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February 8, 2015, 2:35 PM

Prevenient Grace


1 Corinthians 9:16-23, NRSV
16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
 
Prevenient Grace
 
Many Sunday evenings, before the 5:00 pm service starts, I have an opportunity to watch an 18-month-old member while her mother is setting up for Sunday school. And if you have ever found yourself watching over a toddler you know that it is your job to walk slowing behind while the wonderful toddler explores the world.  I have noted many times as I walk behind this little one (and remember walking behind my own children many years ago) that they are completely oblivious to my presence.  They are so captivated by the world, exploring all they can see and hear and touch, that they forget there is anyone else there. They just want to experience more and more.
 
However, once in a while, the toddler comes across something that leaves them nervous, uncertain or frightened. Or they trip and fall. Or in the course of their exploring they glance falls upon the one following and suddenly they are aware of this loving presence, who has been there all along. And they turn and greet the loving adult, perhaps showing something they found, or running into their embrace for comfort. This is Prevenient Grace.
 
John Wesley, the founder of the United Methodist Church, gifted the Christian community with a deep understanding of the grace of God—one of the many wonderful gifts he shared with the world.  He spoke of grace working in our lives in different ways. As we journey as disciples of Jesus, as we model our lives more and more after his, we are filled with sanctifying grace—the grace that leads us closer and closer to holiness. That moment when we become aware of God’s loving presence and move into that discipleship journey, we are made right with God, restored to God—justifying grace. And that grace that was journeying with us before we knew it, that grace that was waiting for us to turn to be embraced—prevenient grace.
 
We too can become absorbed by the world, distracted by many things, rushing off after new experiences, exploring our world, completely oblivious to the divine Parent. But God, the loving Presence, is with us in each moment, loving us, waiting for us--prevenient. That moment comes, when we become aware of that loving Parent, whether through need or a change in awareness, and we turn and enter into those loving arms, waiting to hold us—justifying. In that moment we are invited into a long lasting, enriching, life-changing, life-saving relationship and we journey together with God, with Jesus, down the road of holiness—sanctifying.
 
Sometimes we experience something on the journey that pulls us away from our divine walk—John Wesley called it ‘backsliding.’ I see it as simply part of being human, that propensity to be overwhelmed by life, distracted by obligations, tantalized by new things. But God continues with us, waiting for us to realize and to return to the graceful walk with God. Once in while, on this journey, we get everything absolutely right—perfection. We are living fully in the light of grace. And once we have achieved that moment, we know we can reach it again, and again, and perhaps live in it a little bit longer each time. Wesley gifted us with a rich, powerful understand of God’s grace.
 
Wesley’s understanding is, of course, founded on the life and ministry of Jesus, but it is also deeply grounded in the Apostle Paul’s writings in the New Testament. Wesley’s understanding of grace is rooted in Paul’s understand of God and God’s grace. Grace seems not to be the topic of today’s reading from 1 Corinthians. At the beginning of chapter nine, just prior to today’s scripture, Paul is on the defensive. Some in Corinth are accusing him of Not being an apostle, of falling short. Jesus, as he commissioned the disciples and sent them out as apostles, charged them with not taking anything with them, but to rely on those who received the good news for hospitality and support.  However, Paul, when he was in Corinth, continued to support himself as a tentmaker. For this some Corinthians have stated he is not an apostle, he has fallen short.
 
Needless to say, Paul is angry with their accusation and is “letting them have it” in no uncertain terms. As he defends himself he lifts up the God who made him an apostle, the God who was seeking him before he knew he needed to be found. And he speaks of those sent by God to him who showed him the prevenient grace of God waiting for him. This is the job that Paul is now called to, the job Paul is sent as an apostle to do—to show people the grace of God waiting for them.
 
That means Paul must be really present with the people unaware of God’s grace, completely present. He must sit at table with them; hear their stories. He needs to learn what it is that distracts and prevents them from recognizing that grace. And only then, can he join them as they turn into the embrace of God and are surrounded by grace. That means Paul sometimes sits at a kosher table, sometimes a Pagan table, and sometimes he must refrain from the table until those hosting are ready. It means that sometimes he joins people in prayer, sometimes he joins them at the marketplace, and sometimes over a drink. It means sometimes he must cover his head, and sometimes he must refrain from covering his head. Paul, without compromising himself, is willing to be with people…REALLY with people, and to model and point toward the prevenient grace awaiting them.
 
This is our job as well. The church, the community of faith, is called to many things. We are called to ministries of discipleship where we learn and grow and develop our relationship with God. We are called to ministries of nurture, where we open our arms to embrace members of our community in need. We are called to ministries of service where we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and visit the sick and imprisoned. But our first call—repeated over and over by Jesus and Paul and Peter…and John Wesley…is to share the good news, to help others see the loving Parent right there beside them, to model and point to the prevenient grace of God.
 
That means we have to be with people, REALLY with people. We need to sit with them at table and hear their stories. We must learn what is distracting them and keeping them from recognizing that surrounding grace. We must walk beside them and stand with them as they turn into the grace and embrace of God. So, where are the people who need this from us? Where are those who are unaware of the loving grace waiting for them? They are not in the sanctuary…in our worship spaces.
 
Are we willing to go? Are we willing to be with them…REALLY with them?
 
Are we willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be with them?
Are we willing to go to unfamiliar places?
Are we willing to step outside our comfort zones?
 
Are we willing to go?
 
Because if we are, if we are willing to go, we will witness nothing less than Jesus taking them by the hand and lifting them up to new life.
 
Thanks be to God! Amen.
 
Receive this blessing (by Jan Richardson)
 
May your life be a river.
May you flow with the purpose
of the One who created
and called you,
who directs our course
and turns you ever
toward home.
 
May your way shimmer
with the light of Christ
who goes with you
who bears you up
who calls you by name.
 
May you move
with the grace of the Spirit
who brooded over
the face of the waters
at the beginning
and who will gather you in
at the end. Amen.



February 1, 2015, 9:00 AM

Possessed


Mark 1:21-28, NRSV
21They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
 
“Possessed”
 
What does this story have to do with us?
 
There are so many stories in scripture, so many passages in the gospels of Jesus Christ, that we love, that resonate with our souls, that draw us closer to God, to Jesus, to discipleship.
  • Those gorgeous Beatitudes that start the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew—“blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are the peacemakers.”
  • The feeding of the 5000, found in all four gospels, where five simple loaves and two small fish feed a multitude with baskets leftover.
  • Wonderful parables, rich with imagery, provoking thought and heart—the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Sower
  • Powerful stories of healing and restoration—touching the lepers and making them clean, lifting a woman up who was bent over for 18 years, restoring sight, restoring mobility, restoring community.We can see ourselves in some of these stories.
We can see them play out in our lives and in the lives of others. But today’s story, this tale of a possessed person—unclean spirit, demon-possessed—what does this story have to do with us?
 
Now, demons and angels are great money makers. They have been selling books, movies, and television shows for years.  The most famous, of course, is “The Exorcist,” that movie of a possessed girl—Linda Blair—and the priest who struggles to cast out the demon within her. We watch this demon levitate things, spin her head around, spew things…scary, gross, leaves an impression.  And that’s just it…this movie, and others like it, have left a very big impression. And whether we realize it or not, these Hollywood depictions bleed through into our imaginations when we encounter these biblical stories of possession. As we picture this man suddenly confronting Jesus, does he look a little Linda Blair; blood shot eyes, deranged expression? As he speaks to Jesus, does his voice in our hearing become a little sinister, a little supernatural? “What have you to do with us? We know who you are!” As this happens, as popular depictions tinge our experience of this passage, the story of the man with the unclean spirit becomes surreal, fiction-like, and we easily respond—What has this to do with us?
 
So let’s back up for a moment and come at this story as part of a larger story—the gospel of Mark. The gospel’s writer is telling a larger story, in which this encounter in the Capernaum synagogue is a part. Mark is such a fast-paced gospel—each segment of the story is short, succinct, to-the-point, and leads into the next segment, building toward the conclusion. Mark’s favorite word is “immediately” and though our translators play with their thesaurus to give the story some variety—the idea is there. This story is urgent and Jesus is on the move. Our reading today is in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. Just moments before in the chapter, Jesus begins his ministry on the banks of the Jordan River with his cousin, John.
 
We know this story. We heard it just weeks ago on Baptism of the Lord Sunday. The heavens are torn asunder as Jesus comes up out of the water. The dove-like Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and the Divine voice echoes from the heavens, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” That event is still echoing in the background as we encounter our reading today.
 
And washed in those waters, blessed by that Spirit, embraced as Beloved, Jesus comes face-to-face with this one possessed of an unclean spirit—a spirit that I’m sure doesn’t call him beloved. This person is in worship on the Sabbath—sitting within the congregation with all his community. He is not levitating, spinning or spewing. He is worshiping—obedient child of the Torah. But unbeknownst to his faith family, he has fallen sway to a spirit other than the Holy One. Darkness fights for control within him. He’s possessed of a spirit that
  • curses instead of blesses
  • tears down instead of building up
  • disparages and demeans instead of encouraging and empowering
  • sows hate instead of promotes love
  • divides and splits instead of unifying
These dark thoughts, these whispered words in the mind, are suddenly confronted with the divine light of God revealed in this traveling Rabbi. Jesus teaches with a new authority, a new and fresh message, of love, forgiveness, hope, mercy. Jesus’ message contradicts the internal dialogue of the man and the pain bursts forth from him—“What could this possibly have to do with me? Are you trying to kill me? I see who you are—the Holy One of God.”
 
All that darkness that seeks to possess the man, seeks to possess us is suddenly exposed. All that anger and jealousy, all that greed and lack of self-esteem, all the fear and hate, all the lack of confidence, all those stresses, and obligations and responsibilities, all that the world whispers that we must do and have, twists and turns in the light of such grace. Vulnerabilities and anguish now exposed, the darkness within lashes out, seeking to gain control, to reject vehemently this message that the darkness doesn’t belong within us, that what it whispers isn’t true.
 
Imagine this moment anew—here we sit, in worship, nice safe worship, familiar, comfortable, part of your schedule for the day. Suddenly the guest preacher for the day is revealed as bearing the very light of God, and teaches with an authority that is astounding; and that guest preacher, shining in glory, kneels in front of you and says, “You are my beloved! I am so proud of you! You are precious in my sight!” Would we not squirm under such loving attention? Would we not drop our eyes, look away, blush, cry? Would we too plead with the preacher, “What do you have to do with me? Are you trying to kill me, Holy One?”
 
Oh, this story has so much to do with us. So much possesses us. We too are often held hostage by dark thoughts; hurtful and hurting feelings; past wounds still raw and bleeding. We too lash out in fear, anger, and pain. We too have much to forgive others, and much to forgive ourselves. And here is the good news: Jesus came just for you, just for us! Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit to stand against the unclean ones seeking residence within us—individually and as a community. Jesus came teaching forgiveness, breathing freedom, breaking chains, to set us free!
 
We can be free…together! Jesus meets us here, in bread and cup, in oil, in scripture, in song, in prayer, in the faces of the people around us. Jesus meets us here, this One with such authority that even the unclean spirits obey him.  Let us embrace this freedom! Let us rise from the darkness! Let us hear the word ‘beloved’ spoken to us.
 
Let us pray with these words from Jan Richardson...
Begin here:
 
Beloved.
 
Is there any other word
needs saying,
any other blessing
could compare
with this name,
this knowing?
 
Beloved.
 
Comes like a mercy
to the ear that has never
heard it.
Comes like a river
to the body that has never
seen such grace.
 
Beloved.
 
Comes holy
to the heart
aching to be new.
Comes healing
to the soul
wanting to begin
again.
 
Beloved.
 
Keep saying it
and though it may
sound strange at first,
watch how it becomes
part of you,
how it becomes you,
as if you never
could have known yourself
anything else,
as if you could ever
have been other
than this:
 
Beloved.

 




January 18, 2015, 9:23 AM

Come and See


1 Samuel 3:1, CEB

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.      

John 1:43-51, CEB

43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b]you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”

Come and See

First Samuel—in our reading for today—begins with a striking statement that echoes across time to ring as true today as it was thousands of years ago. “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” In these days, so often it seems, that the word of the Lord is indeed rare, and vision is so lacking. There are many who try to say they speak for the Lord—televangelists, the religious right, the religious left, politicians looking for votes—but the good news seems so lacking in what they have to say. How our country, how our culture hungers for a guiding vision to unify us, show us the way forward, stop the violence and hatred and prejudice and oppression. Stop the division and polarization that seems to cripple our nation. We understand too well the opening of this story from Samuel, in these days the word of the Lord is rare; there are not many visions.

And that is why the observance day for Martin Luther King, Jr. is so important. Each year as our nation marks his day and his life I try to read some of his works—a sermon, or a letter—as my way of rededicating myself to the work of justice. But even as I marvel at his extraordinary gift with words, the cadence of his voice, the power of his presence, I am deeply saddened by how much work we have yet to do to realize the dream he gave to us, that vision from God which  he shared; that word of the Lord:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."2

This is our hope…

These words have echoed as well across time, reverberating from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, to even this moment, 52 years later…only we must expand it. We must have a dream that one day little black children, and white children, and brown children, and red children, and yellow children, and gay or lesbian children, and transgendered children, and poor children, and rich children, and differently abled children, and all the labels we can think of will be able to join hands, sit together at the table of fellowship, shall see the glory of God in each other. Here is a vision, a word from the Lord. God speaks. There is a dream.

Isn’t this one of the guiding principles of God that drives this church family? Isn’t this what we are all about—to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God—to be a place where ALL are welcomed! Are we not committed to opening ever wider the arms of acceptance, love, and hope to a world in need?! When we hear Rev. King’s resounding vision, shouldn’t we as a congregation leap to our feet and cry out, “Yes!” “Amen!” “Let it be!” “Let that dream be realized here!”

And we do strive to create that here. We do try to welcome all people, to nurture and love creation, to tear down the barriers, boundaries and walls, to be a people where the table is always open and there is a place for everyone. We aren’t perfect. We still have a lot to learn. We make mistakes, but hopefully, we acknowledge them, seek to make amends, learn, and continue down the path of justice and inclusivity. But there is one thing that we are often lacking—inviting others into this place of vision and God’s word. Evangelism.

So here is the good news even as you shudder under the word “evangelism,” today’s gospel reading is the very model of what it means to be an evangelist—the gift of invitation.  This is still chapter 1 of John, the story of Jesus’ three year ministry is just beginning. And it begins with John the Baptist announcing his witness—he has seen Jesus anointed, baptized, by the Holy Spirit and immediately John called his disciples, his followers, to now follow Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Son of God. Jesus, in turn, teaches his new disciples the language of evangelism, the language of invitation. They ask Jesus where he abides, where does he dwell, and Jesus simply responds, “Come and See.”

Andrew, one of these former disciples of John, is so impassioned by his encounter with Jesus, he rushes to his brother—Simon Peter—and extends the invitation to him to encounter Jesus. And then Jesus moves on to Galilee and meets Philip, our gospel story for today.  Here it is! Philip embodies for us the true work of evangelism. Excited by what he has found in Jesus, overjoyed by this radical new community forming around Jesus that embodies God’s love, Philip rushes to find his friend, Nathanael. He briefly tells Nathanael what he has found (he has found the “One,” and this One was in Nazareth all along). Though Nathanael’s first response is one of doubt, Philip issues the simple invitation modeled by Jesus, “Come and See.” And then it is all up to Nathanael, to accept the invitation or not. No converting necessary. No arm twisting. No convincing. No manipulation. Just invitation—“Come and See.”

What have you found here at First UMC that brings you back? Who do you know that needs a place where Rev. King’s dream, God’s vision, is seeking to be realized? Who hungers for a place at the table? Who yearns for a community that will embrace them without conditions—and love them with all their bumps and bruises, all their doubts and hesitations, all their gifts and graces? Who yearns for being accepted exactly as they are? What is stopping us from inviting them? Come and See.

We must admit, as a people, generally, we are not comfortable talking about this faith stuff out there, in the big, scary world. We get nervous about sharing our faith in a culture that is so hostile to it. We don’t want to ever be associated with that evangelical element that crams their faith down other’s throats, or uses fear and manipulation. But, perhaps what truly stops us from sharing and inviting is that we have never practiced and we really don’t like to do things that we aren’t good at, that we haven’t prepared for, rehearsed.

So let’s practice. I want you to turn to someone near you and introduce yourself…even if they already know your name…we are starting easy. (pause while this happens) Now, I want you to tell them what brand of toothpaste you use—like I said, starting easy, personal but not very much so. (pause) Now share one good thing that happened this week, big or small, just one good moment. (pause) And finally, share with your partner in our little practice session one thing that you like about this faith community, anything at all, just one thing that you like. (pause) That is how it starts. Simple sharing. Evangelism.

In these days the word of the Lord is rare; there are not many visions. But here, in this community, we hold tight to the vision God has shared, across time, with a host of prophets and dreamers, visionaries who shared of a time when ‘every valley is exalted, every hill and mountain made low, the rough places made plain, and the glory of the Lord seen by all." Here we seek to live the Table of Grace where all find welcome and wholeness and healing and acceptance. Here we live the dream a little more each day. Now we need to share this with the world, in simple invitation. “Hey, I have found this place where I am loved just as I am, where I can share my doubts as well as my certainties without fear…Come and See.”  Thanks be to God!




December 16, 2014, 1:26 PM

Letting Go of Perfect

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[a]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[b] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[d] (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Luke 1:26-38

26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” 34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” 35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.” 38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Letting Go of Perfect

I remember the Christmas mornings of my childhood. They all morph together into this one picture—all soft and hazy and golden.  I would wake up at some ungodly hour, like 4:00 am, and jump instantly from my bed. I would debate with myself about waking up my sister, for about 1 second, and then tiptoe across the hall to her room.  She didn’t like to be woken up as a rule, so I would basically jump on her on her bed and bounce off as fast as possible—to avoid any violence.  Once she was awake and remembered it was Christmas morning so she didn’t want to kill me this time for waking her, we would stand outside our parents’ door and whisper about when to wake mom.

You see, as a dairy farming family, dad was already in the barn milking cows by the time I awoke. No presents were to be opened until he returned from the barn. But if we didn’t wake mom too early, we could have our stockings to entertain ourselves with until he was finished. So we debated about walking mom for several very long minutes before our ever-louder conversation woke her anyway. We would excitedly grab our stockings and open them on the stairs where the window overlooked the barn (to see if dad was coming) and was just a short distance from the tree.

It all seems perfect in my mind; giggling sisters, fuzzy stockings, soft lighting, eager anticipation.  I don’t remember any arguments or fighting, any disappointments or unhappiness. It seems like a dream sequence from some Hollywood movie, all rough edges smoothed away and only perfection remaining.  I wonder if my mother would tell a different story.

It is how we remember the Christmas story as well: a warm, snug, remarkably clean stable; tiny baby, spotless and serene; proud and amazed Joseph, looking down on the peaceful babe; meek and mild mom, looking radiant and rested after a pain-free and quick birth; adoring shepherds, also squeaky clean, well groomed, and reverent; hushed animals looking on, all freshly scrubbed, standing or lying stilly by, all aware of the sanctity of this moment and wouldn’t dream of pooping or peeing on the scene. ‘Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.” That is a lovely story to encounter on Christmas Eve as the candles glow and the music fills the sanctuary. But, if that is the only Christmas story we encounter each year, we have missed the point of the incarnation in a very, very big way.

By backing up this Advent and encountering the stories that precede the nativity narrative, we get a fuller picture of how unsettling and imperfect the coming of Jesus is by the world’s standards. The incarnation (that fancy word the church uses to talk about God coming as Jesus) is an interruption—an interruption for our own salvation, but an interruption just the same.  Zechariah is interrupted during a monumental moment in his career as priest to be told he is to be a father in his old age to the harbinger of the Messiah. Elizabeth, too, as she prepared to give birth to Elijah come again—the wild John the Baptist who will eat honey and wild locusts and wear camel hair. 

And in today’s reading and the passage from children’s time, we encounter a dangerous interruption and a less-than-perfect situation.  Being pregnant out of wedlock is a serious offense in first-century Judaism, punishable by death—stoning to be precise.  Mary’s agreement is nothing short of miraculous—to bravely and boldly agree to God’s plan knowing that she cannot prove to anyone that an angel visited her and the Holy Spirit created the child that now grows within her.  She is risking everything. And though Joseph, in also agreeing with this crazy plan, does not risk death, life will not be easy in the small village as he raises a son that everyone knows is not his own. 

Nor is there any perfection in dragging a very pregnant girl on a three to four day journey to Bethlehem, finding shelter among the animals, and giving birth away from home and friends and family.  This is a messy, messy story and that is the point. This is the story of God coming to be with us, to be among us, to take on our flesh and blood, to set up God’s tent right among us. Emmanuel—God with us.  God becomes all fleshy and messy and human. That is the whole point. God is in our mess with us, all the way.

We need to embrace a less than perfect Christmas—to let go of everything being perfect—and let life be life, even in the season of Christmas. Because we all know that no matter how hard we might try, it’s not going to be perfect. Life is messy and hard and painful and beautiful and miraculous and precious. And at Christmas we celebrate that God jumped into that life with us with both feet. God waded in with us, and dwells right here among us—mess and all. God comes in Jesus to guide us through the messes of life, to comfort us in the painful moments, to struggle with us when life is hard, and to rejoice with us in the beauty.

And God calls us to do the same for one another—to wade into the messes of the world and help one another through. This year can we let go a little of trying to make everything perfect, and embrace the messy, hard, painful, beautiful, miraculous, and precious story of two terrified and horribly unprepared people welcoming God-made-flesh into this world in less ideal conditions so that this same God could rescue us all from the mess, and know that this is God’s idea of perfection.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.




November 11, 2014, 9:47 AM

Love Songs

Song of Songs 8:6-7

Set me as a seal over your heart,
        as a seal upon your arm,
for love is as strong as death,
        jealousy as unrelenting as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire—
        the Flame of flames!
Rushing waters can’t quench love;
        rivers can’t wash it away.
If someone gave
        all their wealth in exchange for love,
        they would be laughed to utter shame.                             

Matthew 22:34-40 (CEB)

34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,[c]and with all your mind. 38  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.[d] 40  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

Sermon:

“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs; but I look around me and I see it isn’t so. Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. And what’s wrong with that? I’d like to know.” Who is the poet and singer who composed those famous words? [Paul McCartney] We certainly do have an abundance of silly love songs. We could start naming them and continue on for the whole hour and not name them all. I like that the titles of many love songs can be used as proclamations in and of themselves: “Love is a many splendored things,” “Love lifts us up where we belong,” “All you need is love,” “I was made for loving you, baby,” “In the name of love.” Love songs have to be silly. We are trying to put into words emotions that are crazy and overwhelming and extreme and ridiculous and beautiful and passionate. Metaphors fall short. Words miss the mark when we try to explain this “crazy, little thing called love.” And so our attempts seems silly, and yet beautiful and necessary at the same time.

So perhaps it is fitting after all that in the middle of what we call the Old Testament-Hebrew scripture, sandwiched in the midst of wisdom literature such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, is this tiny little book, the collection of love songs, entitled “Song of Songs.” It certainly falls into the category of ‘silly love song,’ for it is silly and crazy and extreme and ridiculous and beautiful and passionate. In fact, it is so passionate at times in Judaism’s history, youth preparing for their bar/bat mitzvah were not allowed to read the Song of Songs until a certain age. And present day Christians, if they know about the Song at all, generally ignore or avoid it because of its romantic and often erotic allusions. What do we do with this silly, beautiful, love song in the midst of our scriptures?

Here a few examples of text from this book, carefully selected for our worship today:

            “Oh, give me the kisses of your mouth,
            for your love is more delightful than wine.” (1:2)
 
            “I have likened you, my darling,
            to a mare in Pharoah’s chariots:
            Your cheeks are comely with plaited wreaths, (1:9-10)
 
            Ah, you are fair, my darling,
            Ah, you are fair.
            Your eyes are like doves
            Behind your veil.
            Your hair is like a flock of goats
            Streaming down Mount Gilead.
            Your teeth are like a flock of sheep
            Climbing up from the washing pool; (4:1-2)

Make sure you save these quotes for a really important occasion with your beloved.

Of course, in 2014 we giggle at such metaphors, such silliness in this ancient love song, but the traditions of both Judaism and Christianity have hailed the utter importance of this small book throughout their history. Our early church fathers and mothers lifted up the Song of Songs as critically important. Outside of these silly images, the Song is full of rich biblical metaphors, some taken from Exodus and the giving of the Law; others from Isaiah’s songs of promise and restoration. The Church has seen the Song, throughout most of her existence, and the epitome of love between God and God’s people. Scripture refers to God, and to Jesus, as the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings. The inner sanctum of the Temple was entitled the Holy of Holies. And this book, this silly little collection of poems, is the Song of Songs. It is critically important that we don’t ignore it, and here is why.

First, it is scripture. It has been part of the cannon of scripture for generation upon generation upon generation. It has been beloved, cherished, respected. It has been used in worship, teaching, and devotion. It is part of the book of faith through which we encounter God.

Second, it makes us uncomfortable. It stomps all over our understanding of divine love and secular love. It breaks down the boundaries between what is considered holy and sacred and what is considered secular and worldly. It enlarges our understanding of God’s love. In the middle ages, many holy people—mystics—spoke of God and God’s relationship with humanity in romantic and even sensual terms. We might know Julian of Norwich—a famous Christian woman mystic—for her beautiful words, “and all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.” But so much more of her phenomenal writings were filled with passion for Christ, spoke of Christ as her lover, and were extreme and powerful love songs to Jesus. The Song of Songs reminds us that all LOVE is of God. Our romantic and sensual love still shines with the light of divine. Our covenant relationships are sacred and holy. Sharing our hearts and lives with another is a form of Holy Communion.

However, the most important reason we should not ignore or avoid the Song of Songs—it uses human relationships to speak of the relationship between God and God’s people. It sings of the interconnectedness of human relationship and divine relationship. Matthew 22 also proclaims this intertwining of human and God—the Great Commandment is to love God and neighbor. These are inseparable; you cannot love God and hate your neighbor. Just look at all the metaphors throughout scripture that compare God’s relationship with God’s people in terms of human relationships: Our Father/Mother-parent imagery, partners at work together, intimate friendship, and most often used, the image of marriage and covenant.

So much of our understanding of God is wrapped up in the relationships in our lives; those beloved, intimate, enriching encounters with neighbors on a day-to-day basis—parent and child, romantic couple, deep friendship, good co-workers, uplifting acquaintances, and even chance encounters with strangers that remind us of the goodness of life. These strengthen our relationship with God and help us connect more fully with the images of God in scripture. How much more do we understand God as loving parent holding Ephraim to God’s bosom or guiding Ephraim’s first steps if we have experienced the same ourselves? How much more do we rest in the security of our covenant with God when we have had the security of a deep friendship or a lasting covenantal relationship? And how much more do we understand the passionate yearning of God for us, when we have felt a yearning for another?

In understanding how much the good and healthy relationships in our lives impact our understanding of and our relationship with God, we also understand how deeply we are pained when a relationship fails, breaks, or turns bad. We see that it not only breaks our heart, plagues our mind, but shakes the foundations of our faith—to lose a human connection impacts our divine connection. Whether it is the loss of a parent, child, spouse; a job ending and loss of relationships co-workers either due to lay off or retirement; a broken romance; the loss of a lover; a relationship that becomes abusive; the betrayal of a church family, if we understand how such a loss affects our relationship with God, we can seek healing and solace in the relationships that remain strong—letting them nourish us as we grieve. And as a faith community, we keep our eyes and ears open for those among us wrestling with brokenness, and offer ourselves as part of healing relationships in the midst of their loss.

People have not had enough of silly love songs; silly, beautiful, passionate, extreme love songs. For love is a many splendored thing. It lifts us up where we belong. It is what we need. We were made for loving. And in the name of Love, we embrace the Song of Songs. And we love the Lord our God will all our hearts, soul, and mind, and love our neighbors—parent, partner, child, sibling, friend, co-worker, church family, acquaintance, stranger (all neighbors)-as we love ourselves. We help one another when we struggle with relationships that break or fail.

For love is as strong as death…jealously as unrelenting as the grave. Love’s flashes are flashes of fire—the Flame of Flames! Rushing waters cannot quench love and rivers can never wash it away.  Amen and Amen.


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