Eve Meets Mary

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Lately, as I’ve made my way home from work here at the church, I can see the stars in the sky. And it’s not because I’m here until 10pm.

No, the days are growing shorter… the air colder…
This is the time of year when we are preparing ourselves for the longest night, the winter solstice, and while the daylight wanes, we are clinging to reminders that better days are ahead.

Right here, in the midst of this season of darkness, we remember that it is in the darkness that new life comes.
The bulb has to be planted within the cold, dark earth to bring forth its buds.
Babies grow and are formed in the dark warmth of the womb.
And in this “bleak midwinter” we set out our evergreens and yule logs to remember that resurrection and eternal life are ours.
We are waiting, you see, during this time of Advent for the birth of the child spoken of by prophets… the Savior, Messiah, Prince of Peace, Light of the World.
And… as people born on this side of his birth, life, death, and resurrection… we are still waiting.
Advent you see, is not only a season of remembrance. It is also a time to look forward. The fullness of that kin-dom that Christ came to bring has not yet fully been realized.
All we have to do is open the newspaper to know that God’s will has not been done on earth.
We are still waiting.

Earlier this week, I heard news reports that the Island of Puerto Rico still only has power for 46% of its residents. The devastation of Hurricane Maria was so severe that months after the winds and rain poured down, rural areas still do not have any access to resources.
But not only Maria… the impacts of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana are still being felt.
While it is not as present in the news, the continual onslaught of storms in Louisiana has had a doubled impact because of the simultaneous destruction of wetlands. The dead zone in the Gulf created by run-off farther up the Mississippi and the altering of the flow of the Mississippi for human habitation has devastated the area. The US Geological Survey now reports that nearly 1,900 square miles of land have disappeared in the last seventy years.
Sometimes, the sin and destruction and pain of this world is almost too much to bear.
Sometimes, it feels like we have been waiting too long.
Sometimes, it is hard to have any hope when we look out at reality.

Maybe that is why I find so much comfort in the words of The Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput. He defines hope as a choice, “a self-imposed discipline to trust in God while judging ourselves and the world with unblinkered, unsentimental clarity.”
Those words remind me that hope is not a naïve sentiment or wishful thinking.
We can look out unfiltered at the world that surrounds us… and we find hope at the intersection of what we see and our faithful trust in God
Hope doesn’t shirk away from problems or difficulties, but enters into them, confident that God will be there and will bring order, life, and joy out of the chaos.
That hope is not only for you and me. It is for all of creation. This whole world is waiting with us.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded that “the whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.”

Whatever was intended for creation, with the tree of life and fertile land and those first humans holding dominion over it all, is not what we experience today.  When we read through those first chapters of Genesis, there is no mention of rainfall or storms, no death, no decay, only life, and life abundant.

Our faith explains the brokenness of creation – the cycles of destruction, natural disasters, violence, and death by pointing to a single moment: When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden (Genesis 3:6-7).
At that moment, everything changed.
That first sin, that first rejection of God’s intentions, had an impact on the entire world! God confronts Adam and Eve and there is not only punishment for the snake and the two humans, but as Genesis tells us, “cursed is the fertile ground because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread – until you return to the fertile land.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
We acknowledge this pain of creation even in the songs we sing this time of year. We proclaim how “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy”…. But we also sing about the groaning of the earth itself and its longing for redemption… “no more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” (Isaac Watts, Joy to the World, UMH #246)

And as our Advent candle reading from Isaiah lifts up, it was not only the first sin of Adam and Eve that impacted creation, but as we continue to sin, the earth dries up and withers. (Isaiah 24:4-5)
Theologically, we are called to remember that our selfishness, our disobedience, our breaking of the covenant impacts the physical world around us. Because of our continued sin, the whole of creation is trapped in a cycle of death, enslaved by decay, and waiting to be set free.

So where is the hope that Paul writes of in Romans? Where do we turn for hope as we look out at the groaning of creation today?

maryconsoleseven

One afternoon I stumbled upon an image that took my breath away.

It was drawn by Sister Grace Remington who is a member of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey here in Iowa. It depicts Eve, clad only in the flowing locks of her hair and clutching that forbidden piece of fruit. Her leg is entwined in the grip of a snake; her head hung in shame. Evil, sin, and death are her legacy. It is our legacy.
But with one arm, she reaches out and places her hand on Mary’s womb.

Mary stands there full of grace and mercy.
She gently touches the face of Eve as if to tell her it is okay. She holds her other hand over Eve’s and together they feel and experience the life of the one who was coming to redeem and restore all the creation.
There is hope.
When Paul writes about the groaning of creation and all of God’s children, he describes that pain as nothing compared with the “coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
And then in verse 22, he uses the Greek word synōdinō to portray this reality; a word used only once in scripture to describe the agony of childbirth.
Creation is suffering labor pains.
Something new is about to be born.

In this season of Advent, this image of Eve and Mary fills my heart with possibility and invites me to hear the words of Romans 8 in a different light.
So often, I hear the frustration and groaning of the text, instead of diving in to see the good news.
Yes, the world around us is groaning, but they are labor pains. Creation itself is about to be delivered, to be release, to be set free to become what God fully intends for it.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul keeps pointing back towards Adam, because in those first human beings, we see God’s ultimate intention for the human race.
Paul believes that in Christ, in that child that would be born of Mary, the human project finds it’s completion (Jospeh Sittler).
In the beginning, there was a part for humanity to play – tending the garden, carrying the image of God, helping all of creation to thrive.
And now, as Christ is born into our lives and we claim the Spirit of God that sets us free, it is our job to take up that role once again.
As this image conveys, in Christ, we find release from our temptations… that snake of sin that would bind us is being stomped on by Mary.
In Christ, we find forgiveness for past transgressions… the head hung in shame and guilt is gently touched, the hand is embraced.
The way we have lived on this world – using and abusing God’s gifts for our own intentions – doesn’t have to be the way that we move forward.

In fact, Paul tells the Romans that those who have been set free by the Spirit of Christ have an obligation to live as God’s sons and daughters right here and now.
Not for our sake.
Not for selfish reasons.
But because the whole earth is waiting for us to do so.
The love and mercy of Christ reaches out to us as the descendents of Adam and Eve and yes, we are offered forgiveness, but more than than, we are empowered by God’s Spirit to live differently.

Paul believed that God linked the restoration of creation with you and me, and so I find hope in this season of Advent in the possibility that people of faith can help to change the tides of decay.

All throughout this season, we will highlight some of those stories and ways we can make an impact, but these Christmas Trees here at the front of the church remind me of one…

 

In the midst of that loss of habitat and wetlands in the Louisiana delta, people are working to restore the wetlands and help mitigate the impact of storms by collecting used Christmas trees.
As they deposit them into threatened bayous, they become the basis for new marsh vegetation and they help to reverse erosion.

We have a choice of how to live on this earth and whether or not we will obey the call of God to care for all of creation.
Just like this image of Eve, may we be transformed by the birth of Christ into our lives, so that we might be the hope for the world.

 

NOTE:  This sermon is an adaptation from chapter one of my book, “All Earth Is Waiting.”

Can’t Keep Silent!

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While the Advent journey takes us through an emotional rollercoaster of joy, fear, humility, and anticipation, there is no other emotion to guide the days after Christmas than pure celebration.

 Each of the readings for this time of Christmas call us to take a deep breath of relief, to look around at the beauty of what God has done, and to simply enjoy it.

We have waited patiently for four weeks in this season of Advent and in these fast paced days, a month may seem like an eternity. 

 But our scriptures from Luke for this Sunday tell us of two people who had been waiting their whole lifetimes for the birth of Christ and then who absolutely couldn’t keep silent when they encountered the Christ-child.

  

First of all, a little background about why Mary and Joseph and the newly born Jesus find themselves in Jerusalem in our gospel reading this morning. 

 This probably would have been the second trip that the trio would have made into the holy city – first in order to name their child and to have him circumcised eight days after his birth, and then this second trip – in order for Mary to be purified after the birth according to the law. 

 In the book of Leviticus, the law proclaims that any woman who has given birth would be ceremonially unclean – or unable to worship at the temple or to touch holy things, for 33 days if the child born was a boy, or 66 days if the newly born baby was a girl. 

 While this may seem to be strange – it was actually probably a welcome time of rest and a chance for the new mother and child to bond in peace and quiet.

 But then after that time, the family would come to the temple to make the required offering. 

 Families who could afford to do so would bring a lamb, but there were allowances made for those who were less fortunate.  Scripture tells us that Mary and Joseph were only able to bring a pair of small birds as their gift to God.

 

These trips back and forth, all of this pomp and ceremony, were actually very normal, really, expected parts of what it meant to have a baby.  Mothers and fathers and infants would have been a common sight around the temple as they marked this important time of their lives in God’s presence.

 But in the midst of other mothers and fathers and babies – Luke tells us that two wise old saints- Anna and Simeon – picked this particular trio out of the crowd and knew that they were something special.

 Perhaps it was the fact that Anna and Simeon had been waiting for such a long time to see the Messiah.

 Perhaps they were just more in tune with the power of the Holy Spirit after lifetimes of faithful service to God.

Or maybe they just allowed themselves to be overcome by the joy of the moment and couldn’t help but be silent.

 In any case, both Anna and Simeon rushed to the new parents and their infant son, God-in-the-flesh, and gave praise to God.

  

Who are these people?  And why does Luke record their reactions?

  

Simeon was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, and long ago a promise was made to him that he would not see death until the Messiah had come. 

Most people were looking for a leader to rise above the people – a powerful and spiritual figure.  But Simeon was led by God to see that this infant child that crossed his path was something more… and he knew that his promise had been fulfilled.  

 He understood that this child would grow to become not just a light of revelation to his Jewish brothers and sisters, but would be the light of salvation to the entire world.  And the Holy Spirit helped him to understand that this path to salvation would be a heart-breaking journey for Mary and Joseph, but also for God.  

 Now that he had seen the Messiah, he could pass from this world in peace. 

 

 Anna was a prophetess, a woman of God who spent her life worshipping God through fasting and prayer in the temple. 

 It is likely that she had served God in this capacity for nearly sixty years of her lifetime!   

 In those sixty years, surely many babies had passed before her eyes. 

 And while we don’t know of anything particularly special about the way the infant Christ looked, something about this month old child caught Anna’s eye. 

 Her heart was filled with joy and Luke writes that she began to tell the story of this amazing child to everyone that was looking for redemption and hope in the city of Jerusalem.

 Hope has come! Light has entered our midst! was likely her cry.

She may have been eighty-four years old, but she wasn’t going to let anything stop her from sharing what she had experienced.

 Maybe she thought in the back of her mind of our text from Isaiah today: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.”

 Her years of prayerful anticipation had been answered, and now she simply couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

  

My question for all of you this afternoon is simple. If an eighty-four year old woman and a dying old man can share the joy of this birth with all of those around her—why shouldn’t we?

 I want to encourage each and every single one of you to go out from this time of worship and to share! To announce! To celebrate!  How God has entered our midst in this Christmas season.

 At dinner, tell a story of something that happened to you or your family this Christmas. 

 Find your neighbor later today and share the joy of Christmas with a hug or a word of encouragement.

 Call your children and tell them about something you are thankful for.

 Talk with the staff here at Wesley Acres and let them know you are still praying for them this Christmas season. 

 God has entered our midst!!!   And as we continue to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, let each one of us continue to proclaim good tidings of great joy…

Turning It Off

The balance of self-care, Sabbath, and work is sometimes a tenuous one in my life so I try to set boundaries and guidelines for myself.

They are:

  • never work more than two blocks in a day (morning, afternoon, evening)
  • take two days off every week
  • take all of the vacation time allotted to me

The easiest to follow probably has to do with vacation time.  My family has planned some vacations together and setting aside those weeks to go and be with them has made it easy to take full advantage of the time given.

One of the ways that I try to honor my commitment to take two days off every weeks it to be flexible about which days those are.  With my work as a state-wide coordinator, my schedule varies greatly.  Sometimes those days off are a full Saturday and Sunday.  Sometimes I move them around and take time in the middle of the week instead.

The same goes with the two blocks in a day.  To allow for the chaos of ministry, focusing on those two blocks means I can sleep in after late evening meetings, or take an afternoon off to play disc golf if I know I’m going to be working the rest of the day.  If in a particular day, it is not possible, then I steal a block from another day and make space for two blocks of rest then.  At least, that’s the idea.

Lately, however, I’ve been struggling.

light switchesIt is a blessing and a curse to do work that you love, because while it is incredibly fulfilling, it is also very hard to put down.  I have been fed by and energized by this work and there is always so much to do.  It is never-ending work and while I trust in God’s working even when I take time to rest, I really don’t want to stop!  And I’ve been discovering that there are a few particular things that make this idea of rest even more difficult. It’s hard to turn off your brain.  It’s hard to turn off the phone.  It’s hard to turn off the computer.

Imagine No Malaria has provided an outlet for a lot of creativity in my life.  I’m doing graphics, website design, social media, writing – all sorts of things I love.   And I could tinker with graphics and websites eternally.  I’ll wake up with an idea about how to sell an idea or a plan to present something and those ideas don’t stop when I’m baking or hanging out with friends.  I have scraps of paper littering my desk with ideas and to-dos of things I have thought up at random moments.  More often than not, I’ve been in my office, working hard and forget to stop for lunch or lose track of time and need to be reminded by my husband it’s dinner time.  When you love what you do, it’s hard to turn off the brain and let go of the work.

I’ve also noticed that working from home, the technology I use day in and day out makes it harder to find balance.  When I hop on the computer on a day off to check my personal facebook account, I also find myself glancing at the project page or responding to a question someone posted.  When I left something open on the desktop and come downstairs in the morning (even if I’m taking that morning off), I find my eyes drifting to it and starting to work on it even when I didn’t intend to. My office is also the place where I play video games and listen to music and practice guitar.  It is not some separate place I can close the door on and leave behind.  My car takes me to speaking events and to the grocery store… and glancing in the back seat on a day off I’ll notice that thing that I had forgotten and will go home and pick up the piece of work instead of letting it rest.

And then there is my phone.  I’m typically okay at screening phone calls and letting them go to voice mail on days off… at least when I was in the local church.   But it’s a lot harder to do that when it’s the Bishop who is dialing your number.  It’s hard to ignore the blinking blue light on my phone that indicates a new email.  I’m not getting emergency phone calls in the middle of the night, but that quick text back to someone who asked you a question about a document seems so easy to do when you are in the middle of watching a football game with your husband.

I guess one of the things that is a common thread, one of the reasons it is hard to turn off the work is that it doesn’t feel like work.  It is a joy.  It is fulfilling.  It is making a difference.  But the truth is, I’m not very good at keeping it from impinging on sacred time of rest.

So I’m going to work harder at turning things off… turning off the wi-fi that picks up new emails… turning off the ringer on game day… closing documents… closing the door to the office if I have to.  I think that also means allowing myself to turn off the brain and let a few ideas go instead of pursuing them immediately.

Yesterday, I re-installed a game on my computer and played for two hours.  I ignored the documents.  I let the ideas rest.  It was nice to turn off for a bit.

Hosanna!

In my flower garden this spring, I have learned the difference between joy and happiness.

You see, happiness is getting a bouquet of a dozen tulips from your spouse or from a friend and setting them on the counter for a few days.  It warms your heart to be thought of, they are beautiful to look at, and it doesn’t take any work to enjoy them.  It is a pleasant surprise, and unexpected wonder.  That is happiness.

But joy is “refined and thoughtful,” (in the words of Scott Hoezee) “because it has passed through death.” Joy persists through suffering.  Joy persists through doubt.  Joy enables us to look at the cross and still shout, “Hosanna!”

And unlike the fleeting happiness of a bouquet of flowers, a bed full of tulips that you dug by hand and then planted with care… and then spent a whole winter waiting for… is a true experience of joy.

There were moments in the waiting where I worried nothing would happen.  Maybe I had planted the bulbs too deep.  Maybe not deep enough.  Maybe the weather did not get cold enough for them to really do their thing.  Maybe the squirrels would dig them up.  Maybe the nursery I ordered them from was a scam and the bulbs were duds.  A thousand different what if’s could flow through your mind in that long time of waiting, watching and hoping.

And then the miracle occurs.  The bulbs start to peek out of the ground.  The colors start to emerge from the buds.  And before you know it, you are caught in the glorious joy of color and life and aroma that sustains much longer than a simple bouquet… and has the calluses to prove the work and the pain and the sweat that preceded it.

This distinction between joy and happiness is important as we think about this Palm Sunday and the Easter Sunday that is close on its heels.  Because today, we erupted with singing and happy songs and Jesus is enteringJerusalemand maybe you, like the people on the road that morning, are surprised by the light spirit of it all.  You join in and you wave your palm branches and sing with the children and it feels good.

But what we experience on Palm Sunday isn’t costly.  It is cheap and easy happiness.  It is unexpected.  It is a surprise.  It is happy… but it is not joyful.

No, the true joy comes with Easter Sunday.  The true joy comes after we have done the hard work and walked the long journey to the cross.  The true joy comes after we have planted all of our hopes and fears into the tomb… waiting, hoping beyond hope that there just might be a possibility of life in the midst of death.  The true joy of Easter is everlasting, sustained, and does not disappoint.

In contrast, this morning will seem like a wilted bouquet of flowers forgotten on the kitchen counter… the happiness of today simply cannot compare. You see, at the same time as we are shouting – Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  We are also saying the word, “Hosanna.”  We are crying out for God to save us.  We know that the elation we are experiencing is only temporary… we know that there is still work to do.

In fact, ever since I have been here, I have shied away from celebrating Palm Sunday alone.  It is too cheery and happy clappy in light of everything that we are about to experience during this next week.  And too often, folks will skip straight from the happiness of today to the joy of Easter without experiencing any of the difficult road.

So on most Sundays we have included the Passion texts and have really spent some time with the story of Jesus’ last week.  We sat with him through dinner, we pray at Golgotha, we experience his trial and visit Herod, we walk the streets ofJerusalemto the crucifixion.  We jam pack it all into one hour on a Sunday morning so that we at least will have had a glimpse of the cost of the grace we are offered.

But this year, we are walking this road with Jesus.  Our Lenten devotions this week in particular take us through each of the days this last week of Christ’s life.  (And if you haven’t picked one up or used one up until now, feel free to join in for this last week!)

We also have three opportunities to worship and experience Holy Week and to spend time with Jesus.  Our usual Wednesday evening worship is at 6:30pm and we will also celebrate Maundy Thursday at 7:00pm in the fellowship Hall and Good Friday with other local churches at Trinity UCC at 7:00pm on Friday night.  A carpool will be leaving our church at 6:20 for those who are interested in joining us.

So let’s enjoy today for what it is – a triumphant entry – an unexpected surprise – a momentary glimpse of joy, of hope, a glimmer of happiness.

1)    The happiness you experience when you catch a glimpse of someone from God.  The people shouted, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” And we too have experienced people in our lives who are from God.  Who bless us for a moment or two… who exemplify what it means to reflect the light of God… who have helped to make our days brighter and our roads easier.

2)    Catch a glimpse of a way out – a way of peace and not violence.  Jesus on the colt vs. Pontius Pilate and a Roman processional coming into Jerusalem.

3)    Catch a glimpse of salvation

  1. Story of the 7th graders from Dr. Scott Black Johnson… big picture we know salvation is about hell/ life and death… but in the meantime, there are all sorts of things we need saving from. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of hope on a tough day… a reminder that Jesus can calm our fears… the feeling of peace in the midst of stress.

These tulips this morning are beautiful… but like our shouts of Hosanna on Palm Sunday they will wither away… they are unexpected and surprising but they are not permanent. Maybe by the end of the week, our cries of Hosanna will turn into cries of “Crucify Him!”  Maybe by the end of the week, we will find ourselves at the foot of the cross.  Maybe at the end of hte week, we will find ourselves staring into a tomb… but let us walk this last week with Jesus – both the good and the bad –  so that we can experience the true joy of Easter Sunday – a joy that lasts… a joy that endures through even suffering… a joy that comes from Jesus.

Amen and Amen.

how can we laugh at a time like this?

I’m sitting at my computer, looking out the 24th floor window of my hotel in Des Moines.  I am currently attending our annual School for Ministry and learning all sorts of neat things about capital campaigns and what kinds of fonts to use on worship slides.  We’ve had some good practical teaching this year… with some good theological underpinings.  It usually is.  I’m glad Iowa does this!

Anywho… here I sit, looking out the window at 12:26am at the quiet streets below.  I’m still up because I’m trying to plan worship for Sunday so that I can send my organist the hymns.  I’m exhausted.  Both from Holy Week and now these days of sitting in a conference room with no windows for hours upon hours.  I do not want to preach.  I have two funerals ahead of me in the days to come.  And someone mentions “Holy Humor Sunday.”

I’ve heard of Holy Humor Sunday… but never actually done one.  It’s this tradition (a very old tradition) of laughing on the Sunday after Easter as we celebrate the cosmic joke that God plays on sin and death when Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.  It is a day to laugh, to lift up our hearts, to thank God that we know already the end of the story.

I’m loving this idea.  I’ve spent about an hour already looking up hymns and liturgy and of course, jokes to tell.

And then I realize that since I’ve been holed up in a conference room for the last two days that I have no idea what has been going on in the world.  I check CNN, and I check weather.com… 72 dead from tornadoes in one town in Alabama… friends freaking out on facebook over tornadoes that barely clipped their own homes and the severe weather alerts that have them shaking in their boots every time the sirens go off.

I start to think about these two funerals that I have coming up this very weekend.

I start to remember the brokenness so many people in our communities are experiencing right now.

I start to look out on that quiet street before me and wonder who is sleeping in an alley tonight, instead of in a king size bed at the Marriott.

I know in my bones that God has already won.  I know that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.  I understand.  I believe.  But I find it so hard to keep that Easter joy in my heart because we haven’t reached the end of the story yet!  We are inbetween times… in between the empty tomb and the new creation.  It’s here, but not fully.  It’s already, but not yet.

How on earth can we laugh at a time like this?  How can we laugh as cities are ravaged by deadly winds and little ones go to bed hungry tonight?  How can we laugh when people are staring death in the face and losing?  How can we laugh when the disparity between the haves and the havenots is so stark?

Maybe the question is… how can we not laugh?

How can we not just take a deep breath and remember that God is in control… not us.

St. John Chrysostom preached in his famous Easter sermon:

If anyone is devout and loves God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If anyone is a wise servant, let him rejoice and enter into the joy of his Lord.



He gives rest to him who comes at the 11th hour, even as to him who has worked from the first hour. And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first.


Let all then enter into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, keep the feast. You sober and you heedless, celebrate the day.

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast… Let all receive the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.

O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown.


Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of the dead. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

This world is broken and imperfect and horrible things happen all around us.  But if we cannot laugh in the midst of our sorrows, then the Devil has already won.  If we cannot laugh and lift up one anothers spirits, then there is no hope.  If we cannot laugh and rejoice, then why keep going at all?

Christ is risen. Death is overthrown. Life reigns.

We don’t have to be afraid.  We don’t have to be scared.  We know the end of the story and we can laugh in the face of all that tries to hurt us.

Those words are so powerful…  and so hard to believe in.

But maybe… just maybe… if we get together as a community and we laugh, we will find the faith we need to trust.  Maybe together we can find the strength to laugh in the face of sin and death and to really and truly mean it.

Joy… for the tough times

This morning in worship we focused on John the Baptist’s question to Jesus:

How do I know that you are the one? Are you him?

photo by: Mattox

Jesus listed off all the signs of the kingdom – the things he was doing that demonstrated the Kingdom of God had come near.

Instead of preaching, I asked the congregation to help me proclaim the good news. We had a small crowd because of weather, and it was a much more intimate setting to be sharing anyways.

Together we lifted up all of the places we have seen joy in this world in the past year, all of the ways we have witnessed God working. We talked about flood recovery and coming back from illness. We talked about new babies and celebrations of life. We talked about simple things that bring a smile to our faces. It was a joyous morning of testimony!!!

The Gift of Joy

How many of you are happy all the time? Every waking minute of your lives? C’mon now… raise your hands! No one? No one at all?

How many of you are joyful? How many of you have the joy of the Lord in your heart every day? Maybe a few?

This morning – we have the blessed opportunity to remember the Spirit’s gift of JOY in our lives. This IS the day that the Lord has made, so let us rejoice and be glad in it… Let us pray.

The first question that comes to my mind when we think about this thing called joy is: What is it? In the scriptures, we read about joy all the time. We hear familiar scriptures about how we are supposed to rejoice always, about how the faithful break out into joyful song and shouting… but really… what is that allusive thing called joy… and how do we experience it?

Let’s take a journey back into time and revisit one of those familiar stories from our childhood. Shari has already reminded us of this tale of adventure and miracle, as Moses led the people through the waters of the Red Sea.

I want you to imagine yourself for just a second as one person among the masses of people waiting there on the edge of the water. You are tired, you are completely out of your element, and suddenly you realize that the very people you are escaping from are about to over take you. You can see the dust from their chariots rising up into the sky and they are coming closer… and closer… and you are camped by the water and there is no where to run.

Are you experiencing joy? Do you have any sense of happiness pouring through your veins? Probably not.

But then, something amazing happens. Behind you, there on the edge of the water, Moses raises up his arms and the winds start to blow. And though you can hardly believe your eyes, the waters are pushed to the side by this blustery breeze and a path of dry ground begins to appear in the midst of the sea.

The people around you begin to shout and Moses commands you to move through the water and fearfully at first, but then in absolute wonder you pick up your pack and move. It is a long journey across, but something propels you. There were signs and wonders done back in Egypt, but this is something else. These walls of water that surround you and threaten to fold in any minute is proof – is a witness – to the fact the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is with you!

Tired you reach the other shore and turn yourself around to see how far you have come. Your people are still making their way across, but they are making it! And that is when you realize the Egyptians have reached the other shore and are about to come through that same miraculous path that was just your salvation.

But then it happens. That strange pillar of cloud and fire that has been traveling before you and behind you descends upon the Egyptians and their chariots get stuck in the mud. They fearfully turn to make a retreat, but the last of your people have reached the shore and Moses steps up to the waters and in an instant, the sea covers the Egyptians and leaves you safely on the other side.

What do you feel now? Standing there in the awesome presence of God’s mighty works… what comes to your heart… go ahead – shout out the first thing that comes to your mind!

As Shari helped us to remember, the first thing the Israelites did was sing… they sang a song to the Lord saying: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation”

This song of praise is but the outpouring of joy in the lives of these people. They have witnessed first hand “God-with-them” and like the hymn we just sang… Joy to the World… in the presence of our God, joy fills our hearts.

In Greek – the word for joy is chara which comes from the word “charis” which means grace. Joy is not a state of emotional happiness… joy does not come from within or from other people or from things… joy is the experience of the presence of our God.

That’s not so hard to believe, is it? As King David pours out his heart in the scriptures, he reminds us that he is filled with joy in God’s presence (Psalm 16). As Paul writes to the Philippians from a prison cell – he knows he is surrounded by God’s presence and so he is able to say “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

The joy that comes into our lives by the grace and presence of God is not the happiness of this world. For in the midst of some of our most painful and trying and difficult times – in the midst of times of grief and sorrow and tears… sometimes that is when joy surrounds us.

Joy comes to us in those dark times when we recognize that the Spirit of the Lord is still with us. Standing on the edge of the Red Sea, looking back and recognizing their salvation… the Israelites sang for joy. Standing at the graveside of a loved one and yet feeling the comfort of God’s presence – we find the strength we need to sing out of joy a song like How Great Thou Art. In the midst of a battle for health, when all else seems dim, we know that we are surrounded by prayer and by God’s spirit and so a smile does come to our face and laugher does echo across the room.

William Wordsworth wrote about being “surprised by joy”–when the grief and pain from his daughter’s death vanished and for a moment he forgot she was no longer with him. He experienced this amazing feeling of joy and it so overwhelmed him that he turned around to share it with his beloved daughter – only to remember again that she was gone. While the poem is about the grief that he feels nearly constantly… even that dark grief and longing is broken into and light could pour into his heart – even if for a moment – because of joy.

C.S. Lewis took that phrase from Wordsworth and he wrote a book describing his conversion to Christianity called Surprised by Joy – in which he pointed to his “accidental discovery and consequent search for the phenomenon” that he came to know as “JOY.” In Lewis’ mind – joy was something akin to the idea of longing… an experience of something so good and so unattainable that it could not be explained.

Joy is what we experience when we know we are in the presence of God. And joy is also our longing to know that presence of God more fully – each and every moment of our day.

So maybe the question that remains is: why aren’t we joyful every minute of every day?

Let’s go back to that familiar story of Moses and the Israelites and the Red Sea. Because, it’s easy to end the story there and have it all wrap up nicely and neatly. God saved the day and the people rejoiced! YAY!

But, this is not an episode of Veggie Tales Tthis is not some isolated story. . Chapter 15 in Exodus goes on with verse 22: Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went for three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. (which is Hebrew for bitter) 24And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’

Three days. Just three days of walking into the desert and already the Israelites have forgotten what God did at the Red Sea. Just three days in the wilderness and they forgot that God was with them. They forgot that God was on their side. The songs of joy in their hearts drifted into songs of despair.

Now, I don’t know about you… but if I learn a new song – it gets stuck with me for quite some time. I think I’ll be singing those VBS songs about God being my hero for weeks to come. In just three days, could they really forget the presence of God?

Apparently they could. And I must acknowledge, apparently we can, too. No matter how beautiful the sunrise is in the morning – sometimes I forget the joy of the Lord by lunchtime. Other things of this world crowd into my mind and my heart and I let the presence of God go unnoticed in my life.

The Israelites began thinking of their calloused feet and their dry lips and the weight of their packs and they thought less and less about how God traveled with them. And so when they reached a place of water and it was bitter, it was the last straw. They sat down and threw a temper tantrum. What are we going to drink?!?!

And in the midst of their despair, they were reminded again of the presence of God. Moses cried out and God showed him a piece of wood, and when Moses threw the wood into the water, the water became not only drinkable… but sweet.

When we believe that God has left us… and when we forget his presence, then joy is not our friend. As Jesus prepares his disciples for his death, that is his reminder. In John, chapter 16, Jesus tells them very plainly that when he is gone from their sight at his time of death – they will weep and mourn. There will be no comfort for them… because everything they think they know about him will have vanished… But that pain would turn into joy for very shortly they would see him again.

In the presence of God, we experience joy. Our hearts are filled with the knowledge that the one who made us is with us… that the one who saved us stands beside us… that the one who loves us leads us on to perfection.

We may not always see God. We may not always recognize God’s presence. But open up your hearts and mind… sit still for just a moment and you will know that God is with you – and you will rejoice.

Amen and Amen.

Already/Not Yet

Every Friday night we have dinner with the family – as we all set the table and prepare for everyone to come to the table and sit, and especially as all of the food is there and we are just waiting for the time to pray, my niece and nephew like to sneak bites from the food being set at the table.

The table is one of my favorite images of the kingdom of God… a great big huge table where are all welcome, all are loved.
And the amazing thing about the Christian community that is born out of the ministry of Jesus is that we today are like those little kids at the dinner table – and here and there we catch a foretaste of the glorious banquet.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s entire goal is to write down what happens to the disciples after Jesus leaves them. His goal is to document those early days of ministry, the birth of the church, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

And if you went home and spent some time just reading straight through the book – you would find that it reads a lot like a journal. While the beginning chapters recall the story of what happened before Luke joined up with the band of disciples, the rest of Acts is Luke’s personal account of what happens in each leg of their journey. It is his personal witness to the Kingdom of God that has already taken root in the world. And, it is his testimony that the Kingdom of God was not yet fully in this world.

Now, the Kingdom of God is a phrase that we hear quite often.

John the Baptist preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand… just as he was preaching that Jesus was about to enter their midst.

When Jesus healed the sick, he said that the Kingdom of God has come near you. (Mt. 10:7)

But also on the gospels we hear all sorts of stories and parables that tell us funny things like the kingdom of God is like a tiny seed, or like yeast, or a priceless pearl. (Mt 13)

We hear things like the kingdom is hard for the rich to enter, but that it already belongs to little children.

We hear that the kingdom is something we are supposed to seek out, but that it’s not necessarily outside of us, but within and among us (Luke 17).

But I think the most confusing thing is that the kingdom has already come among us… and that each week, we pray for it to come in the Lord’s prayer.

The Kingdom of God is already here, but not yet fully here. This morning, I want to help us to see three ways that the Kingdom of God is already… but not yet.

Our first already/not yet has to do with the one we worship.

Already… Christ, the bearer of the Kingdom has been among us.

As the Acts of the Apostles begins, Luke reminds his reader that there is a whole other book that was written about the ministry of Christ from the beginning until the day when Christ ascended into heaven. But just in case they forgot the last bit of that story, Luke tells it again.

Jesus suffered for us and died for us and then by God’s power he showed up again – alive as ever and for forty days he stayed with the apostles. And he taught them about his Kingdom.

It was a kingdom that they had witnessed when the hungry were fed and the blind were healed and the oppressed were set free. It was a kingdom whose power was Jesus. The kingdom was where Jesus was.

And after forty days, Jesus takes his disciples out of the city and they begin to think that this is the moment they had all been waiting for. One of them cries out – Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?!

Not yet…. The response Jesus gives is that it is not for us to know the times for these things. Not yet is the Kingdom fully come. And as a sign of that fact, Christ is lifted up before their very eyes – not to initiate the Kingdom of God… but he is taken away from their sight. Not yet, is the Kingdom of Christ fully present among us.

What we are left with are promises… the promise from Christ that he will be with us always. The promise of the Holy Spirit – the comforter and advocate who bears within us the seeds of the Kingdom. And the prophetic witness we have in the pages of Revelation that remind us that just as Christ came to be with us once… In the new creation, God will come and be with us again. “See,” the prophet John writes, “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with him.” (Rev. 21:3)

As the church, we are sandwiched between these experiences of God. We carry with us the memories of Christ’s life and teaching and death and resurrection and we witness to these things. We share the story. Just like kids at the dinner table who sneak a piece of broccoli out of the bowl and quickly pass it to one another – we are eager and excited about this glimpse. But at the same time, we wait. We long for the time when all things will be ready – when all will be present at the table, and when God Godself will be with us.

Our second already/not yet has to do with life and death in the Kingdom of God.

Already, the disciples have witnessed how Christ brought back to life children who were dead and his own friend Lazarus. Already, the power to heal in Jesus’ name has been transferred to the disciples. Miracles have been seen everywhere – including the most amazing miracle of all… Christ died for our sins and then was raised from the tomb. Sin, death, and evil have been defeated for ever more! As we follow the apostles through Luke’s account in Acts – we see signs and wonders of more healings and resurrections, of life and life abundant!

But not yet… Lazarus would eventually die once again. Each of those apostles would all be killed proclaiming the new life of the Kingdom of God. In our own lives today, we experience suffering and pain, death and loss. We grieve, we weep, we mourn.

Brandon’s great-grandma passed away on Thursday at the age of 99 years. She lived a long full life, but we have all been acutely aware for some time now that at some point, her body would fail and she would no longer be with us. Death is the reality of human life. And when it comes, it is not always a sad thing.

Not yet have the promises of the Kingdom of God been fulfilled. For we hear in Revelation that the time will come when the new heaven and new earth are among us. And in that time and in that place, Death will be no more. Reality as we know it, with its cycles of life and death and life again will be no more. There will only be life. Life abundant.

As the church, our foretaste of that life comes when we baptize little children and we place them in God’s hands. Our foretaste of that Kingdom life comes at the altar table when we eat the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Our foretaste of that Kingdom comes at every single Christian funeral… when we carry our fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and friends across the threshold of death and place them into God’s hands. As the church, we proclaim the reality that death has been defeated, even as we are standing beside the grave. Like little children who stand on their tiptoes and peer over the edge of the counter, we see the dessert that awaits us. We know the truth of the end of our stories. This morning at our graduation breakfast, Wilda shared the story of a woman who wanted to be buried with her fork because she knew, that the best was yet to come.

Our final already/not yet has to do with the joy of the Kingdom of God

Already, we know that when we abide with Christ, when we join in the fellowship of other Christians that we experience joy. As Christ gathered with his disciples in the upper room before he was betrayed he breathed into them the spirit of peace. And we hear stories from the first books of Acts about the joy and the community, the singing and the fellowship that the early Christians experience.

Whenever two or more are gathered, there Christ is among them. We support one another in our walk of faith and together we know the good news of the Kingdom of God.

But not yet fully. There are difficult days. There are times when our church brothers and sisters drive us batty. We argue and fight. We have our ups and downs. We join together as the Christian community around the dinner table, but before we eat, we must confess all of the ways that we have hurt and neglected one another since we met last. Our lives are not yet perfect, and our joy is not yet complete.

And to be sure, there is much that takes away joy from our lives. There is sickness and pain. There is oppression and want in our world. We turn on the television sets at night and the last thing that we find there is good news. To put on a smile and pretend that everything is okay and that we are happy in the face of all of that trouble is dishonest and hypocritical.

In the inbetween time between the already and the not yet, the church has the blessed opportunity to find joy among one another. We share what we have and experience true fellowship. But at the same time, united by our faith and the joy of what God intends for us, we can confront the pain and suffering and injustice of the world with a rightous anger. We can speak out against those places where God’s joy and peace has not been made complete, we can weep with those who suffer, and we can hold forth a vision of the day that is spoken of in Revelation – the day when weeping and crying and pain will be no more.

We gather today as children before the dinner table. Gradually, pieces of the meal are being set for us. And here and there we catch a wiff of the banquet, we sneak a taste of the bounty, we eagerly await with one another the glorious feast that awaits us. But we wait… until what we see already becomes the glorious feast that is yet to come.