gave him back to his mother.” He took loaves and blessed them and gave them to the disciples and made fish sandwiches for 5,000 on a beach in Galilee. And now he gives the father of the epileptic boy his son back healed of his illness.
What happened on the mountaintop, seems to predict what will happen at the bottom of the mountain. On the mountaintop, Jesus is blessed by God. God, in the person of Jesus, comes down from the mountain and blesses the suffering child whose life was broken by convulsions. The boy is healed and given back to his father. Jesus’ own life would be broken by his journey to Jerusalem, the cruel crucifixion and death, but then ultimately he is resurrected and given back to his own Father in heaven.
On the mountaintop there is revelation. At the bottom of the mountain that revelation becomes the work of real people, the work of healing, the work of feeding, and the work of helping the poor. It is into this work that each of us is being called—broken as we are. Notice in this story that Jesus does not go up the mountain alone, he takes with him Peter, James and John. Jesus needed his disciples even if they didn’t understand who he really was, even though they would deny him and abandon him. Likewise we too need each other to work together to heal.
There is a story about an Episcopal minister who was having a particularly bad day one Sunday morning, the acolytes were not paying attention to what they were doing, one of the readers read the wrong passage out of the Bible, in both jars on the altar there was water only, no wine, the minister said, by the end of the service all he wanted to do was to get out of his robes as fast as he could and head home for a much needed nap.
On his way down the aisle, his 3 ½ year old son followed him. Episcopal priests, when they reach the end of the aisle, turn and bow toward the altar. The cross was directly behind the altar in that particular church and so, the priest said, it seems when we bow to the altar, we are bowing to the cross. His little son, as they bowed together toward the cross said, “Hear the cross.” To which his father replied, “You mean, see the cross.” Again the boy insisted, “Hear the cross” and dad responded again, “See the cross” and a third time the boy said, “Hear the cross,” finally the priest looked to his son and said, “What does the cross say?” and the little boy staring intently at the cross whispered, “It says, I love you.” The important thing about the cross is not the cross itself, that is the two pieces of wood that it is made of, but what the cross says to us and what we hear it telling us. “I love you. Go forth and do likewise.”
Like the epileptic boy at the bottom of the mountain, I too have been healed. Sure, I still must take medication for my epilepsy, but I no longer have seizures. I have been healed by those who loved so much that they gave their lives to research to find a way so that people like me can live seizure-free lives. I have been called to do likewise, to love so much that my life makes a difference in the lives of those I meet each and every day. Each of you has been called to do the same. And today that call to love comes in the form of sustaining the mission work and service to this church and to this world, as God’s holy place. This is not a holy place to wait for a mountaintop experience to happen to us. This is the place to pray, then to walk out into the world, to take action, to love one another and to be inspired to make this world a better place. It is a place to come to hear the cross reminding us that we are loved beyond our imagination.
ClIntroduction to Jeremiah 1:4-10: This passage is the beginning of the story of the prophet Jeremiah, who was just a boy at the time. Like many of the prophets in the Bible, when the Spirit of the Lord calls, they often try to talk their way out of it. Jeremiah is no exception. Let’s listen for the voice of God speaking to us through this scripture.
1:4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
1:5 "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."
1:6 Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
1:7 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,
1:8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."
1:9 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.
1:10 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."
Today we hear the story of Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth, at the synagogue on a Sabbath day. Jesus has been invited to read from the prophet Isaiah and after reading, he gives a radical reinterpretation, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 21). Luke suggests a favorable reaction to this hometown boy’s preaching. But then, Jesus’ stuns his listeners with not one, but two scandalous examples from Jewish biblical history that turns outsiders into faith-heroes and insiders into outsiders. The story ends very differently than we might have expected given the auspicious beginning of Jesus’ homecoming.
4:21 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
4:22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?"
4:23 He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'"
4:24 And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.
4:25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;
4:26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.
4:27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."
4:28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.
4:29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
4:30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
The Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!
by Bonnie Boyce
Today after worship we are having our annual congregational meeting and enjoying a delicious potluck lunch together. It is a homecoming kind of event, the way we go over our past year’s achievements and losses. It is a time to reflect on the direction of the church and re-commit ourselves again to the mission of this church. Those of you who have been here for decades know how deeply this church has sought to follow the call of Jesus. Those who are new to the church, see that we are a very small organization that has the potential to do big and courageous things. I just want to remind us all that following the call of Jesus comes with blessings but it also comes with challenges, that at time, seem to overshadow everything else.
This church stands as a witness to the determination of people who came together immediately after WWII was coming to a close here in the valley. Gas rationing forced the community here to decide to build a church so that many could worship in a place closer to their own neighborhood. The foundation was dug out with plows and a mule with an old preacher guiding the tiller. People around the neighborhood watched in amazement as the few dozen folks cleared, dug, built a foundation, and those who watched this miracle unfolding were inspired to be a part of something exciting, new and that would express their gratitude to God who seemed to be with them all along the way. That little mustard seed of faith turned plain dirt and rocks into a beautiful church made of brick and mortar, sweat and blood, and an eye for the future. That was seventy years ago.
It is with this sense of homecoming that we look today at Jesus’ homecoming to his home church in Nazareth. He had been gone only a few years. Jesus grew up in the town of Nazareth, the son of Joseph the carpenter and Mary, the homemaker. Everybody in town knew Jesus. He had gone to school with all the kids there. He attended the youth groups and went swimming with his buddies at the Camp Jordan River Church Retreat. He played tag and touch football. He had his first date in Nazareth and drove his first donkey there. And he attended his Bar Mitzvah at the same synagogue in Nazareth where he was asked to preach that fateful day.
News had spread fast that their hometown boy had suddenly become an overnight success since he had been away traveling in far off lands and meeting with foreigners. There had been rumors that he could heal the sick and make the blind see again. And so when they heard that Jesus was planning on coming home for a visit, the local rabbi knew that he should invite Jesus to preach that Sabbath in the synagogue. I imagine that the rabbi was a bit nervous about Jesus’ preaching there.
I’m always a bit nervous when Ed Bowen comes here to preach. He’s got such a great preacher’s voice and he always has loads of jokes to tell in his dead pan sort of delivery, which manages to startle us because he seems like such a serious sort of guy. So I imagine that the old rabbi at Jesus’ synagogue was a little nervous when the upcoming star from Nazareth took the pulpit and started reading from the Book of Isaiah saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, to announce pardon to the prisoners and sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free.” As Jesus rolls up the scroll and hands it back to the attendant you can almost sense the sigh of relief as the rabbi looks around and sees people nodding their heads in approval, overhearing one woman say, “Doesn’t Jesus have such a fine speaking voice?” Everyone is so proud of him and so the rabbi begins to smile and nod also giving Jesus the acknowledgment that certainly he must be looking for—from his mentor into ministry, the reverend rabbi at Nazareth.
If Jesus had just stopped there, all would have been just fine. But Jesus, we know can get a bit dramatic when it comes to doing church…he wasn’t all into being liked by everyone on the social committee or necessarily approved of by the religious elite. But before the rabbi could pronounce the benediction, when Jesus had barely sat down to appreciate the moment of his homecoming, the Spirit of the Lord stirred him to his feet again. He sees in the faces of those who thought they knew him best, that they don’t understand Isaiah’s words. And so Jesus goes on the offensive, “Remember the saying, a prophet is not welcomed in his hometown? Surely you are saying this about me. I can tell you do not understand what Isaiah is trying to tell you. Listen to me, the Spirit of God will blow where it will blow and in places that YOU have never imagined. When Elijah was a prophet, he did not help out a widow who was one of us and there were many Hebrew widows then…he went and helped out a foreigner, an enemy widow—someone you would never consider even having over for dinner! And when Elisha was alive, remember many Hebrew people were suffering from leprosy but he did not heal instead, he healed a Syrian, again someone you look down on. Let me tell you, God’s Spirit does not belong to you, God’s Spirit belongs to the people you despise!” And with that he started to sit down.
When the rabbi heard that Jesus was preaching as if he knew Isaiah better than they, he went postal. He was not the only one for the entire congregation was now in a rage and ready to kill Jesus. They run him out of the Temple chasing him—this time they are not playing tag. This time he’s gone too far, has embarrassed his family and his neighbors and they are ready to teach him a lesson as they nearly throw him off a cliff. Of course they fail to do so this time, but many months and miles later they will have another chance and on a hill near Jerusalem and they will succeed. What started out as a joyous celebration quickly turns into a hostile homecoming. The cake remains uncut, the punch melts and fizzles out, the balloons eventually fall to the ground deflated, and the party favors never get distributed. All that work that the member care and fellowship committee had done and there was no one left to clean up the mess he’d made.
We hear this story and make the assumption that the people of Nazareth were not nearly as enlightened as we are today. Some have suggested that it is impossible to hear Jesus’ first sermon as good news, if it weren’t for one thing. “When Luke tells this story he begins by saying, ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ The key to understanding the compassion of Christ is recognizing that Jesus lived in the Spirit of God.” The Spirit of God allowed Jesus to see that every life, not just life in Nazareth, is sacred. All of those who had been labeled as outcasts, misfits, unclean, foreigners, enemies, were also people who God loves and with whom God abides. This was radical, rebellious, and heretical. It’s clear Jesus was not being politically correct or sensitive.
Jesus’ openness to the Spirit of God allowed him to see beyond the narrow confines of his culture and society to reach out to others with compassion and love. Of course there would have been no Gentiles in the synagogue that day. Therefore none of us sitting here would have been allowed to hear him preach. So in some respects we are the outcasts, the outsiders, the ones Jesus was standing up for and wanted to include in his love of the “other.” Likewise, Jesus calls us to be his followers, to be like him in this radical form of inclusive love and compassion. Ask yourselves, “Who is it that I do not want to be near?”
Be careful of asking that question. Human beings tend to feel the need to draw lines in the sand regarding who we want in our inner circles. The problem for us, as Christians, is that we are following someone who gave his life to bring down the walls that we erecte to keep us safe or to keep us clean. David Lose, who is a preacher I have admired for a long time, says this about our need for walls and boundaries. “Because here’s the thing – and I know I’ve said this before – the hard thing about the God we know in Jesus is that whenever you and I draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, we will find Jesus on the other side.” When we build a wall to keep the Mexicans out, maybe we are keeping Jesus out. When we build walls to keep gays from entering into a full, legal relationship and with the church with one another, could we be keeping Jesus out? When we build walls to say who can be a member of the church of Jesus, and who cannot be a member, we are definitely keeping Jesus out.
I am not certain that when this parcel of land was cleared back in the 40’s that this would be the mission of this church, “to welcome the outcast, to feed the hungry, to help those who are poor, and to honor all people who are created by our loving God.” But it is the mission to which we are each called today. Remember they tried to chase Jesus off a cliff, but the message would not be silenced. Even after they did catch him and nail him to the cross, the message survived and will not be silenced. We are a smaller church now, but we are no less called.
Denise Yarbrough tells us that, “Jesus calls us to be his followers, not his admirers. In a post resurrection world in which we live, we, the church, as the living body of the Risen Christ must carry on Jesus’ prophetic ministry. He calls us to be prophets in our own day, to speak to those in our hometown as he spoke to those citizens of Nazareth. We are challenged by that call every day of our lives, before the drops of the baptismal waters have dried on our heads. The kind of homecoming to which we are invited is not a party with balloons and beer, parades and [party favors]. It is, rather a clarion call to ‘pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant,’ right in our own hometowns and our own native country. If we fail to heed Jesus’ call to us, he won’t beat us over the head with it. He will simply pass right through our midst and go on [his way].
Introduction to Isaiah 43:1-7: In this passage from Isaiah God personally promises to be present with Israel through all of their suffering. God is their Creator and thus, is the one who originally shaped them into a nation and who marks them with identity. God will again restore them to be the people of God. Most readers familiar with the Hebrew narrative will remember the story of the Exodus when the Red Sea obeys the staff of Moses so that Israel is able to pass through walls of water safely. Such an image is now used to infuse an exiled people, people like us, with renewed hope for a better future.
43:1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
43:2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
43:3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
43:4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
43:5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
43:6 I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth--
43:7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."
Introduction to Luke 3:15-17, 21-22: It seems we’ve hardly had time to take in the importance of God’s Incarnation in the baby Jesus when Luke’s Gospel marches us fast forward to the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus is about 30 years old when he stepped into the line of people ready to be baptized by the charismatic cousin of Jesus, John the Baptist. It is, according to all Gospel accounts the defining moment of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and God’s calling him his beloved Son. In this act of Baptism, Jesus stands in solidarity with each of us, claiming us, and naming us as His own.
3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
3:16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
3:21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,
3:22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Step Into the Waters
by Bonnie Boyce
Tuesday morning I had to miss my lectionary meeting and instead go to Municipal Court. No I didn’t commit any crime other than fail to move my car for a scheduled sweeping. The problem was the city didn’t put signs out until late the night before so I didn’t see it and got a ticket. So I got up early and made my way to court. There I sat with a rather interesting group of people. The girl sitting beside me in skinny jeans turned out not to be a girl at all—but a guy, who had clearly been to that particular court numerous times for various reasons, addiction, mental illness, street work, and I don’t mean sweeping. The judge knew her, I mean his name quite well and was very unhappy to see him back in court. There were also some animal abusers, one who had four dogs and three cats confiscated, another who managed to convince the judge that he had not hit his dog but just spanked it. There were also others: drug abusers, vagrants, and a handful of people with citations for expired registrations. Bottomline is that I was more than a little uneasy about being in the same room and possibly being mistaken by someone as a guy dressed as a girl or as a drug abuser. When it came to my time before the judge, she was not particularly impressed with my profession clothing or my couffed hair. She questioned my story, just like she questioned everyone else’s. How could she mistake me for one of them?
You know what I’m talking about. Just read the Herald Dispatch police blotter. It’s almost always on page 2 or 3 A or just read the front page news: “double-homicide suspect to be institutionalzed for life; reports of sexual assaults spike at military academies; teenagers plead not guilty in case of dumpster baby; seven arrested in prostitution roundup; man arrested on four forgery charges, and on and on it goes. I left Municipal Court that day vowing to never return no matter what the fine. I was not going to be mistaken for someone like that again! How embarrassing! It’s not that I disliked them, I didn’t even know them, it was just that I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of them.
But it appears that just the opposite was true when Jesus lined up on the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin and friend John. It’s no wonder the Christian Church has always been conflicted about the story of Jesus’ baptism. The church does not want anyone to think that Jesus needed to be baptized along with all those other sinners who came to John for his baptism of repentance. All four gospels have very different accounts and the one we read to day is one of the most cleaned up stories of Jesus’ baptism. Luke does not even mention that those on the river bank were sinners and doesn’t tell us that it was John who actually did the baptism. Luke does not want us to think that Jesus needed to be baptized at all! But there he is, in line with the transvestites, the prostitutes, the drug addicts and dog abusers. Jesus sits in the municipal courst by the Jordan River and waits for his name to be called just like all the rest. He’s not embarrassed. He’s humble. He doesn’t seem to mind being mistaken for one of them. He steps into the waters of the muddy Jordan just like all the other sinners and he goes down into the water and comes out washed, bathed in the love of God.
Jesus went into the water an average man, and he came up out of the water an extraordinary man, a changed man, a charged up man, a thoroughly convinced man, who had come to realize that God was his true Parent, and that God knew and loved him fully and completely as God’s own. This claiming of Jesus by God, took place in the manner of an adoption. It was not about pedigree. One theologian suggested that prior to his baptism, Jesus did not have the Spirit of God. It was that moment in the Jordan River that the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit decended on Jesus’ life. It was at that moment that Jesus became the Christ.
As we look at Jesus’ baptism we cannot help but reflect upon our own baptisms and the significance of that moment for each of us. Some of us chose our moment of baptism and can remember it clearly. Some of us, myself included, were baptized as infants and have no recollection of that moment. But I do know that the mystery surrounding baptism is so profoundly moving and meaningful for me that just remembering that I was baptized into a community of faith, surrounded by loving parents and friends of theirs, has the capacity to move me to tears. And yet I wonder, am I living up to my baptism, do I really believe that the Spirit of God lives in me and has the capacity to inspire me to live up to my potentials, as it inspired Jesus to live up to his? Truth be told, I think I may need a gentle reminder, now and again.
There are only two Sacraments in our Protestant faith, Baptism and Holy Communion. These two Sacraments stand as bookends in the life of Jesus. We remember the dying and rising of Christ every time we celebrate Holy Communion, but we rarely take time to remember that in his baptism we were invited into the water as well. In his Baptism we celebrate the coming of the Spirit into his life and as believers, we too know that in our baptism we are adopted as God’s own. In the beginning of time, as we read in Genesis, God hovered over the face of the water, over the face of the deep, and created the first day, and called it good. God too hovers over the face of our lives, the face of our chaotic deep, and claims each of us as Beloved.
We each have a story of our baptism. Mine was when I was only 5 months old and cradled in my father’s arms as he sprinkled my head with water and first called me a child of God. He never let me forget that I was a child of God even though I do not remember that special moment in Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, the church of my grandparents and my father’s childhood. Others vividly remember their baptism, like Barbara Sholis, who tells this story of her baptism in Christian Century magazine. The “church ladies of a Southern Baptist congregation, are the ones I remember.” She said, “I was baptized on a warm April night in Kentucky. Candlelight in the rotunda reflected the sacredness of the moment as I waded into the warm water of the baptismal pool and let the pastor’s firm grasp cradle me. I held my nose and was submerged in the water of new birth…When I came up out of the water, the bright light startled me. I saw my proud family. Then the church [ladies], smelling of Jergens lotion and dressed in flowered shirtwaist dresses and strings of pearls, wrapped me in a warm towel and handed me my baptismal certificate. I tried to take it all in. Something had happened that night but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. As Heather Murray Elkins says, I had been sealed with the imago Christi, [the image of Christ] a permanent tattoo. Yet nothing was visible. What did this baptism mean for my life now?”
What does your baptism mean for your life now? How does that invisible tattoo still work on and in your life? After Jesus came up from the waters of the Jordan, the heavens were torn open and he heard a voice, the voice of God saying, “You are my Beloved son, in You I am well pleased.” Today we are being invited to step into the waters again. God pursues us relentlessly giving us life and only asking for thanks in return by the way we live our lives. There is no escaping God’s intention. We are told that the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove. Have you ever seen a dove descend? Often I think we imagine the dove gently fluttering down onto Jesus like a gentle breathe of air. But doves don’t descend like that at all. They swoop down, with their talons wide open ready to grasp whatever prey they fix upon. Jesus was grasped by the Spirit of God and there was no escape. Like the poem the Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson, Francis flees from God night and day, hiding from God with deliberate speed, unworthy of the love that God sought him with. Finally after realizing there is no escape that God intends to save him regardless, Francis finally hears God calling, saying, “Rise, clasp My hand and come.”
It is our turn to open our ears to God’s calling us to step into the waters. Let us rise and clasp God’s hand and come and touch these waters of life, these waters of our past and of our future. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift freely given, do so. May it stir in you the remembrance of your own baptism, and if that event has not yet happened in your life, may these waters stir you to join this roll call for God’s eye is on you and there is no escape. You are a beloved child of God and as you touch these waters may you be cleansed, claimed and charged up for another walk to Jerusalem with the one we call Lord. This remembrance beckons us to draw near to yet another place where we are healed with wine and fed with the Bread of Life, the ultimate gift of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice.
Introduction to Micah: We know very little about the Prophet Micah, whose name translated from the Hebrew means; “Who is like Yahweh”. In this passage we are told a new ruler will come from the town of Bethlehem and it offers words of hope.
5:2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
5:3 Therefore this One shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of this One’s kindred shall return to the people of Israel.
5:4 And this One shall stand and feed the flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD God. And they shall live secure, for now this One who is coming shall be great to the ends of the earth;
5:5 and this One shall be the one of peace.
Introduction: Mary has been visited by an angel who told her that she is to bear a child. The angel has also told her not to fear for the Lord has found her favorable among all women. She has submitted to the will of God and is now in a very dangerous situation. She is pregnant and so far no father has stepped forward to claim Mary as his wife. Her cousin, Elizabeth is also pregnant but this situation is very different. This is their story.
Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)
1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,
1:40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit
1:42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
1:43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
1:44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.
1:45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
1:46 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is this name.
1:50 God’s mercy is for those who revere God from generation to generation.
1:51 God has shown strength with God’s arm; and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
1:52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
1:53 God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
1:54 God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy,
1:55 according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever."
Get Ready for the Baby King
By Bonnie Boyce
I will let you all in on a little secret today. The choir is meeting after worship to practice singing the cantata, and we will meet tomorrow night and then again on Wed. and maybe even again on Christmas Eve before the service. Why, you might wonder? Because we are all scared to death that we will be making fools of ourselves singing our way to Christmas, and all the while hoping not to spoil it for people who dare to show up to listen to our…well not so perfect singing. But it is what we do on Christmas Eve, we sing just as Mary sang on that night so long ago, when she was scared to death that she might be discovered. Mary and her unbelievable ability to sing in the face of the darkness of that darkest of nights so long ago is what we know as the beautiful “Magnificat”. Do you hear brave Mary singing?
My soul gives glory to my God.
My heart pours out its praise.
God lifted up my lowliness
In many marvelous ways.
Now we are quite accustomed to singing around Christmas time, even the most grinch-like folk can be caught humming a carol or two these days. I’ve even caught heretical Unitarian clergy singing Christmas carols this year. But this song of Mary’s, well, it just doesn’t fit the circumstances! After all, Mary is pregnant, an unwed mother and those around her despise her and her condition. She is an outcast in a society that considered unwed pregnant girls as lower than lepers. What did she have to sing about? Even Joseph had thought about doing away with her but in a dream he had a vision of an angel telling him not to put Mary away. He was to eventually marry her and name the baby Jesus. But for now, he is nowhere to be found. There were no homes for unwed mothers then, so Mary went to spend time with her cousin, Elizabeth. My guess she was simply trying to hide from the customary stoning of women who became pregnant without an obvious father. What did Mary have to sing about? She needed a place of safety, she certainly didn’t expect a place of honor. Elizabeth was an old woman and herself pregnant. Zechariah was the husband of Elizabeth, and you might remember that Zechariah broke into song when he heard that Elizabeth was pregnant. What is all this singing about? Zechariah was singing to God and giving thanks that Elizabeth was to give birth to a baby boy who would prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. His name would be John the Baptist.
Luke’s gospel is the gospel where most of our Christmas carols come from because this author had a particular talent for lyrical writing. But why do you think this author had Mary singing when she is in an obvious state of desperation? Mary is barely old enough to baby sit much less give birth! Sure an angel appeared and told her not to fear, but it was a dangerous situation in those days to be pregnant and not have a designated father. It would have been shame inducing for the family, she must have felt very afraid and alone. There indeed was much to fear. But instead of hearing her cries of fear we hear her singing, not a sweet lullaby, but a song of strength and faith in her God:
My God has shown great strength for me
And holy is this name,
All people will declare me blest
And blessings they shall claim.
Imagine a pregnant girl from Harlem or the Bronx or downtown Chicago or out Wayne or here in Spring Valley singing this tune. Imagine a woman from the poorest place you can image singing this song to her God. Impossible as it may seem, Mary recognizes something in herself that is very holy, very special, so special that others are oblivious to it. And so she sings.
The Mother of God is what she is called in some traditions. Mary recognizes that she has been blessed by God even though all others fail to see what she sees. That is all except Elizabeth. Elizabeth too knows that Mary is very special, and so Elizabeth sings to her, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” You might recognize these words as they are the words of the Hail Mary prayers of Catholics. Our Catholic brothers and sisters, claim Mary to be the Mother of God. You might not know this but Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been considered as theokotos, which is Greek for the Mother of God, since the 431 at the Council of Ephesus. Catholics pray the rosary and along with the Lord’s prayer, which they call “Our Father” they also recite the “Hail Mary.” Just in case you are not familiar with the Hail Mary, it goes like this: “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Catholics pray to Mary on their death-beds because they know she will carry them, just as she did her Son. She is the lap of the great Mother, she is the one who carries her adult son in her lap after he has died on the cross. This image of Mary holding her dead son is captured in magnificent sculptures over the world; these are called Pieta(s). The most famous one is by Michelangelo and can be seen in St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome.
Mary’s joy that night shared with Elizabeth will eventually fade into the tragedy of grief. But for now, she sings in the silence of the night and perhaps even in the knowledge of what is to befall her as she sings:
Praise God, whose loving covenant
Supports those in distress,
Remembering past promises
With present faithfulness.
What are we Protestants to do with this singing Mary? Can she teach us how to sing in the darkness of our December nights perhaps as she taught her cousin, Elizabeth and even her old fiancé Joseph?
Perhaps like Mary, we can sing when the going gets tough. Singing can strengthen even the faintest of hearts. Mary was not singing a happy Christmas carol that evening. She was singing out of her faith that her God would cast the mighty from their thrones and raise the poor to live in a world of justice. She sang in spite of her fear and sang in spite of the darkness and silence of those nights. In the clearest sound of a girl’s beautiful voice she sang:
God cast the mighty from their thrones,
Promotes the insecure.
Leaves hungry spirits satisfied,
The rich seem suddenly poor.
Our world is not a perfect world for Christ to enter in, as Syrians watch their babies being dying trying to flee in boats to safety and victims of the violence of ISIS count their tragedies. We remember children whose parents are incarcerated and weep for the little ones who, like Our Lord, had no home to lay their head. We sing still, we sing in full knowledge that Christ is welcome here in our less than perfect world. It is our faith that makes us want to sing, like Mary, because we believe. Even when the desperate events of our lives threaten to rob us of that belief we sing out as Mary did, in confidence:
My soul gives glory to my God,
My heart pours out its praise.
God lifted up my lowliness
In many marvelous ways.
Christmas Eve the choir will lead our continued singing as we prepare for the coming of the Baby King and we will perform the Cantata at our candle light service where the Spirit is surely going to come and make the imperfect perfect. Like Mary let us continue the singing until the darkness is overcome by dawning, the dawning of the light of the world.
Our Hebrew reading comes from Zephaniah 3:14-20: As we travel ever further along the journey of anticipation that is Advent, the prophets continue to yield important insights into the meaning of the season, and the character and fulfillments of God’s promises. In this lesson from the prophet Zephaniah, we hear about the communal memory of suffering and divine judgment, yet we also hear great anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises.
3:14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
3:15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
3:16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.
3:17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing
3:18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.
3:19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
3:20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.
Introduction to Luke 3:7-18 From the standpoint of our lessons, it seems as if we we’re once again in the presence of the doom and gloom oracles of the 7th century BCE when Zephaniah was written. But we are into the New Testament story of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Here we get our longest glimpse of the preaching content of John the Baptist in this lesson. And as you know, John the Baptist is not your ordinary Christmas figure. He comes to us amid our lovely plans for Christmas and startles us with his bold and audacious preaching. He often sounds like those crazy evangelists on street corners yelling “Repent, for the end is near.” Most of us would want to pass by on the other side of the street, but our lectionary guides place him front and center in this morning’s readings.
3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
3:10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
3:11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"
3:13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."
3:14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
3:16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Proclaim the Good News!
By Bonnie Boyce
Today is known as Gaudate Sunday, which means “joyful” Sunday, so we have a break from the ordinary Advent waiting period and celebrate JOY. But I had a really hard time finding anything joyful in old John the Baptist’s message that starts off with calling the crowd a bunch of snakes. Does not sound like good news to me! And yet at the end of this passage the Gospel writer tells us that he “proclaimed the good news to the people.” In spite of what John says, we know Christmas is coming. Nativity scenes are out and pointing to the truth that the baby Jesus is being born again in stables near and far. The season of giving is all around us. Salvation Army bells and buckets seem stationed at every entryway to almost every store in town. You, like me, have probably come to church this morning to pause from our manic preparations and to hear a message about the coming of the Christ child. We’ve come to get a glimpse of the Holy Family on the road to Bethlehem, to listen to the songs of the angels, to sing about peace on earth good will to men, to look for shepherds tending their flock by night and wait for the magi to arrive with their gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Instead what we hear is John the Baptist chastising us and calling us to repentance. No one wants to hear this weird character calling us names. None of us wants to sit here with our lovely Christmas carols echoing in our heads while John yells at us all to repent! But in fact there is no getting to Bethlehem, and singing to the baby Jesus in the manger without first hearing the tough and radical message of the prophet in the wilderness calling us to repentance.
What exactly is this repentance that John is preaching to us this day? Let’s take another look. When the crowds got crazy old John to calm down and tried to get some real questions about his notion of repentance painted in clear and reasonable, tangible things to do, they asked him, “What shall we do?” John tells them “If you have two coats and someone has none, you should give them one of yours. And if you have food and someone else is hungry—you should give them something to eat.” One of the most important aspects of this church is that you take the Gospel message that John and Jesus preached as your marching orders—caring for the least fortunate. As I spoke with Karen the other day about the gifts for the families we are sponsoring this year, she reminded me that the gifts we give, usually three for each person, which does not include the gloves and hats and scarfs that are requisite giving items for each person. It is mandatory that each person gets a coat for their hands, and heads, and many will get warms socks too.
John drives us out of our own families and calls us to attend to those who are in need. Even the tax collectors, the equivalent to the 1%ers of our day, asked John what they should do. Now tax collectors made their living collecting taxes, so many of them, who were wanting to live a life of luxury, collected much more that they were supposed to collect. These folks were in positions of power over others. John tells them straight out, “Do not take more than what is prescribed for you.” And when the soldiers who were standing guard making sure these crowds didn’t stir up trouble for the neighboring town of Jerusalem, asked John what they should do, John gets straight to the matter. He tells them not to make false accusations and not to exhort money and to be grateful for their wages. What is most startling about John in not his lack of fashion or his usual eating habits but it is his courage, his audacity, his uncanny ability to speak truth in the face of power. John is preaching repentance that means to let go of greed and instead do good.
I think all of us here know that our world is definitely in need of being freed from greed and self-indulgence and in need of a great deal of good. Yesterday as I sat down to eat lunch, David had CNN on. He the table while I finished my lunch watching a special on the 3rd anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Dylan Hockley was one of the 26 victims of the mass shooting. He was only 6 years old. His mother talked to the CNN reporter about her grief, her memories of Dylan and her work to end gun violence. She told the reporter the story of Dylan, who was autistic, how he used to flap his arms and jump up and down whenever he got excited. She said, “He was a flapper. So one day I asked him why he flapped his arms.” He responded, “Because I am a beautiful butterfly.”
Now whe travels the country speaking to high school students about the importance of being kind to one another, to reach out and say something if they are having trouble and to listen to one another too. At the end of each of her presentations she shares with them the story of Dylan and how he used to flap his arms whenever he was excited. Then she tells them that it is said that the effect of a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane halfway around the world. Dylan’s flapping his beautiful butterfly wings has given birth to the growing movement to end gun violence around the country. Then she tells them that each of them has butterfly wings too, and their acts of kindness will also create more goodness in the world.
Small acts of giving, helping others, and feeding the hungry may go unnoticed by the powers that exist, but we know the Christmas Story—a small baby born in a foreign country halfway around the world changed the course of history. John the Baptist message of repentance interrupts our schedules, demands us to keep one eye on the future and one eye on the ethical conditions of our world. What this church does every year at this season of giving is an example of the fruit of repentance that John is talking about, I believe. What does the fruit of repentance look like in our lives? Tom Long asks…He says…
Once again the good news has been proclaimed through the reading of the Word. John’s message of repentance takes us to places where the old and the young come together to sing songs of Christmas joy as we will do right after church today. And into the homes of those who live in the valley of the shadow of death, light will come, hope will be born anew, and the love and peace which passes all understanding shall stand tall and strong. If you want to be one to flap your butterfly wings, please join us in singing in the coming of Christmas again. And may that gentle act incite a storm of joy around the world. And as we go merrily along, may we also find the good news that opens our hearts ever wider because that’s how God so loved the world.
Prepare the Way of the Lord! Dec. 6, 2015
Our first reading is from Malachi 3:1-4: Malachi is the last book in the Christian Old Testament and is only a short four chapters. Yet Malachi is not without strength or appeal. The situation for the Israelites was not very hopeful. Judah and Israel had been reduced to a minor unit in the vast Persian Empire. Malachi, which means, “my messenger,” expresses a passion for justice, concern for widows and orphans, focuses on the function of Temple and priesthood and attests to the expectation of the day of the Lord. Here we are reminded to make ready the way for the Lord to come into our lives.
3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;
3:3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
3:4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Our second reading is from Luke 3:1-6: This is the second Sunday of Advent for those of us who are counting and this morning’s lectionary readings focus on the need to prepare the way, to make ready our homes and our hearts for the coming of the Lord. In our reading from Malachi, we do not know who the messenger is, only that the messenger is coming. Christian tradition has appropriated this messenger not only to the person of John the Baptist, but also to the baby Jesus. In Old Testament times this messenger was identified as Elijah. Regardless of who the messenger actually is, the message is the same to us. We are to prepare, to make ready, to get excited about this coming event.
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
3:4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Prepare the Way of the Lord!
By Bonnie Boyce
Prepare the Way of the Lord! That is the message that John the Baptist gives us today. We all want to rush past this season and get right to the business of Christmas. Even the most dedicated choir singers admit that we do not like having to wade through the task of singing Advent hymns, while waiting for the more joyful Christmas Carols. We are forced to wait, just like Mary had to wait for the baby to be born, just like Joseph had to wait for his fiance to go into labor, just as the night sky had to wait for the angel to appear to the shepherds and wise men. Advent is the season of waiting, but here is the good news—We are halfway through Advent.
The time for making preparations time is now down to only two more Sundays. However, I have not even gotten one string of lights out. The most decorating I’ve done was here at the church yesterday, helping the other dedicated decorators prepare the church for the arrival of Christmas. At home we’ve not started shopping for presents; the Christmas cards are still in their boxes, the Christmas CD’s are in the choir room where I left them yesterday and that all means we’ve got a lot of preparing to do before Christmas comes. But here, at the church, it is beautiful. It seems like we are ready for Christ’s coming, or are we? Isn’t Advent about more than hanging the greens, putting lights on the shrubs and having all the presents wrapped and decorations completed?
Of course it is, why else would the Scripture reading today drag out old, bug eating, camel hair wearing, desert dweller, Mr. Happy himself to wake us up to this reality. John the Baptizer, the party pooper, is certainly not on the list of people to invite to our Christmas parties, with his yelling about repentance and carrying on about mountains being laid low and valleys lifted up. He sounds like an attorney for Mr. Blankenship! Or is Mr. Baptizer speaking about a different terrain than our literal WV landscape? What is he talking about when he tells us to be prepared and to make ready the way of the Lord and to make the crooked straight and the rough ways smooth?
Perhaps the Church gives us this reading today, because like many of us, the Church is not in too big a hurry to get to Bethlehem, not just yet. The Church presses the pause button on our Christmas hustle and bustle to remind us of the need for each of us to take a pause, to listen to this strange but wise voice crying out of the wilderness…to prepare our hearts to make room for the Baby King to come again. With the wisdom from centuries, the Church reminds us that the journey to the stable in Bethlehem and the preparations we make are not about decorations or lights or shopping. We can simply go to some distant shore in the deep recesses of our hearts and lie down under the night sky and listen for the messages of angels and look for the stars pointing the way to Bethlehem. The Church reminds us to empty our hearts to make room for something new, something all together unexpected to take up residence there.
But how can we empty our hearts and make preparations for the Baby King to be born in us when there are so many other things to do, so many parties to attend, plays to go to, concerts to hear, presents to purchase? John Westerhoff, an Episcopal priest and educator suggests this exercise as a method for helping us get ready. He says, “I invite you to ponder the possibility of receiving a telephone call from someone you have never met face to face, but because of the stories you have heard about him, you feel that you know him quite well. Over the years, you have confessed your love for him, You have offered prayers in his name. Today, he has called to say that he is on the way. Imagine what he is bringing with him. He is bringing every single thing you need to continue your journey into the dominion of God. His name is Jesus, but before he can come, preparations must be made.”
During this season of Advent, we are called to make preparations, to let go of expectations that we cling to, expectations that clutter our inner lives and then create enough room for Christ to be born in each of us, into our own Bethlehem place. John the Baptist tells us to repent, to change, to let go and to prepare the way for something new to be born in us, for us and possibly for the world. And indeed the world needs something new now more than ever. Many of us were again shocked to hear of another mass shooting, this time in San Bernardino, CA, where 14 people lost their lives. One of those lives lost came from my hometown of Macon, GA. Shannon Johnson graduated from Windsor Academy, a private school, in 1988. You may have heard his story on CNN. As the shooters opened fire on an employee holiday banquet, Shannon was shot. He covered his body over a young woman who was also injured. As he held her, he kept whispering into her ear, “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” She said, his words brought some comfort to her as she lay bleeding. In his dying moments he was offering his life to save another.
Shannon Johnson shows us what it means to be prepared. The world has become a very scary place, but Jesus tells us to not be afraid. When the world around us threatens to snuff out our hope and our light, Jesus whispers in our ears, “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” Wendy Wright once said, it is the tough and tender task of learning to love one another which is most pressing. Indeed the tough and tender task of learning to love one another takes us out into the world where the homeless long for a place to lay their heads, even a barn would do since no Motel 6 will have them. We are called to the tender task of loving those who this year have no money for food much less Christmas presents. We are called to make room in our hearts for those who are sick and those who mourn through this supposed season of joy even as they brush away tears for those they have loved and lost. And we are called to the very tough task of even loving those who would seek to do us harm. In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, we are called to listen to the bold proclamation of John the Baptist that: 3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. This is truly astounding! Henri Nouwen, one of the great spiritual writers of our time says, “We must develop a global spirituality, in which the demands of the Gospel guide not only the behavior of individuals but of nations as well. Many will consider this naïve. They are glad to accept the teachings of Jesus for their personal and family lives, but when it comes to international affairs they consider these same teachings as unrealistic and utopian…Nouwen says, Nations, not just individual people, are called to leave the house of fear—where suspicion, hatred, and war rule—and enter the house of love, where reconciliation, healing and peace can reign.”
But we are only human. We find it hard to leave the house of fear and even more difficult to enter the house of love. It’s scary to let go of our expectations. We want to have all the right answers when it comes to getting ready for the Guest to come. And so we do our best, we clean where we can but even if we cleaned out every bit of baggage we carried around inside us, we still would be cluttered. Here is where the words of Malachi come to reassure us. For the One who is coming is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; 3:3 This One will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
Even when we think we are finished clearing out the clutter of our lives, we are still not finished yet. The idea of a refiner and purifier of silver coming and sitting with us refining us, making us righteous is a loving and beautiful image. If you know about refining silver, you know that the silversmith actually sits at the fire refining the silver until all the impurities have been burned away, and the way they know that the silver is at its purest is when the reflection of the silversmith shines clearly in the hot silver.
And so it is with each of us. The Lord comes to purify us even as we have tried to make ourselves ready. This meal that has been prepared for us, becomes the food we need to sustain us on this journey to Bethlehem, in order to find the Christ born in each of us, to refine and purify us to become Christ for the world in which we live. And just as we do so, we are returned and refined into the image of God’s very self. Not by what we do but by the very grace of our life-giving Lord! Let us prepare ourselves with great anticipation and with grateful thanksgiving as we continue to prepare the way of the Lord!
Prayer of Illumination:
Living God, help us so to hear your holy Word that we may truly understand;
that, understanding, we may believe, and, believing, we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience, seeking your honor and glory in all that we do; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Introduction to 2 Samuel 23:1-7: This week we celebrate Jesus as King. This is the last week of the Christian year, meaning Advent starts next Sunday. The Bible readings today all point toward Jesus as King. This reading from 2 Samuel is known as the “last words of King David,” though the king doesn’t die right away, in fact he doesn’t die until the next book of the Bible, 1 Kings.
1 Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel:
2 The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.
3 The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God,
4 is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
5 Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?
6 But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand;
7 to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.
The Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!
Introduction to John 18:33-38: Our second reading comes from the Gospel according to John chapter 18:33-38. This text is known as “the trial before Pilate.” Jesus has been captured by the Jewish authorities and is now in the presence of Pilate, the Roman prefect, who is responsible for maintaining order in the Roman occupied Jerusalem during the Jewish Passover. At first it might seem that Pilate, who was notoriously ruthless, does not consider Jesus a threat, but then we know that he ordered him to be flogged and handed him over to be crucified. Even with these treats against him Jesus spoke truth to power. Hear this encounter of two very different kings.
18:33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"
18:34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"
18:35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"
18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."
18:37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."
18:38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
The Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!
Giving Thanks for Christ as King
by Bonnie Boyce
“In one of his fine sermons, Tom Long tells a story that illustrates one of the central dynamics in this passage from John 18, that is of Truth speaking to power. The story claims that Mother Teresa was once in the United States to raise funds for her work among the lepers in Calcutta. One morning she was to meet with two high-powered Wall Street executives who had decided ahead of time that they were not going to give her any money. As the meeting began, the diminutive little saint from Calcutta shuffled into the room and took a seat at a shiny mahogany table across from the two men in Armani suits. “We appreciate your work,” the exec said, “but at this time cannot commit any funds.” Mother Teresa nodded quietly and said, “Let us pray” and then proceeded to ask God to open their hearts. After she intoned a quiet “Amen,” the man again said, “Look, I’m sorry but at this time, we are unable to make any commitments.” “Let us pray” Mother Teresa said, at which point both men took out their checkbooks and wrote fairly fat checks! Mother Teresa was a very petite woman with an enormous love for the least among the poorest of the poor and she was possessed with the Truth that we know as Christ the King.
Now imagine, if you will, that day that Jesus stood in front of the equivilent of a Wall Street executive, maybe someone as rich and famous as Donald Trump, who has his home adorned with 24 carat gold water faucets and sinks, not to mention his 747 flying gold jet. Jesus is standing in front of Pontius Pilate, the ruler and keeper of the peace in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders, who were Pilate’s pansies, had handed Jesus over to the authorities, meaning Roman leaders and soldiers because they didn’t want to do anything that would upset the Jewish followers of Jesus. He doesn’t look like a king. In fact he stands before Pilate with his hands behind his back in cuffs; his face looked like he’d been in a late night brawl with a bunch of bullies and his body was bleeding and covered with whelps from a brutal beating. He looked more like a car wreck than a king.
Pilate hardly looks up from his polished marble table, as he is flipping through the day’s mail, when he asks him as he’s stifling a yawn, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus speaks through his split lip, with blood in his mouth, “Did you come up with this your self or did someone else plant that in your teeny tiny brain?” (Of course I am paraphrasing here) Not used to being insulted by beat-up, bloody prisoner, Pilate looks at the broken man in front of him, stands up from his fancy table, pushes back his chair and yelled at Jesus, “I’m not a Jew am I, of course your own chief priests and your own people sent you to me that I might instill a little fear of Rome in you, and put you in your rightful place, which just might be on one of those crosses for the crows to peck out your eyes. So don’t fool around with me, bud, tell me what you hace done, fess up Jack!” (Ok, I’m doing it again, embellishing the story a tad)
Up to this point Jesus is holding his own, but then (I don’t know if he suddenly felt the effects of a concusion or if he was about to pass out) he goes off on this theoretical discourse about his Kingdom being not of this world. My guess is that Pilate was thinking something like, “You don’t say? I pretty much had that one nailed down, dude.” Instead he says, “So you are a king?” while he finished off his cocktail to keep from busting out laughing. But this is no laughing matter. Clear-headed again, Jesus tells him straight…”I came into the world for just such a moment as this, to bear witness to the truth, and those who know me, know the truth.” This time Pilate is not laughing, but looks into the eyes of this broken bleeding Middle Easterner, and asks him a question we all long to ask and find a definitive answer…”What is Truth?” We know what the answer is in our faith and in our religious proclaimations, Jesus is the Truth, the Way, and the Light, John would tell us in another chapter of this same Gospel. We know that the Truth is standing there right in front of Pilate and that he could not see it, he could not see Jesus, all he saw was another man, making trouble.
What we should be thankful for on this Christ the King Sunday is that we are privileged to see Jesus as who he was, who he is and is to come, Jesus as Savior, Jesus as the one we seek to follow, Jesus the Shepherd, Jesus the Prince of Peace, Jesus the King of Kings, Jesus the baby who came into the world, born to a young girl, named Mary. Don’t you find in particularly interesting that those who wrote the Apostle’s Creed 1700 years ago put Mary and Pilate almost in the same breath…born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate? We declare that Jesus was fully human, and fully God, how else could he have survived the human events of birth and death and still today 2000 year later be the One we go to when we are in need of saving?
Today more than ever we are living through a time of treats to our sensibilities and peaceful co-existence with our world neighbors. As I read some of the commentaries about this passage and what is happening in the world with the bombings in Paris, Mali, and Beirut, I came across this message from Professor Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary. She wrote, “In the face of sheer horror, peace seems impossible (Revelation 1:4). In the face of senseless violence, imagining the absence of terror seems hopeless. God’s kingdom looks so very far off on these kinds of days, in these kinds of moments, in this kind of world. Working for God’s kingdom feels like a rather futile determination. It’s not just an up hill battle—it’s unfeasible, even ridiculous to think that our efforts and energies can turn a world around into the world God sees it can be. Across my Twitter feed today was this quote, “Changing the world begins with a small group of people who simply refuse to accept the unacceptable” (Richard Branson). It is beyond hard to believe that we can stand up against the unacceptable, but we have to believe it we just have to.”
It seems unpopular and certainly not the way most people think we should we respond to this current crisis given the terror threats, for example—accepting Syrian refugees into this country. We must, however, continue to follow in the way of Jesus, to welcome the stranger, to love our enemies, to help the least among us, to be willing to put our own lives at risk for others, because Jesus did that. I am thankful that our King is not of this world, or like this world. Our King is from the world that carries hope that people can live together in harmony, that sees that all people are God’s people, that Kingdom does not rely on power or prestige, on guns or violence, but relies on the kindness that is available to each and every human heart.
Some of you have probably seen the young man who’s wife and mother to their 18 month old child died in the terrorist attack in Paris. If you haven’t seen the video, let me tell you what he said as he faces the future as a single dad. He is looking into a camera as if he is looking into the face of those who committed this terrible crime and he says this: “I do not know who you are, and I don’t want to know — you are dead souls,” Therefore, I will not give you the gift of hating you. You have obviously sought it, but responding to it with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that has made you what you are.You want me to be afraid? To cast a mistrustful eye on my fellow citizens? To sacrifice my freedom for security? You lost. Same player, same game,” While the young widower acknowledges that his wife’s murderers will enjoy the “tiny victory” of his grief, he vows that his grief will be short and that he will continue to live his life for his 18-month-old son, Melvil. “We are only two, my son and I, but we are more powerful than all the world’s armies. He’ll eat his snack like every day, and then we’re going to play like every day, and every day of his life this little boy will insult you with his happiness.”
There is a saying that goes like this: “Living well is your best revenge.” Jesus tells us over and over again, “Do not be afraid.” I saw another video of a man who took his 3 y.o. son to one of the makeshift memorials in Paris where there were bouquets of flowers and many candles. The little boy is being interviewed by a journalist about the attacks in Paris. The boy initially says that their family is going to have to move. The father said that they will not move. The boy says, but there are bad guys out there daddy they have guns. The dad responded, “They have guns but we have flowers.” The boy said, “Flowers cannot do anything.” The father said, “Yes they can, look everyone is bringing flowers.” The boy looks and seems to be studying the situation. “The flowers can protect us? And the candles too?” The father nods, the journalist asks, “Do you feel better?” The boy smiled for the first time in the interview, “Yes, I feel better.”
Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Today we are reminded that we follow a very different king than the kings of this world, and we must take courage to be the flowers and candles in this world for our young, so that they may learn the path of peace and non-violence. It is a gift that we have been given and the world needs it now more than even. Let us give thanks this week and in the weeks and years to come that we have Christ as our King. What better time than this as we move into Advent next Sunday that we proclaim the Light that is about to be born into the darkness of the world yet again. Let the people say, “Amen”
Introduction to Mark 13:1-8: Our first reading comes from the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has been teaching in the temple. He has spoken to the disciples about the way in which the Temple has taken money from the rich and poor alike. Now as he and the disciples are leaving the Temple they look back at the structure of the magnificent and elaborate Temple that the ruthless King Herod built and become awestruck with the dazzling view. Jesus then begins a discourse about the End Times, which biblical scholars call ‘Jesus’ little apocalypse.”
13:1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"
13:2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
13:3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,
13:4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"
13:5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray.
13:6 Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray.
13:7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.
13:8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
Introduction to 1 Samuel 1:4-20: Our second reading comes from 1 Samuel chapter 1. The book of 1 Samuel opens with a localized story of dynamics in a single family, but this story is more than it seems at first glance. It has been suggested that the story of this family parallels the story of Israel at this particular moment in its history. It addresses the plight of one woman who is completely dependent on God’s grace and mercy in her time of misery and distress.
1:4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters;
1:5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.
1:6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.
1:7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.
1:8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?"
1:9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD.
1:10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly.
1:11 She made this vow: "O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head."
1:12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth.
1:13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.
1:14 So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine."
1:15 But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.
1:16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time."
1:17 Then Eli answered, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him."
1:18 And she said, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
1:19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her.
1:20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, "I have asked him of the LORD."
This is the word of the Lord.
Women of Worth
by Bonnie Boyce
Today we dedicate our tithes and our pledges to the church as we conclude our Stewardship Season. The attacks on Paris the other night only serve to remind us that we live in a very complex & dangerous world. We make choices that have consequences for the good or for evil. Those who chose to kill innocent people did great evil on Friday night, a night in which their victims had simply gone out to have dinner or to watch a soccer match or to listen to some music in the beautiful city of Paris. I watched the news channels as the streets of Paris filled with police and ambulances, as I watched the number of dead kept rising. Witnesses to the rampage in the concert hall said that the killers were young men, some seemed to be just 18 years old. We wonder how young boys could become so hatefilled as to take the life of someone they did not even know, for what? We now know that ISIS has taken responsibility for the crimes against the people of Paris and the people who stand with them. The words from the Gospel of Mark seem to ring true that the end is near when we hear of wars and rumors of war, when we hear that nations will rise against nations. But embedded in the Gospel message are Jesus’ words, “Do not be alarmed!” And that there will be false prophets who say, “I am the he, but they will lead many astray.” The story of Hannah stands in contrast to the warnings of the end times and can appeal to our need for calm in the midst of uncertainty, for mercy in a time of such unspeakable evil, and of the good which we are offered everyday of our lives if we but attend to what is peace-giving and purposeful. Hannah had a purpose, though it had not been realized. We, as a church, have a purpose and we are called to help realize that purpose with God’s help.
You might think Hannah’s story is an unusual one to be used on this last Stewardship Sunday. But I hope by the end of this sermon, you will see the relevance, eventhough there is no mention of money. Elkanah, Hannah’s husband, does make a sacrifice at the temple in Shiloh, which at that time was a major sanctuary for the Israelites. The family situation is complicated. Elkanah has two wives, a practice that was acceptable in those days. Hannah is Elkanah’s first wife, however since she was barren, he married another in order to have children and thus heirs. But it is Hannah, who he loved the most. The name Hannah means “charming” or “attractive” in Hebrew, and Penninah means fertile or prolific, indicating her identity as childbearer. And so after the sacrifice at Shiloh, Elkanah gives Penninah and her children each a portion of the sacrifice, and to Hannah he gives a double portion because he loves her so. But this does not satisfy Hannah, who finally takes matters into her own hands and goes into the Temple day after day, and pleas with God to “open her womb” so that she may have a child, and she promises to give this child back to God as a gift, her own sacrifice.
Today we do not necessarily see women who are childless as less worthy than women who do have kids. But back then, as we discovered in the story of Naomi and Ruth, last Sunday, and in today’s story of Hannah’s barrenness, it was a matter of life and death. My friend, Susan, who died almost 3 years ago, had three children. Her oldest daughter, Melaney, has no children of her own and yet she is very actively involved in “mothering” thousands of children. Melaney, has been nominated as one of the “Women of Worth” in L’Oreal’s grant contest where Melaney’s organization, “Books for Keeps” could receive an extra $25,000. Books for Keeps is a program that provides underprivileged children good books to own who would otherwise not be able to afford them. One day years ago, Melaney went to a school to read to some children. On finishing she started talking to the kids about what books they were going to read during the summer. One little girl said that she did not have any books at home to read, then another said the same. Melaney who grew up reading many books all summer long, said to herself, “Somebody needs to do something about this.” Then it occured to her that she was somebody and that she could do something about it. Her husband Bayne, funded the effort in the first year out of his own pocket. The organization went from providing a couple of hundred donated books to children in the Atlanta area to now providing over 45,000 books a year to children in need. Here is a childless woman of worth who cares for thousands of children out of her kindness and generosity.
Melaney stepped up to the task boldly by saying, “I am somebody.” Hannah asked boldly, as a woman of worth for that which she knew would benefit her and God. In the New Testament, Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive, knock and the door shall be open to you, seek and you shall find.” We learn from Hannah the importance of expressing our need before God. Are we expressing our need as a congregation before God? Do we pray for our needs as a congregation? I am making a concerted effort to be more intentional about my prayers for this congregation, for her needs, for Her worth. Hannah straightforwardly expressed her need to God. In so doing, she recognizes that her wholeness lay beyond the things in her control and she embraced the larger reality of opening herself up to new possibilities, not of her making—but of God’s.
We also can learn from Hannah, about the trustful persistence required to claim God’s grace. Hannah’s faith was such that she trusted that God’s grace was available to her, even a childless woman, in that time one of the lowest of the low. Hannah knew deep down that God has an eye for justice. It was this kind of faith in God’s grace that kept the civil rights movement growing and taking root, for example, in its demand for justice. God has consistently created new possibilities of grace out of our stubborn insistence that God remember us yet again.
And finally we can learn from Hannah that the proper response to the grace of God is to give it back and pay it forward. If we attempt to keep what God has given us as a possession we will lose it. Hannah knew this from the beginning and vowed to give back the grace God would grant her. Hannah’s response teaches us something of proper response to the gifts of God. When the infant Samuel is weaned, Hannah returns to the sanctuary and dedicates her child to God. When grace brings new life, we too, must give back of the grace we have received.
I had a dream. It was a dream about this morning. We all gathered together; there were people from the past who had long been gone who had returned to be with us. There were children and young people who I’ve never seen before. There were people who had come from far away to tell of the importance of what SVPC had meant to them in their lives. We were having a really good time, so that when it came time to go to into worship there was a hesitancy to leave the moment. But it was decided that we should all go and worship God. People filed into the sanctuary and while I went looking for my sermon, people spontaneously got up to share their stories, stories of faith and how being at SVPC had renewed their faith in the goodness of God and in the goodness of a church community. People read poems, some read poems of working for peace in a hostile world. Some people came to share the horrors of war and how important it is for us to continue to work for peaceful resolutions to global conflict. The theme in the dream, over and over, reiterated the importance of our congregation not just for us now but also for future generations to come. This dream belongs to the Church, as it is a dream of grace, of worth given to us now, but also for grace and worth that waits for the future.
How do we respond to this gift in return? We are responding by opening our doors to the needs within our community. We are responding by opening our hearts to those people who come to us looking for a place of acceptance. Today we open our hands to give to the continued work of this church through our pledges of financial support to make this dream a reality, in some ways it already is. Let Hannah’s story too be our story, so that we give back a portion of what we have been given and we can declare boldly, that this church is indeed a church of worth.
Our first reading is from Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17: Often in the English translation of the Hebrew scripture, the original intention of the story is lost in translation. We no longer are familiar with the customs of ancient Israel and we do not hear the play on words used in the telling of the stories. In this story, Naomi and Ruth are both widows, which means they are without any means of economic security. Naomi devises a scheme which will bring legitimate restoration of their economic standing by sending her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to establish relations with their kinsman, Boaz, in order to 1) become legally married to a member of her father-in-law’s family and 2) to provide an heir to secure the property and inheritance. This is a story of uncovering and recovering, of being lost and finding redemption.
3:1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.
3:2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.
3:3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.
3:4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do."
3:5 She said to her, "All that you tell me I will do."
4:13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son.
4:14 Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!
4:15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him."
4:16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.
4:17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Introduction to Mark 12:38-44: Our second lesson is a familiar one and one that we often hear around Stewardship Season. Since it is so familiar, it is tempting to tune out, thinking we know the outcome and the focus. Let us try to hear this reading from Mark’s Gospel as if we have never heard it before. Let us listen for the Word of God coming to us almost 2000 years after this was written. Jesus is in the Temple teaching and observing what is going on there.
12:38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
12:39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!
12:40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
12:41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
12:42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.
12:43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
12:44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
Giving Our All
by Bonnie Boyce
It is Stewardship Season again and if you didn’t get the very affirmative and well-written stewardship letter from the Dygerts—it is a must read. I hope Kristin put some extras out in the hall for those of you to pick up who didn’t receive them in the mail. It is very important to be reminded of why we feel so passionately about our church and it’s missions. We got to hear some of the work that the church does last Sunday during our Stewardship luncheon, which, BTW, was delicious and enjoyed by those who stayed. Clearly not every church is as interesting and entertaining as this great church in the valley though.
I heard this story about a family who had a disappointing visit to a church they had never attended before. One Sunday this family heads home after leaving a church they had just visited. The dad, who was driving, complained that the sermon was too long and boring and that he had to pinch himself to stay awake. Mom who was riding up front said, “I couldn’t sing any of the hymns. They sounded like funeral music and I didn’t know any of them.” The young son, in the backseat, said, “Well, I didn’t think it was too bad. I mean what do you expect for a dollar!” The kid had a point!
The first church that I served as a student intern in Chicago, while I was in seminary, was Lincoln Park PCUSA. I remember their stewardship Sunday that year. One of the elders, a young, fresh guy in a tweed jacket and dockers got up and told this tale. One day a man looked up and prayed to God, “Lord, you never seem to help me win the lottery! Just once couldn’t you let me win?” Then the next day, he did the same, he prayed to God to help him win the lottery, but it seemed like it was falling on deaf ears. After about a week of praying this same prayer every day to win the lottery, finally the Lord spoke to him saying, “Danny, if you want me to help you win the lottery, you have to do your part—buy a ticket!”
Well we all know that we cannot buy our way into heaven or into the KIngdom of God, but we can make the Kingdom here on earth draw a little closer with the work that we do while we have the chance. Last Sunday we not only celebrated our Stewarship kickoff and luncheon but we also celebrated All Saint’s Day, remembering those who we have known and loved but who are no longer with us in body, but are here with us in Spirit. In remembering them we remember that our time on earth is limited or as the Psalmist says in Psalm 90, “the days of our lives are numbered, help us to have a wise heart that we might live them well.”
In the story from the Old Testament, Ruth and Naomi were left without any family to support them, so they went into action to make their survival more secure. It may sound dubious to us these days, but back then it was a matter of life and death. So Ruth did as she was told and went to Boaz, who was their distant relative but next of kin, she sleeps with him and bears his child. Boaz marries her and the two women find security and redemption. Naomi, who had lost two sons to death, now had a grandbaby to nurse and to care for. These two women who were once considered outcasts in their society found a second chance in life.
Christianity is a way of life that gives people second chances, maybe third and fourth chances—maybe even as Jesus once said about forgiveness—seventy times seven—chances. The story we heard from Mark is a story of contrasts—Jesus points out the hyprocracy of the religious elite who had money and prestige, were educated and long-winded in their fancy clothes and their pious prayers. Jesus takes a seat to watch people coming in and giving to the Temple. The rich seemed to draw attention to themselves by place their large amount of money, all coins back then, into the treasury, which was a huge metal vat that had a trumpet shaped funnel at the top. We they put their money in the treaury it made a great noise and other people noticed. Jesus contrasted this showy performace with the plight of an old woman, who was not as fortunate as Ruth and Naomi, she too was a widow, but she had nothing, no husband, no home, no money. Perhaps she had even been a beggar. She shuffled up the the treasury and put in two small copper coins, they were so small they were barely worth a penny and as they fell into the large vat they hardly made any noise at all, only a tiny dink, dink.
But Jesus noticed what she had done and though what she had done in the eyes of those in the Temple that day, seemed so little, so inadequate, Jesus says that she gave all that she had. The point of this story is not to guilt people into giving all that we have to support the church, the point is that the little things that we do to help one another, do not go unnoticed by God. What the world judges as inadequate God judges with eyes of compassion and mercy, with love and acceptance. God sees what we often misjudge. For example…
This is a true story of one generous giver. One day the secretary of a large church was looking out of her office window, only to catch a glimpse of a homeless woman walking up to the church door. The secretary hurried out of her chair to try to get to the door and lock it before the homeless woman could open it. She was almost to the door, when the homeless woman opened it and walked in. The secretary was kind and ushered her into the office where the homeless woman began a rather lengthy conversation. The secretary just wanted her to hurry up and get to the point of asking for the money, so she could say “no” and go home. Finally the “homeless” woman, said, “I’ve been a member of this church for many years but haven’t been by lately, I’ve been ill for quite some time…So I just thought it was time to drop by and make a contribution.” The woman made out a check for $5000 dollars, to the surprise and shock of the secretary.
I would hope that the secretary made sure that the woman was physically and financially well, and that she didn’t feel that she had to give that amount if she could not afford it. After all, isn’t it the church’s responsibility to make certain that their members, people in their community and the world have their basic needs being met. What are we to think of a religious system that would encourage a vulnerable person to sacrifice what security she had for its institutional purposes? Actually, isn’t the widow’s offering in the Gospel lesson backward? Shouldn’t the Temple be giving to the widow?
Jesus made the contrast between the wealthy religious types in the Temple and those who were at the Temple’s mercy, like this poor widow. In some respects this widow represents what Jesus was about to do. He would literally give his all, his life for the likes of this poor widow woman, for the likes of each of us. Jesus calls us to give our all as well. Of course we are not to be fiscally irreponsible, but we can try to give a tenth of what we have to support the church, which is suggested by our religious traditions—we call that tithing. It may not be passible for everyone of us, but for those of us who have much, a tenth is a good goal to shoot for. Giving a tenth of what we have says that we are not dependent on money or possession but that our dependence is on the Giver of all.
The church we serve is a church that feeds the hungry. It is printed on every bulletin, every Sunday. Who are the hungry? Those who hunger for a glimpse of God in the world, those who hunger for food for their bellies and for their children, those who hunger for security and family like Ruth and Naomi, those who hunger for relief from poverty like the widow in the Temple, those who walk around in fancy clothes but know that they need someone who sees their poverty of Spirit, those who hunger for something larger, more satisfying than what they can find on their own—these are the hungry ones.
The hungry ones are waiting to be fed. So we need to consider our contributions to this noble calling, to be all in for them, to give our all to the work we are called to do. I leave you with this short tale. “There is a story in Jewish tradition of a rabbi who was so holy that it was rumored that on Sabbath afternoons he ascended into heaven to personally commune with God. The rumor grew from the observation that this rabbi simply seem to disappear from sight in the local community until the end of the day. Several boys decided to secretly follow the rabbi. Throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, they saw the rabbi go into the homes of the elderly, the sick, and the poor. He cooked meals, cleaned homes, and read scripture to the lonely. When the boys were later asked if the rabbi really ascended into heaven, the boys answered, ‘No. He went much higher.’” Let’s join Ruth and Naomi, the poor widow in the Temple, the rabbi in this tale and start giving our all for the One who gave His all for sinners such as we. Amen. text, images, and other content
11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
11:34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."
11:35 Jesus began to weep
11:36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
11:37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
11:39 Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days."
11:40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"
11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me.
11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me."
11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus come out!"
11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him and let him go.”
The Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!!!
25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
25:7 And the Lord will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; the Lord will swallow up death forever.
25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of God’s people will be taken away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.
25:9 It will be said on that day, "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for God, so that the Lord might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation."
The Word of the Lord:
Thanks be to God.